“Skylight” – a witty, entertaining and profound mock animated documentary about the ecological plight of penguins
By Laurie Smith
The scratchy, flickering film noisily displays the frozen tundra of the Antarctic as the dry drone of a sleep-inducing narrator describes the behavior of the penguin and the harsh habitat in which they live. The audience has no idea what they are about to see, when one of the googly-eyed birds breaks away from the colony, innocently waddling toward an odd beam of sunlight breaking through the gloomy Antarctic sky. A loud boom jolts viewers into an upright position as the penguin explodes into a roast turkey. What? Film Director Dave Baas shared that the Skylight project stemmed from a one-panel Far Side-like cartoon that he created.
Animation short film Skylight recently won IndiFEST Film Awards and screened at the Phoenix Film Festival to a full house and laughter that continued through the credits.
Animation has the ability to express things you can’t normally express with live action, said avid film buff and Phoenix Film Festival volunteer Jill Edelman. The filmmaker really sent a message about the dangers of global warming, and did it in such a humorous way that I think more people will pay attention to it than say, if it were a public service announcement.
Filmmaker David Baas, making his directorial debut with Skylight, currently serves as Animation Department Head at Starz Animation in Toronto, Canada. He is in charge of animation resources, training and quality for all projects. Starz Animation produces feature film animation, most recently for executive producer Tim Burton.
Along with several other upcoming projects, Baas and Starz has a feature, Gnomeo and Juliet, yep, you guessed it, the characters are animated garden gnomes. The film is a longtime passion project of none other than Sir Elton John.
It was around the time the hole in the ozone layer was discovered. The original caption read, the penguins cautious and wary, although a few happened to accidentally wander under the hole in the ozone layer.’ In the visual there’s nothing there but a roasted turkey carcass, Baas laughed.
Scott Storm, producer of Official Rejection, a film documenting the struggles of making an independent film, that had its world premier at Phoenix last year, said of Skylight, “I wanted to see animated shorts because I did animation for Official Rejection, and I’m always interested in seeing what people are doing now. Everyone seems to be gravitating toward 3D; Skylight was an interesting style because they made it look like an old movie. It would flicker, and come in and out of focus. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it at first, but I enjoyed it. It was goofy, but presented the dangers of global warming in a very humorous way”.
Q: So what’s up with the flickering and dry narration?
A: People of my generation, who went to grade school in the 60s or 70s, saw a lot of really outdated documentaries, educational films that were made a decade or two before. The quality was always terrible. They were dry, full-blown documentaries.
Skylight is a mock animated documentary about the ecological plight of penguins in the Antarctic, possibly foretelling cataclysmic results for the rest of the world.
Q: When you created the original cartoon twenty years ago, did you know what you wanted to do with the gag?
Besides figuring out what the ending was going to be, I always knew what I wanted as far as the look goes.
With comedy you have to have some kind of wrap up. The ending we came up with is so absurd; it seemed to fit. The intent starts out realistic looking, you really have no idea what you’re about to see. You see this goofy looking penguin with googly eyes. We decided to make sure that with each passing moment, it just gets dumber and dumber and dumber and dumber. [Laughing]
Baas, armed with a degree in classical animation from Sheridan College in Canada, like many fresh graduates, found a job waiting tables. However, perseverance paid off.
Q: How did things progress from you career as a waiter?
A: I got a job as a sound editor on Saturday morning cartoons, then, did some work in software development as an artist. I also worked in the States for a while doing television. I even did an amusement park ride film. A friend of mine, Chris Landreth, called me and asked me to work with him on an animated biography of another animator, Ryan Larkin. We were working with the National Film Board of Canada; sort of an arts endowment agency that supports a lot of independent filmmaking.
The film, Ryan, won an Oscar for best short film, animated in 2005. Winning the Oscar, that was a big moment for all of us. I was teaching at Seneca College in Canada at the time; I had the respect of my students for about two weeks afterward.
Baas was also a lead animator and consultant at Alias|Wavefront during the development of Maya, which is now the standard 3-D software animation package used worldwide.
Q: Back to Skylight, how does it feel receiving all these awards from the IndieFEST, the Accolade and other well-known film festivals?
A: Well, it feels pretty good! When you spend so long nursing a project, you completely lose your objectivity. You can’t tell if it’s funny anymore, or if anyone else thinks it’s funny. When you get the final DVD in your hand, you wonder if anyone else is going to want to watch this except for me, on my television, in my basement. I worked on a couple of high profile pieces before, but never one that was my own, so when I got into the very first festival, I thought, “Wow, somebody else thinks it’s worthy to be shown to other people, that’s fantastic.’ And as it built up momentum, people think it’s worthwhile and competitive.
Last year, when the film was finished, I thought I’ll just start putting it in the mail, I’ll submit to festivals, people will look at the film, they’ll decide whether or not they want it in their festival. Some did; some didn’t. I’m finding that now that it’s out there and getting recognition and awards, and playing at some of the bigger festivals, film festivals are getting in touch with me, asking for a copy, saying they want to consider it for their festival. You become a commodity. It’s very validating.
It’s also great to see your film with other work, to see if your stuff measures up in terms of creativity and professionalism.
That’s what you want, for people to see it, and to like it, and to go on and see it again. Because God knows, there’s no money to be made in the short film circuit.
Q: So, I must ask, then why do a short film?
A: It’s a tricky thing. Short films are much more accessible now. People ask, where can I see it, meaning can I look it up on the Internet, YouTube or something like that.
The Internet is a great thing for making things available, but some things are made for seeing in a theater, on a big screen, with good sound fidelity. It’s a disservice to watch it that small. In terms of short filmmaking it’s easier than getting a feature made, and it’s a good way to get started as a filmmaker/director.
Mostly, I think that people are making a picture that they want to see, and that’s why I made Skylight; I wanted to see it.
Q: Advice to the up-and-coming animators?
A: Most important is to have grounding. There’s no substitute for drawing, painting, sculpture, setting a real tactile feeling for what you’re doing. I’ve worked with a lot of high-level artists at Disney, DreamWorks, etc., all of them have a traditional art school background.
Baas commented that opportunities are endless in the animation field, noting incredible films like Avatar, But I still look forward to watching the new South Park,’ he said. Everything is animated today. Take a look at the latest operating system on the Macintosh or something like that; all the icons are animated. Someone had to sit there and figure out how that stuff is going to work, and how it’s appealing to the eye, and how it’s usable. Everything is moving now, every medium, on your phone, on your computer, much less in movies or on television. Whether it’s graphic design for entertainment, or for everyday use, there’s more animation today than ever before.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add regarding Skylight?
A: I would really like to express thanks to Judy Gladstone and Bravo! Fact; a foundation to assist Canadian talent. I shared my work four years ago; they gave me a generous grant to complete the film. I couldn’t have done it without their support.
Skylight played in the ‘Oscar-nominated Short Films 2012’ program theatrically all over the U.S. While not a nominee, the program directors have deemed Skylight a “highly commended short” and have elected to play it this esteemed company. In addition to the Accolade and the IndieFEST – it has also taken home awards in 50 film festivals.
More information: http://www.skylight-short.com/index.html