Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sumo Lake (相撲の湖, 2011)

Sumo Lake (相撲の湖, 2011) is a humorous, hand-drawn animated short by Canadian-Australian artist Greg Holfeld (グレッグ ホルフェルド, b. 1965).  The official Japanese name that appears in the film is an attempt at a katakana rendering of the English title: スーモー・ルエク.  Unfortunately, as Holfeld told me himself at Hiroshima 2014 (he was on this year’s selection committee), he found out too late that this was inaccurate.  To begin with, “sumo” does not have a long “u”, and “ルエク” is not commonly used for “Lake” in Japanese.  So, I have amended the title to more authentically capture the English title of the film, which is a play on Swan Lake (白鳥の湖), the nineteenth century ballet composed by Tchaikovsky.

Holfeld’s interest in sumo wrestling dates back to 1990, when he lived in Tokyo.  His attention was captured by the sight of the Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki, the heaviest rikishi ever in sumo with a peak weight of 287kg.   Around this time David Benjamin asked him to illustrate The Joy of Sumo: A Fan’s Notes (1992), which is currently in print in its revised form: Sumo: A Thinking Man’s Guide to the National Sport (2010).  The initial inspiration for this film; however, was a pitch painting by Eddie White and Ari Gibson, co-directors of the animated short The Cat Piano (2009), about a sumo wrestler who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.  Learn more here.

As with all great comedy, Holfeld takes a simple conceit, the notion of a large, ungainly sumo wrestler doing ballet, and executes it brilliantly for the screen.  The story begins with a wind-up sumo doll performing shiko (四股), the side-to-side stomping that sumo wrestlers ritually perform at the beginning out each bout in order to drive away any demons.  A wider shot shows the tiny doll is facing a large sumo wrestler, who also performs shiko, causing the wind-up doll to fall over, face down.  The wrestler picks up the doll and tries again, but his time the doll clatters away and disappears as if falling into water.  A moment later, the figure re-emerges from the water like “The Lady of the Lake” of Arthurian legend, but the wind-up doll has transformed into a lifelike sumo wrestler on his toes like a ballet dancer. 

The two wrestlers face-off and begin to wrestle one another, but midway through their fight transforms into a graceful pas de deux.  One wrestler sinks into the water yet again, then re-emerges for another showdown.  However, this battle gets interrupted by the stomping foot of a Godzilla-esque kaiju.  Thus commences the climax of the film, which is a hilarious combination of epic battle and dance off.  The icing on the cake is the glorious soundtrack composed by Benjamin Speed in a style similar to that of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  It is a beautifully drawn film, as you can see from some of materials Holfeld has shared on his website.  The three-minute film consists of 1,300 drawings – a total of 6.24 kg of paper.  The simplicity of the pencil sketch on paper style is delightful, particularly when paired with the complexity of character movement. 

Sumo Lake can be viewed on Vimeo.  You can support Greg Holfeld by buying his books and comics.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Friday, July 11, 2014

Canada Vignettes: The Log Driver’s Waltz / La valse du maître draveur (1978)

Canada Vignettes: The Log Driver’s Waltz
Canada Vignettes: La valse du maître draveur

The Log Driver’s Waltz (John Weldon, 1978) is one of the NFB’s most popular animated shorts.  Made as part of the series Canada Vignettes, which has aired on Canadian TV since the late 1970s, The Log Driver’s Waltz was also released theatrically in Canada and did well overseas (learn more). The popularity of the song led to it being one of 5 films chosen by Canada Post this spring to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the NFB with postage stamps.

Many Canadians who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, take a nostalgic delight in both the song and the animation – it has deep resonances in my family in particular because my paternal great-grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from Alsace-Lorraine, was a log driver.  My father speaks fondly of how strong his grandfather was because of his work, able to perform acrobatic tricks even in old age. 

The music

The song “The Log Driver’s Waltz”, performed in French as “La valse du maître draveur”, was composed by Wade Hemsworth (1916-2002), a surveyor and draftsman by day who performed in folk clubs at night.  He was not a prolific songwriter, but three of his songs – “The Log Driver’s Waltz”, “The Wild Goose”, and “The Black Fly Song” have become Canadian classics.  In fact, “The Black Fly Song”, also performed by the McGarrigle Sisters, was also made into an animated short by Christopher Hinton called Blackfly for the NFB in 1991.

The McGarrigle sisters, Kate (1946-2010, mother of Rufus and Martha Wainright) and Anna (b. 1944), with their beautiful harmonies, were already at the forefront of the Canadian folk music scene in the 1970s when “The Log Driver’s Waltz” was made.  They are accompanied by Jack Nissenson and Peter Weldon – members of their 1960s folk group The Mountain City Four. The two men continue to perform in a group called The What Four with Marvin Segal, John Knowles and sometimes Jane McGarrigle.

Using the animation to teach about Canadian culture

The animation begins with black and white documentary footage of log drivers at work.  As the instrumental prelude nears an end and the song begins, a lone log driver heading downstream transforms into brightly painted animation.  He then transforms into a caricature recognizable to all Canadians as a Quebecer in a traditional rural costume.  A partner film that I use when teaching about Quebec culture is the short documentary Les raquetteurs (Michel Brault/Gilles Grouly, 1958) about a snowshoeing festival in the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The snowshoers are in traditional costume complete with long toques. 

The key elements of this costume are the checked shirt – which fans of Monty Python will recognize from The Lumberjack Song – and the toque (variant spellings: tuque/touque), the Canadian variant of the knit cap.  The tuque is believed to have originated with the coureurs de bois (lit: runner of the woods), French-Canadian and Métis travelling woodsmen who traded fur.  It is said that they kept their woollen nightcaps on during the day for warmth. 

The red toque worn by the log driver is particularly associated with Quebec national identity.  It became a symbol of French-Canadian nationalism during the Lower Canada Rebellion (FR: Patriotes Rebellion) of 1837 and was revived as a patriotic symbol by the separatists in 1960s.  In Anglophone Canada, the tuque was popularized by comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in the roles of Bob and Doug McKenzie in the sketch comedy “Great White North” on the television series SCTV.

Activities to do with students:

  • Spot the Canadian icons / stereotypes: lumberjack, moose, beaver, toques.  Brainstorm: What other symbols do you associate with Canada?
  • Learn and sing the song (sheet music)
  • Design your own tuque – show examples of tuque (short/long, with/without the pompom (aka woolly bobble)) and have the students draw their own unique tuque.  Knitting a hat might be for the more adventurous teacher, but it is quite easy to make the pompom with very little prep work. 

director / réalisateur
John Weldon
producer / producteur
David Verrall
John Weldon
music / musique 
Kate McGarrigle
Anna McGarrigle
The Mountain City Four

“This lighthearted, animated short is based on the song "The Log Driver's Waltz" by Wade Hemsworth. Easily one of the most often-requested films in the NFB collection, Kate and Anna McGarrigle sing along to the tale of a young girl who loves to dance and chooses to marry a log driver over his more well-to-do competitor. Driving logs down the river has made the young man the best dancing partner to be found.”

ONF SYNOPSIS (voyez / achetez le film)
« Animation décrivant l'histoire d'une jeune femme qui repousse les prétendants qu'on lui destine parce qu'elle est obnubilée par un draveur, qui finalement l'entraînera dans une valse effrénée. Une joyeuse animation entremêlée de métrage d'archives sur la drave. Avec une chanson interprétée par les sœurs McGarrigle. »

English Lyrics / Paroles anglaises:

If you should ask any girl from the parish around
What pleases her most from her head to her toes
She'll say “I'm not sure that it's business of yours
But I do like to waltz with the log driver.”

For he goes birling down and down white water
That's where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He’s birling down and down white water
A log driver's waltz pleases girls completely.

When the drive's nearly over I like to go down and watch
All the lads as they work on the river.
I know that come evenin’ they'll be in the town
And we all like to waltz with the log driver.

For he goes birling down and down white water
That's where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He’s birling down and down white water
A log driver's waltz pleases girls completely.

To please both my parents I've had to give way
And dance with the doctors and merchants and lawyers.
Their manners are fine but their feet are of clay
But there's none with the style of my log driver.

For he goes birling down and down white water
That's where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He goes birling down and down white water
A log driver's waltz pleases girls completely.

Now I’ve had my chances with all sorts of men
But none is so fine as my lad on the river
So when the drive’s over, if he asks me again
I think I will marry my log driver.

For he goes birling down and down white water
That's where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He’s birling down and down white water
A log driver's waltz pleases girls completely.

Birling down and down white water
A log driver's waltz pleases girls completely.


log driver: (PQ: le draveur) a person who drives logs down the river. Log driving (FR: le flottage du bois / PQ: la drave) (see: Wikipedia) was a method of transporting logs by river from a forest upstream to sawmills downstream in North America and Europe.  The log driver would ride along with the logs and use their pike poles (see: Wikipedia) to prevent logs from jamming up.

parish: (FR: une paroisse) a church territorial unit constituting a division of a diocese.  In the time of log driving (19th century – early 20th century), the church would have been the center of rural communities.

birling: (FR: voliger) English for spinning or whirling; log birling as a sport is also called logrolling (see: Wikipedia)

the drive: (PQ: la drave) an abbreviation of “log drive” – OED Defn. 3: “an organized effort by a number of people to achieve a purpose”

feet of clay: this biblical idiom (Daniel 2:31-33) usually means that a person has weaknesses.  In this context; however, it suggests that the men are heavy-footed, unlike the agility of the log driver.

lad: boy or young man.  This British word usage is uncommon in Canada, but could be heard in communities settled by the Scottish or the Irish.   


Ohayon, Albert.  “Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh!NFB blog, November 16, 2011.
McGarrigle, Anna.  Official website of Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
Rosholt, Malcolm.  Lumbermen on the Chippewa, Rosholt House, 1982.
Rosholt, Malcolm.  The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, Rosholt House, 1980.
The Patriotes Rebellion, Quebec 1837-1839, Marxists Internet Archive.
Thrills of the Spring Log Drive”, Popular Mechanics (February 1931), pp. 242-47.  A contemporary description of a log drive in Quebec

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ryan Larkin Filmography / Filmographie de Ryan Larkin

Director / Réalisateur

  • Syrinx (1966)
  • Cityscape / Citérama (1966)

  • Walking / En marchant (1969)

  • Street Musique (1972)

  • Spare Change / Un peu de monnaie, s'il vous plaît? (2008), co-directed by / coréalisé par Laurie Gordon

Animator / Animateur

  • The Ball Resolver in Antac / Les restituteurs à bille de l'Antac (Bernard Longpré, 1964), short animated doc
  • The Canadian Forces Hydrofoil Ship: Concept and Design (Martin Defalco / Kenneth McCready, 1967), short doc
  • Running Time (Mort Ransen, 1974)
  • Agency (George Kaczender, Films RSL, 1980), feature film

Documentaries / Documentaires

  • Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004)

  • Alter Egos (Laurence Green, 2004)

  • Remembering Arthur (Martin Lavut, 2006)