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Three upcoming events stretch animation's possibilities


Despite practically a hundred years of evidence to the contrary, animation is still burdened with a reputation for being "kids' stuff," simple cartoons meant to keep children occupied and out of their parents' hair for a couple hours. But anyone who has bothered to broaden their definition beyond the latest mainstream release from Disney or Dreamworks knows animation has infinitely more to offer (although as one documentary suggests, even those films can have hidden depths).

Over the next week, three local events demonstrate the wide-ranging versatility of the medium. No matter where your interest in animation sits, one of these events should have you covered.

Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind's best-selling 2014 book, "Life, Animated" is a captivating and emotional documentary about mental health, family bonds, and the role of pop culture in our lives. Winner of a directing prize at Sundance, the film chronicles the experiences of Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, as they raise their son, Owen, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

Owen's symptoms began with a loss of the ability to speak, and after years of being unable to communicate with their son, Cornelia and Ron were shocked to discover that Owen was using the Disney animated films he fixated on as a lens to makes sense of the world around him. With this key into his mind, they began to use the dialogue from those films to have conversations with their son for the first time.

Now 23, Owen is graduating from a special-needs high school and facing the prospect of living away from his parents. Using animated segments and a plethora of clips from the Disney library, director Roger Ross Williams ("God Loves Uganda") helps us understand the ways in which Owen uses the films to decipher and navigate the confusing world he would otherwise struggle to process.

Still, there's some things Disney can't help him with. With their focus on one true love, the movies leave Owen somewhat ill-equipped to handle the real intricacies of romantic relationships and heartbreak (they aren't much help in job interviews either). Williams avoids having his film turn into an infomercial about the wonders of Disney culture by capturing heartbreakingly honest moments, like when Owen's older brother expresses his fear of eventually being on his own to take care of Owen and his parents as they get older.

Most importantly -- and in contrast to many documentaries focused on those with disabilities -- Williams allows Owen to explain his own fears and aspirations as the filmmaker steps back to let Owen be the hero of his own story.

"Life, Animated" will screen Tuesday, September 13, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, September 17, at 1 p.m. at The Little Theatre (240 East Avenue). A Skype conversation with Ron Suskind will follow Tuesday's screening, and there will be a panel discussion with local mental health experts following the Saturday matinee. 258-0400;

Put together by Animatus Studio, "The Local Animation Show" will offer an evening of animated works from local filmmakers, and is headlined by the hour-long fantasy epic "The Search for Silverspear,"

"Silverspear" is a paper-cut stop-motion adventure created by Rochester filmmaker Curt Markham, which he began in 1987 when he was just 13 years old and shot frame-by-painstaking-frame on Super 8 over two years. Twenty-five years later, Markham dusted off the film canisters, had his work restored, and added a brand-new soundtrack. The results demonstrate a budding filmmaker's ingenuity, delivering a charming take on the hero's quest story as Markham remixes childhood influences from "The Lord of the Rings" to Disney's "The Black Cauldron."

The rest of the evening includes a variety of works (everything from H. P. Lovecraft stories to music videos) from Rochester filmmakers, including veteran stop-motion animator Tom Gasek (whose credits include "Coraline" and "Chicken Run"), David Cowles, Mike Boas, and "Perry Bible Fellowship" creator Nick Guerwitch. The program also includes student work created in the Animatus workshops by David Zipeto and River Melcher.

"The Local Animation Show" screens Thursday, September 15, at 6:30 p.m., at The Little Theatre. Tickets are $8.

Those with a taste for something a bit more eclectic can check out "Handmade Cinema" at the Dryden Theatre. Presented in partnership with Visual Studies Workshop, "Handmade Cinema" is a curated program of avant-garde shorts featuring experimental animation from local filmmaker Josh Romphf. A programmer by day, Romphf creates his utterly unique films by first writing specially-designed computer programs. Using a program originally designed for virtual reality, his "Void" creates a mesmerizing, ever-shifting landscape of intricate patterns wireframes.

In addition to the world premiere of Romphf's latest work, which combines abstract, computer-generated animation with found footage, Romphf's films are paired with the dreamy, philosophically-minded and handcrafted CinemaScope works by Canadian filmmaker Daïchi Saïto. Both filmmakers will participate in a discussion of their work following the screenings.

"Handmade Cinema" screens on Thursday, September 15, at 8 p.m., at the Dryden Theatre (900 East Avenue). Tickets are $6 members, $8 non-members, and $4 students with ID. 271-3361;

Visit on Friday for additional film coverage, including reviews of "Morris From America" and "The Innocents."