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PR: A Backstage Look at Animation’s Big Night

by on February 3, 2009

Royce Hall from the stage

A Backstage Look At ASIFA-Hollywood’s Annie Awards 

The after-party featured a gourmet meal and the music of the Blue Hawaiians

We aren’t your typical paparazzi. It was only six months ago that our creative aspirations drove us out of Orlando, Florida to pursue careers as animated filmmakers. It is conventional wisdom that the heart of the animated world beats here in Los Angeles, and it didn’t take us long to realize that was where we needed to be. Somehow, between then and now, we have found ourselves residents, and because of our membership in ASIFA-Hollywood, we were granted the chance of a lifetime to see how a major award show comes to life, in an effort to discover the 36th Annual Annie Awards.

Kathy Turner and June Foray with the June Foray Award winner, Bill Turner

Almost immediately, we had the great pleasure of sitting down with legendary voice actress June Foray and discussing the history of the Annies. In 1972, June Foray organized the first communion of animators to recognize individuals for their artistic achievements. The two recipients were Dave and Max Fleischer and June related to us that their awards were presented at the Sportsman’s Lodge banquet room by a crowd of 400 people. Now, 37 years later, the famed Annie Awards take place in UCLA’s Royce Hall, delivering 32 awards before a crowd of 1800.


The audience enjoying the show

Reciting the numbers out loud seemed to make them more impressive, and June was genuinely surprised to know that so many people had come out to show their appreciation for the art of animation. She had envisioned the awards as an “opportunity for animators to get together” because in 1972, there was no professional acknowledgment of animation. Given the expansion of popularity of the artform over the last 37 years, June said that it was an inspiration to see so many people come out and support what she had started 37 years ago.

For more info on the early days of the Annies, see this interview with June Foray.

Although June originally intended Annies to be awarded specifically to individuals for lifetime achievement, the Annie Awards have since broadened the scope of categories to include Best Animated Feature, Best Animated Short Subject, Best Animated Television Commercial, and more.

Presenters Brad Garret and Pat Fraley

This increased recognition has brought a lot of traditional Hollywood media talent to the event as well. Outside Royce Hall was a red carpet introduction and a slew of photographers to take advantage of it. This year’s presenters included comedians and actors Fred Willard, Brad Garrett, James Hong, Seth Green and Donald Faison, among others. The master of ceremonies for the evening was the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, Tom Kenny.

Robot Chicken creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich arrive with actress Clare Grant

But as aspiring animated filmmakers, it was a particular treat to be able to speak backstage with the artists and directors who are currently shaping the industry we love. Nick Park, who not only won a Winsor McCay career award this year but took home the Annie for Best Animated Short Subject with Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death and Henry Selick, who presented the award to Nick Park on stage both allowed us to spend a little time with them.

Winsor McCay Award Honoree Nick Park and presenter Henry Sellick backstage waiting for their cue

What is encouraging about the Annies, is that even directors whose visions lead to the creation of films as visually and stylistically distinct as Wallace and Gromit and The Nightmare Before Christmas are able to come together to celebrate the artform they share in common. Whether they use a pencil or a computer, clay or puppets, animators are a special type of artist. And at the Annies, they take time out to honor their own. This is exactly what June Foray envisioned for the event 37 years ago.

Chris Williams accepts his award for Storyboarding for an Animated Television Production

Some of the other big winners of the night were James Baxter for his animation in Kung Fu Panda, Joaquim Dos Santos for directing Avatar: The Last Airbender, Chris Williams for storyboarding on Glago’s Guest, and Hans Zimmer and John Powell for the music in Kung Fu Panda. Keep in mind that these are just a few of the winners and that the complete list can be found on the Annie Awards web page.

It wasn’t just famous directors and animators milling behind the curtains of Royce Hall. More than a handful of volunteers worked tirelessly as they shepherded presenters, nominees, winners and guests seamlessly from seats to the wings to the stage to receive their awards.

The trophy assistants were constantly on point delivering to the next winner and headsets were humming up and down the halls on the heads of volunteers and stage crew. The fully catered and open bar before and after parties easily accommodated hundreds of people with live music, delicious food and an inviting atmosphere.

Presenters Crispin Freeman and Jennifer Taylor Lawrence prepare backstage

But an event like this doesn’t happen on its own. It takes months of planning and organization by the ASIFA-Hollywood board members and a few consulted coordinators. The current President of ASIFA-Hollywood, Antran Manoogian, is one of the few people responsible for making the Annie Awards the spectacle that it is at today. Come this November, he will have been President for twenty years, and a member of ASIFA-Hollywood for thirty.

Antran’s responsibilities to the Annies involve acting as executive producer of the event; which means overseeing rules, interfacing with staff and volunteers, working with the board of directors to put out the call for entrees and set up the judging, ballots and awards. In conversation, he had to admit that growing the Annies was no simple accomplishment. “I knew that when I started, I wanted it to be more, but ASIFA-Hollywood is a non-profit organization and run primarily on volunteer resources. Every year, we made it a little bit better.” Slowly but surely, it has made the transformation into the highly respected event it is today, in great part due to his contributions.

ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Director, Stephen Worth and ASIFA-Hollywood President, Antran Manoogian visit with June Foray at the after party

This evolution of the awards is evident in the nomination process. Every year the categories for nomination are refined to extract the best quality of work possible. Also, it is not required that each award be offered. Antran made it clear that “the goal of the Annies is to honor excellence in animation, not merely the best of the batch.” Nominating committees are instructed that they should pick only the nominees whom they feel should receive an award. “However many there may be, they should all be outstanding.”


Ahmed Best receives the Annie for Voice Acting in an Animated Television Program

The animation archive director and ASIFA-Hollywood board member Stephen Worth clarified that “the idea is that being nominated means the work is worthy enough to receive an award. From that point, it’s up to the voting members of ASIFA-Hollywood to decide who their pick for the Annie will be. Currently, that’s over 4,000 people- animation professionals at all the studios and fans of the medium too.”

The industry really seems to appreciate the level of quality that the awards maintain as well. We spent a lot of time inquiring how people receive the news that they have been nominated. Since this is the “Oscars of animation” do people treat it as such? Annette O’Neil, the assistant coordinator of the event had this to say:

“I’ve broken the news to many nominees over the years, and I never cease to be amazed at the thrill this recognition carries. The Annies story involves a long, rich history of groundbreaking artists and creators; folks are thrilled to be counted in that pantheon.”

John Lasseter accepts his Winsor McCay Award as presenter Billy Crystal looks on

After a long night of observing the animation industry, we were able to draw a few conclusions. ASIFA-Hollywood and the Annie Awards are defined by the people who participate in them. In contrast with the pomp and circumstance of most high profile awards shows, when animators get together to honor their own, it’s more of a family affair. Professionals and fans alike are united in their passion for animation. It was a remarkable and inspiring experience to have been a part of it.


Producer Melissa Cobb and the crew of Kung Fu Panda accepting the award for Best Animated Feature

Although the characters on-screen are familiar to everyone, the artists behind the scenes are not as well known as they should be. The ASIFA-Hollywood Annie Awards seek to shine a light on the incredible talents responsible for the animated films that we all love. It is clear that animated filmmakers posess a different sort of inspiration than many in the movie industry. For most of them, it’s not about the fame and fortune, it’s about the process of creation and the catharsis of completion. The Annie Awards are the recognition of a job well done.

All the nominees and winners should be proud of what they’ve accomplished, because the Annie Awards are truly the sincerest attempt by the animation community to honor excellence. And we couldn’t be happier to be a part of it. Six months ago, we didn’t know what we were signing up for when we joined ASIFA-Hollywood, but after tonight, for rags or riches, we believe in it. Thank you to everyone who organized the event, ASIFA-Hollywood members for supporting it, and the artists who give it a reason to exist. –Danny Young and Michael Woodside

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