MSMFF Festival Keynotes Reviewed by Alexandra

Listening to the keynote speakers at the 2015 Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival (Festival du Film de Stop Motion de Montréal) was an incredible experience due to the passion of filmmakers to share their behind-the scenes struggles and inventive approaches to the magical art form of stop-motion animation. This year, organizer and “puppet power” man Érik Goulet arranged for special keynote presentations by stop-motion artist PES, Cordell Barker (director of Oscar-nominated animation “The Cat Came Back”), the crew of the upcoming feature film “The Little Prince” (Le Petit Prince) and lead animator Laurie Sitzia from Aardman Animations. Through these keynote addresses, the mandate of the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival was fulfilled:  to promote, present, bring together and stimulate the community.

Stop-motion artist PES co-hosted the opening of this festival and showed behind-the-scenes footage of several of his animated short films, including “Fresh Guacamole”, “Submarine Sandwich”, and “Paper”, a new commercial project for Honda that narrates the history of the company.  It was fascinating to see how he used 3D software and 3D printing to help with planning and executing stop motion animation.  For example, the light bulb shown during the first minute of “Fresh Guacamole” was shot using replacement animation, substituting semi-cut 3D prints of the light bulb. PES also used 3D animation to design and plan the dynamic sequences in “Paper”.

The presentation about Cordell Barker’s new animated short “If I was God...”, produced by the NFB, impressed me due to the sense of community and appreciation expressed by the crew members for each other’s contribution to this project. It started with the showing of the English version of this film (that caused quite a bit of humor in the audience due to it’s spot-on timing and gags), and then Érik called up all crew members to discuss the filming process. Cordell Barker spoke about directing and storyboarding a stereo 3D puppet film, then Laurent Cannicionni of “Jako Lanterne” spoke about puppet-making, and finally, animators Dell Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé from “See Creatures” spoke about set design, special effects and animation. It was a great learning experience to see how meticulous Cordell Barker was in communicating his ideas and designs through various means (storyboards, modeling in MAYA, composited footage) so that they would be translated properly into his first stop-motion film and how much effort was placed by all of the crew to meet, if not surpass, the expectations (even when it came to animating the stop-motion rain). The presentation ended with another run through of “If I was God...” in French. This film won the super-competitive Professional category. Following in the footsteps of this film, it would be exciting to see more independent stop-motion films form new connections between traditional expectations of this medium and the aesthetic of stereoscopic 3D or interactive technology.

The last two keynote speeches started with... huge lineups. And a 30-minute delay. But for good reasons: the presenters (the crew of “The Little Prince” and animator Laurie Sitzia) brought many items that were revealed with great aplomb at the end of the presentations.  While walking into the keynote presentation for “The Little Prince” I couldn't help noticing the small pile of various paper samples used in backgrounds and sets, and the two huge posters hiding something on the right side table located in front of the projection screen. The audience was shown a short (exclusive) teaser clip from the not-yet-released “The Little Prince” feature film that showed a bit of the exposition and the transitions between CGI and stop-motion scenes. After the clip, different representatives of crew departments talked about the challenges of developing the aesthetic, technical and narrative aspects for this project. I couldn’t help but appreciate the various tricks and creative approaches that the crew would use to store and animate this material, particularly in creating the illusion of wind blowing through of grass that involved a combination of rigging the grass with wire (to create S-curves) and gently brushing the blades into place. And I loved how in “The Little Prince” the materiality of paper that was used for clothing patterns and sets was not only a symbol of fragility and reverence for Saint-Exupéry's masterpiece; its properties were also used to represent the main character’s (Little Girl’s) imagination undergoing the transformation from flatness into an atmospheric and tactile 3D space as she gets to know the Aviator’s story. The presentation on “The Little Prince” felt very special and personal, particularly in its praise for the work of the Montreal stop-motion community. It ended with a long pilgrimage towards the front table to get a close look at the puppets.

On the last day of the festival, animator Laurie Sitzia's presentation was greeted with much excitement because many members of the audience were well acquainted with the “Shaun the Sheep” animation series and were ecstatic to see the physical puppets. This keynote address gave good insight into the differences between working on a television series and working on a feature film with previously developed characters like Shaun. I particularly enjoyed a short clip that captured a voice-recording session of John Sparkes, who voiced “The Farmer” in this film. At the end of Laurie Sitza’s talk, there was a draw for a signed concept drawing of baby Shaun, received by one super-lucky fan.

I would recommend that both animators and animation enthusiasts attend this festival next year, because I’m sure that there will be something both inspiring and eye-opening for everyone. If you can afford it, I would even recommend getting the VIP pass. Why? Firstly, because the pass badge is stylish, boasting an awesome-looking hexagonal 3D printed bangle of the festival logo. Secondly, it pays for itself if you’re planning to attend all of the screenings. And last but hardly least, the VIP pass makes networking much easier: you never know what connections you may be able to form with this friendly, awesome, and artistic crowd.

I plan to attend the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival in 2016, and hope that you will too.