Breckenridge Film Fest: Howard Cook talks animation

Howard Cook is an assistant professor and director for the Digital Animation Center at CU Denver, as well as a board member of the Breckenridge Film Festival.
Courtesy Howard Cook |

Editor’s note: Howard Cook is an assistant professor and director for the Digital Animation Center at CU Denver, as well as a board member of the Breckenridge Film Festival. The Summit Daily took some time to talk to him about animation, a new category in 2015, before the film festival this weekend. Cook will represent animation at a forum on Friday, Sept. 18, called Alternatives in Filmmaking. He will join Michelle Carpenter and Craig Volk to discuss other areas of filmmaking the general public doesn’t really think about — such as motion and title graphics, gaming cinematics, the future of virtual reality and webisodes. The forum will be held in the Hopefull Room/Discovery Room, 103 South Harris St. in the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center and South Branch Library.

Summit Daily: Why do you feel like animation is an important category to add to the film festival this year?

Howard Cook: Overall animation is an important genre within filmmaking at large, and it has been for quite awhile. It’s been snubbed for a long time, but now it’s in the Academy Awards; some animated features are even competing against live action films for best picture. It’s a tremendously important art form; it has been for a hundred years or so. I think any film festival that doesn’t carry animation — of course, I’m a little bit biased — is selling themselves short. There’s a lot of really strong, good work out there.

SDN: When did animation for adults start being popular in the U.S.? Is this the first time it’s really been popular? Had it risen before and then fallen, and now is rising again?

It’s always about story, story, story. You can be the best animator in the world but if you don’t have a good story, your animations are going to blow.

HC: No, it became popular with “Snow White.” “Snow White” came out in 1937; it was pretty popular. That was the whole thing with Disney: He created an animated film that moved people to tears, and, when that first premiered, it literally brought the house down; no one had seen anything like it. And then, when “Pinocchio” came out right after it, that was seen as an even bigger leap in filmmaking, and critics hailed it as rivaling anything that was out there. I think animation has had a place in everybody’s heart — not just from cartoons like “Sponge Bob” but all the way through works like “Avatar,” that’s an animated film. What most people don’t realize is how much animation is entrenched in even live-action filmmaking. In fact, parts of “Lincoln” were animated, using CG techniques and sets. The term animation is sort of a catchall for the art form of CG or computer graphics. I struggle with that in my roles as an educator. We call ourselves at CU Denver the Digital Animation Center, but we teach much more than just animation; so we have to look at it as a catchall for visual effects, everything from explosions to making stunt doubles to making new sets. Think of “Lord of the Rings,” (the character) Gollum, and the sets that they use — all of that is encapsulated in the bigger term animation.

SDN: How would you describe the “identity” of American animation? Where do its influences come from?

HC: When you talk about any genre in filmmaking, you can say, ‘Well, what were the influences there?’ The influences come worldwide, and that’s the case even in the United States. However, if you really boil it down, it stretches back to the original Disney films, and Disney was a huge influence on the art form of animation, and he was someone (who) took it to that next level and saw it as an art form and not just as cartoons. Now, of course, some of the biggest names in animation are American-based studios — Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, BlueSky — all of these have huge influences on the genre itself outside of the United States. … I don’t think we have anything as unique as anime in Japan, which has that particular style, but we do have a style of high-quality, solid storytelling, and that’s really the bottom line … I think one of the key characteristics of American animation is solid storytelling. That’s really true of Disney and Pixar both, all of the big studios. When you take a kid to a Disney movie, you can be as engaged as an adult as they are. These studios know it’s in their best interest to do that.

SDN: What are the strengths of animated films for adults? Is it mostly a nostalgic factor? Why do adults like them?

HC: They like them because they are good stories — they’re engaging. It’s always about story, story, story. You can be the best animator in the world, but, if you don’t have a good story, your animations are going to blow. … You see just as many or more live action movies fail because of a lack of storytelling. They may have good actors, they may have good cinematographers or directors, but, if they don’t have a good story, they are going to fail. That’s the same case with animation.

There’s a whole generation of adults who have grown up with computers in their lives — and with gaming in their lives — that also contributes heavily to the success and proliferation of the genre itself. Ten years ago, you were lucky if you got out one or two animated films out a year; and now, there’s like 40 or more and still surviving and making money.

The gaming part about of it, too — that’s another big influence and another big area of animation that people may consider, may not consider, but it is a part of the genre. It has its roots in animated storytelling in animated effects and computer graphics.

SDN: For sure, we now have movies that turn into games and games that turn into movies.

HC: That’s exactly right, and that is becoming more and more prolific; there’s a real interest in making these games be story-driven — even if they are user-driven, they are still story-driven, and, if they’re not, people don’t like them.

SDN: With all the history America has had with animation, where do you see animation going in the future?

HC: Sooner than later, we will be starting to delve into virtual-reality animation; it will probably start in a place where you put on a headset, like an Oculus, and watch your movie in there and live inside of the movie. I think that’s going to be the next step, is the idea of more than just being the fourth wall in the film but literally being a fly in the scene. I think that VR, and some of the new virtual reality tools that I saw at Siggraph this year are mind-blowing, really very realistic, we’re talking Tony Stark kind of stuff … And you are going to be able to start watching movies along those lines. For movie-makers like myself, there’s a big challenge there; this is a challenge I’ve been thinking about for a long time since I started working in domed environments and creating films for domed environments. When you allow the viewer to look around anywhere, what does that mean for the filmmaker? You no longer have the confines of the screen to frame your film and to compose your film, and so this is a really interesting academic and theoretical endeavor to figure out. Well, how do you tell a story now when one viewer can look forward and one viewer can look backwards and up? What does that mean for storytelling? And that’s going to be the case for virtual reality you wear on your head or virtual reality in theaters or dome theaters, and I see all of that coming. I think, too, that’s going to be that’s kind of where that idea of traditional filmmaking and gaming starts to collide.

SDN: What will be the focus of your presentation on Friday?

HC: We will talk about those kinds of things — the other areas of filmmaking that the general public doesn’t really think about. For the panel, it’s going to be motion and title graphics, the kind of filmmaking work you see at the front end of the movie or the back end of the movie that are used for advertising, or web-based promotion. Then, we will talk about gaming cinematics and virtual reality, and what’s that next thing coming — and also the idea of webisodics. One of the things we teach in our film program is this idea of you don’t have to create an episodic TV show that lives on television; you now have the Web that you can distribute that on. And what does that mean for filmmakers, given the kind of equipment they can get their hands on for relatively cheap? You don’t have to be a huge studio anymore to be able to produce a high-quality television show.

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