Jennifer Chandler, a 26-year-old blonde with a cherry tattoo on her left shoulder, tries to make fire the old-fashioned way. Laboring at the Studio Outpost in East Atlanta Village on a Sunday afternoon, she's not rubbing two sticks together but trying to render a burst of flame as part of a six-second animated film.
As a freelance animator, Chandler normally works on computers, but at the moment she leans over a "multi-plane," a crooked-looking frame of unpainted wood about the size of a TV tray. Within the frame are bits of red, orange, and yellow felt that resemble tongues of fire. She takes a picture with the digital camera mounted above, makes a barely perceptible adjustment to the felt, takes another picture, adjusts it further, and so on.
"I've never done stop-motion animation before," says Chandler, who works in a law firm by day and pursues animation jobs in her off-hours. "You have to keep in your head everything about the way the picture is going to look. I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out the lighting, so I've been winging it." The film's raw materials, including bits of felt, Elmer's glue, cutout raindrops, and duct tape, cover a nearby tabletop.
Chandler learns the old-school method as part of the 12 n' 12 24-Hour Animation Challenge, a creative competition sponsored by ASIFA-Atlanta, the local chapter of the "Association Internationale du Film d'Animation," or the International Animated Film Association. The global group promotes the art of animation in all its forms — from bits of clay to collections of computer pixels — through screenings, classes, workshops, and events like the 12 n' 12 Challenge.
Established in 1995, ASIFA Atlanta has 32 members, most of whom are professional animators, background artists, designers, and motion-graphics techies, as well as freelancers, students, and animation enthusiasts. "I began thinking of animation as a career after watching the first episode of 'Metalocalypse' in college," says Chandler, referring to the heavy-metal satire from the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network. "I joined ASIFA because they provide opportunities for animators to connect, and also promote local animators through screenings."
Allyssa Lewis, vice president of ASIFA's Atlanta chapter, works as an after-effects animator at Floyd County Productions, the creators of the FX spy comedy "Archer." "Other ASIFA groups are doing 24-hour challenges, but that's really intense. I'm not sure Atlanta's ready for that," Lewis says. Consequently, ASIFA split the competition into two days, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on Nov. 12 and 13, so its teams of animators could get a little shut-eye.
ASIFA opened the challenge to students and interested amateurs in addition to members and professional animators. To emulate real-world experience as much as possible, the teams discovered on Saturday morning that they must make six-second intros and outros for short YouTube clips about the Planeteer Movement, an environmental-minded grassroots group that spun off from the 1980s "Captain Planet" cartoon.
For the first step, the five animation teams — based at Studio Outpost, SCAD Atlanta, and other area locations — don't even do any animation: They brainstorm and pitch their ideas to a representative from the Planeteer Movement. As the aspiring animators sketch hasty storyboards, the vibe resembles a reality show built around design competitions.
Chandler's teammate Albert Lebron, a tall, soft-spoken art major at Georgia State, finds ASIFA's challenge to be a kind of baptism of fire. "I came here thinking, 'I'll just let someone take me under their wing.' I've always drawn, but I don't have as much [animation] experience as the other two. I've never pitched anything before. It's been pretty intense so far."
The winning team will be announced and screened on Dec. 10 as part of ASIFA's Best Animated Shorts 2011 program at the High Museum. Fatimah Abdullah, president of ASIFA-Atlanta and an ad agency project manager, says, "Screenings are probably what we do the most of, because we're able to get new animation from ASIFA chapters. We have a constant stream of new animation every year."
Between the 2 p.m. show for families and the more adult-oriented 8 p.m. program, Best Animated Shorts 2011 features two films from Portugal, two from Brazil, and 10 from Australia, including this year's Oscar-winning short, Shaun Tan's "The Lost Thing." In addition to the 12 n' 12 winners, the program features four other films from Atlanta: the SCAD Atlanta group project "Jaguar McGuire"; Monica Ellis' "An Untitled Film About Flying"; Staci Gibson's "The Fabulous Biker Boys: The Bicycle Grief"; and the John Ryan & Dagnabit! short "Dine With the Dead," an infectiously upbeat, 90-second spot that combines Western iconography and rollicking skeletons that could stand on its own, but also serves as an advertisement for Bone Garden Cantina.
Where most popular animation you see at the cineplex or on cable channels tends to be sleek to the point of sterility, ASIFA's selections tend to be less sophisticated but more scruffy and personal. The fluid, intuitive flow of one image to the next evokes the looseness of improvised jazz.
Back at the Studio Outpost, where ASIFA has rented space since September, other team members brush up their animation on laptop computers. Chandler has made progress on her team's six-second outro, which needs to include the Planeteer slogan "The Power is Yours" and evoke an eco-friendly message.
"I'm animating all the elements. I have two seconds of animation so far, and I'm already on my third element," Chandler explains, working her way through felt representations of earth, fire, air, water, and concluding with a heart for love. For Chandler and the other 12 n' 12 participants, ASIFA has provided some animation experience that proved, quite literally, hands-on.