Annecy 2013: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Commercialism and Love the Festival

Nancy Phelps reports on the first Annecy International Animation Festival under the leadership of new creative director Marcel Jean.

All the award winners pose onstage at the Closing Ceremonies. Click on this image for a high res version. Image copyright Festival international du film d'animation-Annecy.

ANNECY INTERNATIONAL ANIMATION FESTIVAL - 10 TO 15 JUNE 2013 - ANNECY, FRANCE

A complete list of winners can be found here.

For several years I had been bothered about the direction that the Annecy International Animation Festival has been heading but this year I finally came to terms with the fact that the festival is now about money and feature length films.  After thinking about it for a very long time I came to the conclusion that having one animation festival devoted to business is not a bad thing since feature films, television series, and commercials are an important part of the animation world.  Besides it means that Annecy is doing the “industry job” very well, so that other festivals don’t have to do it and I can just accept Annecy for what it is.

If I had any doubts that Annecy has become all about money and feature films, Annecy 2013 painted a very clear picture of what the festival now considers important.  With a total of 23 feature films, 9 in competition and 14 screened out of competition you could spend your entire festival watching nothing but feature length films.  That is if you have time to watch much film at all with everything that is going on.

If you were at Annecy to do serious business then MIFA (International Animation Film Market) at the Hotel Imperial was the place to be.  Over 460 exhibitors were there to showcase their films, television series and all sorts of technical equipment to the 2,400 MIFA delegates.  63 countries were represented and for the first time a production company from the tiny island nation of Malta had a booth to show off their stop motion preschool children’s television series Teddyland.  Ruth Frendo of Pro.Motion Limited told me that Teddyland is the first stop motion animation as well as the first animated series produced on Malta.

For those of us who were there to see film, the opening night feature was Monsters University proceeded by Sashka Unseld’s Pixar short The Blue Umbrella which I wrote about at length in my Trickfilm/Stuttgart article.  This year the traditional  hub of the festival, The Bonlieu, is undergoing renovation to enlarge the back stage area so that the theatre will be able to host opera and ballet productions.  This meant that the main screening room was moved to a temporary pre-fab building erected especially for the festival inside the walls of the Salle de Haras.  Until a few years ago the Haras, constructed in 1806, was a stable and horse training center inside the walls of an old convent.  The king kept his stallions there so that he would have horses to ride when he came to Annecy.

Unfortunately the Salle de Haras screening room had fewer seats than the Bonlieu so not everyone could be invited to opening night.  There was a special press screening of Monsters University in the afternoon before the opening ceremony.

With fewer seats this year I can understand that it was impossible to give everyone a ticket to the opening night screening but what I cannot understand is why the Short Animation Competition directors were invited to the opening night screening but were not invited to the opening night party at La Plage following the opening.  This is the first time in my memory that these directors have not received an invitation.  La Plage has not shrunk and has always been able to accommodate everyone.

When Nik and I entered the party it was immediately evident that the event was for feature film directors, their entourages, and money people, with nary a short film director in sight.  There was a party at La Plage for the short film directors the next night after the Pixar/Disney Renderman party but that is not the same as the opening fete.   Animators work long solitary hours to create their films and have slim hopes for money or recognition unless they are extremely lucky.  Animators also spend a great deal of their own money to come to Annecy not to mention the high cost of a place to stay for a week, so a ticket to the opening night party seems a small token of appreciation from a festival.

I was very pleased with the overall quality of the 5 short film competitions.  I have watched the progress of Robbe Vervaeke’s beautifully painted on glass film Norman for the last couple of years.  Robbe graduated from KASK in 2008 and his studio is close to my home.  I have seen Norman at other somewhat less than perfect screenings where the sound has not been correct and the picture looked too dark and indistinct, but at Annecy, Robbe’s film, the story of a man obsessed by the smallest detail and strange habits sparkled on the screen and the soundtrack really stood out.  Obviously the jury agreed with me because Norman won the award in the first time professional film category.

Any film by Dutch animator Rosto always needs several viewings to catch all of the subtle references and Lonely Bones, his latest film which combines live action with computer animation, is no exception.  The film is the second of a planned trilogy of music films featuring the band Thee Wreckers and it continues where No Place Like Home left off.  The film makes references to crucifixion, resurrection, and the souls of the dead and demons down below in strong visual images.  I have watched the film a couple of more times here at home and each time I find new little touches that make me laugh.  The multitalented Rosto, not only an animator but lead singer of Thee Wreckers, took home the SACEM Award for original music.

Dutch director Rosto being interviewed by Marcel Jean at the morning directors’ chat. All images courtesy of Nancy Phelps unless otherwise noted.

In an entirely different vein The Wound tells a poignant tale of a lonely, bitter little girl whose resentment and estrangement from the world around her are manifest in a monster that feeds on her anguish.  As she grows elderly the monster grows from a small companion to a gigantic monster that finally completely dominates her life.  Russian animator Anna Budanova’s use of space, muted images, and no dialogue set the perfect tone for her poignant film.  Anna Budanova won a special jury award for The Wound.

On my first evening at Annecy I had drinks with Chris Landreth, 2004 Best Short Animation Oscar winner for Ryan.  When I asked him what his new film was about he just smiled and said “we’ll talk after you see it”.  I don’t want to ruin the delightful surprise that awaits viewers when they see Subconscious Password but I will say that it is one of the funniest animations that I have seen in a long time.  I still laugh whenever I think of Chris’ take on a situation that is all too familiar to all of us.

Subconscious Password is a far cry from Landreth’s previous cerebral, psychoanalytical films.  When I later asked him about his complete change of style and story he told me (and I paraphrase this) that he is “getting older” and instead of serious probing of the psyche he has lightened up.

Chris Landreth and Nancy.

I think that Subconscious Password was clearly the most creative film at the festival this year.   I was very pleased to see that Chris took home the coveted crystal for Best Short Animation.  When his name was announced he looked totally amazed and surprised.  The film produced by Marcy Page of the National Film Board of Canada and Toronto’s Mark Smith of Copper Heart Production is another example in a long line of award winning films that shows what a brilliant, creative asset Marcy is to NFB.

Chris Landreth and former festival Artistic Director Serge Bromberg.

The daily Features At Noon press conferences was an opportunity to listen to directors and animators talk about their films.  I have seen the wonderful Spanish feature film O Apostolo twice and thoroughly enjoyed it both times.  The story of an escaped convict who tries to retrieve his hidden loot in a remote village where he had stashed it years before is delightfully macabre.

I was fascinated to finally get to see O Apostolo’s extremely detailed puppets up close and listen to director Fernando Cortizo Rodriguez and Executive Producer Isabel Ray Sastre speak about the making of the film.  O Apostolo was made with puppets and no computer animation at all.  All of the backgrounds were hand constructed.  The score by Phillip Glass added just the right rich, sinister undertones to the film without dominating it.

O Apóstolo director Fernando Cortizo and Executive Producer Isabel Rey introduce Nancy to the puppets.

Although the film is not based on any one true anecdote, the 3-D stop motion feature combines folklore, traditions and the history of Northern Spain.  Sinister old people, odd disappearances, spirits, a strange parish priest, and even the archpriest of Santiago de Compostela come together in a tale full of humor, terror, and fantasy.  It was definitely made for adults. It will be released in Spain and across Latin America in 2014.  Sadly, as often happens with intelligent adult animation the film has no U.S. distributor so far.

Each year I begin my visit to Annecy with The Big Sleep, a screening that honors our colleagues who have passed away since the last Annecy.  During the past 12 months we lost 9 great talents from the world of animation.  Tribute was paid to Czech puppet master Bretislav Pojar; Feodor Khitruk, an important figure in post war Soviet cinema, known to generations of Russian children as the creator of the Soviet version of Winnie-the-Pooh; Gerrit Van Dijk, Dutch pioneer animator and inspiration to a countless number of younger animators; Dave Borthwik of Great Britain whose feature The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb won numerous awards and Hungarian master of drawn animation Csaba Varga.

We also lost Leif Marcussen, Danish master of experimental animation and British producer John Coates who produced the great classic When the Wind Blows which addresses a nuclear attack on the British Isles along with many other memorable films.  The brilliant British animator Bob Godfrey, much loved for his joie de vive and wicked sense of humor, left us with so many memorable films in his 92 years on earth.  Run Wake of Great Britain left us far too soon at the age of 47.  Although he only made 3 films, his 2005 Rabbit is already a classic.  These animation greats may not be with us any longer but they will live on in the many beautiful films they have left us.

This year the festival spotlight was on Polish animaton.  I was so happy to see my old friend Jerzy Kucia who was honoured by the festival with a Special Crystal Award for Life Time Achievement.  Jerzy brings together music and drawing to create very lyrical films such as his 1979 Reflections, a film rich in ironic thoughts on life, rivalry, and senseless fighting.  The film was chosen by a panel of animation experts as one of the 50 most outstanding films created during ASIFA’s first half century of existence.

The 3 programs devoted to Polish animation encompassed a broad range of styles, topics, and animators.  In his 1973 film Plamuz,  Zbigniew Rybczynski used rotoscoping to create a visual equivalent of a piece of jazz.  Zbigniew has won numerous awards including an Oscar for Tango in 1982.  Damian Nenow’s Paths of Hate is at the other end of the viewing spectrum.  The 2010 exploration of what pushes people into the abyss of blind hate, fury, and rage was short listed for an Oscar, honoured at Annecy with a Special Distinction Award,  and was named Best of Show at SIGGRAPH 2011.

Polish director Isabel Plucinska and Blue Umbrella director Saschka Unseld.

Since 1985 ASIFA (Association Internationale de Film d’Animation) has given an annual award to an individual or organization that has made a significant and innovative contribution to the promotion and/ or preservation of animation.  This year the prize was awarded to Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto.  Bruno’s 1976 Allegro Non Troppo, which featured 6 pieces of classical music in an adult parody of Disney’s Fantasia, is considered an animation classic.  My personal favourite of Bruno’s films is Europe vs. Italy which is an extremely humorous and clever commentary on European versus Italian Sociocultural attributes.

Bruno’s award was a framed drawing created especially for him by Tyrus Wong, a 102 year old animator who worked on Walt Disney’s classic Bambi, one of Bozzetto’s favourite films.  The award was presented to Bruno on stage and was followed by a screening of Allegro Non Troppo.

I am still not sure what to think about the "special premier"of Disney’s new theatrical short Get A Horse.  The audience was told that this was a never before seen short starring Mickey Mouse and featuring the voice of Walt Disney himself as Mickey.  The black and white hand drawn short features Mickey, his long suffering girlfriend Minnie, Horrace Horsecollar, and Clarabelle Cow on a musical wagon ride.

Director Lauren MacMullen who conceived the idea of bringing Mickey back to life, began the presentation with a talk about the discovery of the old story board for the unfinished Mickey Mouse short Get A Horse.  This was followed by a screening of pristine prints of two classic Mickey’s Plane Crazy and Steam Boat Willie.

Get A Horse purports to start outas an actual 1928 Disney cartoon that had been “forgotten” for years but a little way into the film a full color, 3D rendered Mickey appears.  From then on the film mixes classic 1920’s style hand drawn animation with modern 3D effects.  To achieve the 1928 look aging and blur filters were added for the CG part and new models were created that were faithful to the 1928 character designs.

After the film, legendary Disney animator Eric Goldberg took center stage to share his encyclopedic knowledge of Mickey’s early years.  As the audience watched him draw it was obvious that he was able to create “authentic” images of Mickey.  His drawing, the emphasis that MacMullen kept putting on the yellow aging of the drawing paper and the old style peg board paper along with Disney Studio being very coy about the film’s origins make me think that the entire film is a hoax, but if it is does it really matter?  The film is fun and it was nice to see Mickey and friends on the big screen again.  Get A Horse will open in theatres later this year in front of Frozen.

I made a point of attending an “Animation Off Limits” screening because I was very curious to see Canadian animators Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbokski’s latest film Cochemare.  I had a couple of drinks with Chris and Special Effects wizard Peter Bas who created the amazing special effects for Madam Tutli-Putli and Higglety Pigglety Pop as well as their newest film.  It is easy to understand why the effects on Chris and Maciek’s films look so great when I learned that Bas has created special effects on such blockbusters as Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, Superman Returns, and Beowolf.

Cochemare blends animation and stereoscopic 3D to take us on a journey from the mystical Forests of Storms to the orbiting International Space Station.  According to Chris the film blends voyeurism, femininity, and separation of body and mind to illustrate the erotic dream of an astronaut.

I need to watch the film again because like a Rosto film, Cochemare is very layered and full of subtle images and references.  I have a feeling that many people thought that the film was primarily live action but Chris told me that they only used the actress for the masturbation scene and the rest of the film was shot using a remarkably life like latex puppet.

On Wednesday evening there was a very special event at the Chateau Museum to celebrate the publication of Philippe Moins and Maurice Corbet’s book Raoul Servais, Voyage en Servaisgraphics.  Servaisgraphy refers to the artistic process invented by Raoul Servais which he used during the production of Papillons de Nuit which won the Annecy Grand Prix in 1998 and Taxandria in 1995 which is considered an animation classic.

Raoul was present and showed several of his original drawings for the films during the round table discussion which was followed by celebratory drinks.  Papillons de Nuit and Taxandria were shown on the large screen in the museum courtyard that evening.

Raoul Servais and Nancy at the book reception.

On other evenings the Chateau courtyard presented such excellent films as Crulic – The Path Beyond which won the 2012 Annecy Cristal for Best Feature and a program of Jerzy Kucia shorts.  These outdoor screenings were designed for adults while the other big screen in the park by the lake showed family friendly fare such as Hotel Transylvania and Monsters Inc. to packed crowds.

Even with all of the films to watch, the parties and receptions are the most important part of this festival because this is where you make contacts, find out what new projects people are working on, and talk business.

At the mayor’s reception at the lovely old Hotel d’ Ville (Town Hall) prior to the opening night ceremony I had the opportunity to see a lot of friends.  Many of the Polish animators were there so I got to visit with Marcin Gizycki, and Jerzy Kucia as well as Michaela Pavlatova from Prague, before they began their jury duties.

Nancy and Marcin Gizycki at the Monday evening reception at the Hôtel de Ville.

I had to skip the Pixar/Disney barbecue, opting instead for the fete hosted by the German Film Industry which I always look forward to.  Each year the lucky invited guests are taken by bus to a restaurant outside of Annecy.  A sumptuous buffet is served and we all dine at tables scattered around the lawn which reaches down to the edge of the lake.  The food and wine is always delicious and this relaxed break is a wonderful opportunity for informal conversations in the middle of a very hectic festival.  Members of the Annecy + band added to the festive atmosphere with music.

Margo Grimwood, president of ASIFA UK with Nancy at the German party.

Nik Phelps and Veljko Popović playing at the German party.

By Wednesday, with the opening of MIFA, the party mode really got into full swing.  The Wednesday evening Swiss reception is always very popular and crowded.  Swiss animators consistently turn out high quality animation as 5 films in various festival categories proves.  Swiss master Georges Schwizgebel’s latest film Chemin Faisant (Along the Way) was in competition.  The lovely painted on glass film is based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s quote “I can only meditate when I am walking.  When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works with my legs”.  The film is indeed a meditative stroll.  The country is also nurturing the next generation of animators as the two works in the graduation Film Competition proved.

The big event of the evening was the MIFA Opening Party at La Plage.  Some people who have a booth at MIFA never get to the main part of the festival so this party is always a good chance to see them.  It is especially nice to take a few minutes to sit and relax in a lounge chair in the sand at the lake’s edge.

Chris Landreth and John Dilworth meet again at the MIFA opening party.

Thursday is always packed with parties and receptions. Nik and I began the morning at the Indian film reception.  Both India and South Africa each had a feature film in the Competition.  Although I think that South Africa has a ways to go before they are producing top quality, original animation without trying to imitate Pixar, they are at least making a start and hopefully it won’t be too long until they begin to tell their original stories using their own style of animation.

After the reception we toured MIFA.  This year it seemed as if the business arm of the festival had more independent production companies represented along with the booths featuring technical advances.  The crowd of visitors seemed larger than ever also.

In past years the Finnish party has featured a sauna which they erected at the lakeside but this year they opted for the first Finnish/Canadian volleyball tournament.  Despite the lack of a sauna, the wonderful smoked fish, aquavit, and wine were plentiful. The Finnish/Canadian party took a break from their soiree for the Russian Film Commission reception and the Finns continued later that evening with an “Artic Nights” dance party.

I popped into the Irish Film Commission reception and learned that the Irish film industry is alive and well.  The government had just announced that they would increase the available co-production funds making Ireland a very favourable location to look for film funding.

Nancy and Estonian director Kasper Jancis.

While I attended the Russian reception, Nik and members of the Annecy + band went to the Dutch party where they had been asked to play some music.  After Nik and I met up again at the Russian party, we ended our evening at LaMajistic Brasserie at a reception hosted by AFCA (Association Francaise du Cinema d’Animation) where I had a chat with Theodore Ushev.  With the completion of Gloria Victoria, which was in the competition screenings this year, he has finished his trilogy which he began with Tower Bawher in 2005 and continued with the 2009 Drux Flux.  These two films deal with the rise and fall of technology using Russian constructivist imagery.  Gloria Victoria is the logical ending of the trilogy where Utopian ideas and industry have crashed.  Theodore told me that now he plans to take a break from animating to produce a project and I am sure he will be painting and keeping his hands in a vast array of other projects as well.

Despite all of the late night parties I made it a point to attend the 9 AM director’s chats each morning at the festival bar.  I very seldom change my opinion of a film by listening to the director talk but I always learn a lot about why an animator made the film.  I particularly enjoyed Festival Director Marcel Jean’s style of interviewing.  He was well prepared with intelligent questions and allowed the animators to talk without interrupting them.  A nice touch this year in the bar were director’s chairs with the names of renowned animators on the back so one day you could “be” Peter Lord and another morning  Richard Williams.  Bill Plympton could even be himself in the Bill Plympton chair.

After a week of rain on and off, Friday dawned sunny and dry which was good news for the DreamWorks picnic that always goes on rain or shine.   Shelly Page, Head of International Outreach at DreamWorks Animation, is always the hostess with the mostess and her picnic is definitely the place to be.  With plenty of food, drink, and a very relaxed atmosphere it’s a lovely break from my crazy festival schedule.

The DreamWorks picnic - Nancy in the Land of Giants with Nik and Croatians Daniel Šuljić, director of Animafest Zagreb, and director Veljko Popović.

It’s hard to believe that Bill Plympton and I have been presenting Annecy + for 7 years.  We started Annecy + to screen films that were rejected by the Annecy selection committee but that we thought were really good and deserve to be screened.  Over the years our Friday evening screenings have outgrown several locations so this year we moved to the Café des Arts, a popular festival gathering site.

Bill Plympton in his chair.

With over 500 submissions to Annecy + there were so many excellent films that the selection committee had a very difficult job selecting 4 programs for the evening.  The Annecy + band (Nik Phelps on woodwinds,  Anne Beal  on violin, Rolf Bächler, percussion, Veljko Popvic on Darbuka, Alexi Alexof, guitarlale, and Daniel Sujlic on percussion) were playing and Jonas Raeber, our intrepid projectionist was ready to roll. When the screen didn’t arrive it was time to improvise.  Jonas saved the day by running to his hotel for 2 double bed sheets and a young Indian student climbed precariously up the side of the building to hang the sheets and save the night. The audience watched his climb in amazement fearful that he was going to fall at any minute.

Everything was going beautifully as the packed crowd in the Café des Artes courtyard watched the films.  At 22h00 (10PM) the French gendarmes showed up and demanded that we turn off all sound and music.  Bill and I understood that the bar owner had gotten the necessary noise permit but we had not been told that the permit had been revoked because 2 days before there had been a late night rave at the café.  The neighbors were so angry that they got the police to revoke our permit.

There was no reasoning with the gendarmes, they meant business, and as much as Bill and I love hosting Annecy + we weren’t willing to land in a French jail for it.

I felt terrible about having to screen films without their sound tracks but the film makers who were present and the audience were very understanding and watched the last 3 silent segments enthusiastically.  Super by Johan Klungel of the Netherlands was the audience’s choice for best film.  Johan received a box set of Show of Shows DVD’s generously donated by Ron Diamond of AWN.  German animator Gottfried Mentor was voted 2nd prize, a Bill Plympton DVD, for Oh Sheep!

The Annecy Plus screening. Photo by Chris Landreth.

The Annecy Plus screening.  Photo by Chris Landreth.

I apologize to all filmmakers whose film had to be screened without sound but I will note that the top prize winner Super was shown without sound.  It’s also sad that the excellent Annecy + band couldn’t entertain the audience longer.  It was amusing to note that when the films were screening the audience was perfectly quiet but when the screening was over the talking at the café was much louder than the films would have been. We are already at work trying to find a place in Annecy where we won’t have this problem next year.

Over the years the Saturday picnic that Nik and I host has grown and grown.  Unlike many parties at Annecy everyone is welcome at our picnic and it is lovely to see renowned professionals sitting on the grass next to students, everyone chatting, eating, and drinking away.   Part of the fun is that everyone contributes their talents so of course there is always lots of music.  For several years Swedish comic artist Stefan Eriksson has entertained the picnic with his amazing feats of magic.  This year I learned that Stefan holds the Swedish National Magician title and he will be vying for the European Championship crown later this year.

Stefan Eriksson Comic artist and Swedish Champion of Magic.

Ann Beal, Veljko Popovic and Nik playing at the Saturday picnic.

Several years ago Joanna Quinn began hosting the rounders game at our picnic and even though she wasn’t at Annecy this year the tradition continues.  In her place she not only sent the trophy for the winning team as well as her friend Katie Steed, animator and member of the British Olympic Badminton Team and rounders enthusiast.  Katie and British animator Jamie Badminton of Karrot Studio organized the 2 teams and kept the game rolling along.  All of the extremely athletic animators who played seemed to have a great time.

Playing rounders.

The winning rounders team, team captain Katie Steed holding the trophy.

The most anticipated event at the picnic is always the very combative paddle boat race.  After an afternoon of sun, food, and plenty of drink we took to the water to race out and around the island in the lake and back to the start as fast as we could.

Nancy’s paddleboat team of valiant women.

The only rule is that your boat has to go around the island.  People have been known to jump from boat to boat, use water pistols, and splash lots of water to slow competitors down.  The race is always very funny.  This year’s winning team was Marita Mayer of the Fredrikstad Animation Festival in Norway and German animator Oliver Throm.  Hopefully they will be back next year to defend their title.

Paddleboat racers winning by a mile.

Paddleboat race winners Marita Mayer and Oliver Throm.

Closing night is always full of surprises.  As Artistic Director Marcel Jean opened the ceremony the familiar figure of former Artistic Director Serge Bromberg popped out of the audience and on to the stage to “help” Marcel, proving the old adage that “you can take the boy out of Annecy but you can’t take Annecy out of the boy”.  A complete list of the winning films can be found here.

I was quite favourably impressed with the job Marcel Jean did as the new figurehead of the festival.  His interview skills are excellent, the short films in competition were by and large of a higher quality than in the past several years, and his innovations were refreshing.  I especially liked his new idea of selecting the funniest short film.

The 4 programs of 10 films each covered over 70 years of humor from Tex Avery’s 1943 Red Hot Riding Hood to the present.  The audience voted for their favorite film at each screening.  The audience at the final screening of the top 10 vote getters selected THE funniest film.  Each of the 40 films was a gem and would have been a worthy winner.  I was very pleased when Marcel Jean announced that the winner of Annecy’s new award was KJFG No. 5 by Alexey Alekseev.  KJFG No. 5 makes me laugh every time I watch it and Alexey is also a good friend as well as a long-time member of the Annecy + band.

The ubiquitous Alexie Alexeev.

One of the best things about festivals is that we all get to see each other, so at the closing night party we never say goodbye, just see you soon and for the first time in several years I am actually looking forward to returning to Annecy next year.  Before that though there are many other festivals to attend.

After a very late night at the closing party I had to be up very early to leave for the Geneva airport where I flew out to Beirut, Lebanon for the Beirut Animation Festival.  I was tired but very excited because I had never been to Beirut before and the festival and city turned out to be even more exciting than I had dreamed possible.  You can read all about my trip to Beirut in my next article.

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Nancy 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. Check out her blog here.

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