‘Frame by Frame’ brings seven animated visions to Little Tokyo on Sept. 25

Sept. 17, 2010 | 10:56 a.m.
“Cross-pollination” seems to be the buzzword over at Cal Arts.  This spirit of interactivity comes to life Sept. 25 with a one-night animation showcase, “Frame by Frame,” at the Japanese American National Museum, downtown in Little Tokyo. The program, produced entirely by students and recent grads, will bring together three different approaches to animation from the departments of experimental animation, character animation and graphic design.  In fact, lead artist Daryn Wakasa, who sparked the idea for “Frame by Frame”  (co-produced by theater major Jackie Banks-Mahlum), was a graphic design student, though he took multiple classes in film directing and character animation while there. His six-minute animated short called “A Lost Generation”  explores life in a Japanese American internment camp and is shot through with angsty bits about identity, American pop culture and the aspirations of fame. The other shorts are ecelectic —  a cat’s struggle to find love and an animated haiku of the seasons among them — and the filmmakers are just as diverse with a mix of  Korean, Bulgarian, American and Japanese-Jewish artists.  Deborah Vankin snagged Wakasa for a brief chat about everything from cultural identity and the quest for pop stardom to what, exactly, “experimental” animation even means these days.

DV: What does experimental animation mean when  everything seems new and experimental in the arts world?
The Lost Generation

The Lost Generation by Daryn Wakasa

DW: Experimental is an unfair and outdated term.  Art, music, food — anything creative — doesn’t fit neatly within categories anymore.  Electronica jazz, hip-hop… everything is a mix of something else; we live in the “remix” era.  But stereotypically speaking, “experimental animation” refers to nontraditional animation techniques and nontraditional narratives, with traditional being anything Disney– or Pixar-related (in my opinion).  “Frame by Frame,” however, takes experimental animation and character animation one step further because we introduce the graphic designer into the mix.

DV: Tell us about your film.

DW: It’s basically critiquing the effects that the Japanese American internment camps have on contemporary Japanese Americans.  It’s a story about the struggles that Hayumi Ito and her granddaughter, Sakura, have to endure. It’s also trying to wake up my generation (fourth-generation Japanese Americans) because we are privileged to be where we are. My grandparents’ sole purpose was to make sure that they gave their children and grandchildren a life worth living. The struggles that I have to endure on a daily basis is nothing compared to what my grandparents went through.  I also feel that my generation, me included, is very naive about our cultural and familial roots.

The Real McCoy

"The Real McCoy" by Eliza Ivanova

DV: What graphic style were you going for?


DW: Hayumi’s story (the grandmother) takes place in the 1940s when the American government placed the Japanese Americans in internment camps.  Her world is stylized by hand, and takes formal inspiration from Japanese woodblocks.  So there appears to be a much more traditional, flatter world.  If you look at the shape of the clouds within Hayumi’s world, they actually mimic Japanese woodblock clouds as well as military camouflage. Hayumi’s conflict is coming from external oppressors, so you always see a tangible world. There is a horizon line, a landscape, trees, clouds, etc. Sakura’s world (the granddaughter),  is a result of her internal psyche.  She’s struggling with her cultural background because she wants to be a pop star.   So there’s an internal clash between the Japanese culture (represented by her name) and the American culture (represented by her quest for stardom).  This contemporary, pop-culture world that she lives in drives the style — so we see a more “commercial, motion graphics” vernacular that was made digitally with different After Effects animation techniques. There are a lot more dynamic movements and camera moves because she’s an unstable person.  The animation styles between both characters mimic the emotional stability of each character.

DV: What’s the connection between American pop cultural fame  and life in a Japanese American internment camp?

"On My Way.”

"On My Way,” by Misty Marsden


DW:  The Japanese internment camps diluted our culture a lot quicker than if we would have progressed “naturally.”  As a result, we are very naive about our cultural and familial roots. To this day, I have great uncles who will not talk about that time in their lives because it is too painful to think about. Now in my opinion, if you look at the Asian American community, there is a huge wave of creative talent who are trying to achieve American pop culture fame because we are all tired of seeing the same stereotypes of Asian Americans within media.

DV: Back to “Frame by Frame”: the showcase combines three programs from Cal Arts.  How is each field or discipline unique?

DW: Character animation is Disney/Pixar.  Experimental animation is non-Disney/Pixar animation techniques and story structure (think David Lynch with psychedelic hippie experimental filmmaking techniques).  Graphic design is not normally associated with storytelling but the beauty of graphic design is its use of typography.  Using words, stylizing the words and mixing that with metaphors and symbolic imagery… what a powerful communication tool.  Now add sound and motion and what do you get? You get three layers of powerful communication.  Or if talking about commercials and music videos: powerful brainwashing.  Like I said earlier, though … there is a point where none of these definitions hold up.

DV: What are some of the other films about?

DW: “On My Way,” by Misty Marsden, is a very traditional, cel-animated, Disney-looking, happy film.  “When the Time is Ripe,” by Shion Takeuchi, is the same but in stop motion.   “The Real McCoy,” by Eliza Ivanova,  is more linear but uses unconventional image-making to tell the story.  It’s about the battle between two boxers, the David and the Goliath.   “Going Home,” by Dae In Chung, is a nonlinear story and a slightly psychedelic animation style.   “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” by Ariel Hart, gives a panoramic view of a single, crowded bar on a single night. It’s a very nonlinear story, it has an ambiguous protagonist and it moves in a very psychedelic, non-Disney way.   “Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,” by Stephen Lee, is based on haikus and only uses typography to communicate the poetic narrative.

DV: The tag on the “Frame by Frame” Web page says: “Side by side, they are the same, yet different.”  What did you mean?

DW: Side by side all seven films look the same.  They are all animation films. But when you analyze each film, you can tell that they differ drastically based on the cultural perspective of the director and then, more importantly, based on the field of study. This also relates to animation: no two frames are the same because they progress in time. Just like no two seconds in life are the same.

— Deborah Vankin


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