For a year, Timothy Hittle would come home from his day job to create a world of his own — a world that sprang from his imagination, that he had total control over, that brought him both pleasure and pain, not to mention a drained bank account.

“Canhead” is the result of Hittle’s grand obsession, a 7-1/2-minute stop-motion animation film about a clay man’s battle with a giant. “It’s the best 7-1/2 minutes I ever put together,” he says with a laugh. “It takes a long time to shoot something like that. But when it works, it’s magic — especially stop-motion. It’s surreal and magical and the best form of expression I have found for myself.”

The 38-year-old San Francisco animator, who has worked on films including “James and the Giant Peach” and “The New Adventures of Gumby,” is among a select group of animators coming to L.A. this week to attend both the Academy Awards — “Canhead” is nominated in the animated short category — and the World Animation Celebration. At the WAC, he will meet and compete with his peers in the event’s centerpiece, the fifth Los Angeles Intl. Animation Competition.

The film competition, which features this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts along with hundreds of pics in a record 40 categories, is returning from a six-year hiatus. The competition last took place in 1991 as part of what was then called the Los Angeles Intl. Animation Celebration, an event expanded this year into the World Animation Celebration.

The fest brings together some 120 films at the 3,000-seat Pasadena Civic Auditorium, starting today and running through Sunday. All screenings and the awards ceremony, which features the best films of the festival, are open to the public, space permitting. Tickets are $8.50 for each event, and screenings each day are scheduled for 5 p.m., 7:45 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Pasadena’s Civic Auditorium.

In the opinion of festival director Leslie Sullivan, the greatest strength of the 1997 version of the competition is the different styles of films entered, created by an eclectic group of animators from around the world. “It provides a really good balance of what’s available,” she explains. “It’s like walking into an art gallery. You never know what you’re going to see. There could be Monet or Van Gogh or Picasso. The films are that varied in style.”

When festival founder and honorary chairman Terry Thoren started the Los Angeles Intl. Animation Celebration in 1985 (the event also was held in 1987, 1989 and 1991), 700 films were entered in 11 categories. This year, there are 1,100 films competing in 40 categories, including, for the first time, categories for films used in theme park rides and in forensic applications, such as reconstructing crime scenes.

“I think the most important role that a film festival plays is that it provides a forum for many films to be seen that would not be seen otherwise,” Thoren says. “It also provides a platform for us to put animation high on a pedestal and declare it an art form that is as important to those involved in this industry as any other cultural endeavor in this country.”

Three pre-selection juries of three judges each culled the finalists for each of the 40 categories. A grand jury composed of animation industry professionals — Misha Aldashin, Nick Bosustow, Becky Bristow, Paul DeMeyer and Bill Kroyer — determined the finalists.

For jurors, it’s a tough job, but they are happy to do it.

“It’s an incredible honor for me to get to sit through all these wonderful, wonderful films,” said Bosustow, an animation consultant and producer. “There are a lot of categories that are not professional, that are for independents and students. In my opinion, that’s where the exciting stuff is because they’re taking chances and making mistakes. There may be an absolutely awful, awful film, but there may be a sequence or technique or something that is quite wonderful. They probably won’t win a prize because overall they weren’t strong enough, but they’ll learn. The way to get where you want to go is by making mistakes and learning.”

Along with prestige, a win at the festival means greater exposure to potential distributors and introductions to the major animation studios. DeMeyer, who works as a creative producer on animated TV shows at Klasky-Csupo, sees the festival as attracting a broad scope of animation artists.

“It’s a place for everybody to see what you’re not necessarily used to seeing,” he says. “You have non-commercial animation, films made by individuals who want to do it, rather than just for the money.” He adds that he enjoys being a judge because of that variety. “It’s something that keeps me up-to-date on what’s going on in the world of animation.”

Aldashin also is looking forward to the competition — indeed, the entire weeklong celebration. He’s one of many who are pleased the festival is back in business after six years off.

“It’s a great celebration for animators to have it back in Los Angeles,” says Aldashin, whose animated works include “The Hunter,” which won an award at the 1991 fest. “There was such a void in L.A., for such a big, culturally diverse city — the film capital of the world — to be without an animation festival. Now, hopefully, that void will be filled.”

Organizers hope the competition will inspire artists to continue making independent films at a time when studio opportunities are so tempting. Indie films “give us a fresh perspective on what you can do with animation,” Thoren says, “and they don’t fall in the trap of simply being another product or another sophisticated commercial that moves merchandise.”

Peter Lord, an Oscar nominee whose 11-minute “Wat’s Pig” will be shown during the WAC, hopes to use his 20 years of experience in animation to help excite a few young animators to the joys of tooning. “Whenever I can, I’m always keen to stress how simple and accessible animation is for kids,” he says. “A lot of the stuff you read and see emphasizes the complication of animation, the slowness, the difficulty. It makes animation seem like a difficult thing to achieve, whereas I like to emphasize, in fact, that it’s a simple thing to achieve.”

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