Eyeworks Animation Festival Doesn't Sit Still In Its Fourth Year

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 6, 2013 10:30PM

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Now in its fourth year, the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation is of one of our favorite film events. We mistook the ambition of last year's festival, with four programs held at the Chicago Cultural Center and DePaul University, as an indication that this thing was just going to get bigger and bigger but festival directors Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carré set us straight: they are only interested in getting better.

This year, they've fashioned a leaner, one-day program for the festival this Saturday. After that they'll take their more focused show to Richmond, Virginia and then Brooklyn.

The full line-up for the festival is online but don't fear if you don't recognize anything as that's kind of the point. The strength of this festival is in the curatorial prowess of Carré and Stewart who reliably assemble magical programs from the newest territories and the most overlooked corners of the animation universe. Like a pair of DJs sorting through a crate of gems for just the right set of rare grooves that you've never heard but can't resist, Stewart (a filmmaker and animation teacher) and Carré (an artist and illustrator) have done all the work. We just show up and enjoy programs chock full of mind-melding, imagination-firing, crush-inducing new favorite things.

We spoke with the two festival directors about their brainchild in their West Town studio.

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Photo of Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carré via the MCA
Chicagoist: It seems like you've been doing more events outside of the annual festival.

Lilli Carré: Just when we get asked, especially in connection to alternative comics festivals. It seems like they're interested in reaching out to have a little bit of animation and other sorts of programming. To people who are interested in alternative comics, animation treads a lot of similar territory. That's how we got to do the screening in Helsinki recently and in New York the past couple of years.

Alexander Stewart: It's not necessarily a field that people who are doing comics know a lot about, but when they see it they're like "Oh yeah this is basically the same kind of stuff I'm interested in."

LC: These things are usually made by a single person, starting from a blank sheet of paper and sort of drawing the entire world from that, and it's usually somewhat narrative and somewhat abstracted. Both involve a huge amount of labor and solitude, and I think the same process manifests in both. There are a lot of graphic shorthand and symbols that are used by both comics and animation. It's interesting to see how that's used in a grid or on a page versus moving on a screen at 24 frames per second.

C: The process of making animation is daunting, and there's so many opportunities for something to change between having your initial vision during the laborious process of creating and photographing 12 drawings per second, so much that could go wrong.

AS: There's so much animation that's made by large groups of people, and there's a reason for that. To deliver a quantity of animation, like a series or a larger story, is almost a task that one person just can't do. So there's a reason that you frequently start with storyboarding this, and then before we start working on the animation, we start looking at the detail stuff, we figure out exactly where we're going at every step. And that's fine, I'm not arguing with that as being a logically correct way to create animation, but we're not really interested in that with the festival. We're interested in people who take the bigger challenge of the production, of coming up with the concept, coming up with a style or a technique, coming up with a method of doing it, figuring out how the sound works, and delivering it as a final piece. Every part along the way is a place for experimentation or individual personality to be present in the work.

C: When you're looking for things, what is it that appeals to you most?

LC: I really can't put into words or define how we choose that stuff other than we both have to be 100% on it. We think about exposure to work that doesn't fit neatly into experimental film festivals or more narrative animation, that feels very much caught in between those two. Also thinking about defining experimental animation within this very small festival and how we can include a fair amount of work that pushes the edges of how we think about that, through different methods of stop motion, hand drawn work, time-lapse, and things like that, using it in more unusual ways.

AS: Sometimes we'll see a film and it's just like "Well obviously we're gonna show that this year." It's really satisfying when you see a film from the seventies that so perfectly into what we are into, and know that we're showing it. But also when you see a new short student film they've just finished and it's not too slick, it's not too rough, the person knows what they're doing technically but they're also pushing themselves. The idea is really unexpected. The graphic style is really challenging or really satisfying in a weird way. There are these areas we go to, but in general, we pretty much just know.

LC: It's just kind of like a vibe. Eyeworks vibe. We try and make a pretty even split between classic work that we want to include and put in the context of newer pieces that are being made currently or within the past decade or so.

2013_11_05_eyeworks2.jpg C: Why did you decide that curating in-person screenings in a festival format was a good way to share that, as opposed to assembling clips on a website or some other format?

LC: It's a completely different experience to see things in a theater put in context with each other, seeing Michaela Pavlátová's film Words, Words, Words next to a student film being made in Chicago this year, getting these specific sets of curated programs that you are enveloped by in the theater and watching with other people. We encounter a lot of work online, but there is a tendency, especially with animation and in more experimental work, to skip through it. There's something nice about carving out a space for work that doesn't really have another main way to encounter it other than the internet.

AS: It can be kind of demanding work, and visually there's a lot of things going on. For me, a theater is the ideal place to see it. Sometimes my mind just wanders for 7 minutes and I rally like that feeling. I like sometimes not feeling an obligation to pay attention to very frame, and sometimes that every frame of the film has got me hooked and I'm just there with it. I love going to see movies. There's something about it that puts the work in the best possible context, the feeling of being in a room full of people all watching the same thing as you.

LC: And there's something interesting about all these pieces that someone spent so much time on, hunkered over a light table, and to see it this huge space projected large in a dark room filled with people. It feels like this very intimate moment thats's being shared with audience members.

AS: And this year we're doing it at a smaller theater than we've done it in the past, at the Nightingale, which is like 50 people max. The last couple of years we did it at the cultural center, which is around 200 people and DePaul, which is around 150. Having done enough screenings outside of Chicago, we found there's something great about just having a smaller room. There is this feeling that you are excited because everyone else is excited, and you felt lucky to be there. Also we switched back to a one day event. The first year we did it in one day and the last two years have been two days. We wanted to return to the idea we were initially inspired by: Just sit down, give me a day, and we'll show you a bunch of stuff that will inspire you. And I think that hopefully that's back where we are this year.

LC: And to not get burned out on it too. We want to just show works that we really love and not just try to fill up space or anything, just keep it very manageable, and be excited about everything.

C: How does the process of constructing a program of screenings from the individual pieces work?

LC: We keep a list, and kind of re-arrange the titles and think about things we definitely want. Like I really wanted Words Words Words in this year's program. Right after last year's festival last year I was like okay next year I really want this in there. So we have this one piece, what else kind of goes with that and what else speaks to this film and that film, it builds like that.

AS: For a long time I've done a screening series at Roots and Culture gallery here in town, and Lilli and I have both worked on curatorial projects in the past. After a while you learn to just trust your instinct and know that you've done it enough times. You don't want a program where everything is all the same. You don't want to have one program that's all the abstract animation and one that's all the character animation. You want to mix it together. You learn the value of variation and what works together, of having a change to keep people somewhat refreshed. Then after a while you start to realize that even when you do that you are still getting these amazing connections.

LC: At the cultural center screening, fairly late in the game we found out that we couldn't show any work that was in any way adult themed, had nudity or language that wouldn't be appropriate for kids. So we had to re-arrange that program. It became one with a lot of abstract works and music-inspired pieces and then we had a program that was specifically adult-themed, and that's where we all those pieces went that were a little more adult-oriented in some way. That was interesting to lose that control of how things were chosen to sit with each other at the last minute.

AS: More than once it has happened that someone comes to the festival with a younger kid and says "This is great for kids right? It's cartoons!" And we're like "I think so.... Oh no, there's a boob in that one!" We learned our lesson, and now we're very open about advertising it in a way that says this is suitable for all ages or this is an adult program.

C: What are you particularly excited about this year?

AS: There's a piece in particular that's interesting that's called 1984, Music for Modern Americans that's by this guy named Eduardo Paolozzi. He's a pretty well-known artist from the UK, a Scottish guy, he made all these really beautiful collages and drawings and things and then had all these students at the Royal College of Art in London animate it, Emma Calder, Susan Young and Isabelle Perrichon. I saw this online and it's amazing. Such a strange film, I've never seen anything like it. Another older film that's really cool is called Cubic Limit by Manfred Mohr, who made this film in the seventies as part of a series of experiments with computers to do permutations in a really structural way. It's kind of like Sol Lewitt It has that same logic of "what are all the possible combinations of these two cubes." It's a very minimal animation, but I think it's really elegant. I'm excited to show that. One more classic film I'm excited to show this year is called Tanka, a film by David LeBrun. It's all shots of images from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, beautiful illustrated texts animated in these rhythmic, cyclical ways. It's totally difficult to describe but when you see it you're like "whatever this is, I like it."

LC: Every year we work with Sonnenzimmer on a poster. They have become a big part of the festival, creating this visual every year that can be animated in some way and becomes the "festival trailer." That's always an exciting part of the festival. They always surprise us with what they end up doing, and the one they just made has these glow in the dark shapes. One thing that's important to us, in addition to having it in a physical space and on a certain date, is creating this paper trail of ephemera, having these posters that have the artists' names on them just as a way of keeping these artists in context. We know that certain people have seen the posters who weren't at certain festivals have researched all the artists on the posters, and I think it's an important artifact of the festival. These will be at the festival.

AS: Ten bucks is a steal for Sonnenzimmer posters, which are such beautifully crafted objects. We also have the festival full pass, where if you come to all three programs it's $30, and we'll give you a poster too for free.

C: 2013 seems like such a strong time for animation. You have lots of people being employed by studios on big budget films of course, but also lots of shorts, tons of stuff on the internet, television channels devoted to animation, and lots of people of all ages enjoying it. Do you think this is another golden age of animation right now?

AS: Definitely. I've heard that phrase used by several people, independently of each other. There's just so much being made, and if you're into certain things, you can dig so much more deeply into anime or 3D features or Adult Swim or whatever it is you're interested in. We run this festival out of pocket and we recoup our investment through ticket sales. We're skittish on expanding it to be too big because we want to make sure it's something we are doing ourselves. Primarily the reason is we just want to be accountable to our own taste. It's not something that we're trying to parlay into a bigger commercial venture. There's something that is really satisfying about doing a project where you're not justifying any of it except to what it is that you really love about it. We both do animation creatively but neither of us is like a studio animator in a traditional professional way.

LC: It's really exciting to have people come out and just have no idea that that kind of work is being made. We like people who come in on a whim or think it's going to be something else entirely. A lot of people at the cultural Center went because at the Cultural Center. Just seeing people's excitement at finding out this kind of work is being made and especially by single individuals is pretty exciting.

The 2013 Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation happens this Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Nightingale Cinema, 1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.. Admission to each of the three programs is $10, with a $30 full-festival pass getting you a free poster. Advance ticket sales are available online, and given the limited number available, we recommend getting yours immediately.