Annecy 2010: Celebrating 50 Years

Nancy Denney-Phelps reports back from the 50th Annecy festivities while Don Duga once again provides a vicarious sketchbook of festival highlights.

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I took the train to Annecy full of excitement and great expectations for the 50th Anniversary of the festival. According to the festival press release, they were expecting 6,700 participants from 66 countries, 1,647 companies crowding into MIFA, 300 journalists and 230 international buyers. For a festival to pull off such a grand event with minimum problems would be a miracle indeed. When people tried to get tickets for events, however, it felt like there were twice as many people in attendance.

The first hint of trouble came when there was no invitation to the opening night ceremony or the party. I was looking forward to seeing the opening night film, The Illusionist,but was told that this year no journalists had been given tickets because they were just too many people and 150 seats had been relegated to non-industry VIPs (which translates to money people). Journalists were told that there was no problem: our names had been placed on a request list and we should just keep checking back with the press office to get our passes. To make it even worse, two hours before the ceremony we were finally told that there was no possibility for us to get tickets. I finally managed to get a ticket from my friend and fellow journalist Olivier Cotte, who had gotten two tickets from someone who actually didn't want to see the film. Both Olivier and I wasted a good part of Monday afternoon looking for tickets instead of seeing films.

However, The Illusionist was well worth all of the time and trouble that went into getting the ticket. The film is based on an unproduced script that the great French film star Jacques Tati wrote in the 1950s as a personal letter to his estranged illegitimate daughter Helga Marie-Jean Schiel. The plot revolves around a struggling illusionist whose travels take him to an isolated Scottish community where he meets a young lady who believes that he is a real magician. The film isn't a romance, but rather it centers on the relationship between a father and his daughter.  Several people told me that they thought that the ending was very sad, but I interpreted it as a hopeful prospect for new beginnings for both of the main characters.

The 2010 British-French co-production was directed by Sylvain Chomet and has the same soft nostalgic look as The Triplets of Belleville , butwith a bit darker edge to it. A cameo appearance by Jaques Tati via black-and-white footage on a television screen was a lovely touch, as was the photo of the girl as a child, which is a reproduction of an actual photo of Tati's daughter.

I didn't manage to score a ticket to the opening night party, but it turned out that most of the interesting people didn't either. The place to be that evening was a table at the corner café. A continuous parade of people joined Nik and I at our table and filled us in on what they had been doing. Neither Nik nor Jacqueline Zeitz, the animated films program director at Dok Leipzig Documentary Festival, got to see The Illusionst, so she kept him company talking film and music over wine. Jacqueline was particularly upset about not seeing the film since she had come specifically to see it for consideration for her festival.

After the film, I joined them at the café, and was delighted to catch up with Heather Kenyon, who is now vice president for project development and sales at Starz Animation, a wing of Film Roman in Burbank, California. South Korean animator Woonki Kim, who we first met at KROK several years ago, sat down to talk about his new TV series Fuss Farm, an episode of which was in the TV competition. The proud father also showed us an adorable video of his young baby dancing away to music.

Once again this year feature films took center stage with seven films in the official competition and six out of competition. Another six films were premieres, including Shrek Forever After andthe new 3-D versions of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. I don't watch too many feature films at Annecy because I know that I will have an opportunity to see them at other festivals. I am very glad, though, that I did choose to see Piercing 1. DirectorLiu Jian's film is China's first independent feature. If this film had been made in any other country, it wouldn't have been quite so interesting, but this story by and about someone who is living through the radical changes that are taking place in China now gives a fascinating look into a rather dystopian world. Due to the financial crisis, many Chinese factories were forced to close in late 2008. Like many unemployed young people left destitute in a big city, the main character, Zhang Xiaojun, has lost his job and becomes involved in shady activities while longing to return to his village to become a farmer.

Liu Jian studied classical Chinese painting and became a novelist after his studies. His first film, Piercing 1, is based on his novel, and he financed it by selling his house in China. He plans to make a trilogy, with Piercing 2 and 3, which will focus on different characters in drastic situations in contemporary China.

There is little hope that this very relevant film will ever be shown commercially in China, but it is being distributed by HAFF (Holland Animation Film Festival). Incidentally, Piercing 1 won the Best Feature Film award at the prestigious I Castelli Animati Festival in Italy.

This year Annecy once again presented five programs in the short competition with a mixed bag of films (there were only four last year). A new film from the National Film Board of Canada by Theodore Ushev is always of interest to me. Lipsett's Diaries was not a disappointment and earned an award for Special Distinction. The film explores the fertile imagination and turbulent personal history of the experimental Canadian director Arthur Lipsett, who committed suicide at the age of 49. The script by Chris Robinson, excellent author and director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, is a fictional recreation of Lipsett's non-existent diaries based on his notes and films. Theodore used paint on paper, drawing on every frame, using a computer for the in-betweens to create a dark look into the mind of an artist falling into madness and depression.

Theodore infused the film with very personal feelings, and he told me that he was inspired by Francis Bacon and Goya's later works known as his "Black Paintings." As with all of his films, I need to watch Lipsett's Diaries several times more to peel back the many layers of this very dense film.

The 25-minute clay-animated Esterhazy takes you in another dark direction with a twist of black humor. The film, based on a popular German children's book of the same name by Irene Dischet and Hans Mangus Enzenberger, tells the story of the wild rabbits that lived in the no man's land between the two walls separating East and West Berlin. This empty space was a perfect safe place for rabbits to live, with no predators and a lot of grass. Their reality suddenly changed with the fall of the wall.

The story revolves around Esterhazy, a young rabbit from the Esterhazy dynasty of Vienna.  The family stock is declining because they prefer to eat chocolate rather than vegetables. The young Esterhazy is sent to Berlin to find a large, zaftig rabbit wife.  The 35mm film received a distributor after a presentation at the Cannes Film Festival and I hope that it will be shown at festivals in the United States.

Geefwee Boedoe has worked as an animator and in story development at Pixar, Disney Feature Animation, ILM and DreamWorks. He also storyboarded, designed, and directed the animation on the title sequence for Monsters, Inc. Besides being very talented, Geefwee has a very offbeat sense of humor. Now a freelance animator, his Let's Pollute is a modern satire in the spirit of the 1950s and '60's educational films.  When I asked him about his film, Boedoe said that we all hear so many don't pollute PSA's that people stop paying attention so he decided to tell us how it is our heritage to pollute and how it keeps our economy strong in hopes that people will notice his quirky message.  He also instructs us on how we can all become better polluters for a more blighted tomorrow.

Once again this year, the Shorts and Breakfast chats hosted by Festival Artistic Director Serge Bromberg gave me a chance to hear directors talk about their films.  I particularly enjoyed hearing Danish author and comic book artist, Joanna Rubin Dranger, talk about turning her book Miss Remarkable & Her Career into a film. Not an animator by training, her gallows humor and bold comic style translated perfectly to the screen. The 30-minute black-and-white animation was quite an undertaking for a first film and my three colleagues who sat on the International Federation of Film Critics Award Jury agreed, because they gave it the Fipresci Award.

Again this year Monica Tasciotti proved to be a very adept interviewer at the Features at Noon talk. She does her homework and knows how to draw out even the shyest director. I was fascinated to hear Liu Jian talk about the trials and tribulations of independent film makers in China. He spoke honestly and openly about the social and economic conditions in China today.

To honor the five decades of Annecy, a quintet of programs showcased festival award winners by decades. The Ones That Got Away paid belated tribute to films that won awards at other events but were overlooked at Annecy.

My favorite tribute screening was Don't Blink! Animation in 50 Very Short Films. With no film more than 3 minutes from 21 countries and a staggering list of great animators, it was all packed into one 70-minute laugh filled program. It really brought home what fantastic films can be created in a vast array of styles when a small amount of film is put in the right hands.

Old favorites such as Politically Incorrect and The Big Sleep almost got lost in the vast array of programs. This year the animation community lost three major names: Roy Disney, Belgian producer Pierre Levie and the great Chinese animator Te Wei. Although I have seen Te Wei's beautiful films before, the opportunity to see pristine prints of his delicate work with good sound on a big screen was time well-spent.

I wish that I had been able to see all four documentary programs. The most talked about film was the European premier of Waking Sleeping Beauty. Even more fascinating to me was O Galop, a documentary retracing the life and works of Marius Rossillon aka O Galop. A contemporary of Emile Cohl, O'Galop was the little known creator of the world famous Michelin Man, but he created so much more than just his well known. He was a great animation pioneer as well as a poster artist and illustrator for the press.

Fascinated by movement, O'Galop made some 40 animated films that led to projects for such international heavyweights as Benjamin Rabier, Ub Iwerks, and Walt Disney.  He used his talent and knowledge to work in a wide range of techniques from animating frame by frame images and painting on glass to magic lantern slides. I was so pleased to discover this little known chapter of French animation history.

As befits a 50th anniversary, the festival invited 50 famous personalities from the animation world to help celebrate. From Richard Williams to Nick Park, you could hardly walk through theBonleiu (festival headquarters) without running into old friends andseeing famous faces. Every day great talents such as George Schwartzgabel, Bill Plympton and Alexei Alexeev sat at the festival boutique signingcopies of Creators & Creatures. The beautiful 256-pagebilingual French-English book published by the festival for theanniversary is a collection of behind the scenes looks into the creativeprocess of 50 of the world's greatest animators. This visual panoramaof the art of animation is well worth the 39 Euro price. I haven't beenable to find out how to order it on line yet but as soon as I do I will put it on my blog.

The Making of series was designed to give the audience a glimpse into the individual creative process and an opportunity to ask questions of some of the most creative minds. Renowned French animator Michel Ocelot took us on his journey from creating his magical 3D feature Azur and Asmarto the 18 monthsthat he spent making 11 episodes of his new series Dragons andPrincesses, which earned a Special Award for a TV series. The journey from making a feature film to a series is hard enough, buteven more difficult when there is little money, equipment or help.Michel, a born story teller, shared many valuable lessons with a packedaudience.

The hottest ticket on Thursday was the SimpsonsExtravanga 2. To help create his very special event with Simpsonmasterminds David Silverman and Matt Groening, Serge Bromberg enlisted the aid of Peter Lord and David Sproxton (Aardman Animation Studios) tocreate special animation footage.  David and Matt had lots of newstories to tell about Springfield's "first family" along with hilariousbehind the scenes glimpses. Even David and Matt were surprised by the"new look" Peter and David gave to the world's most recognizable family.The filled to overflowing audience showed their appreciation for a funfilled evening with roars of laughter and long, loud applause.

This year the festival honored Argentina, a country with a rich animationtradition. Two programs of short animation were screened as well as aprogram of 22 very short films by Juan Pablo Zaramella. At 38, Zaramellahas received international recognition for his work. Two feature films, Oily Boogie and Mercano, the Martian were also shown. I also received a trailer for Anima Buenos Aires, a feature film that is in production. According to the press material, the film will reveal the hidden soul of Buenos Aires in four episodes with tango and music as the thread that ties it all together. If the completed film is as interesting and well done as the trailer it should be a big hit at festivals.

The Argentine delegation threw a tango party at Le Bowl, a nearby bowling complex, where I received a tango lesson from Chilean animator Luciano Munoz Sessarego. After a massive buffet and ample drinks, the guests could bowl and dance the night away. The Argentines definitely brought the Latin American spirit to Annecy that night.

When not watching film, my days and nights were packed with events. Each year I look forward to the German Animation Party on Tuesday. This year the setting was L'Oasis Auberge de Bessard in Sevier, a 15-minute bus ride around the lake. The best part of this party is that it is always so relaxed with people sitting at the tables scattered around the lawn chatting. We were treated to a lovely buffet with copious amounts of good beer and wine.

To add to the festive air, the Plus Annecy Band played. This year, Nik on horns and Rolf Bächler playing drums were joined by part of our KROK band, with Alexei Alexeev on guitar, and Mikhail Aldashin playing percussion, as well as Veljko Popvic helping to keep the beat on percussion. Danas Berznitsky, a new addition to the band, joined in on the Jews Harp. The band was joined for a couple numbers by special guest star on drums: Ulrich Wegenast, artistic managing director of the Stuttgart Trickfilm Festival. It turns out that he used to be a drummer for a punk band and he has not lost his touch.

I had the chance to spend a few hours with my old friend Greg Lawson from Amsterdam. We had not seen each other for a while but the last time we talked he had said that he wanted to change the direction of his work. His former company, Lawson and What's His Name, was best known for its innovative commercial work and Safe Sex trilogy. Greg told me that he has launched a new company, Lawson Extremely Limited, and wants to get back to animating and creating more personal work. He looked much happier and more relaxed than I have seen him look in years and this is excellent news to all of us who admire Greg and his work.

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On Thursday morning, Nik and I were honored to be invited to a very special event. Tiziana Loschi, the chief representative of CITIA (the business wing of the Annecy Festival), was elevated to the rank of Chevalier in the French Order of Merit. The high honor was bestowed in recognition of Tiziana's service to the French film and animation industry. The organization is a cultural co-operative co-funded by the Annecy Greater Urban Area, Haute-Savoie General Council, the Rhone-Alpes Regional Council and the French State. One of CITIA's main purposes is to promote the circulation of French film.

Tiziana is a very able and enthusiastic representative. She discovered the world of animation through the films of Miyazaki. "I have great admiration and respect for those artists working (in animation) not hesitating to spend years in their field," she explained.

Each person elevated to the rank of Chevalier must select someone who has already received the honor to present the medal to them. Tiziana asked Michel Ocelot to do the honors. On the balcony deck of the Restaurant Le Plage, they both looked radiant against the backdrop of Lake Annecy as he pinned the cross onto her jacket. The brilliant morning sun made the La Plage balcony a perfect setting for the auspicious event. The ceremony was fittingly followed by a delicious buffet with superb champagne and wine.

Several people told me that they thought that Annecy has just gotten too big and that they were seriously considering going to Stuttgart or Zagreb next year, and I can understand their feelings.

I realize that the festival has become more and more about business and that the 50th Anniversary was a special year but the festival will be making a terrible mistake if they forget about the many animators, programmers and journalists who have returned year after year.  So the jury is still out for me.

Opening night, 150 tickets were reserved for business dignitaries instead of being given to animators. Many people who should have seen The Illusionist couldn't see the film, much less attend the opening party. The parties are important opportunities, because that is where we have the opportunity to meet and talk to each other.

There was just too much to see in one week. If Annecy keeps expanding they are going to have to lengthen the festival to 10 days or a week.  If I didn't write about your favorite screening or event, I'm sorry, but there are only 24 hours in a day, even at Annecy.

For me the icing on the cake was our train ride home to Belgium. We shared a carriage with Raoul Serrvais from the French border to his stop in Belgium and time flew by as we had good conversation and shared memories. Raoul also told us that CFCA (Association du Cinema d' animaton) has invited him to be a special part of their 12 day long IDA (International Animation Day) celebration. On Oct. 28, he will present a selection of his films and international shorts.

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Nancy Denney-Phelps has produced music for animation for the past 16 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.