Robert May on “The Animation Show”

by Dan Persons

Bill Plympton’s HOT DOG

A couple of undertakers visit a groovy, Tim Burton Hell; a small dog has his dreams of firehouse Dalmatian glory dashed; and over in France, sinister, disco-backed experiments are being performed on hapless human beings. That can only mean one thing: It’s time for the fourth edition of THE ANIMATION SHOW. Programmed by BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD/IDIOCRACY’S Mike Judge, this year’s show places greater emphasis on comedy, and features works by Bill Plympton (25 WAYS TO QUIT SMOKING), Smith & Foulkes (best known for their Coca-Cola GTA commercial), and MAD TV’S Corky Quackenbush. Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons spoke with one of the producers, Robert May.

DAN PERSONS: I’m usually not the type for generalities, but I feel — since you’ve been exposed to more of this material than I — that I have to ask this question: Are all French animators as fucked up as what we see in this show?

Gobelin’s COCOTTE MINUTEROBERT MAY: [Laughs] Wow, yeah. You know, a lot of the French animation we have comes from a school called Gobelins — it’s a small school and they workshop their animators to death. But there’s also more of a fever-pitch, sense of pride and love for animation in France; it’s crazy. The largest festival for animation in the world is in Annecy, France each year, and all of the French schools who bring animation to it are fiercely competing to be the best in the festival. It’s more of an outlet for them, internationally: Their work gets shown on TV; there’s much more of a market for shorts to be bought and sold. So, from the get-go, young animators are nurtured along a little bit better than what you see in U.S. and, typically, just about every other country.

Specifically, when you’re talking about the nut-job filmmaker — where that kind of strange mentality comes from — I think I see more of it in Russian animation and in German animation. Stuff in the U.K. just gets weird and strange.

You’ve commissioned a number of films for this show, including Smith & Foulkes’ THIS WAY UP, PES’ WESTERN SPAGHETTI, and Dave Carter’s PSYCHOTOWN. Is this unusual for a touring show?

Yeah, it typically is. The other animation festival — the longest running, really, SPIKE AND MIKE — has gotten into commissioning shorts, started doing that a few years back, but more for getting to young filmmakers where [the producers] could get work for much cheaper as opposed to paying a higher licensing fee and hand-picking artists to see what kind of work they could come up with, which is kind of how Mike [Judge] centered this.

Dave Carter’s PSYCHOTOWNI think it also comes from the fact that this year’s show leans more on comedy, and that’s the hardest work to find. You find more abstract, non-linear, expressionist work coming out of the U.K. and France. Just straight, across-the-board comedy is some of the harder stuff to get. That led to the idea of commissioning, especially with the PSYCHOTOWN pieces, the intro by Joel Trussell. That was more along the lines of we know these guys do great stuff, let’s just see what a commission piece would be like.

Is there a lot of oversight with the commissioned pieces?

We went through the typical commission process: They send in a pitch; and then we move through the process step-by-step. But it really was if the idea sounded great… I think there was one group where we went back and said, “Maybe not this, but do you have anything else you’re interested in?” and kept that process going. But from there on, it was really hands-off.

Smith & Foulkes’ THIS WAY UPSmith and Foulkes is a pretty good example: Last year’s show came out to twelve films about death — it was really morose, dark. Visually stunning in places, cool show, but at the end audiences were leaving and saying, “Wow, there was a lot of death in that show!” So when we were talking to Smith and Foulkes, we were kidding about that theme and said, “Yeah, we’re kinda doing more of the comedy stuff, so if you have something that draws you out more, we’d love to hear about it.” And their pitch back was, “We’re thinking about a film about two undertakers, annnnnnd… death.”

But seeing their past work and what kind of palette they were going to create, we knew after reading the treatment what lines it was speaking to, that it wasn’t going to be a lot of 2D stop-motion with lots of hand-wringing — deep, expressionistic, primal scream. It was going to be more fun and fast-paced; these guys just getting in and showing off.

Why is Don Hertzfeldt not involved this year?

Mike wanted to go out and play and do more of a straight comedy show, and Don’s interest in THE ANIMATION SHOW has just been every strange, avant-garde, abstract short we could find.1 Which is fantastic, but I think for this show Mike wanted to go in another direction. The two of them weren’t on the same page from the get-go with this new show.

And Don has started a TV show — he’s working right now with Adult Swim on doing a new TV show, and I think the combination of those two things just had him bowing out at a pretty early stage for us. It’s too bad, because I wanted to see him more involved in this. We’re close friends, I’ve actually done all the voice-over work in his shorts, dating back to LILY AND JIM, and Rebecca [Moline], my co-producer, has done all the editing back to REJECTED. We started THE ANIMATION SHOW as Don’s production team, and Don and Mike formed their relationship, and it really was just the four of us for the bulk of the years we’ve done this. So it was sad.

I’m hoping that next year we can get a little more balance to the show, and with Don’s new film [the upcoming I AM SO PROUD OF YOU], we can come back to the table and get back to where we were really with the first tour, which embodied what we like to do: Just having a good mix of really classic, beautifully animated films, but the right amount of fun, comedy, and entertainment to make it [intriguing for a] movie-going audience that still thinks animation is strictly for little kids or the late-night, sick and twisted, FRITZ THE CAT, pervert set.

If I tell you my favorite short, will you tell me yours?

Sure.

Mine’s RAYMOND, the one about the lazy swimming instructor who undergoes a strange, behavior-mod experiment. It just felt like the Three Stooges as scripted by George Orwell.

Bif Productions’ RAYMONDThat was the first short we licensed for this show. It just has a weird fluidity to it, and it’s got that psycho-hospital vibe to it, too. A great short. For me, a favorite — I try to go and watch it every time it runs — is [Steve Dildarian's] ANGRY UNPAID HOOKER. It resonates the most — I’m still saying the lines back. I’ll be with a family member or a friend and they’ll say how expensive Starbucks is, and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, half of the blowjob money is gone,” and they’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. It just makes me laugh.

PES’ WESTERN SPAGHETTI[And I like] WESTERN SPAGHETTI [about the preparation of a very unconventional Italian dinner], just for PES’ raw, ridiculous creativity. The shot where he’s cutting the garlic/Rubik’s Cube up, pulling the pieces off and chopping them into smaller bits of Rubik’s Cube… we saw that the first time and it just blew everybody away. That’s my most favorite to watch with an audience, because I just like to watch them react. It’s on so many levels — they react to the nostalgia of the Rubik’s Cube while guessing what each element is that’s being added to the pasta.

Have you got your eye on anything for the next show?

We’ve seen a couple of films. We’re getting submissions in, but with the tour going on we haven’t been able to sit down and watch everything. I’ve got films bookmarked that I know are going to be really incredible. Everything I’ve seen from Don’s new film looks fantastic — I know he’s really proud of it and it sounds like a really strong follow-up to his last short [EVERYTHING WILL BE OK]. The commissioned stuff was so satisfying; it’s brought us the act of looking to see who has a project ready to go and introduced us to so much more than we had time to do. There are a few new people out now, and we have time to sit back and explore more with the commissions and make it a bigger part of the show.

The point of the tour is seeing these films on a big screen. You can see WESTERN SPAGHETTI on-line, but seeing it up on a big screen, projected in HD, is unbelievable. Sooooo cool. Seeing THIS WAY UP, the colors of that film on a big screen, it’s just taken more seriously than a thumb-size, YouTube experience that you’re watching at work with co-workers around. It’s a whole other world.

CORRECTIONS:

  1. May originally misstated the time Hertzfeldt has not been involved.

About the Author

Dan Persons

DAN PERSONS is a New York-based writer who first got bit by the Cinefantastique bug when he encountered the 1979 double issue devoted to the sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. He contributed for many years to the magazine, first as a correspondent, then as an editor.

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