Director: Chris Landreth (Canada)
2004 Grand Prize Winner

Ryan: An Appreciation 
Essay by Marc Glassman

It’s rare that a film festival, and, in particular, its director can claim credit for helping to inspire a masterpiece. That’s the case with Ryan, though, and the man who played matchmaker to two of Canada’s wildest animation talents is the Ottawa International Animation Festival’s (OIAF) artistic director, Chris Robinson. It was Robinson who put the broken-down Ryan Larkin together with computer-geek genius Chris Landreth on the selection committee to choose films for OIAF 2000. When Larkin saw Landreth’s gorgeous free-flowing films after the committee made its selections, he knew that there was a personal story, which must be heard.


Ryan Larkin’s tale is a cautionary one, told and retold by the animation community even before Landreth turned it into a story writ large for the world to appreciate. Back in the 1960s, Larkin was a golden boy, scooped up by the National Film Board in its palmy days and, after a short apprenticeship, offered the chance to become a key animator in a unit that featured such acclaimed talents as Paul Driessen, Kaj Pindal and Gerald Potterton. The legendary experimental animator Norman McLaren took him under his wing, giving him access to art books and classical music. Larkin was given freedom to develop his style, storytelling techniques and themes.

Given this harmonious atmosphere, Larkin responded immediately with the dark but beautiful pieces Syrinx (1965) and the one-minute short Cityscape (1966).  His colleagues at the Board acclaimed both of them and Syrinx went on to win awards, notably at children’s festival in Iran. In 1968, Larkin came through with Walking, a vibrant, lyrical film, which is still watched with great appreciation today. Rarely has a film been so truly animated, with rendition upon rendition of people walking on what we know are the streets of Montreal. It’s an art study and such a joyous, besotted view of movement that the film could almost be retitled Dancing. Nominated for an Academy Award, Walking and Larkin lost to one of Walt Disney’s last films.

Three years later, Larkin brought the lyricism of dance tunes to life in Street Musique. The film evoked the free life of hippies of the time. It also proved to be Larkin’s last film. At the age of 29, he was burnt out. It took time but the combination of booze, women and men (Larkin was bisexual) and drugs robbed the Golden Boy of his ability to create animation. Slowly, he ran out of money and places to stay. By the 1990’s, Larkin was panhandling on Montreal’s Boulevard St. Laurent, often in front of the legendary Schwartz’s Deli, where his old friends would be forced to see him and give Larkin change. He lived in the Old Brewery Mission and went to local bars to hang out and drink beers when the money was good.

It was in those circumstances that Robinson found Larkin and brought him to Ottawa. There, he met Chris Landreth, who had made his own Oscar nominated short The End after transitioning from mechanical engineering into computer animation. An expert in software, most notably Maya, Landreth used his expertise to make brilliant, philosophical black comedies that owed more to Beckett than Bugs Bunny. Once Landreth saw Walking and Street Musique—and took his jaw off the floor—he knew he had to tell Larkin’s story.

Ryan is set in what is officially called a cafeteria but I’ve always thought of it as a bar. We’re in down and dirty Montreal, just off the “Main,” as denizens of the city call St. Laurent. One man, Chris, is interviewing the other, Ryan. Chris, obviously in power, wants to know what makes Ryan tick. Ryan is evasive; proud of being interviewed, of his storied past, but nervous about revealing too much. Through flashbacks, we know that Ryan has made brilliant films but that’s all in the past.

Magically, Larkin’s girlfriend from the heady days of the Sixties, Felicity, shows up to offer some support to her old lover. There’s a heart-breaking moment when Ryan tells her that they should have had children but, as she says with a laugh, “Guess it wasn’t meant to be, eh?” Then Derek Lamb, his old producer and a wonderfully wise gent, arrives and offers his assessment that Ryan had run into the worst thing possible for an artist, a profound loss of the creative impulse.

Chris’ response is far worse than Ryan’s: immense coloured tape suddenly wraps itself tightly around his head. What, you might be thinking, is going on? It has sounded as if a documentary is being described to you—and it is. But Ryan is truly a groundbreaking and emotionally wrenching work of animation. Landreth’s film is a set of character studies dramatized through a hybrid genre-buster, the animation documentary.

Landreth has described the style he uses as psychorealism, which “exposes the realisms of the incredibly complex, messy, chaotic, sometimes mundane, and always conflicted quality we call human nature.” To achieve that effect, physical defects are used to indicate psychological states. Ryan’s thin and introverted face is rendered accurately but the back of his head has disappeared. Chris’ face is littered with pockmarks and gouges--the effects of a traumatic childhood and adolescence. The film’s overall look, which is grotesque and surrealistic, is partially inspired by plastinated objects that Landreth had seen at a science exhibition. It’s as if you’re looking into the soul of the characters in the film.

Ryan moves towards its peak when Chris, suddenly encumbered by an obnoxiously obvious halo, begs the impoverished artist to stop drinking. Roused out of reveries from his past, Ryan’s body erupts with red spikes as he sputters out angrily that he loves drinking; it’s what he has left. Stunned, Chris retreats to his own past and motivation: his mother was an alcoholic.

Yes, I’ve told you the story of Ryan. So what? Landreth’s film is like a piece of music—a tragic contemporary opera. Who cares about plot when the depths of the human condition are being explored as beautifully as this?

Marc Glassman edits and writes for POV, Canada’s documentary magazine, is the senior programmer for the Planet in Focus environmental film festival and the Artistic Director of Pages UnBound, a multi-disciplinary literary series. He reviews documentary, animation and narrative films every week for Toronto’s Classical 96.3 FM and is an Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University’s Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media programme.