Excerpt from Animatin' in Adawe (awn.com)

by Chris Robinson


While the bubbling productivity of the studios is economically good, it is the sudden emergence of a modest independent animation scene in Ottawa that is most encouraging and refreshing in a town that has often been labelled a "hick" town. A major contributor to the development of an indie scene is the Independent Film Cooperative of Ottawa (IFCO). The Co-op, formed in 1992, provides a more economical and casual alternative to the hefty fees that film schools extract from young, starry-eyed youths. IFCO production has mostly been in live-action film, but a handful of filmmakers have tried their hand at animation. Bridget Farr made a sombre scratch/live-action piece about alienation in the city called, Nobody's Nothing (1999) and most recently, Calvin Climie made what is possibly the first independent animation feature produced in Ottawa called, Hyperhelion (2001). But the two most successful IFCO members are Dan Sokolowski and Brian McPhail.

Sokolowski is perhaps the most important individual in the local Ottawa film community. Aside from his own experimental films, he has given an amazing amount of time and energy to many young filmmakers serving as both technical and creative support. Sokolowski is pretty much unknown to the animation scene primarily because his work combines live-action and animation, which is apparently horrifying to the puritan animation festivals.

Sokolowski's first four films were entirely animated. While still a student at the University of Ottawa, he made his first film, Seraphim (1980), a simply drawn short about a snake chasing the sun. "I made it in Super 8 and then blindly applied for a grant to re-shoot it in 16mm and the Ontario Arts Council gave me a grant. When I went to Crawley's to get it shot, I found out the actual costs! They were incredibly nice to me, the animation cameraman [Ron Haines] gave me a great rate and the production guru [Paul Harris] sat me down and taught me all about post-production. It was that freedom of information that really made me like the film industry. I found people were always willing to share knowledge."

Following Seraphim, Sokolowski made Revolution and Picture Frame (both made in 1984). Both films are reminiscent of animator Rene Jodoin in their examination of the movement and perception of geometric shapes. After completing his fourth animation film, Photosynthesis (1987), Sokolowski grew tired of animation. "I think I got really tired of the process, hours and hours of planning and drawing for minutes of satisfaction."

During this period, Sokolowski travelled across Canada and became interested in the country's varied and striking landscapes. "I was amazed at the variety of images that we have in Canada, so I became a little more interested in photography and cinematography. I drifted away from animation a little but I think I always used the same process for creating the films; once I had footage I would draw each shot and then order them for a paper edit, so I was in effect, taking those photos and animating them in a way." Aside from Still Life (1992), Sokolowski has continued to mix animation and live-action in his explorations of the Canadian landscape.

The mixed method has caused reception problems for Sokolowski, especially in animation where he has been almost totally ignored by international animation festivals (even Ottawa). "The artists thought I was a filmmaker," says Sokolowski, "the filmmakers thought I was an animator and the animators just thought I was bad! People seem to need to pigeonhole things, even within filmmaking. You're either experimental or dramatic or documentary, or if you're an animator you're cel or clay or oil. If you mix things up people seem to get confused and unsettled in a way. It's too bad. I think animation festivals sometimes look too much at the craft and not enough at the ability of the medium to express. A great animation film has the same aesthetics as a great film, but it seems to get lost in discussions about technique and 'how long it took'!"

Sokolowski's most recent film, (winter)time (2001) is getting more attention from the animation community (including an upcoming screening at the Zagreb Animation Festival). Rooted in the abstract jazz films of Norman McLaren, Sokolowski interprets a version of George Gershwin's Summertime (called winter time) using seven styles of animation. "I had always liked the sense of freedom in McLaren's Begone Dull Care, but thought if I just did animation to jazz it wouldn't really be anything new. I heard the jazz piece (winter)time by the Peter Togni Trio and it really caught my attention; mostly as a totally different take on a tune that has been done to death. Their description of it as opening with a trudge through a slushy street in Toronto really hit upon me that they had made a truly Canadian piece out of a really southern American classic. I thought that I could do my Begone Dull Care to this music." Amazingly, the film took six days to shoot and three days to edit.


Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is also the editor of the semi-annual ASIFA Magazine.

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