Controversial animator Ralph Bakshi once said, “Live action writers will give you a structure, but who the hell is talking about structure? Animation is closer to jazz than some kind of classical stage structure.”

The Animation Show is a jazz club of animation, in which animators, small and great, rich and poor, produce their wildest fantasies, lucid, lyrical lightshows lavishly painted on the big screen. And like the great jazz musicians of old, these animators are similarly indebted to their adoring audiences, people with a taste for the unusual, the spontaneous, and the heartfelt.

The Animation Show began in 2004 as a joint venture between Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt, two animation auteurs – and UC graduates – the festival was made to showcase the work of their favorite animators. Since its inauguration, the Animation Show has developed a cult following hungry for its eclectic, chaotic, disturbingly beautiful and hilariously deranged animated shorts. Featuring both first-time animators and such animation giants as Judge, Hertzfeldt, Bill Plympton and Aardman, the Animation Show has rapidly expanded. This year’s show premiered simultaneously in theaters in Santa Barbara and Seattle, with screenings over the next several days in 15 states.

This year, the festival opened last night to a diverse full house in the Arlington Theatre. After a late start as the Arlington slowly filled, the evening got underway with thirteen films as diverse and enchanting as anything in the festival’s history.

The night began with “Rabbit,” a strange combination of 2D watercolors moving in a 3D, videogame-like environment – every object is trailed by a textbox saying “boy” or “dead cow” – “Rabbit” follows a young boy and girl who slice a rabbit in half, finding a dancing golden idol inside. Riches follow, but at a terrible cost. “Rabbit” was followed by the even more surreal “City Paradise,” which fused live action, 2D and 3D animation, to tell the story of a young Japanese woman’s new life in a magical, watery London.

The longest short in the evening’s show was Don Hertzfeldt’s “Everything Will Be Okay.” Departing from Hertzfeldt’s trademark random violence – but not wholly without – the film follows Bill, a morose average-Joe as he muses on life and death through his slow descent into madness. It’s a bold new direction for Hertzfeldt, with bold new methods to match: the film uses mesmerizing, evocative photo collage and sublime sound mixing, including the best use of Smetana’s “Vltava” I’ve yet to see in a film.

The show’s sights and sounds abound beyond the space to detail them here. There was “Game Over,” a charming collection of classic videogames enacted with food; and “Eaux Fortes,” a silently simple blue-and-white film in which a young man survives a fantastic tidal wave. “9” showcased the best 3D animation scene outside of a Pixar film, and with a far more fascinating plot. “9” follows the title character, a strange little robot only inches tall, as he prepares for his final confrontation with an eerie, cat-sized cyborg, all in an apocalyptic junkyard. The films aren’t simply fantastic imagery. One film, the two minute long “Collision,” appears on first viewing to be nothing but dancing, vibrant tetrahedrons, a firework in two dimensions. But upon close inspection, the colors used are those of the respective flags of the United States and several nations in the Middle East. The complexity of these films will merit second-viewings when this year’s show is released on DVD.

Mike Judge, fresh off of his surprise appearance at UCSB earlier that day, made an appearance at the conclusion of the festival for a casual Q & A with the audience, which covered topics addressed at UCSB and produced some interesting new anecdotes.

The Animation Show continues to grow in size and scope, with more Santa Barbarans discovering each year the delights this little show has to offer. If this excellence continues, the Animation Show will soon be the Cotton Club of the music of animation.