Cartoon conference stresses characters, stories

Ottawa: The Ottawa International Animation Festival wrapped on Sept. 25 on a number of high notes: a near-record 1,883 films entered, positive delegate reviews, and a stronger focus on industry issues via the sold-out Television Animation Conference, now in its second year.

Like the festival itself – with its screenings, largest-ever AniMarket trade show, recruiting opportunities and networking events – most sessions at the two-day TAC, which counted 230 delegates, explored the tension between art and commerce. Repeatedly, panelists and speakers made the point that when animators fully exploit their creative potential to develop strong characters and stories to create saleable TV, ancillary markets follow naturally behind.

(Playback’s Sept. 12 article suggested 1,200 delegates attended TAC; in fact, 1,200 people bought full industry passes to the festival and thus also had access to TAC.)

‘Young and new animators need to be linked to the industry,’ said Madeleine Levesque, director of original production at Teletoon. ‘Artistry is good, but if you’re creating animation, it’s for a certain audience.’

Delegates also heard that distribution and exploitation of properties is changing rapidly. In his keynote speech, Scott Dyer, Nelvana EVP of production and development, explained that simply managing rights – mobile, broadcast, home video, video on demand, IPTV, Internet streaming – ‘has become as complex as the content itself.’

‘Even worse, most of these new distribution technologies aren’t profitable yet. We’re seeing the old systems die away with no new revenue streams to replace them,’ he said. ‘Those businesses that do not adapt to changing business models will quite simply disappear. Are you, as creators and producers, protecting all of these rights? Are you thinking about how you’ll exploit the mobile phone market in the U.K.? Are you finding partners, globally, that can help you maximize your reach?’

The focus-on-characters-and-stories theme was in the spotlight during the two forums for pitching, both new to TAC this year. In the Fast Track room, delegates met with broadcasters for five minutes at a time, while in each of two Pitch THIS! sessions, a production team presented to a panel of broadcasters in front of all delegates.

George Borsé and John Cook from KidszoneTV pitched Gumnutz, a series for six-to-12-year-olds starring Australian animals. Nickelodeon’s Peter Gal suggested edgier, more distinct art, while Corus Entertainment’s Peter Moss and Teletoon’s Sylvie Bélanger both noted the danger in attributing ethnicity to characters if there’s no payoff.

International coproduction also emerged as a prominent TAC theme. Delegates from Singapore, this year’s featured country, said that, like Canada, their small population is surrounded by a huge market.

Lok Yin Seto, director of industry development for the Media Development Authority of Singapore, said the city-state is an ‘infant industry with 30 animation studios, comparable to Canada 15 to 20 years ago. We’re small but growing rapidly, creating a lot of original content’ but ‘we realize that we cannot grow if we’re just labor-for-hire. We need to help animators create original content and learn how to exploit merchandising, licensing, books.’

The Singapore Animators Connection, a consulting body that deals with 3D animation, was also at OIAF.

Singapore’s visits to OIAF, Canadian animation companies, and to schools and public institutions are intended to increase production of original content. They also hope to arrange employee and student exchanges so participants can funnel information back home. Although Singapore signed an international copro treaty with Canada in 1998, little animation has been produced.

It was a 50/50 Canada/U.K. coproduction that produced a new TV series, Planet Sketch, recently launched on Britain’s ITV and debuting Nov. 19 on Teletoon. It comes from Aardman Animation of the U.K. and Decode Entertainment in Toronto.

Sketch comedy is rare in animation – and this one targets seven-to-11-year-old boys. Luckily, Aardman was familiar with Decode’s work and its CGI expertise (often courtesy CORE Digital, which is involved this time, too), and Decode producer Beth Stevenson was familiar with sketch comedy, as a Kids in the Hall alumna.

Internet advances allowed creative teams to exchange sequences quickly online and provide feedback. Teletoon’s Levesque says the series is ‘very labor intensive, with both countries putting in financing, and especially creative.’

OIAF, which turns 30 next year, concluded with an awards ceremony. Films and TV programs competed in 21 categories, not including the ‘Peel of laughter’ category honoring the funniest entries, the prize for which are bananas. The U.S. won in 11.

Winners included: Aron Gauder, Hungary, best feature – The District; Igor Kovalyov, U.S., best independent short – Milch; Roque Ballesteros, U.S., best short made for the Internet – Mole in the City; Richard Ferguson-Hull, U.S., best TV series for adults – Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law ‘Birdman of Guantanamole’; Bruce Alcock, Canada, the Canadian Film Institute Award for best Canadian animation – At the Quinte Hotel; and, Peter Lepeniotis, Canada, the National Film Board public prize (voted by the audience) – Surly Squirrel.