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Annecy 2008: A Truly Feature Festival

Nancy Denney-Phelps reports on the doings at Annecy while Don Duga dreams a vicarious sketchbook of festival highlights.

When I first learned that the 2008 Annecy Festival of Animation (June 9-14 in Annecy, France) was spotlighting feature films I was quite apprehensive. An animated feature has to be really good to make me want to stay in my seat for an hour and a half without falling asleep or wishing that it was over, but I was in for a pleasant surprise at the festival this year. Of 40 features submitted to the selection committee, nine were placed in competition, 12 screened out of competition, and three were shown as special premieres. It was a fine selection and the subject matter and styles were so varied that there was something to please everyone.

Nina Paley's brilliant musical adaptation of the Indian epic Ramayana, Sita Sings the Blues, was an instant crowd pleaser. Drawing the film together with songs from the 1920s songstress Annette Hanshaw, including the poignant Mean to Me, Nina tells the legend of the Indian god Rama from the point of view of his wife Sita. Nina also weaves her own personal story of her husband's mid-life crisis and subsequent dumping of her via email throughout what she refers to as "the greatest break-up story ever told."

As in Indian Bollywood films, there is an "intermission" with music in this wonderful film, and my husband Nik was very pleased to continue his long-running collaboration with Nina by creating the music for this special segment of her film. Unfortunately, despite winning numerous awards at festivals, Nina has not yet found a distributor for her film, so the only place that you can see Sita is at festivals. Let's hope that this situation is remedied soon so that everyone, especially in the United States where there are very few animation festivals, will be able to enjoy this masterpiece of independent filmmaking.

Bill Plympton's Idiots and Angels, a dark comedy about a man's battle for his soul, was a welcome treat. The film is very monochromatic with a dark surreal Eastern European look. I like his use of only music and sound effects, no dialogue, to give the film an almost operatic feeling, and the choice of such musicians as Moby, Tom Waits and Pink Martini added an elevated dimension to the story. This film establishes Bill as a master of the independent feature, as well as king of short films. Bill pulled off a great coup by having both his feature film and his short film Hot Dog, the third film in a series about an eager but inept dog (that Bill calls his Mickey Mouse) in the juried competition.

I first wrote about Nocturna when I saw it at Anima Brussels last February. This debut film by young Spanish animators Adria Garcia and Victor Maldonado is the tale of a young orphan whose fear of the dark gives birth to a monster that is bent on wiping out all sources of light in the night sky. This charming film combines a soft background reminiscent of The Triplets of Belleville with Japanese-style anima characters to create a film that I have enjoyed watching repeatedly.

I have also seen Peur(s) Du Noir (Fear(s) of the Dark) previously. This black-and-white film created by six different animators -- most of whom are primarily known as comic book artists -- brings their fears, phobias, and nightmares to life. Each segment could stand alone as a strong short animation. I still find the use of the female vocal that connects the segments really distracting from the overall mood of the film.

Two other features caught my attention. French director Olivier Jean-Marie's Go West, A Lucky Luke Adventure was just pure fun. Lucky Luke is based on the European comic book series of the same name by Rene Coscinny, the creator of Asterix, and Belgian cartoonist Morris. Go West finds Lucky Luke, a living legend of the West, escorting the notorious escape artists the Dalton Brothers back to New York City for yet another trial. Of course the Daltons escape and there ensues a riotous chase that is an homage to the world of burlesque comedy, the classic slapstick of Buster Keaton, and even the Blues Brothers.

At the other end of the spectrum was Piano No Moi (The Piano Forest). Japanese animator Masayuhi Kojima has created a visually lovely tale of two talented young boys from radically different backgrounds learning to play the piano. One boy is from a good background, the other a street urchin, but the boys discover that they have Mozart and Chopin in common. This beautifully drawn film features music by the world-renowned pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Unfortunately I did not find that the 42 short films in competition lived up to the quality that I would hope to find at Annecy. Of course there were bright spots such as Russian animator Alexei Alexeev's KJFG No. 5. Alexei not only created the visuals for this hilarious film about three professional musicians -- a bear, a rabbit, and a wolf -- rehearsing their act, but also performed all of the music.

Jeremy Clapin has followed up his multi-award-winning Une Historie Vertebrale (Backbone Tale) with another delightfully quirky story, Skhizein, about a man who is hit by a meteorite. As a result of the impact, his life is drastically altered and he begins to live 91 centimeters away from his physical body.

The student films category of graduation films has consistently been the place to see inventive ideas brought to life, but unfortunately this year they did not live up to my expectations.

The festival was jam-packed with special programs that more than made up for the competition disappointments. The opening night film usually is a bit of fluff, but this year, in a very courageous move by the festival, the audience was treated to Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir. The film delves into the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War via a trip to the heart of West Beirut during the massacres at the Sabra and Chatila camps. This very moving film received a standing ovation, an audience reaction that I have rarely seen at Annecy. It delivers its message of the futility of war with a strong impact.

John Canemaker (l) and Richard Williams peddle each other's books. All photos courtesy of Nancy Denney-Phelps.

John Canemaker (l) and Richard Williams peddle each other's books. All photos courtesy of Nancy Denney-Phelps.

2008 marks the 100th birthday of pioneer animator Emil Cohl's Fantasmagorie and, in a special presentation, the film was screened with piano acompaniment provided by festival director Serge Bromberg. It was a fitting opening-night tribute. Serge was then joined on stage by director David Silverman and his tuba. While David played, Serge narrated the dialogue to Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur.

Throughout the week, a nod to Cohl's genius was given in a series of screenings. A program of early silent films gave us a glimpse into the world of the animators who followed in Cohl's footsteps. Six French animation schools came together in a workshop that resulted in four short films using material from Cohl films. From June 9 to October 31, The Spirit of Emile Cohl, 100 years of Unbridled Animation will be on view at the Musee-Chateau d'Annecy. The exhibition shows the great pioneer's contributions to moving pictures with a collection of 10 of his films that have been linked with animated works from the past and present. Contemporary animators such as Bill Plympton, Paul Dreissen and Koji Yamamura have created drawings and animated shorts in homage to Cohl.

Tex Avery would have been 100 years old this year, and 100 Years of Madness took us into his crazy world, from the art deco Page Miss Glory (which Avery disliked so much that he refused to have his name on it) to the hilarious adventures of Droopy.

One of the most enjoyable events of the festival was a morning cocktail party to open triple Oscar winner Richard Williams' exhibit in the library of the Bonleiu, which is also the festival headquarters. Richard's artwork included storyboard sketches, original cels, and life drawings. Williams, who started his professional career as a painter and had never exhibited his drawings before, said that he especially wanted to show his drawings as an example to young animators, so that they could see that you need to learn to draw before you take to your computer.

The perennial crowd-pleasers Politically Incorrect, Spicy Animation and The Best of Bad Taste presented by Spike, "King of the Tasteless Toons," were back again this year. Another regular feature at Annecy is The Big Sleep, which pays homage to animators who have passed away in the last 12 months. It was a bittersweet pleasure to see works by such greats as Ollie Johnston, the legendary David Hilberman, and of course the sorely missed Russian genius Alexander Tatarsky.

This year India was the showcase country. Unfortunately, the majority of the films in the three programs were commercial rather than independent works. I really would have enjoyed seeing what was being done by animators working on their own, rather than what is being created in the production houses.

Two of my favorite parts of the festival are the morning Shorts and Breakfast with Serge Bromberg and Features at Noon hosted by Monica Tasciotti. The breakfast chats give the audience an opportunity to hear the animators from the previous day's short film program talk about their work. Serge is a very adroit interviewer and is able to draw out even the shyest director with his keen observations and impeccable wit. The listeners are able to ask questions while enjoying espresso and croissants. My opinion of a film is seldom changed at the chats, but I do enjoy getting insights into the animators' visions.

With feature films taking center stage this year, host Monica Tosciotti's Features at Noon sessions were even more important than when they were launched last year. Nik joined Nina Paley and one of the French musicians who also created music for Sita in the hot seat to talk about "the creation of" the film and about Nina's remarkable achievement in creating a first feature almost single-handedly on a very small budget.

Of course Annecy wouldn't be Annecy without great parties, and our dance card was certainly full. The opening night party at La Plage was the first opportunity to catch up with friends, while enjoying some delicious food and wine. Far and away my favorite party every year is the Stuttgart Festival picnic, held at a beautiful spot on the lake that is a 20-minute ride from the festival. For a few hours we escaped from the mad frenzy of the festival and spent time eating, drinking and visiting with friends on the grassy shore of the lake. Even the pouring rain throughout most of the picnic didn't dampen spirits as we all found shelter in the food tent.

Nancy Denney-Phelps, Serge Bromberg and Bill Plympton introduce Annecy Plus.

Nancy Denney-Phelps, Serge Bromberg and Bill Plympton introduce Annecy Plus.

The KROK Festival party was a splendid affair and, in true Russian/Ukrainian style, there was plenty of vodka and food. The party featured a large screen that showed pictures from previous KROK trips and it was so nice to relive all of those happy memories. The Swiss Film Commission fête and the event hosted by Animafest Zagreb were also lovely parties. The DreamWorks picnic is always a lovely afternoon under the trees that border the lake. It is always a good place to mix business with pleasure while eating and drinking the copious food and beverages that the hostess with the mostest Shelly Page provides for our pleasure.

Friday evening, Bill Plympton and I hosted the fourth annual Annecy Plus event. It is billed as "the best films from around the world REJECTED by Annecy." This year the overflowing audience was not only treated to excellent films, but to a special surprise as well -- the Annecy Plus band, featuring Nik Phelps on horns, percussionist Rolf Bächler and David Silverman on tuba. The band played before the show and during intermission, as well as performing their original score for Bill Plympton's The Love Race.

Paley and Alexi Alexeev toast Nina's paddleboat race victory.

Paley and Alexi Alexeev toast Nina's paddleboat race victory.

Saturday was dry and sunny for the annual potluck picnic and paddleboat race. Of course we had all been in training for the big race all year long and, after a week spent in screening rooms, an afternoon in the sun and on the water was just pure fun. It is also a good way for animators to forget the anxieties of who will go home with awards that evening. A hidden talent was revealed when Astor Parr played Alexi Alexeev's ukulele. Her husband Peter said that after all their years of marriage, he did not know that he was married to a ukulele virtuoso. The multi-talented couple also had the honor to be guest judges for the boat race.

Nina Paley and her paddling partner, Johannes Wolters of Germany, won first-place honors. For the first time in race history, Nik and I actually came in second, with a dynamic feat of paddling! Music was provided by Nik, Rolf, and Alexi.

The evening awards ceremony finally arrived and, by coincidence, Nik and I found ourselves seated next to the French voices of The Simpsons. The movie had been screened on the large outdoor screen by the lake earlier in the week. We were overjoyed when Bill Plympton was announced as the winner of a Special Distinction Award for Idiots and Angels, and we could hardly contain ourselves when Nina's name was announced as the winner of the Crystal for long features. She looked like she was in shock when she got to the microphone and kept thanking everyone. It was truly a night of great triumph for American independent animation. The short films Crystal was awarded to Kunio Kato of Japan for La Maison en Petits Cubes. This tender film tells the story of a grandfather whose home is being consumed by the sea. As the water rises, he is constantly adding rooms skyward and reliving family memories.

For the closing night party, we were back at La Plage and we really had a lot to celebrate. Nina looked radiant as she accepted congratulations from everyone. The last night is always bittersweet because we won't see some of our friends for quite a while, but there were so many good times to remember this year at Annecy that we will all have smiles on our faces when we recall this very special week in the beautiful town on the lake at the foot of the Alps.

ANNECY 2008 PALMARES

Feature Films:

Jury: Matt Groening, Ram Mohan and Barry Purves

Crystal for Best Feature:Sita Sings the Blues -- Nina Paley/USA

Special Distinction:Idiots and Angels -- Bill Plympton/USA

Audience Award:Les Trois Brigands (The Three Robbers) --Hayo Freitag/Germany

Short Films:

Jury: John Canemaker, Stephan-Flint Muller, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Helene Tanguary and Richard Williams

The Annecy Crystal:La Maison en Petit Cubes -- Kunio Kato/Japan

Special Jury Award:La Dama en el Umbral (The Lady on the Threshold) -- Jorge Dayas/Spain

Jean-Luc Xiberras Award for a First Film:Portraits rates a Sainte-Helene -- Cedric Villain/France

Special Distinction:Berni's Doll --Yann J./France Morana -- Simon Bogojevic Narath/France, Croatia

Sacem Award for Original Music:KJFG No. 5 -- Alexei Alexeev/Hungray, Russia

Audience Award:Skhizein -- Jeremy Clapin/France

TV and Commissioned Films:

Jury: Michel Beaudet, Nicole Keeb and Bhuvan Lall

Crystal for Best TV Production:L'enfer de la mode from Moot Moot -- Francois Reczulski/France

Special Award for a TV Series:"Catnip," "Pest Controller" and "Oasis" from Talented Mouse -- Leigh Hodgkinson/Great Britian

Best TV Series:Engel Zu Fuss -- Saschka Unseld and Jakob Schuh/Germany

Educational, Scientific or Industrial Commissioned Film:Bibigon "Faculty Fun Idents X 9" -- Steve Smith/Great Britian

Advertising or Promotional Film:Sony Bravia "Play-Doh" -- Darren Walsh and Franck Budgen/Great Britian

Best Music Video:Annuals "Dry Clothes" -- Turk Animation Ltd./Great Britian

Graduation Films:

Jury: Alain Burosse, Sylvie Porte and David Silverman

Best Graduation Film:Camera Obscura -- Mattihieu Buchalski, Jean-Michel Drechsler and Thierry Onillon/France

Special Jury Award:My Happy End -- Milen Vitanov/Germany, Bulgaria

Special Distinction:Le Voyageur (The Traveller) -- Johan Pollefoort/Belgium

Other Prizes:

Junior Jury: Shaurya Athlet, Leo Grimaud, Maroussia Humbert and Lakshaye Singh

Junior Jury Award for a Short Film:La Maison en Petits Cubes -- Kunio Kato/Japan

Junior Jury Award for a Graduate Film:Margot -- Gerlando Infuso /Belgium

UNICEF Award:Hugh -- Mathieu Navarro, Sylvain Nouveau, Francois Pommiez and Aurore Turbe/France

The Fipresci Jury: Nadezhda Marintchevska, Avedik Olohadjian, and Doris Senn

Fipresci Award:She Who Measures -- Veljko Popovic/Croatia

CANAL Plus Creative Aid Award for a Graduation Film:Oktapodi -- Julien Bocabeille, Francois-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi/France

The Short Project Competition Winners:

Jury: Valerie Bourgoin, Ron Dyens, Pierre-Luc Granjon and Christian Janicot

ARTE France:Via Curiel 8 -- Mara Cerri/Italy

SRG SSR Idée Suisse:Il Gioco del Silence (The Play of Silence) -- Virginia Mori/Italy

CANAL Plus Centre Images -- Region Centre:Le Mome Tintouin -- Loic Malo/France

Luxanimation S. A.:Ico Pong and Me -- Michael Bolufer/France

Toon Boon Animation, Inc.:La Femme Sans Visage ou "L'Esprit de la Pierre" -- Gael Brisou/France

SACD:Le Clochard (The Tramp) -- Rony Hotin/France

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Nancy Denney-Phelps has produced music for animation for the past 15 years. She has written about animation and animation festivals for such publications as

Animatoons, Film/Tape World, Reel World and the ASIFA/San Francisco news magazine and is a member of the ASIFA International Board. In 2006, Nancy and her composer/musician husband Nik Phelps moved from San Francisco to Gent, Belgium, where they now have their home.

Don Duga is an animator, director and producer of animation. From UPA to Rankin/Bass to commercials to Sesame Street to feature films, he is an industry veteran. He has storyboarded such classics as Mr. Magoo, Underdog, The Last Unicorn, Frosty the Snow Man, Mad Monster Party, Wind in the Willows and more. He is also the co-founder of Polestar Films in New York, and has been an instructor of animation at The School of Visual Arts in New York City since 1962.

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