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Still from In the Shadow of the Pines by Anne Koizumi.

Coming soon: The Ottawa International Animation Festival—09.23.20 to 10.04.20

By Barbara Popel on September 16, 2020

It’s almost the most wonderful time of the year! No, not Christmas—this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) starts on Wednesday, September 23.

Since 1976, Ottawa has hosted the OIAF, one of the largest and most prestigious animation festivals in the world. How large? This year, there were 1,950 submitted films from 84 countries, which the festival’s heroic Artistic Director Chris Robinson winnowed down to 157 films. These range from 30-second trailers to 100-minute feature films. There are even some virtual reality films. Plus, there are four retrospectives, interviews with filmmakers, and events for kids and youth.

Like so much these days, everything is online this year, but as Robinson told Apt613, that means they’re able to stretch the festival out from a five-day event to 12 days.

There are other advantages to the OIAF going online. Robinson pointed out that they have the opportunity to reach people all over the world who haven’t attended in the past. Robinson could also interview almost every director whose work is in the Short Competition, rather than just those who could come to Ottawa. And because the programs will be available on demand after their initial screening, there will be less pressure for the audience to juggle viewing times according to the screening schedule. Whether you want to watch a particular film at 3am or with your morning coffee, go right ahead! The feature films, retrospective programs, and panorama programs will be available on demand during the entire festival. The short film competitions will be available at scheduled times, but if you miss them, they’ll be back on demand October 3–4. Check the OIAF’s schedule for details.

“What makes us different from a lot of the animation festivals is we show everything together: student films, the narratives, commercials, music videos… Let’s say there’s a heavy 10-minute Austrian abstract film. I can put in a 30-second commercial to give you a little smile before going onto the next film,” Robinson said.

Still from Undone by Hisko Hulsing.

When asked what a first-timer to the festival should see, Robinson strongly recommended starting with one of the eight short competition programs or two young audience competitions (Shorts for 6-12 and Shorts for Preschool). Why start with the short films? “For people whose idea of animation was Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, you should throw that right out the window. There might be some of that here, but that’s not really our priority. I always tell people to start with the short competition because you’re going to see totally different styles (in the seven or eight films in any short competition). You’ll see music videos, commercials, abstract films, non-narrative films, narrative films, all sorts of animation styles mixed in. So you might not like everything, but your odds of finding something that resonates with you are more likely than if you just pick one of the feature animations.”

Then, sample the feature films competition. There are six features in competition this year.

I asked Robinson how he curates each short competition, and his answer was surprising. While many festival programmers group films thematically, (e.g., nature films, coming-of-age dramas), Robinson groups films as if he was making a mix tape: He listens to the music played at the beginning and end of each film, and sequences the films accordingly.

Still from Doghead by Momo Takenoshita.

Then there are the panorama programs.  “Quite often, audiences find that that they like the panorama programs better than the competition,” Robinson said. The Canadian Panorama contains 16 short films, while the World Panorama has 12 films from countries such as Estonia, Russia, Iran, Spain, and of course the USA. The World Student Panorama has 12 films from countries such as the Czech Republic, Taiwan, Poland, and France. Quite a smorgasbord.

Speaking of smorgasbords, one of this year’s four retrospectives celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Norwegian animation company Mikrofilm. The company has a Canadian connection: Two films (the Oscar winner “The Danish Poet” and the Oscar-nominated film “Me and My Moulton”) were directed by Oscar-winning Norwegian-born Canadian animator Torill Kove and jointly produced by the NFB.

Two other retrospectives celebrate Canadian animators: Métis stop-motion animator Terril Calder and multi-disciplinary artist Emily Pelstring. Calder’s films tackle difficult issues, including residential schools. Pelstring’s films blend “freshness and a nostalgic aesthetic.”

Rounding out the retrospectives is a tribute to Estonia’s first animator, Elbert Tuganov, who made 38 internationally acclaimed puppet films by the time he retired in 1982. Tuganov also established studios all over the former Soviet Union and held workshops for children.

Still from Mosley by Kirby Atkins.

One of the special aspects of every year’s OIAF is the programming for kids and teens, and this year is no exception. There are 10 short films for kids up to 5 years old, 10 for kids 6 to 12, and links to seven of the films in the Mikrofilm retrospective. One of the films in the feature competition, “Mosley,” is suitable for young folks as well. OIAF recruits kids to be on the jury for the Shorts for 6-12 and Shorts for Preschool Competitions. After all, who better to judge films for kids than kids?

Apt613 made a wonderful discovery while exploring the OIAF’s old website. Years ago, Robinson put together a terrific bilingual guide to animation, which you can find here. It outlines animation’s history, highlights key moments in Canadian animation, and has a very useful glossary of terms, rounded out with some great websites to learn about animation.

So pencil this in: The 2020 Ottawa International Animation Festival runs from Wednesday September 23 to Sunday October 4. Various types of passes, including student passes, are on sale now. Individual tickets  go on sale September 14. You can also sign up to receive email updates from the OIAF.