Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Interview: G.I. Joe Stop-Motion Film Festival

This is going to be awesome.

As a child, GI JOE toys were always my favorite, and it had little to do with the cartoon that is supposed to make kids yearn for them. Don't get me wrong, I love the cartoon and I'm watching G.I. Joe: The Movie while I type this, but the toys were a whole different beast.

The colorful personalities that were a large part of the TV show came through even more clearly in those little 3 and 3/4 inch action figures. With their superior points of articulation, realistic looking weapons and durable construction, they were the best toys to act out movie inspired shootouts and fistfights with. And that's what I was all about.

Now, as an adult, toys don't hold my interest, and it's not socially acceptable to play with them anyway, not at all. I can browse sites hawking hyper-accurate Joe weaponry that I have no use for, and dream about a video game that lets me drive the Dreadnok Thunder Machine. But nothing indulges my childhood imagination the same way GI JOE stop-motion films do. It’s like watching the toys actually do a lot of the things I imagined them doing as I manually manipulated their little bodies.

I first learned about the GI JOE Stop-Motion Film Festival while researching our historic, first ever Final Countdown (RIP). I've been looking forward to seeing more ever since. This Saturday, I’ll get my chance when the Joes roll into NYC with sophomoric humor, buckets of blood, and more than a few stories to tell. To get ready for the event, I spoke with festival founder and curator Gio Toninelo about the Joe toy legacy, the future of the festival and last year's live action movie.

Culture Blues (CB): Congratulations on the Third Annual GI JOE Stop-Motion Film Festival. What can people expect if they come out to 92Y Tribeca this Saturday?

Gio Toninelo (GT): Every year our festival is different. Some are clever, some are weird. Besides fake blood and plastic guts, expect to see some really cool animations from across the globe, nice plot twists and the usual toilet humor.

There will be lots of violence.

CB: Awards for this year’s festival will be announced in October at the Alamo Drafthouse. Who gets to vote and are there any early frontrunners?

GT: We have a set panel of judges every year, including photographers, animators, writers and set designers.  We host a pre-screening party here in Denver, where we talk about the movies, animation styles and so on.  Also the audience at our Denver show gets to vote too. There are a few frontrunners already. I just can’t talk about it.

CB: You guys are visiting more cities this year than ever before, right? Are you trying to do more cities next year?

GT: I am pretty content with the size of the tour right now, although I wouldn’t mind adding a few more cities on the east coast. Boston, DC and Philadelphia. But to be honest, we’ll go anywhere.

CB: What are the rules for submissions?

GT: You can find the rules at our website, but as long as you use ONE GI JOE action figure and animate it using stop-motion, everything is game.

CB: Have you thought about releasing the films in any other format so people who can’t make it to official stops can see these movies? I’ve had mixed results trying to view movies online.

GT: I get this question often. There are two reasons why we don’t do it:  #1 – A lot of the films cannot clear their copyrighted soundtracks, hence, I’ll get stuck with a lawsuit. # 2 – I deal with a major amount of filmmakers. Paying royalties or buying their films would be a huge hassle. Trust me. I would love to have a DVD out there, showcasing people’s talent. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

This one looks serious. Somebody call the Academy.

CB: I know that this whole thing spawned from your epic Pond Patrol series which utilized 12" Joe figures, but what made you decide to focus the whole festival on GI JOE figures rather than opening it up to all action figures?

GT: I originally wanted it to be a stop-mo festival about military action figures.  But being a fan of GI JOE all my life, it was just the next step. I do own ACTIONFIGUREFEST.COM and ACTIONFIGUREFILMFESTIVAL.COM. So there’s a possibility of GI JOE retiring from the movies in the future. Stop-motion movies, I meant.

CB: What makes the GI JOE toys a) good toys to use in stop-motion films, and b) something people want to devote a lot of time and painstaking work to building into some sort of narrative?

GT: As my good friend and animator Lee Hardcastle said, GI JOE figures are the Cheap Animator’s Armature (a frame inside of a model/character).  The figures are also very articulated and easy to pose. They are pretty realistic too. If you are new to stop-motion, why try to create and animate a blob of clay when you have a ready to use character?

CB: Are the GI JOE characters and that universe a part of many submissions, or are most of them completely original narratives that only use these toys as instruments to tell the story?

GT: It goes both ways.  We have a rendition of Goethe’s book The Sorrows of Young Werther starring GI JOE, or a brutal Cobra Commander falling in love with Scarlet. At times, GI JOE portrays a zombie or himself. That’s the beauty of it: infinite possibilities.

CB: I didn’t know this would require a literary background. Do you have an all-time favorite or a few favorite films? Or, if you don’t want to play favorites, are there any that stand out or are particularly notable for some reason?

GT: Besides blood and guts, I do like a good plot.  Gory battle scenes get pretty old after 4 years of directing the Festival. You have to tell a story and that’s the kind of film I like. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite. After all I am the curator.

CB: In 2008, you were concerned that GI JOE action figures weren’t that easy to find, but saw the upcoming movie as a reason for optimism. Has the live action film had any effect you can see on the festival or the submissions?

GT: Not necessarily. I really thought the new GI JOE figures inspired by the movie would motivate people to shoot little short films, but the truth is, I think they prefer the classic line inspired by the 80’s cartoon. From all the films received last year, I think only ONE movie uses the new toy line. I hate to bash Hasbro, but the “Rise of Cobra” toy line was pretty disappointing.

We have a Dreadnok sighting! And he's in a fucking rock band!!!

CB: What did you think of the live action movie?

GT: Let me put it this way: When Marlon Wayans is the best thing in a movie, there’s something wrong with it.  And what is up with Snake Eye’s mouth?

CB: Those lips were disturbing. When I’ve watched some of these stop-motion films online, I end up laughing because there is just something funny about watching toys you grew up with doing anything on their own, especially violent things which many of the films seem to include. I understand there is a wide variety of genres represented in the festival. Are there any that just completely transcend the medium, or do pretty much all of them elicit at least a few laughs from the audience?

GT: There are going to be laughs, all right. But there are a few films that can really touch us differently, making us think about our feelings, weaknesses and errors as humans (all this, portrayed by a plastic character). At the end it’s not the medium, but the story. GI JOE or not, most of the characters in our movies are representing humanity, one way or another.

CB: Do you know if any of the festival films have gone on to other festivals? Or have you seen any of the filmmakers use this work and experience as a springboard to something else?

GT: I know a few animators who started working for toy companies. Others are filming music videos for local bands.  One particular animator shot a short animated film for BBC.  The tendency among animators is to keep doing what they like, even if it’s not with GI JOE. I am totally fine with that as long as I get one film out of their whole career.

The 3rd annual GI JOE Stop-Motion Film Festival will be at 92Y Tribeca in NYC Saturday May 8th, with shows at 7 and 9 pm. Check the festival site for other dates and information.

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