What To Read: Animation Obsessive is showcasing animation around the world

This week, we interviewed the team behind Animation Obsessive, a small collective of writers exploring their love for animation.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Animation Obsessive is a weekly guide to the wide world of animation, new and old, from all around the globe.

What is unique about animated storytelling?

Animation has this special power to make imagination real. Look at the fantastical world that Studio Ghibli conjures in Spirited Away – an entire mythology springs to life. A film like Loving Vincent turns the art of Vincent van Gogh into a lucid dream. The CGI you get in every major Hollywood movie? That's a form of animation, too.

There was a time when people saw the Disney style, or the Saturday morning cartoon style, as the full breadth of the medium. You don't often hear that anymore. Disney is great, but it's just one piece of a larger puzzle. Animation may be the most versatile storytelling form we have. And storytellers within animation keep finding new ways to express the human experience. It's hard not to be excited.

You write that there has never been more animation available than there is today. How do you keep up with these trends?

It's a huge, ongoing challenge for us. There's an animation boom happening worldwide right now, and the pandemic only sped it up because animation pipelines adapted so easily to remote work. You see amazing stuff coming out of countries like South Africa, Ireland, and India. China's growth is unbelievable. So, we watch filmmakers on social media, read global news, follow film festivals, and more.

At the same time, the history of animation stretches back to the 19th century. We're fascinated by what the past can teach us, and that requires study, as well as a few rare books. We had a knowledge base even before we joined Substack, but we're always learning.

You've written about the great animators of the last century, both well-known creators like Yuri Norstein of Russia and folks who should be better known like Tee Collins of the U.S. How do you select animators to write about?

Story is a big draw for us. Animation is so technical that it's fertile ground for gatekeeping, but we’re not just writing for experts. Our newsletter is aimed at anyone with an interest in the medium. We look for hooks that let us write in a succinct and compelling way about people. A great, human story is always accessible.

And not every great story is well known. For example, Tee Collins led an incredible life. He reached generations of kids with his Sesame Street cartoons. It's inspiring, and even most insiders don't know about his story. Famous artists like Yuri Norstein can be trickier, because you need an entry point for the newcomers and a fresh angle for the experts. That's one reason we haven't covered Chuck Jones yet!

What have you learned by revisiting historic animations?

By studying animation, you're studying people. Like all art, animation never emerges from a vacuum. It's entangled in culture, in aesthetics, in economics, in politics, in what the world was, and how people looked at it.

We often talk behind the scenes about a piece from the late 1980s called Feeling from Mountain and Water. It's a Chinese film about an ancient guqin master who trains a young boy, done in the style of ink-wash painting. A beautiful work, but it freezes you in your tracks when you know that its director had been imprisoned and tortured during the Cultural Revolution. The film's look and story quietly protest Mao's war against the old – old people, old wisdom, old culture. When you scratch the surface, you learn that animation is rarely just a flight of fancy.

What's one animation that everyone should see, but hasn't?

There are so many! A recent one is The Physics of Sorrow by Theodore Ushev. It's about a Bulgarian man's interlocking memories, woven around lost love, the Cold War, Greek mythology, and more. Ushev made it with encaustic painting, or hot wax. You can viscerally feel him wrestle with the medium to form each image, and then it disintegrates, just like the narrator's train of thought. If it all sounds a bit heavy, you're not wrong. Still, once you start it, you will be riveted.  

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

Lately, we've been reading The Line Between by Coleen Baik. She's a New York animator who tells these calming, meditative stories about her life and craft. Even if you're a total outsider to animation, it is accessible. For example, check out her recent newsletter on the style of her film Chamoe. She's one of the few other animation writers on Substack right now, so we're wishing her the best.

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