KROKING DOWN THE DNIEPER September 28 to October 7
Wednesday October 28th 2009, 7:15 am
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KROK sign on the ship
KROK sign on the ship

For a growing number of animators all over the world, TO KROK is a very special verb.  Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to sail on the KROK boat has many lovely memories and a host of new friends.  The 20th Anniversary edition of the KROK International Animation Festival took place from September 28th to October 7, when 200 animators from around the world boarded the Dnieper Star to share this unique experience.  KROK, a joint Ukrainian/Russian festival, took place this year in the Ukraine sailing down the Dnieper River and across the Black Sea from Kiev to Odessa.

Edward Nazarov and Vanessa piloting the ship
Edward Nazarov and Vanessa piloting the ship

Over the last 10 years that Nik and I have been part of the KROK family I have had the opportunity to see films from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, to name but three countries whose films are not readily available at European festivals, much less in the United States.   This year one of my favorite films was Little Bird ABC by South African director Diek Grobler and animator Charlles Badenhorst.  The film won the Best Children’s Film award, and its clever scenes that explain the ABCs with different sounds made by little birds in a fun and playfully wicked way is also entertaining for an adult audience.  The letter B for instance is illustrated by a bird drinking beer and burping, F is the farting bird.

I have known Georgij Lyahovetskij for ten years and I have watched him grow from a shy boy into a young man of considerable talent as a painter. He has had gallery showings in New York City, Moscow, and London.  I can best describe his work as naive art full of joy and optimism with an offbeat sense of color and composition.  His paintings show a child like openness with a true, sincere perspective of the world.  In the film Gosha’s Tales, Russian director Dmitriy Naumov manages to bring Gosha’s (the Russian familiar name for Georgij) vivid paintings to life on the screen.  I hope that this charming film will be shown at festivals around the world so that more people will be able to discover Gosha’s special world.

2009 has been a weak year for short film.  There have been many good films but nothing that has really stood out as exceptional.  The selection committee did an excellent job of putting together programs that were of the highest quality given what they had to work with.  I have already written in other articles about many of the films that were shown such as Canadian animator Cordell Baker’s Runaway and Western Spaghetti by the very talented PES.  I am very fond of Russian animator Ivan Maximov’s The Additional Capabilities of the Snout (for which Nik did the music ) which is very surreal.  Muto which is comprised of animations of Argentinean animator Blu’s graffiti style paintings on public walls has won major awards at many major festivals this year including a Special Jury Prize for Best Animation at KROK.

Among the films new to me in the 9 competition programs was The Swimming Lesson by Danny de Vent who lives in Gent, Belgium.  It was awarded a special jury prize for the Best First Professional Film.  Danny’s film about a 4 year old boy’s first swimming lesson not only brings back memories of childhood fears we have all had to face but also reminds me that no matter how old we are we will always have fears of the unknown.

2009 is the 20th Anniversary of KROK which first saw the light of day when the Ukraine was still part of the old USSR in 1989, the year that the former USSR broke apart.  Animators took to the water in an atmosphere of friendship and harmony which knew no state frontiers or boundaries only to return to the Soviet shores to find their world turned upside down.  In 1997  Daniel Grimes’ Flatworld (UK) became the first foreign film  to win the Grand Prix.  As part of the celebration of the 20 year milestone two programs of KROK Grand Prix winning films were screened.

Members of the International Jury, French born Monique Renault who lives in The Netherlands, Russian animator Violetta  Kolesnikova, Joan Gratz from Portland, Orgeon, and Jean Rubak of France presented retrospectives of their work.  The fifth member of the jury was Ukrainian film critic Sergey Trymback.  A panorama of animation from Ukranimafilm Studio was shown to celebrate the renowned studio’s 50th anniversary.  Ukranimafilm is the oldest animation studio in Eastern Europe and has produced over 400 animated films since its founding.  Unfortunately Ukranimafilms has ceased production but such classics as revered Ukrainian KROK President David Cherkassky’s Captain Vrungel’s Adventures live on.

Jurors Monique Renault and Jean Rubak in a quiet discussion
Jurors Monique Renault and Jean Rubak in a quiet discussion

Master Classes were offered on board the ship by internationally acclaimed names in animation.  Ukrainian animator and director Igor Kovalyov is best known for his short film Hen, His Wife and the TV series The Rugrats. Kovalyov was also co-founder of Moscow’s legendary Pilot Studio with Alexander Tartarsky.  Igor now lives and Works in Los Angeles.

Edward Nazarov, Russian President of KROK also gave a very impressive presentation.  Another highlight of the sessions for me was Alexander Petrov’s demonstration of his technique of painting on glass.

Once again this year, the morning press conference was turned into coffee with the directors.  I always find it fascinating to hear animators talk about their work.  Although it seldom changes my opinion of a film it is interesting to have insights into what motivated a director with his story and style choices.  Some mornings it was very hard to get up for the early morning press conferences that were very ably moderated by Russian Film Critic Larisa Malyukova, but the coffee and tea seem to have done their job and the audience of journalists and animators asked some good, insightful questions.

Special excursions were planned by the staff to give guests an opportunity to experience some of the great cultural and historic wonders of the country.  Nik and I have been on the tours many times so we spent this free time exploring on our own, but one tour that we would never miss is to the ancient Chersonesos (Kherson) Rybalsky Island tucked away in the Chersonesos reed beds.  We were taken in a small boat through the channels among groups of small islands, primarily inhabited by fishermen.  When we docked we were greeted by local bubas (grandmothers) who had cooked for us a traditional meal using fresh produce from their gardens.  The food on the ship was much better than what we had been served in the past few years, but it was a great treat to eat fresh tomatoes and eggplant and of course my very favorite, homemade pelmeni (small, filled dumplings).    The very powerful alcohol that was in plentiful supply was also homemade.  It’s always a very happy boat ride back to ship but I always feel sorry for the film makers whose works appear in the screening that evening.

Nik and Nancy going to Fisherman's Island
Nik and Nancy going to Fisherman’s Island

KROK may mean step in Ukrainian but to me it means FUN!  If days were full of animation and excursions, night was for music and dancing. RE-ANIMATION evenings, where we all sing, dance, play music and just plain engaged in silly behavior were great fun.

The boys in the band
The boys in the band

One evening was a tribute to KROK’s 20th Anniversary and especially to honor, with humor and love, the amazing work that Irina Kaplichnaya and her staff have done to keep KROK afloat.  There was birthday cake for all and gifts for Irina including  a portrait of her painted by Alexander Petrov.  After the evening’s performances, beautiful paper lanterns were sent aloft from the top deck.  The lovely lanterns gently drifting in the warm full moon night were a breath taking sight.

Lanterns being launched from top deck
Lanterns being launched from top deck

   

Festival director Irina Kaplichnaya with the two Westies
Festival director Irina Kaplichnaya with the two Westies

RE-ANIMATION nights are the warm-up for the great event – CAR-NI-VAL!  Several days before the actual event groups of people cluster in deep conference.  This year our group was very lucky to score master story teller Dennis Tupicoff as our script writer and of course Nik was our musical director, putting together a great band for our performance.  Our International group sang the lyrics Dennis penned “20 Years of KROK and What Do You Get -  A Little Bit Drunker and Deeper In Debt. . .” to the tune of the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song 16 Tons.  Filomena Adler acted as our bar maid, serving vodka shots to us on stage as we sang.  Our efforts won us a coveted prize of lovely straw hats for each person and a large bottle of vodka, which our thirsty group made quick work of.

Whenever the ship sailed at night Master DJ Ivan Maximov provided music for dancing on the top deck until sunrise.  In port we moved into the bar to dance the night away.  It is a lovely experience to watch the sun rise over the river.  Mikhail Tumelya, Belarus animator and balalaika aficionado, Alex Budowsky from the US on harmonium, Russian Alexey Alekseev and his guitar and Nik on Sax have played together on the KROK boat for years as “The River Side Ramblers”.  The play everything from Russian and Ukrainian folk songs to O Susanna and Beatles tunes on the top deck at night while everyone sings and drinks.  They also performed at RE-ANIMATION, in fact, you could run into them making music all over the ship.

Nik and Alexei playing
Nik and Alexei playing
Late night on the top deck
Late night on the top deck

 

Late night refreshments
Late night refreshments

The closing night award ceremony was held in Sebastopol at a beautiful modern multiplex.  The evening began with a documentary film made on board ship by Igor Kozijanthuk.  Somehow Igor managed to be everywhere on the boat all at once and his camera didn’t miss a thing, capturing at least one portrait of everyone on board.  The film was a beautifully edited visual memory of our trip.  The KROK ship also had a group of very young animators.  While we spent our time watching film they were busy creating their own masterpiece which they shared with us at the closing ceremony.

Next came the event everyone was waiting for, the announcement of the award winning films.  The festival Grand Prix along with a cash award of $5,000.00 went to Estonian director Riho Unt for Lili.  His puppet film, made at the renouned Nukufilm Studio, is the story of a group of hungry rats on a WW II battlefield trying to answer the question “Who is Lili Marleen?”  The choice turned out to be quite controversial and for the first time that I can remember at KROK the jury gave a special press conference the next day to explain their choice.  Personally, I feel that if a jury wants to make a statement on stage when they give the award that is fine but they should not have to justify their decision after the fact.  It is one group of people’s decision and that is that.

Nukufilm Studio picked up another honor when Rao Heidmets was awarded the Special Alexander Tatarsky prize “The Plasticine Cow and $3,000 for the film that most embodies the spirit and love of humor of Tatarsky.    Riho won the Grand Prix at the first KROK festival in 1989.  He said on stage he was very honored to have been awarded the first KROK Grand Prix but that winning The Tartarsky Award was the victory that he really wanted.  His film Inherent Obligations is really hilarious and won the Grand Prize for Best Short Film at Ottawa this year.

The 2009 KROK ship sailed three days less than in previous years but given the world economic situation and the political tensions between the Ukraine and Russia it is amazing that Irina Kaplichnaya and her wonderful, hard working staff were able to make the festival happen at all.  Irina said that “politics is threatening KROK”.  It would be a tragedy if bureaucrats and politicians were allowed to destroy what is one of the greatest cultural exchanges in the world.

All too soon the boat landed in Odessa and it was time for very fond, sad farewells.  If you have never been to KROK there is really no way to express the experience in words.  KROK really will change your life.  You leave the boat with a very special group of friends and no matter where you travel you will find a KROK compatriot ready to share drinks and beautiful memories.  LONG LIVE KROK!

KROK 2009 INTERNATIONAL ANIMATION FESTIVAL AWARD WINNERS

Prize for Films up to 5 Minutes:

Variety – director Roelof Van Den Bergh, The Netherlands

Diplomas in the Category to:

Western Spaghetti – director PES, USA, for his original approach to cooking

Chick – director Mychal Socha, Poland, for graphic design

Santa:  The Fascist Years – director Bill Plympton, USA, for black humor

Cat-Man-Do – director Simon Toefield, Great Britian, for “My Mommy”

Prize for Films of 5 to 10 Minutes:

A Trip To The Seaside – director Nina Bisyarina, Russia

Diploma in the Category to:

7 More Minutes – director Izabel Plucinska, Germany, for the clay animation

Prize for Films 10 to 50 Minutes:

Silly – director Ekaterina Sokolova, Russia

Diplomas in this category to:

Candido – director Zepe, Portugal, for the classic animation style

Skhizein – director Jeremy Clapin, France, for the concept

Ochumelov – director Alexey Dyomin, Russia, for the literary adaptation

Prize for the Best Film For Children:

Little Bird ABC – director Diek Grobler, South Africa

Prize for the Best Applied and Commissioned Animation:

Log Jam – director Alexey Alekseev, Russia/Hungary

Diplomas in this category to:

All The Year Round.  Autumn Northeaster – director Veronica Fyodorova, Russia, for cut-out animation

Vladimir Rules – director Adrian Sakhaltuev, for political satire

How To Destroy The World –director Pete Bishop, Great Britain, for the environmental message

Special Jury Prize for Best Animation:

Muto­ – director Blu, Argentina

Special Jury Prize for Best First Professional Film and $3,000.00:

The Swimming Lesson – director Danny de Vent, Flemish Belgium

Special Jury Prize for Best Children’s Film and $3,000.00:

Pudya – director Sonya Kravtsova, Russia

Special Alexander Tatarsky Prize of The Plasticine Cow and $3,000.00:

Inherent Obligations – director Rao Heidmets, Estonia

The Gran Prix and $5,000.00:

Lili­ – director Riho Unt, Estonia



A MEETING OF THE MINDS: THE INTERNATIONAL ANIMATION, COMICS AND GAMES FORUM. JILIN, CHINA
Tuesday October 13th 2009, 2:13 pm
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Any time that a 150 of the world’s greatest experts in the animation, comics and the gaming industry come together for a week, it is pretty amazing.  It is even more amazing when we are all flown to China to deliver papers.  That is what took place September 14 through the 17th at the 2009 International Animation, Comics, and Gaming Forum in Jilin, China.
Guests as diverse as Ed Hooks (United States), pioneer of acting training for animators and author of numerous books and articles; noted Australian independent animator Dennis Tupicoff, and Mark Osborne, director of Kung Fu Panda showed and discussed their work.  All of this took place over three days in the Animation Forum Theatre with two other rooms devoted to the Cartoon Forum and lectures from the gaming industry.

Mark Osborne showing off his prowess with chopsticks on a chicken head
Mark Osborne showing off his prowess with chopsticks on a chicken head


With a strict half hour per presentation strongly enforced and the need for simultaneous translation, most people kept their talks very basic and chose to show film instead.
Caroline Leaf screened her beautiful handcrafted films with very sparse comments about her techniques in between.  Caroline touched on her use of sand in Sand or Peter and the Wolf and the subsequent development of her unique handmade, under the camera techniques.  I am sorry that there was not enough time for her to go deeper into the methods that she uses for creating her beautiful films.  I did enjoy sharing a table with Caroline at a couple of meals, but most people didn’t talk much shop at table choosing instead to get to know each other as people.  I did ask her for a reel of her films and woke up on the last morning to find a very special present at my door.
Maureen Furniss, professor of Animation History at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) showed four films from well known graduates from Cal Arts: Phases by Henry Selick, Nightmare (1979) by John Lasseter, Eric Darnell’s Grassland (1989), and Stephen Hillenburg’s Wormholes (1992).  Maureen also talked briefly about the different techniques that the four animator giants used in their early films as well as a brief description of the two animation programs offered at Cal Arts:  the character and experimental programs.
The most interesting part of the IACGF Forum was not the event itself or the films screened but being in China with such a dynamic, creative group and having the chance to get to know them just as people and friends.
Occasionally forum lines crossed as when noted animator Paul Bush was asked to speak in the Games Forum room on the topic of “Computer Games Courses in Higher Education in the UK.”  Presentations in the three rooms ran consecutively, so I had to make some difficult choices.  Because I am familiar with the work of most of the animators at the Forum and a half-hour is not enough time to give an in depth discussion of their work, I chose to take the opportunity to learn more about the area of comics. I did not attend any of the gaming forums, but the people that I got to talk to in that field were all very knowledgeable and interesting.

Nancy with Paul Bush
Nancy with Paul Bush


I particularly enjoyed hearing comics artist Oleg Dergachov.  Born in the Ukraine, the Canadian resident is renowned in the field of Eastern European cartoons.  After speaking on “The Trends and History of the Eastern European Cartoon,” Oleg displayed some of his intricate wax sculptures.
New York City comics creator and illustrator Michael Golden is known for his wide range of work including G I  Joe, Marvel Fanfare, and The Avengers to name but a few.  Michael’s work on Dr. Strange is legendary, influencing many artists in their illustration career.  After talking about his career that includes such milestones as Editor at DC Comics and Senior Art Director at Marvel Comics, Michael took us step by step through how he puts together a cover piece for Agent Silver.  I was lucky enough to get to spend time talking with Oleg and Michael and they are both as nice as they are talented.
The Opening Ceremony was held at the Jilin Animation Institute.  The nine year old school, in conjunction with The Changchun Film Group and the Jilin Publishing Group, has been designated The Chinese National Animation Industry Base.  Within the large complex of 6,500 students there are five separate collages:  Animation and Comics, Games, Design, Media and Advertising.
After the obligatory speeches by dignitaries we were all invited to go up on the stage and sign a large wall.  The morning ended with a tour of the two level art gallery featuring an array of student works in many styles and formats from comics and illustrative art to projected animation.  On our first day in Jilin we were asked to participate in a hand-casting project.  Each of us had our hand cast in a framed block of plaster.  These hands will be mounted on a wall in the school gallery.
A second opening ceremony took place in the Grand Theatre of the hotel.  Keynote speeches were delivered by Zheng Liguo, Dean of Jilin Animation Institute; the Deputy Secretary General of the Chinese Artists Association, Jin Cheng; Director Mark Osborne; and Vesna Dovnikovic, ASIFA Secretary General.
That evening we were treated to a lovely program of local music and dance at the Guandong Grand Theater.  The Provincial Opera Group sang, acrobats and high wire artists performed, Korean dancers and native folk singers and dancers also took part in the grand spectacle.  The act that stole my heart however was a group of kindergartners dressed in chicken suits who danced and sang a charming song.
The next two days were packed full of fascinating talks from 8:30 pm until 6:30 in the evening.   I delivered my half hour discourse in the Animation Forum on The History of Music in Animation, and screened Page Miss Glory, Allegretto, and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom to emphasis my text.  Nik’s talk was “Directors and Composers – A Working Relationship”.  To illustrate his points he used material from Bellows.  This is a project that he recently completed with American animator Eric Dyer that involved intense collaboration between Nik and Eric.
The festival published a thick book with the complete text of every speech in English and Chinese, so I can read all those that I missed.  I have had the opportunity to read such fascinating essays as “Development of the Creative Process for an Animated Short Film Using Sand” by Jean Poulot, French animator and director at Will Vinton Studio for 12 years.  I am slowly making my way through the book.  A second large book devotes two pages to each guest, one in English and one in Chinese with an individual photo.
As a special treat the Forum organizers offered the guests the opportunity to spend two additional days in Beijing.  On the first day Nik and I opted out of the tour to go shopping for a new camera.  We had been told to go to Buy Now and comparison shop and bargain.  Nothing that we had been told prepared us for the experience.  Buy Now turned out to be three large buildings with five floors, each full of electronics.  After four hours of running from floor to floor, building-to-building, trying to remember what price I had haggled the seller down to (I couldn’t take it any more) I purchased a nice Fuji camera, not a knock off, at half the price I had been originally quoted.

Nik and Nancy at Buy Now
Nik and Nancy at Buy Now


While I was in Jilin I had another bizarre shopping experience.  I went to a Wal-Mart, something I had never done when I lived in the States.  The store had everything.  Jar after jar of loose teas ranging from everyday black to very expensive greens. There were tanks of live fish ready for dinner, tables full of dried fish and every possible dried fruit and nut imaginable along with the usual fresh fruit and veggies.  And this was just in the food area.
At the Forum we became friends with Jin Chan Yum Wai, a young Australian/Chinese graphic artist who lives in Beijing.  Each evening that we were in his town he took a group of us out to explore the cities nightlife.  On one occasion we went to a lovely lake with restaurants and bars ringing it.  Each bar had couches and tables under a chain of lights strung around the shore and there were rowboats for rent.  This was a perfect place to be on a warm full moon night.

An evening at the No Name bar at the lakeside
An evening at the No Name bar at the lakeside


He also plunged us into the world of Chocolate, a very high end Russian nightclub of the sort I could never afford to visit in Moscow.  We were met at the street level door by a tuxedoed dwarf and descended down an escalator into a massive room decorated in full Rococo fashion.  The stage show ranged from a magician to a transvestite dance review, with the evening ending with a disco.  There was no cover charge, drinks were inexpensive, and the room was full of beautiful young Russian ladies, many of them ladies for hire.

Nancy and the little person at the entrance to Chocolate
Nancy and the little person at the entrance to Chocolate


Zheng Ligus, Dean of Jilin Animation Institute and his staff did everything to make our visit such a memorable experience.  Our translators were so very patient with us when we went shopping for dried beans and candied ginger, which was not what they had been led to expect from their foreign guests.
This was my third visit to China and each festival/forum had a distinctly different character.  This was Nik’s first trip and he came away with a positive view.  There are not enough thanks you’s to express our appreciation to everyone involved in the 2009 IACGF.

At the Forbidden City these small villagers thought Dennis Tupicoff was the funniest thing
At the Forbidden City these small villagers thought Dennis Tupicoff was the funniest thing