animated film

McMinnville Short Film Festival: Good things in small packages

The 10-day festival starts this week, bringing 127 films, none longer than 20 minutes, to the comfort of your home, including a free block of films for kids

The 10th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival, which launches 10 days of streaming cinema Thursday, is one of the few big-tent cultural events in Yamhill County that managed to skirt COVID in 2020 and has emerged in an arguably stronger position for 2021.

True, we will not have an opportunity to press the flesh with talented Oregon filmmakers such as Derek Sitter, whose film Tutu Grande we unpacked here a couple of weeks ago. Nor will it be possible to experience the spectacular visuals of films such as the animated My Generation or the two performed-underwater films, Lacrimosa and Casiopea, on a big screen, where they deserve to be seen. In a theater, GraceLand’s exhilarating climax might have produced a joyous communal moment like the audience rising to clap along at the end of Love, Actually. My vote would be to bring it back in 2022 to see what happens.

Ludovic Houplain’s 2019 animated film, "My Generation," is an eight-minute drive down a freeway where the scenery is a glitzy panorama of capitalism, finance, surveillance, sports, politics, religion, and mindless entertainment.
Ludovic Houplain’s 2019 animated film, “My Generation,” is an eight-minute drive down a freeway where the scenery is a glitzy panorama of capitalism, finance, surveillance, sports, politics, religion, and mindless entertainment.

What is happening is potentially fortuitous synchronicity. The festival has (this year, anyway) gone virtual at the precise moment that the movie-loving public is fully and necessarily on board with streaming movies at home. Given the timing, the festival (unlike the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which had to cancel last year’s event and then scrambled to throw a virtual fest together) had a whole year to plan. From a marketing standpoint, it represents a unique opportunity. Instead of attracting a few hundred people, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, to see movies in McMinnville for a weekend, the festival can put 127 films from around the world (and its own name and brand) on a global stage for 10 days. Dan Morrow, who founded the event with his wife, Nancy, said a test run last fall with a streaming platform showed that it would work and, more importantly, that movie fans would buy tickets.

“Biting off 127 films, that’s way more than we’ve ever done before” Morrow said. “We did 85 films last year, and that was a very full three days of screenings down at the theater, and so this year we don’t have that time constraint.”

Eyeballing my notes from watching everything, I’d say half of this year’s crop of narrative films (excluding the documentaries, in other words) represent exceptional and occasionally superior artistry and storytelling. Two-thirds of the rest are competent, enjoyable films made with varying degrees of talent and professionalism. The balance (mercifully a minority and spread evenly throughout the program) comprises more obviously amateurish work, although even there, one finds sincere efforts to create something meaningful. For example, I didn’t particularly care for the home movie-ish Februarium!! in the “Experimental/A Bit Strange” category, which tells the true story of a “holiday” created to honor the filmmaker’s deceased friend. But for weeks after seeing it, I found myself thinking about the issues it raises about the healing power of art, the relation between art and memory, and the social-construct qualities of virtually any holiday.

The festival has grouped films into genre-specific collections of six to 15 films. The films themselves run anywhere from three to 20 minutes, and each screening block (most of which are unlocked for a three- to four-day viewing window) runs about 80 to 90 minutes. Each block is $10, with discounts for purchases of three or more; an all-access pass costs $85, which is less than you’d spend on dinner for two and a two-hour movie preceded by 15 minutes of annoying trailers. That highlights another advantage of the virtual festival: It’s nearly 20 hours of film content, and no trailers with sound dialed up to 11. 

In “GraceLand,” a 10-year-old girl, played by Katie Beth West, believes she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley.

The 127 films include 37 from around Oregon, more than 20 from the Los Angeles area, and 18 from a dozen countries outside the U.S., including Taiwan, France, Chile, India, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Brazil, and Italy. Along with the documentary, environmental, and Native American cinema I wrote about last week, there’s drama/comedy, experimental/a bit strange, animation, and suspense/horror and sci-fi. Three categories — locals, student films, and a children’s block — are available free all 10 days. Also, because so many people are Zooming from home, participation in pre-taped filmmaker Q&A sessions hit a record high. More than 90 of the people who have entries in this year’s festival appear at the end of each screening block in a panel discussion. The opening-night welcome will be livestreamed for free at 5 p.m. Thursday here, and awards will be presented live on Feb. 28.

The thing that struck me about this year’s collection is how so many of the films speak to and echo others and explore similar themes across the categories. There are plenty of ways one could do this, of course, but I’ll stick to half a dozen categories of my own. Plus, a few of my personal favorites. (On the registration pages for many of these films, a free trailer is available.)

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Joanna Priestley: Discovering where the magic is

The Portland filmmaker, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, calls animation a “fascinating combination of art and science”

Joanna Priestley’s animated film, “Jung & Restless,” was scheduled to premiere this weekend at the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City, but fell victim to the COVID-19 outbreak when the showing was canceled. Priestley, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis, promises she will eventually make it happen. We talked with her about her work as an animator.

Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards.  Photo by: Tim Sugden
Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards. Photo by: Tim Sugden

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Priestley: I was born in Portland, a third-generation Oregonian. I spent some time away, but I always come back to Oregon because Oregon is the best. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, got my undergraduate from Berkeley, and in my 30s, went back to get a masters at the California Institute of the Arts. That’s the school Walt Disney founded.

Did you go to school knowing you were going to be a filmmaker?

I always really, really loved films. I watched everything I could. In high school, I connected to the Multnomah library system and they had a fabulous collection of animated films.

How did you discover it?

My teacher showed them in school. That’s where I was first exposed to animation as an art form.

I’m guessing animation has changed by leaps and bounds since?

It has and it hasn’t. It’s changed technically. People have much more sophisticated technology and techniques of creating animation. But the basic way you create animation is the same. It was invented in late 1880s. It’s been refined, but still, the basic idea is the same.

What is the basic idea?

The basic idea is you study and learn how movement is created. Animation is this really fascinating combination of art and science. You have to understand both. If you look at sports, for example, you see loads of interesting movement. Like in boxing, there’s a preparatory action where you pull your arm back and clench your fist and then you push your fist and arm forward and slam into something, and then there’s a reaction where your hand snaps back a little bit. As you study that motion you can begin to understand how to break it down into individual drawings — or sculpture, if you are doing stop-motion animation.

A forest of hands is among the stream-of-consciousness images in Joanna Priestley’s new film, “Jung & Restless.”

That seems like it would take so many, many drawings.

You just decide how many drawings a second you are going to do to create your motion. You use 12 drawings a second, or 24 a second, if you are a Disney studio. I use 12 drawings a second. Some use eight drawings a second, some, in what we call limited animation, use four. You decide at the beginning what you are going to use. So then, you just go about calculating how far to move things with the drawings. If you’re using stop-motion animation with puppets or sculpture, you have to figure out how far to move the puppet or sculpture. And that’s where the magic is.

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