NFB Women Animators

When the Day Breaks

This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its annual animation tribute. It was devoted to five Canadian animators, all of them women, and it screened some of their definitive works produced at the National Film Board: Janet Perlman (The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin, 1981), Caroline Leaf (The Street, 1976), Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis (When the Day Breaks, 1999), and Torril Kove (The Danish Poet, 2006). The films were followed by a Q&A facilitated by animation critic Charles Solomon.

All in all, the evening really showcased diverse aesthetics–Perlman’s storybook line art, Leaf’s complex wet-painting, Tilby and Forbis’ layered paint-on-video, Kove’s pencil-drawn lyricism. Although Perlman’s detail and sense of humor was infectious, and Kove’s storytelling skills were in ample display, my favorites were Leaf and Tilby-Forbis’ contributions, visually unique and profound depictions of urban life and community (coincidentally set in virtually the same neighborhood of Montreal). I had actually seen both films before, When the Day Breaks is available on The Animation Show DVD, and The Street has been making the rounds after winning second place in the 1984 Olympiad of Animation‘s international poll of the all-time great works of the genre. (Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales came in first.)

The event was introduced by Alice Davis (an animatronic designer and the widow of Disney animator Marc Davis), who shared with us how she was told in the ’50s that “women don’t animate, they ink and paint.” During the Q&A, the NFB animators expressed shock at such a sentiment, and talked about why they felt the NFB was a particularly supportive place for women; in fact, none of them had really pursued animation as a career, but fell into it from other disciplines (like painting and architecture). They also praised the artistic control, lengthy production times, and congenial support the organization provided them over the years.

I was particularly glad Solomon highlighted the difference between the loving, handmade feel of all of the works in the program versus the kind of homogenous CGI work that increasingly defines the genre today, short form as well as long form. (He didn’t mention it at AMPAS, of course, but I found it deflating that three of the five nominees for best animated short film at last year’s Oscar event were typical, Pixar-style CGI works.) One can only hope that screening past works such as these will keep the spirit of innovation and experimentation alive through the digital age.

* * * * *

The Graduate

I also made two nice discoveries on account of this event. One was the work of motion picture illustrator William B. Major, whose watercolor production paintings were displayed in the AMPAS lobby as part of an ongoing exhibition on Hollywood illustrators. Major’s work seems especially refined and detailed, not only sketching in atmospheric widescreen possibilities, but also incorporating highly detailed sets, props, and lighting suggestions, thus allowing directors like Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) and Mike Nichols (The Graduate) to pre-visualize important shots long before animatics became the norm.

As an illustrator and graphic designer myself, I was amazed at the precision and atmosphere of Major’s renderings, which were apparently done quickly and (I have no doubt) amid a great deal of committee input. The exhibition doesn’t provide a lot of information on these artists, but a note said most of Major’s work was owned by private collectors in the movie business and that a collection in book form is in the works. I’m looking forward to it.

My final discovery was that the same National Film Board site which offers online versions of Leaf and others’ work also offers complete versions of Arthur Lipsett’s phenomenal collage films, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) and 21-87 (1964), of which I’ve written about here and here. Take a few minutes and be amazed.

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