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Condie

Richard Condie
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ABOVE: Richard Condie, The Big Snit, National Film Board animated short (10 min), NFB animation still, 1985.

Richard Condie by Gene Walz

Richard Condie has been making people laugh for over 35 years. Perhaps wince a little as well. He is most renowned for his rich, zany and distinctive sense of humor. But he also writes from his own experience about subjects that are uncomfortably familiar to all of us. In other words he is an auteur-animator, one with excellent antennae for sensing society's ridiculous foibles and painful vulnerabilities.

Condie's movies are comic variations on the theme of arrested development. His early cartoon Oh Sure, done before he had designed the distinctive characters that are one of his signatures, is about teenage one-up-manship. Since then he has focused on nerdy grown-ups who behave like teenagers or even like little kids. In Getting Started, after slamming his fingers in his piano, the main character twirls on the floor, yowling inarticulately at the top of his lungs like an obnoxious two year-old in a full-blown tantrum. La Salla is about an adult confined to a small room full of weird childish toys. And, famously, Mr. Snit imitates the adolescents on a television game show by sawing through a table and the easy chair he sits in, all the while denying that he's doing it to his addle-brained, eye-shaking wife. (This scene prompted a London pub to hold weekly "Sawing for Teens" contests in one of the more absurdly ironic tributes in movie history.)

Unlike the relentlessly adolescent sitcom The Simpsons, however, Condie's movies are much less reliant on self-congratulatory, pop-culture in-jokes and much more varied in their comedic resourcefulness. He may not be as anarchic as his friend Marv Newland (of Bambi Meets Godzilla and Pink Konkommer fame), or as surreal as Bill Plympton, or as ironic as Paul Driessen (whose work has influenced Condie's) but there are moments in his movies which blend all three of these elements. He can also be just plain silly or gross. In Heart Land, for example, a cow calmly irons a flower and a man bites a large beetle in half and then, in extreme close-up on a five-storey-high IMAX screen, eagerly ingests the bug's guts and goo.

Condie does not often get laughs from facial expressions (except for the sound of his characters' rattling, roof-tile-shaped teeth) and never resorts to the squash and stretch gags of traditional cel-animation or the easy morphing of computer-assisted cartoons. Instead he uses about every other effect available. In fact, nothing is foreign to his comic imagination: slapstick, pratfalls, subtlety, satire, insults, parody, irony, tastelessness. His characters pick their ears, run into trees, shake their eyes, lose their heads (literally), employ irrational excuses. And howl a lot. In pain. In agony. In frustration. In rage.

His comedy is wacky and unformulaic. Absurd exaggerations are not uncommon. Think, for instance, of the imported insects from Pigbird and how quickly they destroy the smuggler's house, and then his neighborhood, his city, and the world. Anthropomorphism is regularly though uniquely employed. Animals aren't drawn like humans as in classic 1930s Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM cartoons; they act like humans. The cat in The Big Snit, for example, bites through an electric cord, then yowls like a crazy man, before packing a suitcase to leave home. In a slight variation, the flowers in The Apprentice maniacally laugh at the main character's repeated failures.

As good a comedian as Condie is, it's really the flip-side of comedy that separates him from many of his fellow animators. There is a dark, serious, almost contemplative undercurrent in each of his movies. This is most evident in The Big Snit where a nuclear holocaust interrupts two squabbling and oblivious Scrabble players. Elsewhere in his movies loneliness and isolation (Getting Started), fractured relationships (Snit), unavoidable mortality (Heart Land), ecological disaster (Pigbird), financial ruin (John Law and the Mississippi Bubble), the meaninglessness of education (The Apprentice), and foolish self absorption and entrapment (La Salla) form the somber underpinnings of his stories. Like all great comedians, he has a sober side.

If Condie's tornado-chasing hobby and his legendary smoking and Coca-Cola-drinking habits don't signal a classic risk-taking personality, his career arc should. He has been a constant experimenter, never content to rest on his laurels. La Salla was an enormously time-consuming and potentially disastrous undertaking. He had to find and master computer graphics programs capable of translating his distinctive characters, his unique sense of backgrounds and settings, and his wiggly line style. And he had to figure out timing and pacing as done by computer. To explain his reasons for doing La Salla on a computer Condie compared himself to Thaddeus Toad (the character from The Wind in the Willows who is constantly trying new things). But it's clear that he didn't turn into an obsessively over-reaching amphibian overnight.

Probably the biggest risk Condie took before La Salla was with The Apprentice. Because of its elliptical story and its paradoxical theme, The Apprentice makes unusual demands on its audience, especially after the clear and easy humor of The Big Snit. Even the soundtrack is experimental; it consists of impenetrable, multi-layered tracks of suggestive language concocted out of gargling noises sampled on a computer.

Just before The Apprentice Condie took another big risk. He contributed a multi-image animated sequence to the IMAX film Heart Land. His sequence is the only part of the movie that is critical of life in Manitoba; everyone else chose to be relentlessly chipper and promotional about the province. Here he not only introduced animation to the IMAX format (imagine a Condie cartoon five and a half stories tall and seventy-two feet wide!) but anticipated the current fad for multiple-screen storytelling in animation. Even earlier in his career he dared to make a movie about paper money. He has never made things easy for himself.

Over the years Condie has grown as an animation artist and "cinematographer." In La Salla the computer allowed Condie to play with the "lighting" effects and mobilize the "camera" as never before. The movie is full of odd shadows and bizarre, simulated camera movements. This was something he was working towards over the course of his career. Various scenes from Getting Started, for instance, are drawn to simulate the use of a wide-angle lens and a frog's-eye view. Otherwise this early one-character, one-setting story is pretty basic in design and perspective - although odd "panning shots" and a first-person point of view when Eugene (the main character) turns upside-down provide a glimpse of cinematic sophistication to come.

These techniques are further explored in La Salla, a movie that is extraordinarily resourceful in its use of shadows, perspective and camera movement. Rarely is Condie's use of these techniques flamboyant or distracting. He uses the animation mise-en-scene wisely, placing the audience in the exact spot needed to comprehend and respond risibly to an incident as it unfolds and never letting the background overwhelm the story - even though there are sly jokes hidden there.

Condie has a closet full of awards, plaques, and citations. The Big Snit is among the top fifty animated movies of all time - right up there with the classics by Disney, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Tex Avery. His two nominations for Hollywood Oscars for Best Animation (for The Big Snit and La Salla, both of which lost to films by home-town favorite Pixar) entitle him to vote on the Academy Awards every year. He is a member of the Royal Academy of Canadian Art, and cels from his works have been purchased by the Winnipeg Art Gallery and animation buffs worldwide.

In an age when the word "artist" is tossed around promiscuously, it's heartening to know that there is an animation artist from Winnipeg who has actually earned the title.