The Animation Show Brings the Funny

The animated short film is coming back in a big way. Both major studios and scrappy independents are cranking them out and getting them into theaters. With studios like Sony Pictures and Warner Bros., it’s simply a matter of attaching them to the front of their latest big-screen release. The little guys, on the other hand, have to rely on the festival circuit and traveling road shows like Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation.

Over the years, Spike & Mike has introduced animation fans to the likes of Mike Judge, creator of Beavis & Butt-Head and King of the Hill, and Don Hertzfeldt, the underground animator responsible for the Oscar-nominated short Rejected and the brutally funny Billy’s Balloon. Now Judge and Hertzfeldt are hitting the road with their own animation festival, dubbed simply The Animation Show.

A number of the shorts on the program have been making the festival circuit for a while and are fairly familiar to animation junkies. These include the Oscar-nominated films Mt. Head by Atama Yama; Das Rad (The Rocks) by Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, and Heidi Wittlinger; The Cathedral by Tomek Baginski; and Fifty Percent Gray by Ruairi Robinson. But what really makes The Animation Show worth the price of admission is the work of the festival’s two organizers and programmers.

Hertzfeldt and Judge were present at last weekend’s preview of The Animation Show at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Following the program, they discussed their involvement with the show and fielded questions from the appreciative audience.

Judge recalls that the idea of starting a new festival was sparked by seeing people lined up around the block to see screenings that Hertzfeld and fellow indie animator Bill Plympton were putting on in his home town of Austin, Texas. If these films could draw crowds night after night, Judge thought, surly there must be a larger audience out there hungry for off-beat animation.

With his longish, brown hair falling down over his eyes, Hertzfeldt looks like one of Judge’s young, suburban cartoon slackers. Judge himself looks about how you’d expect a former engineer to look, minus the short-sleeve oxford and pocket protector. Despite differences in appearance, Judge and Hertzfeldt are obviously kindred spirits. In addition to a common love for low-tech, simplistic animation, the two come off as being highly intelligent, unshakably humble and somewhat shy.

“We shared a disappointment in the state of the animated short in America,” Hertzfeldt says of their fateful meeting and resolve to get more animated shorts into more theaters than any other festival.

Judge notes that getting submissions was the easy part. “There aren’t many people making short films that aren’t commercial, so it wasn’t hard finding stuff.” The duo will be continually seeking to acquire animated works for the show. “We guarantee to get your short more exposure and more cash than anyone else,” Hertzfeldt declares with a big grin.

For the opener, intermission and closer, Hertzfeldt created new animation in the style of his side-splitting Rejected, which employs mostly stick figures to present a series of promos pitched to fictional TV outlet The Family Learning Channel. The film’s prologue explains that The Family Learning Channel rejected each and every piece, for reasons that become hilariously obvious as the film rolls.

Hertzfeldt explains the inspiration behind Rejected: “After Billy’s Balloon, I got bonafide offers to do interstitials. I would never consider doing commercial work, but I thought it would be funny to turn in some really f***ed up stuff and see what kind of response it would get.” The animator instead invented The Family Learning Channel and promoted it with absurd scenarios like a stick man holding a huge spoon over a tiny bowl of cereal. “My spoon is too big,” the man plaintively repeats until a banana walks into the frame and declares, “I am a banana.” Then the channel’s logo comes up with the announcement, “You are watching The Family Learning Channel.”

The irony is that Rejected was really rejected by Cartoon Network a few years ago. The cable outlet was interested in showing the work during its late night animation block, Adult Swim. “48 hours before it was supposed to air, it got yanked,” Hertzfeldt laments. “Apparently, someone in a position of power at Turner didn’t think it was funny.”

Judge also throws a bit of his own work into the mix in the form of early pencil tests and other experiments. The collection of never-before-seen character animation is a real treat for fans of Judge’s comic sensibilities and distinctive drawing style. Also included is the very rare early short film Huh? and the first of the Office Space animated shorts which aired on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and inspired the superb live-action feature film of the same name.

Judge comments that The Animation Show is a great outlet for sharing such quirky little animations made primarily for fun. “If I want to animate something like the guy doing the sissy dance, someone here in Hollywood goes ‘Where do you want to take it? Do you want to go to Fox with it?’ And I’m like, ‘no, I just want to do 10 seconds of some guy [slapping his rear end].”

For lovers of classic cartoons, The Animation Show offers the 1957 Ward Kimball-directed Disney short Mars and Beyond. This beautifully animated and highly imaginative film explores the many forms that life might take on Mars should conditions become more hospitable. Explaining the decision to add it to the program, Judge admits, “I just wanted to see it on the big screen.”

The Animation Show will officially begin its run at Lincoln Center in New York City on Sept. 4 with Judge and Hertzfeldt in attendance. The duo will also be present at the Sept. 12 show at the Castro in San Francisco, the Sept. 25 show at the Seattle Art Museum, and the Sept. 26 show at Cinema 21 in Portland, Ore. To see additional tour dates and a complete program of films, visit www.theanimationshow.com.