EIFF 2019 – McLaren Animation

The annual McLaren Animation award screenings at the world’s oldest continually-running film festival have always been a personal favourite part of the festival for me. Named for famed Scottish pioneer Norman McLaren, who would later found the National Film Board of Canada, this 2019 edition was particularly special – this marked the thirtieth anniversary of the McLarens at the EIFF, and the tenth, and as it happens, final year in the tenure of Iain Gardner, who has been in charge of the McLarens. I’ve really enjoyed Iain’s run taking care of the McLarens – it isn’t just the selecting and screening of interesting and diverse material, it’s the sense of encouraging and supporting and fostering new and emerging and existing talent. During the post-screening Q&As with all of the animators there is a real sense of support and encouragement, and that’s a good thing in any artistic medium if you want to have new blood and new ideas.

This year as part of the thirtieth anniversary we were treated to three rather than the usual two McLaren Animation segments, each with ten films, so thirty short works in all, covering all sorts of subjects (autobiography, documentary, politic, humour) and approaches (traditional hand-drawn, CG animation, stop-motion, puppetry and some films mixing methods). In a very welcome touch this year there was parity, a fifty-fifty split between female and male directors. At normal McLaren years there are too many films for me to go into each one individually, and that is more the case this year with the additional screening, so I’ll be sticking to my usual approach of picking out some of the films which I personally enjoyed the most.

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(some of the animators at the post McLaren screening Q&As – pics from my Flickr)
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Ainslie Henderson – by now a well-kent face in animation circles and at McLaren – had a very beautiful, very emotional piece with Archie. A lovely stop-motion work, we follow an anthropomorphised dog-man (with his own actual pet dog!), the eponymous Archie, in a largely wordless film. Archie receives bad news and a key in the post – the key to this mother’s wee crofting house on one of the Scottish isles; she’s passed away, the old home is now his. Using only the movement of the figures rather than dialogue Henderson deftly conjures up that sudden, shattering blow of learning a loved one is gone, of the bottom falling out of your world, the sad journey back home to a house that is now empty, except not really, because it is filled with memories. It’s warm and sadly beautiful, with some nice little touches – Archie’s wee dog snuggling up to his master, sensing his pain – and I found myself thinking on loved ones I’ve lost and having to blink away years (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one).

(a scene from Ainslie Henderson’s Archie)

Chris and Victoria Watson’s Ladder to You also dealt with grief, in a very different way, with an elderly man, at home, now all alone and missing his wife terribly. He ponders parts of his life and the world, but nothing really works any more, not without her; without her it is meaningless, empty. When his wife’s photograph is blown out the window he follows it with a ladder to try and retrieve this last memento of her, and it takes him somewhere special. Josephine Lohoar Self’s also had that beautifully sad quality to it, a stop-motion piece about a shy young tailor, about a world where everyone wants to conform and be the same while he yearns for difference and encounters love.

Music & Clowns – trailer from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

JoAnne Salmon and and Alex Widdowson both impressed me with their biographical films, which were very emotionally warm and honest. Widdowson brought us Music & Clowns, an exploration of caring for a a family member with Down’s Syndrome. The parents talk honestly about the shock and surprise when their boy was born “different”, with his father commenting how as he held his newborn the moment of shock passed and he knew that he loved his boy anyway; he even, as they discuss him, reproaches his other son gently, commenting on how he may not understand everything but he is very empathic to the feelings of others, perhaps more than his brother. They talk about what life has been like, and the concerns of his parents as they get older, wondering how he will cope once they are too old, or passed on, a concern anyone with special needs family members must entertain.

Salmon gave us Chin Up, an autobiographical piece, the title riffing on one of the symptoms of Treacher Collins syndrome, where the bone structure of the face doesn’t form in the regular way, giving her a very unusual appearance (including not having a prominent chin). Again emotional honesty was key here as Salmon used differing artistic style to explore moments of her life – her birth, not being the “normal” little girl they were expecting, of not feeling particularly different until she went to school and having to deal with the unthinking comments of children, of how this affected her sense of self, how art and drawing became an escape for her, which eventually lead her to find animation and encouraged her to apply to study and then eventually create her own works.

Chin Up – Trailer – Animated Documentary from LoveLove Films on Vimeo.

Lauren Orme’s Creepy Pasta Salad was a fun piece, about a werewolf lady with low self-esteem, a man who may (or at least thinks he may be) dead and a ghost (and wondering if he is a ghost does he have to worry about that final electricity bill?), a Goth and the End of the World, and left me with a big smile. Ainslie Henderson, with Will Anderson, had more work in the form of three very brief pieces, My Best Friend (then each segment had a subtitle, such as “explodes”), nice, clean, simple graphics, two friends talking, but they are aware of being in a film, and they ponder the meaning of each title as it appears above them (you can imagine their alarm when it says “explodes”). Matthew Lee’s One Liner used claymation and drawn animation and touches on what used to be a cornerstone of British entertainment culture – the comedy double act, and more specifically who was “the funny one” (that oft-asked question that totally misses the point that these duos really only worked playing off one another).

mad dog trailer from steve boot on Vimeo.

Unsurprisingly given the last couple of years, politics hove into view during some of the films: Steve Boot had Mad Dogs, set in a pub of the same name, the classic British pub, a perfect place for examining what it means to be British in the modern era, using a collection of regulars in the pub who are all dogs, English, Scottish and Welsh (although oddly no Northern Irish), and uses a sprinkling of dialogue from the speeches of famous people among the lines as they all talk about about their sense of identity. Marta Lemos gave us Dear England, which used photo collage and drawn art among other styles, to explore the way British society has been changing, especially since the Brexit referendum, the way some elements now feel they can voice bigotry and hatred openly, the fact that some who came to make a home here, no matter how they fit in, will never be “British enough” for certain types.

I’d love to pick out more of the entries – the styles, the methods and the subjects were all so diverse we really were treated to a smorgasbord of excellent animation talent, quite a few entries being graduate degree films from students, and many of those now out in the world beyond college all still very young. I must mention Fokion Xenos who won the audience vote to scoop this thirtieth anniversary year McLaren Animation Award with Heatwave, which was a wonderful riot of colours and life in plasticine and other materials and depicted, yes a heatwave, on a tiny Greek island, rather timely given the burst of hot weather across the UK and Europe recently! And I have to give a shout out to Samantha Moore’s Bloomers, which documented the people, mostly women, who had worked in a garment design and manufacturing, and the changing fortunes over the years – the film had a very rich texture to the backgrounds, and, astonishingly Moore produced a sheet of silk (one of the fabrics the factory used) on which some of the art had been drawn then animated to give it that remarkable look and feel.

HEATWAVE – Trailer © NFTS 2019 from Fokion Xenos on Vimeo.

As I said, a real diversity of styles, methods and subjects. I’m confident that – as usually happens – we will see some of the McLaren entries crop up in a few months in the BAFTA and Oscar short animation nominee lists.

The Diagram Prize

Each year the Bookseller magazine runs the Diagram Award which is for the book published in the last year with the oddest title; these are real published books, submitted by booksellers – last year’s winner was If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs. This year’s final shortlist contender are:

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth

Curbside Consultation of the Colon by Brooks D Cash

The Large Sieve and its Applications by Emmanuel Kowalski

Strip and Knit with Style by Mark Hordyszynski

Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring by Lietai Yang

The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais by Professor Philip M Parker

The award will be announced on March 27th and is an annual event enjoyed by British booksellers. Personally I’ve always loved it, its a bit of fun and it appeals to my sense and love of the Absurd that these are the real titles of actual books (it also nicely reinforces the commonly held perception that we in Britain, especially among the literary fraternity, are, to put it politely, ‘eccentric’, which is no bad thing in my opinion. Booksellers, librarians and bookshops should be a little eccentric and individual). Link via the BBC

This Way Up

Britain’s nominee for possible Oscar glory in the short animation category this year is This Way Up, a lovely little Edward Gorey-esque dark comedy of a father and son undertakers attempting to bury a little old lady after an unlikely accident sees the hearse flattened with a boulder, taking them struggling across country with the coffin and then into the Afterlife in their quest to finish the job, all performed without words. For a change instead of just reading about it or seeing a clip we can actually watch the entire short animation on the BBC’s Film Network site (the Beeb part funded the film by Nexus’ Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith). While you’re there have a poke around the rest of that site because the Beeb have some other animation and other short film gems there (I’m not sure if it is geo-locked to only play for folks with UK ISPs or not though and you will need Windows Media Player or Real Player to watch it).

Eagle Awards – a shameless plea for votes!

The first ballot form for voting in the annual Eagle Awards, the UK’s major comics and graphic novel awards, opened the other week online – anyone can cast their votes and eventually the nominees will be narrowed down to a final shortlist with the winners revealed at the Bristol International Comics Expo in May. There are a number of categories – writers, artists, newcomers, series, best original graphic novel (that basically means one which first came out as a graphic novel rather than a book collecting a story previously issued in weekly or monthly comics form) and also favourite comics related website in which you can (if you so wish) vote for the Forbidden Planet Blog which I set up just under three years ago and work on alongside my duties on the main FPI webstore, posting comics and SF news, reviews and interviews and generally trying to draw attention to some good writers and artists. Yes, this is a shameless plea for votes!

Oscar time

I was posting about the short animated film winner at last night’s Oscars on the FPI blog earlier today and being the nosy bugger I am I had a look for something online so I could point readers to where they could check out a bit of the film, but couldn’t see much more than a very basic website for Mikrofilm. So I dropped them a line and heard back very quickly from a very nice lady called Lise there who sent me a link to this fetching site where you can have a look at the (now Oscar winning) Danish Poet by Torill Kove, with narration by Liv Ullman, with a clip and various other snippets of this quite gorgeous looking animation (I thought the art reminded me of a cross between children’s picture books and Metaphrog’s lovely Louis comics).

On the other end of the Oscar scale how brilliant is it that Martin Scorcese was finally awarded the Best Director Oscar? Ironic that it isn’t actually for his finest work which the Academy didn’t recognise in previous years, although The Departed is still a damned fine movie (right to the end which I didn’t see coming), but given they have overlooked him for decades and he is pretty much the greatest living American director (and still working) it is amazing he has been so overlooked by Oscar for so long. Thank goodness they finally gave it to him; I was worried Marty was going to end up with one of those ‘lifetime achievement’ awards which usually mean the recipient has about a year to live – those things are the kiss of death :-).


The longlist for the most prestigious literary award in the UK has been announced – 22 titles on the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize. Actually I am surprised to see so many of the big players being passed over this year in favour of new blood – I approve of this and certainly the stuffy old Booker does need a fair old spring cleaning and updating. Prestigious perhaps, but also often pretentious – I get the impression as both a reader and a bookseller that this is often a judging panel which picks ‘literary’ fiction of the sort that will make them look ever so clever and cultured for picking it. There have been some more interesting, fresher and – gasp – more popular choices in recent years, with DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little or Arnudhati Roy springing to mind.

However once more the unspoken rule of the literary snobs has been enforced – there are no genre titles in here. There are, as pretty much always, no Science Fiction, Horror, Crime or Romance novels. Why is this? The Booker is set up to select from the last year’s FICTION, looking for good writing. It does not proscribe the genres in the rules, yet every year it discriminates against them.

Now, I am not calling for an opening of the floodgates – plenty of genre titles are workmanlike at best and not worthy of consideration – but then I could say the same of bestselling and ‘literary’ fiction (what do they mean? No-one can properly quantify this but they still use it. I think they are afraid to explain it because it reveals that the only distinction is one of snobbery). However, if you set up a fiction prize to pick the finest writing then why do you discriminate automatically against so many genres and authors (and by inference their millions of readers)??? This is the literary equivelant of apartheid and is despicable and indefensible. Why, for instance, is Neal Stephenson’s stunning piece of prose, Quicksilver, not on the list? In my professional opinion it could trounce most of the books on the longlist for style, wit, invention, erudtion, scholarly accuracy and wonder, easily the equal of Umberto Eco. Yet this literary masterpiece is not in there, because, I believe, it is tarred with the genre label. No wonder the genre fans and writers have their own awards, such as the Edgars or CWAs for Crime, the Bram Stoker or the Arthur C Clarke Award (won of course by Quicksilver this year).

I have made this speech and many similar ones on far too many occasions. I’m tired of having to make this argument. I’m tired of arguing for something that should be obvious by rights. But I have a Dream.

(apologies to the great Martin Luther King)