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This extensive retrospective of some of the best films to come from within the QAS stable shows just how important it has been to nurturing the true independent spirit of the Canadian animation scene. Fun, anarchic films happily rub shoulders with sublime abstract works. Hand-drawn cartoons share space with cameraless films. This is what grassroots, independent, auteur animation is all about.
Above and beyond being great examples of auteur animation, each one of these films has been selected for what it says about Quickdraw, the times in which it was made and how the filmmaker managed to grasp the unique energies and opportunities Quickdraw offered to all who had the right set of eyes to see it and the willingness to harness it.
The immeasurable value of QAS can be glimpsed at in the words of Richard Reeves, one of its most gifted artists and internationally renowned as one of the finest living practitioners of ‘cameraless’ animation, a technique pioneered by the likes of Norman McLaren and Len Lye. “If not for the QAS library, I might not have ever seen cameraless animation”, is the rather startling claim he makes which places the worth of QAS in sharp perspective. Reeves feels a deep and unbreakable affinity with QAS. His films made an enormous contribution to cementing QAS’s reputation as an artist run centre capable of consistently empowering otherwise independent animators to turn out richly creative films, an accolade he is reluctant to accept. “I guess I don’t think about this because when I think of QAS I remember so many people and how each contributed to the evolution of QAS. People remember the building but not the bricklayers”, is his reply.
Living in Canmore, a small village 100km out of Calgary, Reeves discovered QAS by accident whilst looking for animation supplies in the White Pages. It changed his life forever. It was 1989 and QAS was in its infancy. He took one of the very first courses run by Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and he was hooked. His four year stint as Production Co-Ordinator in the early 1990s looking after QAS’s expanding manifest of filmmaking equipment, morphed into later roles from 2002 onwards as Film Production Co-Ordinator and Digital Production Co-Ordinator when QAS joined the digital era. Reeves 1997 film Linear Dreams is undisputedly one of the finest cameraless films ever made. Every frame is a tiny pictorial workshop on the exquisite genius of Reeves’ astonishing command of the technique.
One of the highest profile QAS films of all time is Movements Of The Body-The Gesture made by Wayne Traudt in 1994. Traudt has gone on to a career creating effects and animation for some of the most successful blockbuster movies ever made, including Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, Avatar and The Adventures Of Tin Tin to name just a few. But in the early 1990s he was creating beautifully drawn, gorgeously animated films exploring the most fundamental elements of human movement. Traudt has a monumental talent for capturing the tiniest nuances inherent in the way we move and translating them into visually mesmerising animation. “No one has the same walk”, Traudt is quoted as saying in an article on The Gauntlet.ca. “It’s as different as a fingerprint. Everyone, their timing, the way that their foot hits, the way their body arcs.” The QAS star shone especially bright that year when his film was shortlisted for an Academy Award.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, the short sharp shout can beat out the choir. Marv Newland captured this (alleged) aesthetic in his little break-through opus Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). A script for this would have more or less read “baby deer looks up, baby deer squashed flat by Godzilla foot, roll credits”– with ALL of the credits listing Marv Newland in every single role other than a thanks to his parents for creating Marv and another thanks to the city of Tokyo for help in obtaining Godzilla. Two minutes max, thanks for coming. The same stream of pointless ingenuity flows through the veins of Scott Higgs’ crazy little 1994 micro-classic Nude Defending A Staircase. And if any viewers of the time by chance imagined any connections with Joan C. Gratz’s Mona Lisa Descending A Staircase which took out the Academy Award a couple of years earlier, well, homage comes in many shapes and forms.
Calgary is an oil boom town built in the middle of a tough environment and surrounded by a farming and ranching industry that understands the challenges they face and faces them head on. One of the most potent celebrations of these social and industrial cultures is the annual Calgary Stampede. Billing itself as “The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth”, it is a massive event, one of the largest of its type in the world, attracting upwards of a million people to a ten day long extravaganza of rodeo style events, concerts, parades, chuck wagon races, pancake breakfasts and the like. It is indelibly linked to the image of the city and the self image of many Calgarians. Their local football team is even called the Stampeders. Perhaps this deeply embedded hold the Stampede has on the hearts and minds of so many people is the reason for the popularity of Trevor Mahovsky’s film Stampede Eats Me Up Inside (1998). Mahovsky swears it is an “absolutely” autobiographical film, including the scene in which his mother tries to convince him he is about to die after mischievously drinking the contents of a novelty soda pop bottle. “It was the 70’s, parenting was different,” is his wry observation.
Another filmmaker that came to QAS via their scholarship scheme was Gavin De Lint, who in 1994 spent a year animating a “wildly” exaggerated “true” story about an unusual poop related incident on a canoe trip, The Tale of The Steamin’ Green Log. “Like most idiots, I find poop pretty funny. To have a real life poop story to draw from, how could I not want to spend nearly a year of my life animating it?” is his simple summing up of why he chose this, of all subjects, as the basis for his film.
The really great thing about abstract animation is that, at its best, it is the purist form of animated filmmaking. With abstract animation there is nowhere to hide – no plot devices to distract attention away from faulty filmmaking, no moments of wow drawing to spice up any other bland ingredients that have been lazily brought to the mix, no happy ending to mask over any mid-film lulls. The films of Yasmin P. Karim and Don Best are beautiful exemplars of exactly this. In Oppo (1997), Karim has choreographed an animated magnum opus of morphing and a peerless visual essay in portraying the beauty, the primitive simplicity of how our imagination can interact with shapes and how these shapes interact with the most basic tenets of filmmaking.
Best’s Raw (1995) is a different journey. It traverses terrain few have successfully explored, seeking to unearth the most elemental components of direct-to-film animation. ‘Formless images’ sounds oxymoronic, and yet this is the unlit void that Best dives head first into. He emerges back into the light clasping a tangled, wriggling creature that most other seekers have only shot at in the dark and missed. Raw is a pared back blueprint for the very foundations that direct-to-film (and for that matter, abstract) animation can confidently stand on. It is, in essence, a well-spring film, a true original which defines what the genre can be capable of.
Chris J. Melnychuk was an inspired and inspiring member of the QAS family, very active in the Calgary animation and arts communities. His films screened all round the world and he was actively involved in mentoring young animators and artists. In 2010 he lost a hard fought battle with cancer which saw him live with, and adapt to, an active life with most of his tongue removed. His loss was keenly felt and in 2011, 19 QAS animators came together and created C’est La Vie. The result is a documentary narrative film narrated in Melnychuk’s own voice, which is a glorious tapestry of styles and techniques. It speaks volumes for the kind of passionate, genuine support that QAS generates and tells but one story of somebody who’s life made a real difference.
Despite some pretty steep competition, Brandon Blommaert probably takes the title for creating one of the more unusual bodies of work during his time associated with QAS. His films, typified by the indescribable Greycon4 (2007) improbably combine crude furry puppets and ahead-of-its-time CG animation inspired by what we now recognise as gaming animation and digital geometric abstraction.
“For me, I think my style evolved the way it did because I was studying printmaking while I was learning how to animate”, Blommaert explains. “I had to hand in something to my printmaking classes, but I also really wanted to make films. So because I was always trying to find ways to work printmaking objects into my films, I birthed my own strange object based animation techniques.”
Plotting the history of QAS as a supporter, nurturer and producer of completed and accomplished films does not produce a graph with a straight, consistently up-sloping trajectory carved in nice, clean black ink on it.
There is a gap, a dip, that started its downward journey in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Making films didn’t fall off the page but other priorities took hold, other agendas took a seat at the main table. But at some point, and for a plethora of reasons, this trend started throwing dice that began missing the snakes and hitting the ladders and the number of films with a QAS tag on them starting tracking upwards again as the 21st century starting gaining some confidence. The lazy assumption is that this represented a break between the ‘original’ old school QAS animators and a ’new’ generation of animators better acclimatised to the culture of modern animating.
Maybe. Or maybe not. The fact that this assumption harbours SOME truth masks a lot of other things that were bubbling away in the QAS cauldron through this period. There is no question that many of the filmmakers that made films at QAS in the 1980s and 1990s left the scene around this time. Equally there is no question that a mid-late 2000s revitalised QAS welcomed into the fold many young animators eager to absorb the magic it had to offer. But this apparent transition is much more nuanced, complex and layered than a simple stocktake of completed films can explain.
A number of the original QAS roster continued to work, teach and contribute through this transitional period. Richard Reeves is an obvious example. Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher, to a significant extent, also carry this badge of honour. Many of the people that slipped away from the QAS embrace did so for the simplest of reasons – they had other things to do. Some people only have one or two of these sorts of films in them, more formal careers or family commitments beckoned, and the sudden shock-load of new, transformative animating technologies worked a kind of demotivating demon-magic on others.
Any organisation that celebrates a 30th anniversary is going to harbour a multi-hued roll-call of participants that spring from differing decades, just as it will produce an honour board of past practitioners who have done mighty work but have hung up their pencils.
Kim Anderson’s significant contribution to the QAS story covers this apparent transitional period. Anderson is reluctant to accept that she represents anything like a ‘new guard’. “I’m not sure if I would call myself new, though newer than many given how long Quickdraw’s been around”, she reluctantly posits when the notion is put to her. Anderson’s experience at QAS spans making films there, planning and hosting workshops and classes, and sitting on the board including a period as President.
Yijiin Lin is a lot easier to badge up as a new generation QAS member though. Graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2002 with a black and white version of her graduate film Bittersweet, Lin found herself as a visiting artist at QAS in 2004-2005 re-doing her film into a full colour version. Her memories of the QAS she found in 2004 synchronise perfectly with most of those who came before her. “Facilities at a reasonable cost, overwhelming support, and extreme kindness”, are the bullet point trio of highlights she nominates as her clearest memories of QAS.
If the names Carol Beecher and Kevin D.A. Kurytnik seem to surface repeatedly in this telling of the big QAS story, that might be because their contribution is so significant and spans so much of the uncontestable narrative that outlines the growth and survival of QAS that it is impossible to tell the story and NOT have their names popping up every time a crossroads is encountered or a highlight put under the spotlight. Their tenacity, energy and passion must, by any measuring, add up to a big percentage of the total energy quotient that kept the QAS flame burning for so long. They joined forces to make Mr Reaper’s Really Bad Morning. Although finally released in 2004 to substantial success on the international film and animation festival circuit, the Reaper character emerged from Beecher’s “fevered brain” as she tried to suppress the stomach churning horrors invoked by her voluntary entrapment in the final throes of a commercial arts programme that had long since lost its novelty value. Snatching her diploma on crutches, perhaps aptly, Beecher began incorporating Mr Reaper into her comic book ideas. This turned into a nearly decade long journey of development for the Reaper character which saw him, eventually, cast as the leading star in his own animated epic. A long and definitely unpredictable journey. “I took part of the Reapers’ image from an Elvis Costello song “Tokyo Storm Warning” which has a line that goes “Death wears a big hat”. The hat was a great visual”, Beecher records in a QAS newsletter of the time.
Kurytnik’s name constantly turns up in the recollections of almost everybody who went through QAS. By all of these accounts he has an almost supernatural ability to infuse people with the magic they need to become animators. Many filmmakers credit him as being the reason they learned to animate or the reason their film was made. For himself he pinpoints a Robert McKee workshop he took in 1996 and Richard Williams Survival Kit workshop that he journeyed to Los Angeles to take in 2000 as being watershed moments in his dual teaching and animating careers. Many of the skills he harvested from these workshops were put into practice whilst making Reaper with Beecher.
Kurytnik’s earlier solo effort Abandon Bob Hope All Ye Who Enter Here (2000) brought oddness in all of its random glory to centre stage and spread it liberally across every frame. An accurate written synopsis of the film would make almost no sense and not every audience member can reconcile many of the films’ richly perverse apparent dichotomies. What to make of a cute cartoon squirrel happily walk cycling through the early scenes blithely swinging Bob Hope’s detached head back in forth. Or the fact that the visual action is sometimes in positive, sometimes in negative.
“The year Bob Hope premiered at Ottawa it opened the festival”, he recalls. “People laughed at the quote that came on near the end about “knocking artists down” until Walt Disney’s name was revealed and then half the audience gasped and shut up while the other half laughed harder. It was a very satisfying moment.”
“A reviewer later said it was a very early mash-up before the name had been invented”, he adds. “Kind words.” The film packs a lot of challenges into its eight minutes thirty seconds. It pillages the world of generic cute animation for imagery that is immediately re-purposed and set loose against a backdrop that shouts out a lot more questions than it answers, giving it a deliciously sinister aura as it does so. Its most obvious challenge to the audience is to pose questions about where the ART in animation begins or ends – at what point is the life squeezed into or out of these ludicrous little drawings that make up something called an animated film. Even for Kurytnik, these challenges have evolving meanings and nuances. “When I made the film I hated Walt Disney animation to which I attributed all things corporate and wrong”, he begins. “Later I would discover Richard Williams and discover Disney’s importance and revise my attitude.”
“The lab fucked up the film by overexposing the negative”, he reflects, “so I spliced negative and positive bits together – which I think made it a lot more interesting. There is no film print – I could not afford to have the negative/positive bits processed. Neg is thinner than film positive and when one is in focus the other is not”.
But let’s end this overview of highlights from QAS’s 30 years with how we mean to start the programme. Twosday (2003) by Brian Batista is a lot more than just a fun way to kick off a fine programme looking back at 30 years of astonishing accomplishment and output from an organisation with an essential mandate and an audacious resilience. Twosday is also a good spot to stand on and glimpse into a hopeful future for QAS. Batista has a long association with QAS. A past President, instructor and general office presence, his values, various energies and passions synchronise perfectly with those of QAS. He is one of these people that probably could not help becoming an artist even if he didn’t want to. He is an accomplished painter, a trained sculptor and since the 1990s a prolific filmmaker and video artist. He has also run a boutique tea importing business. This is the classic profile of a searcher, a questioner. And that drive would have doubtless brought him to animation regardless, but finding himself in the same city as the Quickdraw Animation Society was the catalyst for a whole different line of creative inquiry.
His pathway in has a familiar pattern to it. “I worked in an artist run media centre for nearly 8 years and honed my skills, often spending every night after work, weekends and holidays making stuff. I worked down the hall from Quickdraw and decided to apply for the Scholarship and got it”, he remembers.
“I quickly fell in love with the place and now feel that I am an integral part of the centre and I care deeply for the opportunity it has brought me and hope that it can continue to do so for others.”
“I don’t feel precious about the commodity of creativity”, he begins. “I make hundreds of good ideas all the time. I don’t have the means or energy to have them all come to fruition. Life is too short! Ideas are cheap! Make more and give the rest away. In that way, somebody else can take it and run with it and you may have the chance that the thing got made, otherwise it dies with all the other good ideas and secrets that never come to light.”
This helps explain his effectiveness in his role leading many of the workshops and teaching programmes at QAS, which is such an elemental part of what keeps QAS vital and alive.
“I have had many students pass under my wing, I think education is one of the main components which makes our centre strong. Animation is both an art and a science, I strive to teach all aspects in order to give our members a strong foundation in which to build. I have always felt my teaching style is to inspire and make what seems difficult easy.”
His film Twosday is a wonderfully anarchic little piece of pure comic art. Part masterclass on animation timing, part irreverent poke-in- the-eye of mainstream animation’s most sacred cows and part expose of the personality of the man behind the pencil, it is a crazy ’controlled explosion’ of a film. Asking him to explain it unleashes a nutrient-rich torrent of observations, explanations and insights that say much about Brian ‘Bunny’ Batista, the artist AND the teacher.
“The main motivation in that film was to show the research and learning I had as a scholarship recipient over my first year of involvement with Quickdraw. My nickname is “Bunny” – it is a long story. But that is the reasoning for the character in the rabbit suit.”
This programme is a substantial walk through the looking glass of some of the finest work that QAS has produced in its ‘first’ 30 years. There are obstacles aplenty in the open ocean that QAS is heading but there is plenty of reason to be extremely hopeful. “There is no other place like it that I know of”, says Batista when quizzed about the next 30 years. “The centre is so unique and such a treasure. It’s kind of a reflection of life on earth in a way. Quickdraw’s existence born by chance and maybe a little necessity developed against all odds is coupled with it’s continued evolution and striving to make animation great, will keep it going strong into the future. I definitely believe QAS will be around in another 30 years.”
That sounds like as good a place as any to end an article, start a programme, look back over a wonderful 30 years of superb creative achievement and look forward with hope to another 30 years worth to come.
The Quickdraw Animation Society inspires (and occasionally enflames) a volatile cocktail of mixed passions. Some concoctions work a lot better than others but there is no sign whatsoever that the bar is about to close. Somehow a balance between the vital need for valuable renewal teeters with the risk of needless destruction. Valuable crew have been lost overboard – some have been lost for good, some have been dragged back on board but the ship sails on, the band still plays and the icebergs continue to be navigated, more or less. Perhaps this is the only way it can be, not to underwrite the damage to souls that have willingly invested and have been wilfully discarded in the process. It is a hard thing to make work but the work continues to flow. The good thing about a ship is that it always points forward. As the wise Bunny once said, “Focus on the awesome”.
Malcolm Turner, LIAF Co-Director