San Francisco International Animation Showcase

Johnny Ray Huston October 12, 2006

If you were fishing, you really wouldn’t want to catch the monster from Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” — a gargantuan weird mutant tadpole with more lips than legs — at the end of your line. But if you’re fishing for a current example of imaginative and unconventional animation, a rare screening of Bong’s great thriller, which has broken box office records in South Korea and won raves in Cannes, is quite a coup.

The San Francisco Film Society‘s programming associate Sean Uyehara has managed to pull off just such a feat in putting together the opening night program for the first annual San Francisco International Animation Showcase, which takes place Thursday through Sunday this week at SFMOMA‘s Phyllis Wattis Theater. The showcase’s one-time-only screening of “The Host,” months before its U.S. theatrical release, is also fitting because the movie has visual effects by San Francisco’s The Orphanage at its very heart.

There’s an enjoyable irony to the fact that “The Host’s” monster, generated by American environmental abuse in the movie’s plotline, has been brought to life by a U.S.-based visual effects company. At the opening night screening, VFX Producer Arin Finger and Creature Supervisor Corey Rosen from The Orphanage will be on hand to discuss and demonstrate some of the movie’s effects. “The creature was designed in South Korea [by Jang Hee-chul] and the guys at The Orphanage reinterpreted it,” Uyehara explains. “What they do is take drawings and visualizations of whatever it is they’re going to animate and put it through processes. They get the structure down and create what are called turntables so you can see [the creature] from any angle in three dimensions. They also do what’s called rigging, which is when they give whatever it is that they’re animating joints. There are lots of places where [the creature] bends and moves in different ways. Once they have that down, in a sense it animates itself.” (Editor’s note: SF360 Live at the Apple Store features a discussion with “The Host’s creature and animation supervisors, Corey Rosen and Webster Colcord, Sat., Oct. 21, at the Powell Street location.)

“The Host” — which Uyehara concisely and accurately praises as “funny and melodramatic and strange and scary” — is only the first part of an impressive SF International Animation Showcase program. In conjunction with SFMOMA’s semi-annual family day, there will be a rare Sunday noon matinee screening of 1999’s “The Iron Giant,” the comparatively low-key and retro-tinged first film by “Incredibles” director Brad Bird. It might not be overstatement to say that “The Iron Giant” is an instant cult classic. (I remember accompanying a babysitting acquaintance and her 5-year-old charge to a near-empty screening of the movie on its opening weekend. We were enthralled by the movie’s flying scenes, which are as moving as the ones in “E.T.”)

“Warner Bros. [the film’s studio] wanted to enter the fray with animation, but didn’t understand what they had,” says Uyehara, when the film’s initial fate is mentioned. “I just did an interview with guys from Pixar who worked on ‘The Iron Giant.’ I hesitated to ask if it was a bittersweet experience. They said, ‘Yes.’ They felt that they had a made a classic film and it didn’t have an audience. These guys really do work on film as a craft. Most of them are visual artists — they draw or paint or sculpt. Their work has a frame by frame aspect.”

In putting together programs devoted to animation, Uyehara set out to avoid the all-too-common current assumption that CGI and/or digital animation are the only forms worth exploring. “I’ve always wanted an eclectic program,” he says. “From the outset, I’ve wanted to include CGI, but also hybrid live action digital effects. They can show where animation is currently, and in some ways they’re more interesting because of what’s hidden and what’s not hidden [in the process]. For example, The Orphanage will show digitally matted aspects of the set [from “The Host”]. That’s not animation, because it doesn’t involve movement, but it’s interesting.”

With this eclecticism in mind, a pair of anthology shorts programs explore realms, such as nonfiction animation (one example being the Norman McLaren-inspired “McLaren’s Negatives”). “The Kids Are Alright” (Sat/14, 1 p.m.) features work by a number of Student Academy and Student Emmy Award winners, including Shane Acker’s rag doll tale “9,” which is soon to be expanded into a longer movie produced by Tim Burton for Focus Features. “International Panorama” (Sat/14, 3:30 p.m.) includes work from Canada, England, France, Iran, and Japan. One of the program’s two U.S. representatives is L.A.-based Kelly Sears, whose short movies, such as the hilarious “Crucial Crystal,” won a swarm of local fans (including this writer) when curator Darin Klein included them in a New Langton Arts program last year.

“Kelly’s doing this fine art type of work, but it’s not really following a tradition you can pinpoint right away,” Uyehara says. “It feels museum-like, not in a bad sense, but because it expands the boundaries of a visual medium. We’re showing her short Devil’s Canyon. It’s fantastic; it really stands out as being of a different style. It’s about this town called Devil’s Canyon that builds cars. Then, instead of building cars, they decide to build horses — until one guy ruins the venture.”