Oct. 3, 2001 – A St. Thomas couple who had worked for nearly two years to produce an international animated film festival planned for December in the Virgin Islands announced Monday that because of after-effects of the terrorist attacks on the mainland, they have decided to delay the event for a year.
"Due to the events on Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, D.C., and the rash of cancellations for travel worldwide," Ann and Rob West said, the festival, which had been scheduled for Dec. 3-8, "has been postponed until December 2002." Specific dates have yet to be determined, "pending consultation with festival sponsors" and local hoteliers.
The festival was to have been headquartered at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort. Events were scheduled for Pistarkle Theater in Tillett Gardens, the Westin Resort on St. John and an unspecified venue on St. Croix.
Monday's decision reversed one the Wests had announced on Sept. 21 — that the festival would "go on as planned despite tourism woes and projected cancellations by U.S. and European travelers." In announcing that decision, the couple had said that "even if cancellation of travel plans by judges and guests alters the original format of the festival … an abbreviated version of the original plan will definitely take place."
On Sept. 21, the Wests said they were "determined to do their part in defying the terrorists' desire to deprive Americans of their freedoms."
At that time, they noted that while there were 30 programs scheduled for the festival — from locales including Canada, England, Israel, Japan, Korea, Poland and the United States — only five were competition films. "Without an international panel of judges, the ASIFA guidelines for competition cannot be met," they said. "In this case, a postponement of the competition may be in order." ASIFA is the French acronym for the International Animators Association.
In Monday's announcement, the Wests said they were reluctant to postpone the event because of their belief in "the need for Americans to get back to normal," but "major sponsorship withdrawal and the reluctance of most Americans to get back in the air" prompted the decision. They added that, having "put too much time and effort into the project to let it die," they would be "heading stateside to rally the big sponsors for next year's event."
Rob West, festival director, said, "After allowing for a time of healing, we believe people will embrace this event with even more enthusiasm. The Virgin Islands is a perfect venue for a promotion such as this, and we are optimistic for next year's success."
The final format of the festival was still being worked out as of the Sept. 21 announcement, with a list of events to have been released "in early November." Promised were "fabulous films from 1900 to the most current creations by filmmakers from near and far, young and old, experienced and novice."
Earlier publicity said the festival competition would be of short subject animation (under 30 minutes) with prize money of $50,000 to be awarded by a jury of internationally recognized animated film experts. Other features included retrospectives of great animated films and showings from a local children's workshop as well as from one held in France.
As of early Wednesday, the USVI International Animated Film Festival web site had not been updated to reflect the postponement.
Rob West has been a producer of the New York Animated Film Festival, now in its 30th year, and has served on the New York board of ASIFA. In 1987 he founded Animators of the World, a company that markets animation artwork. Annie West, his wife, a graphic artist, is the festival administrator.
The Wests said they conceived and developed the festival as a format "about opening the eyes of the world to the Virgin Islands as a cultural destination and opening the eyes of the Islanders to a new art form."
Student workshops were held as scheduled
The week before the terrorist attacks, the first of two sets of long-planned children's animated film workshops were taking place at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School on St. Thomas. The week of the attacks — which occurred on a Tuesday — the second set of workshops got under way.
Workshop presenter David Ehrlich had come to the territory from Dartmouth College, where he is a visiting professor of film studies, and in the days immediately following Sept. 11, there was no way to fly back to the mainland. So the workshops proceeded as planned.
According to BCB art teacher Phebe Schwartz, who was instrumental in organizing the school project, what happened on Sept. 11 "didn't really affect what was going on in the workshops." While "it affected the adults' emotional level," she added, "those of us who are teachers could set that aside and be there for the students during class time."
Ehrlich, who for 23 years has taught animation workshops to thousands of children, was brought to St. Thomas by the Wests to work with local youngsters to produce animated films that would be shown as a special part of the December festival.
His credentials as a filmmaker include having created the first animated hologram ever shown at world-renowned festivals in Annecy, France, and Zagreb, Yugoslavia. His award-winning abstract films are held in the collections of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the International Animation Library in Tokyo and the ASIFA Archive in Berlin. One of his animation collaborations won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. He has served on the ASIFA executive board since 1988, for six years as vice president.
Schwartz said she and the Wests had begun discussing the workshop idea "about a year ago, and I was really interested in getting my kids involved." Initial plans were to include students from various schools, but the logistics proved too complex, so they settled on BCB as the target audience as well as the venue and secured the necessary administrative approval.
Ehrlich held two sessions a day for a week, each about an hour and a half to two hours in length, with about 20 students in each, then repeated the process with different students the following week.
"I worked with the other art teacher and a sixth grade teacher and set it up," Schwartz said. "The first week, we had a combined class of my basic art and advanced art, then the second group was the sixth grade class. The second week, we used the two basic art classes from the other teacher. It meant some rearranging of student schedules, but Mr. Farrow [BCB Principal Carver Farrow] and I had told the whole faculty about it at the first meeting of the year, so everyone knew this would be happening."
Flipbooks tell stories, teach serial thinking
The students created "flipbooks" — 3" by 5" or 5" by 8" pads of white paper. They drew in black pen and filled in small parts with colored pencil, producing enough pictures to create a video 5 to 10 seconds in length. There are 24 frames per second, so it would take a book of 120 pages to make a 5-second video.
"We'll end up with about 80 short animation films, which will be grouped by class," Schwartz said. "Each group started with something — like maybe a circle — which evolved and morphed into something else, like a face, an animal, whatever. Then it changed and morphed some more."
As background sound for the video that Ehrlich will produce from the flipbooks, "We're going to have student-produced music," Schwartz said, "like the BCB choir or band or steelband playing 'The Virgin Islands March.'"
Each year, ASIFA produces a children's animation video to be shown at its annual conference. Ehrlich hand-picked a group of promising BCB
students from the workshop sessions and worked with them separately, above and beyond their own flipbooks, to create a "Moon Project" video for ASIFA. "It's a legend about a mermaid who appears only at the full moon, and how to capture her," Schwartz said. "One incredibly talented student was selected as director, another is art director." She said Ehrlich "got them set up, they check in with me daily, and they're going mostly on their own to complete this. We'll send it all to David, and he's doing the actual filming."
The non-art teacher involved, Brian McLernan, said that at the start of their workshop, many students in his sixth grade integrated-studies class "believed they couldn't do animation. Four days later, they all believe they can do it, because they have done it. When you empower kids, great things happen."
The degree of engagement "kind of depended on the kids," Schwartz said, "with the advanced art class being about a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10." In her opinion, "It was a great workshop, and everyone — including and especially me — got a lot out of it. It's also ongoing in my advanced class. Plus some kids have made flipbooks on their own at home, and bring them in to me."
Schwartz said she hopes to travel to St. Croix to train some teachers there in how to do animation "so the project can expand a lot beyond our small group at school." She said Ehrlich also did a session with the School of Visual Arts and Careers enrichment program at the Fort Christian Museum, where she is the director, "and of course, those kids just took off with it and are completing marathons of flipbooks."
Academically speaking, she said, Ehrlich "teaches 'serial cognition,' which is just a fancy way of saying thinking of series and sequences and what comes next, but is a very important cognitive skill. We don't usually look at art as a way of teaching cognitive skills, but it's a very effective medium for doing so."
Video to be produced, program set for BCB
The children's workshops, Annie West said afterward, were "about sharing the dream of success — in our case through animation — with our youth. Although many of the children are talented artists, the children's workshop was not about drawing. It was about opening the minds of those kids at the Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School to recognize their abilities. To achieve a goal by putting their creativity to work, attacking the task, and seeing with pride the positive result of their labor empowered them.
"The next time they attempt a task with which they are unfamiliar and whose outcome appears tentative, they are likely to remember the simple flipbook they created and their success. Planting that seed of self-confidence is ample reward for the year and a half we have devoted to this project."
Sponsors were solicited to adopt the projects of the individual students for $100. Those on board were Bolongo Bay Beach Club and Villas, Caribbean Auto Mart, Best Western Resorts, Diamonds International, El Dorado, Hard Rock Café, S&R Telecommunications, Touch of Gold, Joan Fricke, Dr. and Mrs. Larry Goldman and Dr. Donald Pomeranz.
Annie West said she and her husband will sponsor participants who are not spoken for by others in the community. Anyone interested in sponsoring a child's project can contact her at 714-3319 for more information.
In Monday's announcement, the Wests said a children's workshop video is being produced as planned, and that they intend to make it available along with some other children's animation programs to BCB for a special, free program at the school, since the festival won't be held this year.