Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Minoru: Memory of Exile (Minoru: souvenirs d'un exile, 1992)

“Let our slogan be for British Columbia: No Japs from the Rockies to the sea.”

These were the words famously spoken by Ian Alistair Mackenzie the Liberal Cabinet Minister for Vancouver Centre during the 1944 federal election.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mackenzie had played a key role in the government's decision to intern Japanese-Canadians living on the Pacific coast for the duration of the war.  In the 1970s and 1980s literature and film began to surface addressing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia.  Pierre Burton addressed the subject on his television show and the materials presented were published by Janice Patton in her book The Exodus of the Japanese: Stories from the Pierre Burton Show (1973) and journalist Ken Adachi wrote The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (1976).  Two semi-autobiographical works, Shizuye Takashima’s A Child in Prison Camp (1971) and Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), have become staples in the Canadian classroom because of the moving way that they tell their stories from the point of view of a child.

Since Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s official apology to the victims of this abuse of human rights in 1988, many Nisei, Sansei, and more recently Yonsei have come forward to share their family stories.  Michael Fukushima’s animated documentary Minoru: Memory of Exile (1992) was one of the first of the post-redress films.  His proposal to make an animation based upon his father Minoru Fukushima’s story landed on the desk of William Pettigrew at the NFB at about the same time that they were contacted by the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat (JCRS) about the possibility of funding educational films about the internment.

Fukushima did not learn of his father’s experiences until the issue of redress raised his head in the late 1980s.  According to the film’s first-person narration, in the fall of 1987, at the age of 26, Fukushima asked his father for the first time about his childhood.  Fukushima’s guiding voice is interwoven with the voice of his father and accompanied by traditional Japanese music played on the shamisen, koto, and taiko. The animation uses a variety of media including cutouts, paintings, and photographs.

The past and the present are also interwoven through Fukushima’s use of relics of the past in the form of family and archival photographs and archival documents.  As Minoru begins to tell of his happy early childhood in Vancouver, the image of Minoru as a child comes to life in a faded family photograph.  A colourful cutout of Minoru jumps out of the picture and leads us through archival photographs of Vancouver’s city streets.  Minoru looks back fondly on his childhood in Vancouver.  He describes how his parents ran their grocery store for almost 20 years from when they arrived in Canada until their internment.

Minoru speaks of how they were sheltered as children from news of the war.    Even the internment camp didn’t seem that bad to the kids: it was almost like a summer camp and he recalls learning how to swim there.  This is a sentiment shared by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki in his 2007 eponymous autobiography, who wrote that his love of nature was came from the idyllic time he spent in the interior of British Columbia – a time when he was blissfully unaware of the hardships endured by his parents until after the war.   

It is not until the end of the war that things take a turn for the worse.  The Fukushima family discovers that despite being Canadian citizens, they must make a choice of moving somewhere outside of British Columbia in Canada or be deported back to Japan.  It turns out that the internment of Japanese-Canadians ignited “long-standing anti-Japanese sentiments” and local merchants, fishermen, and farmers supported the government in the seizing of all Japanese property and liquidating it.  The funds raised from the sale of their property was used to fund the cost of their own internment.
Uncertain as to what would be best for the family Minoru’s father decides to take the Japan option although Minoru and his siblings cannot speak any Japanese and are Canadian citizens.  They return to their father’s village where they encounter poverty and resentment by the locals who see them as foreigners.  By the time Canada reverses its policy on Japanese Canadians in the late 1940s because of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, their family it too poor to be able to afford the journey back to British Columbia.  In a case of bitter irony, when the Korean War breaks out in 1950, the Canadian government tries to recruit the same Japanese-Canadians they had banished a few years earlier.  Minoru jumps at the chance along with about 40 others and thus begins his journey back to the only country that ever felt like home to him – despite the injustice and racism he experienced there. 

Minoru: Memory of Exile is an early example of an animated documentary – a medium that has become more common nowadays with great films like Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) and Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004).  It demonstrates the unique ability of animation to express things with greater depth and poignancy than mere archival footage or interview footage could ever do.  The animation fills the “silences” that Fukushima speaks of as being a large part of his identity as a Sansei Canaidan.  Following in his footsteps, Yonsei Canadian animator/documentary filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns also used animation to bring to life his Uncle Suey Koga’s stories about the internment in his feature length documentary One Big Hapa Family (read review). 

Michael Fukushima directed at least one other animation at the NFB before beginning his transition into becoming a producer.  Over the past decade he has built a reputation over as one of Canada’s top animation producers.  Minoru: Memory of Exile shows us his roots as an artist in his own right.  It is both informative and moving in how it tells the story of Minoru.   A warm tribute from a son in recognition of the sacrifices made by both his father and his grandparents to enable him to grow up Canadian.  

Related Reading: Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art

This review was originally posted on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on November 27, 2012.

Michael Fukushima

Minoru Fukushima
Michael Fukushima

animation assistance/colour rendering
Faye Hamilton

William Pettigrew

additional colour rendering
Colette Brière
sound design
Normand Roger

John Endo Greenaway

Teresa Kobayashi

Takeo Yamashiro

animation camera
Jacques Avoine
Ray Dumas
Lynda Pelley

Jean-Pierre Joutel

apprentice mixer
Terry Mardini

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

One Big Hapa Family (2010)

Kunal Sen's animation of Uncle Suey's childhood memories.
At the 2006 reunion of the Koga side of his family, Yonsei Canadian animator Jeff Chiba Stearns noticed for the first time that after his grandparents’ generation, not a single member of the Japanese side of his family had married another person of Japanese ethnicity. He did a bit of research and discovered that the Japanese in Canada are the most integrated of any other Asian community in the country. One Big Hapa Family documents his journey into his family’s history, and by extension the history of the Japanese in British Columbia, to find out why Japanese Canadians have such a high mixed marriage rate.

In so doing, Stearns has brought together two very Canadian cinematic traditions: documentary film and animation. He collected interviews with all members of his family, local historians, and other intermarried couples in order to get a broad perspective on the issue of ethnicity and marriage in Canadian culture. The material that he collected was then loosely structured like the layers of an onion: first the story of the elders (the Issei and Nisei generations in his family), followed by the story of his parents’ generation, his own generation, and even the newest members of the family, with his own personal journey being the core of the documentary.

Jeff Chiba Stearns with Grandpa Koga
The resulting film is a compelling mixture of archival photos and film footage, family photos and home movies, interviews and animation. The animated sequences are colourful, visually engaging, and demonstrate a variety of animation techniques. Stearns himself does some chalkboard, ink on paper, and stop motion sequences – not to mention the Yellow Sticky Note animation style for which he is known. Additional animation was done by Ben Meinhardt, Louise Johnson, Kunal Sen, Todd Ramsey, Jonathan Ng, and Sean Sherwin. Some sequences that really stood out for me were Louise Johnson’s beautiful paint-on-glass animation for Roy’s internment train story, Todd Ramsey’s imagining of the angry Kelowna mob, and Kunal Sen’s animation of Uncle Suey’s racism stories from his childhood. 

The way in which Sen animates Uncle Suey’s experiences at the Okanagan Mission School is brilliantly done. First, seeing the teacher’s fountain pen shortening the boy’s name “Suemori” to “Sue,” without regard for the fact that she is saddling the boy with a girl’s name is visually impactful.  Then, when Uncle Suey recites  the words from a racist children’s rhyme that he learned at the school, the words lift up off the page so that they circle the image of young Suey reading aloud (see top image). In this sequence Sen has captured the way in which these words have haunted Uncle Suey his whole life, circling round and round the image of him as a young boy, just as they must have done in his head all these years. A very moving scene that only animation could capture in this way.

In addition to the animation, Stearns has employed a number of other visual techniques that give the film a unique look. There is an objective documentary camera that shoots interviews and Stearns himself in a fairly standard fashion, but this is alternated with a subjective camera which Stearns shoots himself. This footage was captured using a Canon 40D Digital SLR camera for taking rapid fire photo sequences. The sequences that were shot in this fashion take on a jerky, ‘animated’ look that reminded me of Grant Munro and Norman McLaren’s pixilation technique (see Oscar-winning NFB film: Neighbours/Voisins, 1952). It also matches well with the rapid montages of family photographs.

Yellow Sticky Note animation sequence
The sequence in One Big Hapa Family which featured footage from Stearns’ 2005 trip contrasts the differences between Japanese and Canadian conceptions of national identity. In Japan, Stearns found his “Japaneseness” being rejected by most people that he encountered. His appearance and body language did not fit their mould of what it means to be “Japanese”.  In my experience, the Japanese rarely openly question their own sense of national identity because their school system hammers into them the myth of a monoethnic culture – a myth that has been wonderfully negated in books like John Lie’s Multiethnic Japan (Harvard UP, 2001), and David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa’s The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery (Stoddart, 1996). By contrast, in Canada we are taught that identity is a multifaceted entity that is individually rather collectively defined as almost all of us are either mixed ethnicities (or “hapa” - a Hawaiian loan word Stearns explores the use of in this film) or recent immigrants. 

The concept of Japanese-Canadian identity gets refracted into a multiplicity of meanings by Jeff Chiba Stearns’s family when he confronts the younger generation with his camera and asks them the uncomfortable question “What are you?”  For a first time documentarian, he demonstrates a real knack for editing – there are wonderful montages of past and present home movies and photographs that demonstrate both change and continuity within the family. The film also offers up wonderful moments where the memories of one generation differ from those of another generation. The couples of the Sansei generation assert that there were no problems within the family with intermarriage, but that is contradicted by Grandma Stearns who reveals that she and Grandma Chiba did have concerns, but did not tell the younger folks about it. The Yonsei generation also reveals that Japanese food was only eaten for New Year’s or when their father was away because their Caucasian Dad did not like sushi. These tantalizing gems suggest that there are many more stories simmering beneath the surface, but I think that Stearns has managed to balance the needs of his documentary with respect for the privacy of his family quite handily.

One Big Hapa Family is a unique film that captures both serious issues of racism and integration, while at the same time providing a lot of laughs through the wonderful family stories that are shared. It is fascinating to see that after two generations of a concerted effort to integrate, the younger generations are making an effort to retain/reclaim some of their Japanese culture and language. While the main focus may be on Japanese-Canadian identity, it is through the mirror of the Koga family that viewers will see the complexity of their own family and national histories in a new light.

One Big Hapa Family is available for international purchase on Region-Free DVD via the Official Website. It includes both the 85’ Director’s Cut and the 48’ Broadcast version. Bonus materials: One Big Hapa Family CD featuring the soundtrack by Genevieve Vincent.

Jeff Chiba Stearns Filmography
(click on links to watch the films/trailers)
2001 The Horror of Kindergarten
2010 Ode to a Post-It Note

To learn more about the film check out:
An Interview with Jeff Chiba Stearns

This review was originally published on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on December 15, 2010.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Muybridge's Strings (Les cordes de Muybridge, 2011)

In his first collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), the animator Kōji Yamamura takes us on a journey into cinematic history.  Muybridge’s Strings (Les Cordes de Muybridge, 2011) is a poetic investigation of the nature of time – a concept which has occupied philosophers since ancient times.

Our relationship to time underwent a radical transformation in the 19th century with the development of photography and related technologies.  The English photographer Eadweard Muybridge was among the first to recognize the scientific potential for photography in the study of human and animal locomotion.  The most significant of these was Muybridge’s 1878 series “Sallie Gardner at a Gallop” which settled the debate over whether or not all four of a horse’s four hooves leave the ground while galloping.  Most artists of the day usually painted a horse with at least one hoof on the ground, for the action was too fast for the human eye to determine all parts of horse locomotion.

To set up this experiment, Muybridge placed 24 trip wires (strings) at equidistant intervals (27 inches/68.58cm) that would trigger cameras to take a photograph.  It is these strings that inspired Yamamura to make Muybridge’s Strings.  The motif of strings interlaces itself throughout the film in a manner reminiscent of “the red string of fate” of East Asian folklore that is said to bind us together “regardless of time, place, or circumstance / the thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break.” (see my discussion of Kazuhiko Okushita’s animated short The Red Thread to learn more.)

Two distinct storylines are woven together in Muybridge’s Strings.  The first is the remarkable life of Muybridge himself which Yamamura explores first through the man’s life's work – the film is replete with images from Muybridge’s famous photographic series (the elephant, American bison, naked man running,  mother and child, and so on) – and also through an investigation of the man himself through vignettes from his troubled marriage which ended in his murdering of his wife’s lover and being cleared on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”, through to his celebrated zoopraxiscope lectures at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The second storyline is that of a mother and child in present day Tokyo, which was inspired by Yamamura’s observation of his own daughter growing up.  The speed with which children grow up draws attention to the passage of time – a constant reminder of how fleeting our time here on earth really is.  Visually, Yamamura distinguishes the two time periods by adding warmer hues to the Tokyo storyline, in contrast to the shades of grey of the past.  The two parallel stories are linked through the use of similar motifs: Muybridge’s stopwatch, mother and child, the clasping of hands, horses, and; of course, strings.

Strings bind the Tokyo mother and daughter together in a beautiful abstract sequence, but strings also appear as a motif in the piano that they play together.  The soundtrack of the film was arranged by the legendary NFB music director Normand Roger.  In keeping with the theme of non-linear time, they decided upon the use of J.S. Bach’s Crab Canon (1747) as a key musical motif in the film.  This is significant for the Crab Canon is a musical palindrome – an arrangement of two musical lines that are both complementary and backward.  Here you can see a video of the tune being visualized as a Möbius strip. 

The soundtrack also foregrounds the sounds of technology: from click clack of photos being taken to the and the whir and clatter of the zoopraxiscope, which is considered the first device for the projection of moving images.  Although the technologies have changed in the ensuing 125+ years, our desire to photograph and capture fleeting moments of time has only increased.  With Muybridge’s Strings Yamamura manages not only to pay tribute one of the moving images pioneers, but to also open our minds to a consideration of our own relationship to the passage of time.

Muybridge’s Strings is available for purchase from the NFB on DVD and Bluray as part of the Animation Express 2 collection.  It can also be ordered from the Animation Show of Shows.

Other cool stuff:  Japanese Flip Books:

An earlier version of this article was published on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on 14 June 2012.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art

As part of its Canadian Spotlight, the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival hosted an evening with renowned NFB producer Michael Fukushima on November 7, 2012 entitled Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art.  The evening was moderated by Aram Siu Wai Collier and featured both conversations with Fukushima and a selection of films.  Fukushima notably worked with Koji Yamamura on Muybridge’s Strings (2011).  Other notable animated shorts that he has produced include Christopher Hinton’s Genie-award winning cNote (2005) and Ann Marie Fleming’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2010.) The evening’s proceedings were uploaded onto YouTube.  I have summarized the proceeding below with some added context and links to related NFB content.

Original Programme:
Minoru: Memory of Exile (Michael Fukushima, 1992)
cNote (Christopher Hinton, 2011)
Flutter (Howie Shia, 2006)
Jaime Lo, small and shy (Lillian Chan, 2006)
Dimanche (Sunday, Patrick Doyon, 2011)

Due to technical difficulties they weren’t able to screen cNote (but you can watch it online here).  The evening began with Fukushima’s directorial debut Minoru: Memory of Exile.  Fukushima was very modest about his abilities as an animator, but this is a very impressive film which I have been meaning to write a review of for some time.  Fukushima’s proposal for this film is what brought him to the NFB in 1990.  His invitation was thanks to what he called “a whole series of wonderful serendipitous convergences.”  His proposal landed on producer William “Bill” Pettigrew’s desk at around the same time that he was asked to look into funding projects that addressed the internment of Japanese living on the west coast of British Columbia during the Second World War.  This followed in the wake of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s historic apology to Japanese Canadians on September 22, 1988 and the compensation offered to victims of the internment.  The redress included funds for educational materials.

Minoru: Memory of Exile is an animated documentary about Fukushima’s father Minoru and his experiences during and after the internment.  It took about two years to make this 18 minute film which was handmade and shot on film.  It won a couple of awards including Best Short Documentary at the Toronto Hot Docs festival in Toronto in its inaugural year.  At the time, the genre of animated documentary was a new form.  Fukushima himself had actually conceived of the film as a completely fictional animation but during the development process, it became clear to Fukushima and Pettigrew that in order to make the story more poignant, it needed to have more of an element of the real.  

Pettrigrew had himself started out at the NFB as a documentary filmmaker with films such as Kuralek (1967), Oskee Wee Wee (1968), Epilogue (1971), and The Vinland Mystery (1984) and recognized the potential of bringing animation and documentary together.  It had never occurred to Fukushima before that one could “marry documentary and animation” so this was a significant moment in the creative process for him.

The producer David Verrall helped Fukushima edit his film.  Verrall produced more than 240 films during his NFB career including Bob’s Birthday (Alison Snowden and David Fine, 1993), When the Day Breaks (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, 1999), Village Idiots (Rose Newlove, 2000), Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004), The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, 2006).  Through his experiences with Verral and Pettigrew, Fukushima “came to realize that being a producer is more than just being a manager” and said that he thought that “it was at that moment that the seed was planted” for his trajectory to becoming a producer.

I was surprised to learn that Fukushima was initially resistant to the idea of making Minoru the film more personal because “It was still raw.  I honestly didn’t think I could do it.  .  .  to give justice to the story.  .  .”  He had only just recently discovered the story of his father because of Minoru Fukushima’s receiving of a compensation package from the government.   This had prompted his father to tell him the story.  Fresh out of college and with no experience with documentary filmmaking, Fukushima was concerned about how to tackle the subject matter.  At the time there was a huge debate in the documentary community about “veracity” with people asking “Who gets to tell stories?” and it seems that Fukushima was very sensitive about this.  In the end, Pettigrew recognized the potential for how Fukushima as an artist could make the important story his father had to tell much more accessible and poignant for audiences while at the same time being “very subversive.”  Fukushima credits Pettigrew with teaching him that “animation has a way of sneaking up on audiences and catching them unawares, and having a greater impact because of that.”

After Minoru, the Reel Asian audience watched Flutter (Howie Shia, 2006) and Jamie Lo, small and shy (Lillian Chan, 2006).  Jaime Lo came out of the Talespinners Collection which was an initiative designed to encourage young, relatively inexperienced animators who reflect Canada’s ethnic diversity to make animated films for children.  First the NFB took the “safe route” of optioning a number of children’s books by non-white authors to adapt.  Fukushima produced one of this first batch of films and while he was pleased with the result felt that they could push it further and suggested putting out a call for proposals from young filmmakers about the minority experience in Canada.   It was through this they discovered great talent like Lillian Chan and Jonathon Ng.  They produced some terrific films for kids that were not necessarily about “being Asian” or “an ethnic minority” but were rather “coloured by their experience of being Asian.”

Fukushima was introduced to Howie Shia by the Hothouse emerging filmmakers programme for which Shia had made the great short short animation Ice Ages (2004).  Shia came to Fukushima with the idea behind Flutter: a boy that just “runs and runs and runs.”  It turned into what Fukushima calls a “beautiful, elegiac poem about search; about love; about how.   .  .  you just have to dive into life and life takes you.  .  .”  The film went on to win the Open Entries Grand Prize at the Tokyo Anime Awards in 2007 – the first animation produced outside of Asia to do so.

After the films were screened Lillian Chan and Jonathan Ng – director of another great Talespinners film called Asthma Tech (2006) – joined Fukushima on the stage to discuss Fukushima as a producer.  Ng was concerned that he might end up becoming too “gushing” about Fukushima.  He praised him as behind different from other producers because he has a knack for understanding the needs of the director.  In Ng’s case, he likes to be left alone during the creative process and he was appreciative of the fact that Fukushima gave him “a lot of leeway,” which is quite remarkable as Ng did not have a lot of experience as an animator at the time.

Collier asks if this hands off approach is something Fukushima tailors to specific animators or if it is his “style” as a producer and Fukushima says that to him “getting engaged on a filmmaker’s personality and their working style is fundamental to being a good producer for me.  It’s a relationship.  With animation it can be a 2, sometimes 3 year relationship and it’s pretty intimate.” Because of the deep emotional investment that he has as a producer, it’s important to Fukushima that he find animators with whom he can foster a good working relationship.   He sees no point in badgering an artist like Ng, who prefers to be left alone, when that won’t bring any results.  He also mentioned that he enjoys picking apart films and discussing them, but finds that it isn’t always productive or useful.  It sounds like a very delicate process. 

Lillian Chan said that she moved to Montreal to work on Jaime Lo, small and shy and that Fukushima warned her at the outset that production meetings can sometimes involve tempers and people walking out of the room and that that was okay and a normal part of the process.  Chan was surprised to realize that it could be “that intense of a process.”  She doesn’t recall having any shouting matches with Fukushima herself, but she remembers that initially the story for the film wasn’t fully fleshed out and she was given several months just to work on the story.  She really respects Fukushima for giving her the time that she needed to get to the right space with the film on her own.  Fukushima would give her a critique of the film that would identify very precisely what the problems were with the film, but would not tell her how to solve the problem.  She wanted definitive answers for her problems, but Fukushima instead offered suggestions, encouraging her to problem-solve issues on her own.  This forced her, Chan explained, to come to terms with her own creative process.

Chan asks Fukushima how he finds it different working with young filmmakers like her and Ng as opposed to more experienced filmmakers as she imagines that this would be a different experience.    Fukushima claims that there is often very little differences working with a veteran as opposed to an emerging filmmaker as long as the framework of the roles of producer and director have been set up clearly from the beginning.   He addresses the fact that it is not only a two way relationship but a three way relationship which includes institution of the NFB.  The NFB is “a very scary beast for veteran filmmakers and it must be terrifying for younger filmmakers.”  The most important thing for Fukushima is establishing his relationship with the filmmaker.  He sees his role as not only an advocate and champion of his artists, but also someone who will challenge them artistically.  The only difference is that veteran filmmakers tend to have greater self confidence and a greater sense of what will work and won’t work for them artistically.

The final film of the evening was Patrik Doyon’s Oscar nominated film Dimanche (2011).  Like Ng, Doyon was not classically trained as an animator, but rather had training in illustration.  He also came into contact with Fukushima through the Hothouse project.  After Hothouse, Doyon approached the NFB with a proposal about life as a child in rural Quebec .  It ended up being a co-production with the French language ONF studio (the French branch of the NFB).  Dimanche won Doyon the 2012 Jutra Award for Best Animated Film.  Many people at the NFB pushed it as a children’s film, but Fukushima obviously thinks that it is more than that.  They pushed the NFB to send it to the Berlinale where it won a prize, which led the NFB to get behind the film even more.

Unfortunately they seem to have run out of time at this point in the evening.  I had been looking forward to hearing to listening to Fukushima talk about his transition from director to producer.   He seems to have a close relationship with Reel Asian however and there was a suggestion that they would invite him back at some point in the future.  I was impressed by Aram Siu Wai Collier as the moderator for the event.  He asked very thoughtful and engaging questions.  With the online availability of these superb short films plus the video record of the event, it was the next best thing to being there in person.  

This article originally appeared on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on 23 November 2012.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Direct Animation for the Tablet Generation

The immediacy of tablet touchscreen technology has revolutionised how we interact creatively with computers.  In the realm of animation, The NFB (National Film Board of Canada) has been at the forefront of harnessing this new technology not only by making much their back catalogue of films available to view online via smart phone and tablet apps, but by creating tablet apps that make it easier than ever before for amateurs to try their hand at animating their own films.  They first did this through the development of their PixStop Stop Motion Animation App for iPad and this past summer they released a new free app: McLaren’s Workshop.

Named after the pioneering experimental animation Norman McLaren, this app allows users to create their own short animation and post it exclusively on Vimeo.  In addition to inspiring users with the biography and films of Norman McLaren, the App features three workshops: Paper Cut-Out, Etching on Film, and Synthetic Sound.   Norman McLaren is one of the very few early animators to experiment extensively with direct animation – also known as drawn-on-film animation or cameraless animation – in which artists draw or etch directly onto a filmstrip. 

The McLaren’s Workshop app, allows users to make their own direct animation or cut-out animation on the surface of the iPad.  The resulting films that I have seen on video definitely have a McLaren feel to them – not just because of their look but but because the soundtracks clearly come from McLaren films.  Koji Yamamura’s Five Fire Fish, is clearly an homage to the direct animation of McLaren with recognizable visual motifs from Blinkity Blank (1955).  The cut-outs and soundtrack in Regina Pessoa’s film are from Le merle (1958).

As part of the online promotional campaign, several  top directors were given free reign to make 30-60 second animations using the app:

Five Fire Fish (Koji Yamamura, 2013)

Cyclop(e)  (Patrick Doyon, 2013)

Day Sleeper (Don Hertzfeld, 2013)

Barcode Transmission (Renaud Hallée, 2013)

I Am Alone and My Head is On Fire (David O'Reilly, 2013)

Bon App (Regina Pessoa,2013)

Bon App by Regina Pessoa - McLaren's Workshop App from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

This article was originally published on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on October 10th, 2013.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)

I cannot hear the lyrical melody of Rossini’s Ranz des Vaches (Call to the Dairy Cows) from William Tell (1829) without bursting into a fit of giggles.  This affliction dates back to my early childhood.  My parents were elementary school teachers in London, Ontario.  In those days, educational films were distributed to schools via a 16mm film library held by the London Board of Education.  For my birthday party one year – I believe I was turning 9 or 10 years old – my parents brought a projector home with a collection of animated shorts for my friends and me to watch.  The only film that I recall from the party is Marv Newland’s classic Bambi Meets Godzilla (バンビ、ゴジラに会う, 1969).  If you have not yet seen it, it only lasts about a minute and a half and can be viewed on Vimeo.

The film was made while Newland was still a student in California – he talks about it a little bit in an Anifest interview here – and quickly became a cult classic.  In today’s world in which the internet is patrolled by over-zealous corporations protecting their copyrights and infringing upon freedom of artistic expression, it is doubtful that such a film could be made without the threat of a lawsuit.  Newman did not ask Disney or Toho for permission for his send-up of / homage to their iconic Bambi and Godzilla characters. 

The main conceit of the film is that more than half of the less than two-minute film is taken up by hilarious opening credits and closing acknowledgements.  This is partly a commentary on the growing length of film credits (in the early days, films only credited key people, but by the 1960s the opening and closing credits were getting longer), but it is mainly a suspense technique leading up to the extremely quick “action” of the film.  The opening credits are drawn out for 50 seconds, eliciting chuckles from the audience first when they notice that Marv Newman has done everything, and second when the jobs credited become ludicrous. 

At the 50 second mark, the credits are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Godzilla’s foot flattening poor, unsuspecting Bambi like a pancake.  The “action” lasts just under 2 seconds, then after a few beats for the audience to get over their shock / laughter, the acknowledgements appear, thanking the city of Tokyo for the loan of their most infamous Kaiju.  While watching the film online recently, I got nostalgic for the old 16mm projectors because at my birthday party, in addition to re-watching the film several times, we also watched it backwards and laughed ourselves silly at the sight of Godzilla’s foot going up off-screen and Bambi popping back to life again.  Alas, such joys are not to be had with digital media.  I also miss the whir of the projector and the tactile pleasures of spooling the film into the projector.  It is sad that movie projectors are going the way of the dodo bird, for they bring much pleasure to many.

Marv Newland (マーヴ・ニューランド) is an American-Canadian filmmaker, who has had a long career making short commercials for both private and public broadcasters in the US and Canada.   In the course of his career he has done everything from drawing storyboards for Barbapapa at Toonder Studios (Netherlands) to making delightful animated shorts for the NFB.  His animated adaptation of Gary Larson’s Tales from the Far Side (1994) for TV won him the Grand Prix at Annecy in 1995.  He currently teaches Classical Animation at the Vancouver Film School.  A limited edition DVD of his collected works, The Best of International Rocketship became available earlier this year.  See Cartoon Brew for more info.

Read the rest of this review was originally published on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on 28 November 2013.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Jacques Drouin in Relief (Jacques Drouin en relief, 2009)

Jacques Drouin in Relief  /Jacques Drouin en relief
Guillaume Fortin, NFB documentary, 2009

Newly available in French on the NFB website, this gem of a documentary examines the career of renowned pinscreen animator Jacques Drouin (b. 1943, Mont-Joli, PQ).  Director Guillume Fortin allows the voice of Drouin himself take centre stage leading us through his childhood in Quebec, his artistic beginnings at the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal and UCLA, his experiences with his mentors at the NFB (Pierre Hébert, Francine Desbiens, Maurice Blackburn, Norman McLaren, René Jodoin) starting with his three-month apprenticeship, his first encounter with pinscreen, his impressions of Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker, his decision to use the pinscreen as an instrument for his art, and his thoughts about his work and his craft.

Jacques Drouin is a very engaging speaker and his anecdotes and ideas about his art are illustrated with photos and film clips from his personal archives, rare glimpses of his UCLA student works, and archival footage and photographs from the NFB and other media.  The documentary concludes with a look at how Drouin is fostering his legacy, showing him running a pinscreen workshop for students as well as a glimpse of his protégée Michèle Lemieux at work on the pinscreen. This documentary featured at the Hommage au maître Jacques Drouin held at the Cinémathèque québécoise in December 2009.

Even if you do not understand French, it is well worth watching for the archival footage and photographs.  The documentary is available with English subs on the bilingual DVD Paradoxe release: Jacques Drouin: Complete Pinscreen Works (Jacques Drouin: oeuvre complète sur écran d'épingle, 2011).

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Pinscreen Animation / Écran d’épingles

Pinscreen Animation / Écran d’épingles

Pinscreen is an extremely rare but truly beautiful method of animation.  Currently the only pinscreen still in use is in Montreal, where Michèle Lemieux produced her innovative recent short film Here and the Great Elsewhere (Le grand ailleurs et le petit ici, 2012).  It won an Animated Dreams Special Mention at the Tallin Black Nights Film Festival and was nominated for the prestigious Annecy Cristal and the Jutra Award for Best Animated Film. 

Pinscreen animation was invented in France in the early 1930s by the Russian artist Alexandre Alexeïeff and his American partner Claire Parker with additional design input by his first wife, the artist Alexandra Grinevsky.  Alexeïeff was an engraver and he sought a technique that would resemble animated engravings.  The result of their experiments with the pinscreen resulted in Night on Bald Mountain (Une nuit sur le mont Chauve, 1933), inspired by the compositions of the same name by Modest Mussorgsky.  The film was a critical success but because of the time-consuming, and therefore costly, nature of the technique, it did not catch on with other artists.

In 1940 Alexeïeff fled war-torn Europe for the United States with Parker, to whom he was now married, his ex-wife and their daughter Svetlana Alexeïeff RockwellNorman McLaren at the NFB was an admirer of their work and in 1943 the film board invited the couple to come to Canada to produce their second pinscreen film In Passing (En Passant, 1944).  Although they were to return to France in 1946, Alexeïeff and Parker’s ties to Canada remained strong.

Read about my encounter with their pinscreens at the Cinémathèque Française in 2012

In the late-1960s, one of McLaren’s regular collaborators at the NFB, the musician Maurice Blackburn, tried his hand at pinscreen using a smaller version of Alexeïeff and Parker’s original device.  The result was an experimental short called Ciné-crime (1968) with was animation expert Marcel Jean describes as an “extremely complex concrete soundtrack” (source). 

In 1972 the NFB bought the NEC pinscreen and in honour of the occasion, Alexeïeff and Parker were invited to return to Canada to give workshops to NFB filmmakers.  McLaren recorded this occasion with his short documentary Pinscreen (1972) which is available on Disc 7 of Norman McLaren: The Master’s Collection and the DVD Alexeïeff: le cinéma épinglé  (FR/EN). 

This event turned out to be crucial to the future of the pinscreen as an art, for the young Montreal animator Jacques Drouin decided to try his hand with the technique, creating the short film Trois exercices sur l'écran d'épingles d'Alexeïeff (1974).  After this introductory exercise, Drouin became more ambitious and created the poetic film Mindscape (Le paysagiste, 1976) which went on to win 18 international awards including the Special Jury Prize at the inaugural Ottawa International Animation Festival.   Drouin then took pinscreen animation a step further by adding colour through filtering his light sources and collaborating with Czech animator Břetislav Pojar to create Nightangel (L’heure des anges, 1986), in which Pojar’s puppets perform against metamorphosing pinscreen backgrounds. 

With Drouin’s retirement from the NFB in 2005, it seemed as if the time of the pinscreen was coming to an end, but Michèle Lemieux’s glorious Here and the Great Elsewhere breathed new life into this mesmerizing artistic medium.  Under the guidance of Jacques Drouin, she has described how she “instantly fell in love with it” and learned how “you are the protector of the instrument before you are an artist working on it.”  (Source: The Atlantic)  It is hoped that Lemieux will continue to make pinscreen films and will pass on her passion for the instrument to a new generation of Canadian animators.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

related terms:
pinboard, chiaroscuro, gravures animées  (animated engravings), pin art, digital pinscreen, Nagelbrett-Animation / Nadelwandanimation (DE)

Key names:  
Alexandre Alexeïeff (RU/FR, 1901-1982) & Claire Parker (USA/FR, 1906.1981): “the artist and the animator”
Jacques Drouin (CA, b. 1943)
Michèle Lemieux (CA, b.1955)


Key films:

Night on Bald Mountain / Une nuit sur le mont Chauve
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1933)

In Passing / En passant
(Alexeïeff and Parker, Canada, 1943)

The Nose / Le nez
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1963)

“Prologue” of The Trial
(Orson Welles, France/Germany/Italy, 1962)

(Maurice Blackburn, Canada, 1968)

Pictures at an Exhibition / Tableaux d'Exposition
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1972)

Trois exercices sur l'écran d'épingles d'Alexeïeff
(Jacques Drouin, Canada, 1974)  Watch/Buy : NFB

Mindscape / Le paysagiste
(Drouin, Canada, 1976) Watch/Buy : NFB / ONF

Three Moods / Trois thèmes
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1980)

Nightangel /L’heure des anges
(Bretislav Pojar and Drouin, Canada, 1986)  Watch: ONF blog

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse / Les quatre cavaliers de l'Apocalypse
(Jean-François Mercier, 1991) Watch/Buy : ONF
- documentary with pinscreen animated sequences by Drouin

(Drouin, Canada, 1994)  Watch/Buy : NFB / ONF

A Hunting LessonUne leçon de chasse 
(Drouin, Canada, 2001)  Watch/Buy : NFB / ONF

Winter Days / Jours d’hiver
(冬の日/Fuyu no hi, Kihachirō Kawamoto, Japan, 2003) Order DVD: FR / JP
- pinscreen vignette by Drouin

(Drouin, Canada, 2004)  Watch: NFB / ONF

Here and the Great Elsewhere / Le grand ailleurs et le petit ici
(Michèle Lemieux, Canada, 2012)


Alexeieff at the Pinboard (A Propos de Jivago, France, 1960)

Pinscreen Tests (NFB, Canada, 1961)

Alexander Alexeieff: The Pin Board (Nick Havinga, USA, 1966)

Pinscreen (Norman McLaren, Canada, 1972)

24 idées / seconde - Écran d'épingles (Éric Barbeau, Canada, 2006)
Watch/Buy : NFB

Jacques Drouin en relief (Guillaume Fortin, Canada, 2009)
Warch/Buy : NFB

Jacques Drouin – Séquences animées (Guillaume Fortin, 2009)
Watch : ONF