Meet Casey Safron, Founder and Curator of the Animation Block Party

Animation Block Party, founded by Casey Safron, first screened in September 2004. Starting this weekend, Rooftop Films and BAMcinematek are playing co-hosts to the 9th annual Animation Block Party, which in addition to the opening night selection of films, highlights student, professional, and independent animated films across all genres. This year’s Animation Block Party Opening Night happens Friday, July 27 at Automotive High School in Williamsburg. Rooftop Films sat down with the programmer to talk about the history or the program, choosing films, and more.

Rooftop Films: How did you get into production on animated films? Have you always been interested in the medium?

Casey Safron: I’ve been making films and drawing cartoons since childhood. In high school, I used to shoot live-action movies with my friends, throwing paper-mache dummies off buildings, lots of forged special effects. Then at Brandeis University, I drew the weekly comic strip for my college newspaper and used that as a portfolio when applying for animation jobs. I ended up at R.O. Blechman’s studio, The Ink Tank, where I was introduced to Photoshop and After Effects. Went from there to an online division of Maxim Magazine, and perfected my Final Cut Pro skills. The dotcom bubble burst in 2001 and I ended up managing a college animation department. Being around animators all-day, I moved away from live-action and started producing cartoons. Once people began contracting me for broadcast spots and consulting gigs, I kind of abandoned traditional films and focused 150% on animation. But yes, I’ve always been interested in animation; I have early attempts of me trying to do stop-motion with my Mom’s Super-8 camera and note cards from elementary school presentations about Walt Disney. More than any one medium though, it’s always been about storytelling for me – from graphic novels to independent features, I’m a sucker for a good narrative.

RF: Tell us a little about how Animation Block Party got started and its roots.

CS: I noticed that a lot of talented animators weren’t getting the opportunity to showcase their films outside of potential end-of-year university shows. This was before YouTube, and there were no large-scale animation festivals in America. I began organizing screenings of professional and student animation in lower Manhattan in late 2003. The demand for these screenings grew, and on September 9th 2004 – we held the first official “Animation Block Party” off the Morgan stop of the L-train. My college roommate, Jonathan “Swifty” Lang was the owner of a nearby coffee shop called “The Archive” and had access to a screen. I convinced Krispy Kreme and Pabst Blue Ribbon to sponsor us and organized a feature length program to air at sundown. It rained literally until minutes before the screening, but the sky cleared and hundreds of people showed up to watch amazing films with the World Trade Center’s “towers of light” shining in the background. It was pretty inspiring. In 2005, we opened for international submissions, received corporate sponsorship and started working with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We partnered with Rooftop Films in 2006. And now here we are, the ninth annual ABP film festival.

RF: As a programmer, what do you look for when you’re selecting films for ABP’s lineup? Is there a common characteristic among the films that you choose?

There’s no common characteristic. After nearly ten years of this, a lot of it is instinct, but I always look at resumes, running time, what region they’re from, what genre, is the film from a school or studio, how long has it been on the fest circuit etc. A lot of it is sifting through QuickTimes in Final Cut Pro, paying attention to things as random as pixilated background color…

RF: What draws you personally to animation as a medium as opposed to live action?

CS: In animation you can truly create whatever you imagine. The director doesn’t have to worry about live-action elements like weather or attaching cameras to moving vehicles. Even with most blockbusters being primarily green-screened today, the purity of animated features from studios like Pixar or independents like Bill Plympton can’t be replicated in a live-action medium. A movie like “Coraline” wouldn’t work if it were Dakota Fanning surrounded by 3D creatures ala “Pans Labyrinth.” Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s vision could only be realized through animation – and that kind of creativity intrigues me, because there really are no boundaries.

RF: The ‘block party’ part of Animation Block Party in particular sounds like a good time. What do you think distinguishes it from other film programs in the city?

CS: At this point, Animation Block Party is a brand name, people are flying in from all over the world every July to watch movies and hang out in Brooklyn. So it’s simply not like any other film program in the city, because it’s a major international festival focusing solely on animation talent. There’s nothing like ABP in NYC. Just like there’s nothing in NYC like Rooftop Films. We all have our own unique thing going on, and that’s what makes New York awesome. More than anything though, the “block party” vibe you mentioned is a huge part of the good times that our festival churns out year after year. Outdoor/indoor events, free drinks, corn on the cob at Habana Outpost, live music, a trade show, standup comedy and now we’ve even added ping-pong as an after-party option at our first-ever Saturday Night Party at BAM…