Russell Bekins searches for the diamonds in the ruff at the 2007 Annecy Animated Film Festival while answering 20 irritating questions.
The Queen and Her Crown Jewels
Scudding clouds over a lake of clear alpine water. Medieval stone arches leading past heavy wooden doors with iron locks to rock bridges and a round towered prison dating back to the 15th century. Outdoor cafes along a crystalline river quay serving up Savoyard delicacies such as tartiflette and entrecote. Annecy is not so much a city as a setting, a gorgeous gem of a town. The French Alps beckon with hiking, biking, kayaking and a gourmet cruise on the lake if you have the time.
Most of us do not. We are here for the festival. The frantic pace of screenings, meetings, press conferences, workshops and parties generally excludes such frivolities. It seems a pity to waste an animation festival there, because we do not have time to savor our meal, it is all so -- un-French.
Annecy is the queen of animation festivals, dignified, noble and gracious, even though it lacked the ambassadors of the overseas dominions of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network at her court this year. Perhaps a parade is in order: 1,800 films submitted, among which were 46 features. Nine features, 51 shorts in five programs, 43 television programs, 28 commissioned films and 51 graduation films were in competition. It takes awhile for all those troops to go by on review.
For all is well in the realm, but do not imagine it is all pomp and circumstance. In the screenings jesters hurl paper planes onto the stage and burble bubble noises between cartoons. Irreverence reigns, as she should, but majesty and awe were also there in abundance.
The Tyranny of Choices
For most of us mortals, unlimited consumer choice is a pain in the butt. With a surfeit of animation you begin breathing fast, like a kid worried he can get around to all the rides at Disneyland. What makes it worse is that you must choose four screenings for each day and decide what you are going to see right away. A first time visitor flips through the catalogue and schedule in a Hamlet-like agony, as others wait to get on the scheduling computers and programs close through overbooking. Finally, you print out the tickets hoping you have made the right choices.
How to decide what to see? I met one college professor who attended everything, grabbing the occasional baguette sandwich (excellent fast food fare) and plunging into as many screenings and press conferences as possible. After five days, he looked a little the worse for wear, and seemed to be coming down with something.
Some, like me, discover that they booked most of their screenings with French subtitles -- well, you get to work on your French. Or, by accident, you booked one program out of competition -- which really makes you appreciate those in competition. You then walk around the festival with your string of tickets folded in the pouch of your festival badge, much as the scroll of your life waiting to be unrolled. Like the student who has just registered, you hope you don't wind up with rhythmic gymnastics or public administration accounting. Like life, the festival contains its delightful surprises and... like life, all the rest.
I was in heaven because I was there to do what I normally love to do; watch cartoons and ask irritating questions.
The first irritating question I asked of festival artistic director Serge Bromberg. I wanted to know if perhaps the short animation format is a bit odd, forcing production companies into no-win battles and draining off precious resources. "It's about prestige and training." Serge shot back. "Production companies use them to see whether a director is ready for larger films. All the directors at Pixar were doing shorts five years ago... "
Yes, but. That is Pixar. Most of the 1,800 films were not made with the resources of that studio.
"Artists and creators do shorts independently because meeting a market demand is a problem for their freedom of speech and inventiveness." Serge persists, unflappable.
Whether the selection committee is simply another market is beside the point. One tends to want to ask hard questions because, inevitably, there will be winners and losers, and some of the losers will be of high quality.
Peter and the Wolf, one of those shorts that won the Cristal and Audience awards this year, is a winner on any level, except perhaps economically. "I'm very glad that I like the film," says producer Hugh Welchman diplomatically, when asked bluntly as to whether the 32-minute film, five years in production, budgeted at more than $2 million dollars, turned a profit.
Peter and the Wolf follows the musical timing of Prokofiev's piece except for the three minutes of story setup. "Prokofiev's story is quite simple," averred Suzie Templeton in one of the morning coffee with the directors sessions, ably hosted by Bromberg. "I had to fill in the blanks." Most of the story is a ballet between a duck, a cat, a wounded blackbird, a boy, the wolf and two hunters.
The British production was filmed in Poland, and is perhaps the most atmospheric stop-motion ever attempted, full of fascinating details of a rural Russian town. The production designer Jane Morton had done extensive photographic research, and they even looked at criminal booking pictures for the faces. The result was a set that was amazingly detailed, but not very practical for stop-motion animation. "We had to cut holes in the sets for our animators," Templeton laughed. They worked in various scales to get the detail right. A tree where major action takes place was in 1:5 scale, the "garden wall" a patchwork of corrugated metals and wood, was in 1:3 scale.
Still, the most amazing aspect of the film are the closeups of Peter's determined, pouting face. "I had a master model maker," Templeton says. "We spent a lot of time on the eyes, and made veins out of threads." In addition, the animators kept Peter's searching eyes covered with glycerin.
The production company chiefs are now booking the animation for live concerts. They don't seem to have bankrupted themselves, because they are now hard at work, with some of their same Polish collaborators, on their next project, The Lost Town of Siwetz. Well, I guess the system worked for them.
The winner of the Fipresci Award was The Runt, a very simple animation that deals with the very uncomfortable question of raising rabbits for human consumption. To his credit, Andreas Hykade deals with the issue without flinching, in the process, allowing us to examine rituals of male conformity and the ways in which we manipulate children.
It was also clear why The Tale of How won its Special Distinction award. The creation of a very strange and uneasy sea world of birds being eaten to extinction by a giant octopus is alone an accomplishment of narrative. The award, however, clearly means to congratulate the surreal graphics and stylized animation.
So what might these winners tell us about a formula for winning? Spend lots of money and time. Be uncompromising about painful facts and issues of human existence. Find a distinctive graphic style and an original narrative. Avoid humor.
Not according to Bromberg.
"Every time I try to do a prediction it doesn't work," sighed Bromberg, seemingly immune to irritating questions. "I never anticipate who is going to win."
No one disputes the quality of films that won, but many were the films of great artistic merit which did not win. Alexandre Petrov, an Oscar-winner for The Old Man and the Sea, concerned to find a market for the elegant shorts he makes, sought out television funding. My Love was made to fit in a half-hour time block, and had financing from a Russian TV network. Perhaps this is a case where an animation was in the wrong category. Petrov's work has long been considered in the "short" category, where innovation and novelty reign. He is a mature artist whose technique is now refined. Had My Love been put in the television category, it would have blown all competition out of the water. But then, would it be fair to compare this multiple year effort with Charlie and Lola?
The festival's programmers ended most of the short programs with their clear favorites, as was the case with Peter and the Wolf (end of program 2) and My Love (end of program 3). The end of program 4, Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor was a 19th century acid trip, full of ravings, distortions squiggles and textures. The former Annecy winner Koji Yamamura has created a masterwork of subjective psychological turmoil of a country doctor who questions the motives of all those around him and has his own motives questioned in turn. As his inner monologue reels onward, the only possible ending is a gesture of madness -- but by that time we are so uncertain of where reality lies that even this gesture could be a figment of paranoid imagination. The end of program 5, Même les pigeons vont au paradis was a classic narrative short about a country priest with a competitive salesman's soul. The priest, with a face from the Italian cleric of the Don Camillo films, had a marvelous expressive quality and the vocalization of the mouth was especially well articulated. The combination of good gags, a pressing time frame and a couple of nice twists led this film to win the Junior Jury award for a short film.
Another tour de force from a technical standpoint and of disquieting content was Madame Tutli-Putli, a puppet animation featuring a baggage-laden spinster on a train voyage full of evil presentment. Directors Chris Lavis and Maciez Szczerbowski have made a figure that provokes wonder for its expressive eyes. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the train is admirably lit, and Ms. Tutli-Putli's fellow passengers seem to have all washed up on the same lonesome shoal of human endeavor. This piece has just won the top prize at the Worldwide Short Film Festival.
Which, we suppose, is the point in the end. Contests, as well as contestants, have their competition. Those who don't win in Annecy can go on to win somewhere else. Somehow, however, it just doesn't seem as regal.
Surprises in Feature films
"We looked at 46 films in five days," admitted selection committee member Thierry Schiel, "It was amazing." The committee ended up selecting nine films for the competition, nearly double the amount normally screened for the festival.
As I was contemplating which films to see, I ran across Dario, 10, an Italian boy, who seemed an ideal target for irritating questions. Which film I should see? He recommended Kahn Kluay, the Thai offering, full of battle scenes, good and evil, mythology, Ice Age-like animals, gorgeous jungle exteriors and romance with a pink elephant. Why? I persisted. "Because it's entertaining," he replied, looking at me as if I were an idiot.
Kahn Kluay, though it won no awards, is an amazing survival tale. Director Kompin Kemgumnird, after stints at CalArts, Disney Feature Animation and Blue Sky, went to work on this feature about an elephant who becomes swept up in the 16th century struggle for Thai independence. The fact that most of the people working on the feature were Thai is a credit to the patience of Kemgumnird, who had to train much of the crew himself, particularly on CG techniques. "Many of our people thought they were ready," he laughed, "but it was far more complicated than they thought." This single feature may herald the birth of serious animation in Thailand.
Another film that took many by surprise and won the Special Distinction award is The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. See the sidebar for the irritating questions I asked of its author, Mamoru Hosoda. Here's just a little hint for you as to this film's unexpected power: it made me cry during a flashback montage, a narrative structure I usually despise.
For the rest of the story on features at Annecy, read the upcoming article by my colleague, Philippe Moins.
Hey Phillipe, how come you get to cover the features? No, don't answer that. It might just be because you were one of the driving forces behind the special screenings from the Benelux countries this year.
Annecy has four television awards, but does not divide them among genres or age groups. This allows for more flexibility among the prizes, but leaves programs for infants such as Y Porque? competing against a Japanese action horror piece such as Ayakashi or SpongeBob up against Dynamite Guys. While other festivals are careful to avoid these generic overlaps, it must be said in defense of the Annecy judges that the lack of categorizations leaves more room for the judges to award what they find best, without necessarily awarding a category because one must. Audience awards at Annecy are also highly prized, because the audience is of such a high caliber.
Charlie and Lola, also a pluri-award winner at Cartoons on the Bay, won a Special award here at Annecy. With two episodes in the screenings, they demonstrated once again the creativity and cleverness of Kitty Taylor and the Tiger Aspect team. They have broken the mold of children's programming with attentive writing, collage-style graphic animation and great direction of the child voice actors.
The winner of the Crystal for TV series was Shaun the Sheep, the creation of Christopher Sadler and Aardman Animations. Sadler, a key animator and character designer for Aardman now leads a team in the creation of this seven-minute series. The premise of hyper-imaginative sheep taking over when the farmer's back is turned is like a Gary Larson cartoon come to life. Like all Aardman products, the writing, voices and character animation are all outstanding. It is a pleasure to see Aardman winning, because it was the only major studio to continue submitting its work to the feature films competition.
In the Rain, the Out of Competition
Friday night is the evening of Annecy Plus, the sort of Salon de Refuseè for the festival. Founded by Bill Plympton three years ago, it has now become a semi-official event. Now run by Nancy and Nik Phelps, it's really an excuse for watching more cartoons while drinking.
This year the novelty was watching cartoons while drinking and getting rained on. A good bottle of Bordeaux wine, a raincoat and an umbrella go a long way to keep hardy souls to the task. We were rewarded with Professor Pebbles, a devilish clay animation, which makes you ask the irritating question, "why didn't that make the competition?"
"So much depends on what you consider is quality," waxed Bromberg, who generously showed up at the screening to set himself up for just such a pummeling. People can see the same animation, "and say it was the best time of their life, or it was shit, boring, dull. Animation is like a diamond, you cannot understand it just by looking at one facet..."
There is an old French saying: "the road is better than the inn." A festival's real and overwhelming function is the contact with artists and their work, all of which is quite outside the logic of winning and losing.
In that regard, Annecy 2007 remains an exceptional event, a diamond of a memory.
Russell Bekins has served time at in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.