Keeping an eye on animation

By Brianna Wellen

A dark theater hushed as audience members filed into the back, willing to stand against the wall to get a glimpse of the films about to be shown. With eyes wide and fixed on the screen, these viewers weren’t waiting for a movie star. Amid flashes of color, abstract animated creatures wobbled on and off screen to a round of applause.

To provide an outlet for avant-garde animators across the country, Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carre started Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation, which premiered on Nov. 6. at Depaul University’s Depaul Center, 247 S. State St. Through a day of showing old and new shorts and a constant animation loop, Eyeworks brought together a new format of animation display to Chicago.

After attending film festivals across the country, Stewart and Carre discovered the under-appreciation of work dealing with experimental techniques, surreal character sketches and abstract animation. But by bringing a little insight from each experimental film festival Stewart and Carre attended, they developed a concept of their own.

“What we were really interested in was sort of in between,” Stewart said. “[We looked for] things that had interesting visual design, creative approaches to the techniques, people that were being really inventive about how animation could be thought of as an art form.”

With the two of them running it with no financial help, things became hectic, Stewart said. With the help of in-kind sponsors, they got the word out to crowds beyond the animation circles who would be interested in attending.

The name of the festival is a nod to an animation icon Ub Iwerks, who was a Walt Disney partner and created characters such as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Creating a pun from the last name, Eyeworks emerged implying the shorts being shown would give viewers’ eyes a workout.

It was important for Stewart to incorporate classic animation and show similarities in technique and imagery by comparing the old shorts to the new ones. While some newer pieces weren’t directly influenced by animators such as Adam Beckett and Robert Breer, according to Stewart the similarities make people realize these ideas have been around for a while and are still exciting today. Many of the classic shorts are hard to come by for modern animators because they are available on 16 mm reels instead of video, and even harder for a general audience to see.

“Even when they first came out they were so hard to see,” said Jim Trainor, a Chicago-based animator who now teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was featured in Eyeworks. “I saw many of those movies when they came out and I was a teenager. I was very interested in animation and I was trying to see everything I could. This was a little bit of a nostalgic afternoon for me because I saw them at such a formidable age.”

Though the new shorts featured veteran animators like Trainor, the festival also gave recent graduates like Kyle Sullivan the chance to put their work in front of a real audience and network with working professionals. Sullivan, a graduate of DePaul University, showed his senior capstone piece as part of the festival.

“This is my first festival,” Sullivan said. “I’ve only had my stuff screened in classrooms before, so it’s cool people actually came out to see my work.”

According to Trainor, the concept of sitting down in a dark theater and watching animation, as was done with the main screenings at Eyeworks, is a different technique than that used at other festivals.

The advent of technology and the Internet typically turns festivals into online ordeals. That or multiple screenings are shown on a loop around a room and festivalgoers can watch them as they please. Stewart and Carre didn’t completely dismiss these techniques. Along with screenings, an animation loop featuring experimental work by six animators continuously played in the lobby throughout the day.

Stewart and Carre are working on changes for next year. More help for 2011 will allow them to spread out screenings and have a festival spanning a weekend instead of one day. This year’s festival also reached outside of the animation world to graphic designers and filmmakers. In the future, Stewart hopes to get more people interested in unique work. Even with these changes in mind, he said Eyeworks’ trial run was a success.

“It was really satisfying for me to sit and watch the whole program and see all these connections come out I hadn’t even thought about,” Stewart said. “Animation is pretty intense to watch.”