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Cardiff: A Difficult Year To Be Any Festival

Heather Kenyon relates the events from Cardiff, Wales, an educational festival full of panel discussions and lectures with many bright spots, despite the rain.

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Jane Williams had a difficult line to tread while leading this year's Vital! International Animation Festival in Cardiff from June 22-28, 1998, but in my opinion, she did a pretty good job. Balancing the expectations of old and new attendees, those wanting a small, art festival "like the old days" and those wanting a festival like two years ago, is a hard task and it's tough to find a middle ground in a year when the big industry sponsors are not recruiting. Especially when every other country on the map is holding a festival this year. There is no denying she had a challenging job.

A Chance to Meet the Buyers

The previous Cardiff International Animation Festival took place during the big studio recruiting craze of 1996 when desperation for talent was running high. As a result, big companies with massive booths moved in and took over. Grumbling complaints from the old-timers were heard, but never before had the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. participated so heavily. Well, 1998 is a very different year with the animation industry beginning to come back to this stratosphere. As a result the large name players were either not present or very low-key, with evidently lower budgets and aspirations. Meanwhile, Cardiff is a festival of students, who are hungry for more advanced training and jobs. The festival organizers, however, did a great job of bridging this gap by creating "Commissioning Brunches" and "Careers and Crumpets," a new feature that fit everyone's needs. For an hour and a half, sponsoring companies hosted a presentation in a large room and served either lunch or tea. Companies like Granada Animation, Cartoon Network, Passion Pictures, Aardman Animations and Nickelodeon could reach the people that were most interested in them without dedicating numerous staff members to a costly booth for the entire week. Plus, students and producers could meet the key personnel of these companies and hear exactly what they wanted when looking for new projects, while getting some great snacks in the process! While some experienced players scoffed at remarks like, "We are seeking good projects, presented well," most found the sessions very helpful and frantically scribbled notes. These sessions were packed. "We only planned to have 50 but ended up with 150!" was heard by almost every organizing group. The success of these events really set the tone at Cardiff. Cardiff's niche is one of educational panels and discussions, which is suiting since the festival boasts wall-to-wall students, with most industry professionals dodging between Cardiff and London.

"Commissioning Brunches" and "Careers and Crumpets," were held at the Cardiff International Arena (CIA), home to almost all of the panels, presentations and discussion groups, as well as the Expo. The Expo was sparse and both attendees and participants seemed disappointed. The floor could be covered in a matter of minutes. Exhibitors did say, that while they were disappointed by the small amount of traffic, they did know they were targeting strictly animation people. Some of the standout exhibitors were: BBC Worldwide, Cartoon, Nickelodeon, Granada Animation, and a host of puppet and armature creators including John Wright Modelmaking, The Puppet Factory and Elm Road Film Productions. All of the booths this year were very modest and small. Indeed, some were virtually unmanned for the entire festival. Did anyone see anybody at the BBC booth? All I saw was a loop of those creepy Teletubbies. Sony Imageworks had a small booth at the Expo and a room upstairs where Barry Weiss, Vice President of Animation, interviewed possible hires for their new feature Stuart Little, which stars an intrepid white mouse.

Panels and Training Were Key

The Vitals, Vital(it)y and Digital Dimensions were three separately focused groupings of panel discussions and training seminars. All, again, were a tremendous success as they highlighted hands-on learning and discussion. Digital Dimensions was organized by Carl Franklin, the technology correspondent for the U.K.'s Sunday Business, and focused on animation using computers and new media techniques. From "Starting Out in Computer Animation" to a "Softimage Masterclass," I don't think there was a miss among these presentations. One especially fascinating demonstration was given by Jackie Cockle and Paul Couvela from Hot Animation who stop-motion animated characters from Brambly Hedge right before the audience's eyes.

Vital(it)y centered on artists telling their real-life tales of launching into producing new media. From CD-Roms to the Internet, each workshop focused on a different technical aspect of the tools used in new media production. Frankly, they needed a larger room for these seminars. A tiny, little cubby hole in the CIA did not do these sessions justice. By the end of the week some were regulars only attending these classes, and the room was in great disarray with tables and chairs strewn in an uneven semi-circle around the speaker's podium. This was a well-used room!

The Vitals were another set of panel discussions that boasted such sponsors as Aardman Animations, the BBC Bristol Animation Unit and the U.K.'s Channel Four. These discussions focused more on matters of business and training. The festival held a series of ambitious script writing seminars and discussions. One, sponsored by The BBC Bristol Animation Unit, was especially effective as writers had BBC editors perform script surgery on their scripts. It was refreshing, and unusual, to see an animation festival dedicate so much time to screenwriting. Cartoon UK sponsored a series of four lectures focused on legal rights, production budgeting and the current market place. Channel Four's Independents' Forum was party to many a lively debate on the state of the industry.

A bevy of volunteers from the local schools and universities, under the festival staff's watchful eye, kept the seminars and registration areas in smooth working order. Sessions started on time and ended on time as a tight ship was kept and downright order reigned. It is a must to note that one of the reasons why Cardiff was a successful event was because of these seminars. While students play a key role at Cardiff and these are the types of events they need and enjoy, there really was something for everyone. It was great to see industry professionals in the middle of the student sea, learning right along side of them.

The Expo featured modest booths in an intimate setting. Photo by Heather Kenyon. © AWN.

Screenings for Everyone

Another key location was of course St. David's Hall, home of the screenings, some of the aforementioned workshops and panels, and smoke! Now, I know that living in Los Angeles, with all of our anti-smoking laws makes me more sensitive, but even natives were complaining about the air quality by the final night! In spite of the cloud, the lounge on the top floor was the meeting and greeting place to be. In fact, I think a lot of people stayed in the lobby chatting with friends and gathering around resident legend Bob Godfrey, rather than rushing into the screenings. A lot of the screenings at the Hall during the day were rather sparsely attended, but the evening programs were quite full. Screenings took place at St. David's Hall and the Angel Hotel, located directly across from Cardiff Castle, which was the coolest, funkiest location by far. With so many screenings in two locations it was difficult to choose.

In some programs it seemed that a lot of the films were not new and many had been seen before by those regular on the festival circuit. Students enjoyed the programs but were split between the screenings and the lectures. However, the "Special Presentations" and thematic programs brought back old favorites and cleverly packaged them with new and difficult-to-find pieces to create some delightful programs. "Handbags & Hairdos; The Animator's Guide to Camp, Queer and Kitsch" was such a program featuring gay and lesbian works. The absolute highlight for some was the festival salute to Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. When one brave soul tentatively asked, "May I touch Bagpuss?" a roar went up from the crowd as everyone had been wondering the same. Soon a line wrapped around the St. David's Hall stage as everyone wanted to get just a little bit closer to their childhood memory.

The opening night's film was The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot I am sure this seemed like quite the treat when it was first obtained by the festival. I wonder how they feel about it now...Bill Plympton's I Married A Strange Person was, of course, packed with fans. Plympton was present and his usual easy going self despite what must have been close to two days of sleep deprivation due to traveling. Perfect Blue, by director Satoshi Kon, is a groundbreaking animated psychological thriller and puzzled everyone who stayed to view it at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night. "That did my head in," was the general consensus but no one said they didn't enjoy it.

Guests of the festival, like Cuppa Coffee Animation, Magnus Carlsson and Georges Lacroix, all presented special programs. Georges Lacroix showed a history of Fantôme's work and, after a few financially shaky months, happily presented their new productions. "An Evening with Nickelodeon and Klasky Csupo" was highly anticipated as they were the largest U.S. studio conglomerate present. Unfortunately, a clash of cultures happened as the audience wanted to see more of the giant's productions and hear less speeches. Many a disgruntled audience member left complaining of American arrogance!

The Channel Four Independents Forum. Left to right: Tom Bertino, Candy Guard, Carl Franklin, Clare Wilford and Lucy Murphy. Photo by Gerben Schermer. © AWN.

Clare Wilford's "British Programmes" were a treat, highlighting the best of the great nation's work. From adult programs to crowd-pleasers to the new work of independents, it was all covered. The range in some programs was a bit shocking as one never knew what was going to appear next. For instance, in the "Premiere Selection - World and U.K. Premieres" the audience was treated to the touching and emotionally stirring Silence, by Orly Yadin and Sylvie Bringas. This film was the best that I saw at the festival and relates the story of a little girl who was able to survive the Holocaust with the help of her grandmother and by being silent. Finally, 50 years later, Tara, our heroine, breaks her silence and tells her story. This triumph was in the same program as two short episodes of Darren Walsh's Angry Kid which proves that boys will always be boys and get funding for their gross, pointless films.

The Angel Hotel was an oasis of interesting viewing where almost every screening was well attended. I could have stayed there all week with screenings of work by William Kentridge, Jerzy Kucia, the East German DEFA Studio, Marv Newland's favorite films, and crowd pleasing shows like Rex the Runt. In the CIA and Angel Hotel, the organizers were smart to underestimate rather than overestimate the number of people that would be attending each event. As a result I only remember full rooms which leaves a lively, healthy impression.

A Good Time For All

Despite the almost continual rain and clouds, the festival goers had a great time. I heard several times, "We didn't get back until 5:30 a.m.!" However, as far as professionals went, the festival really didn't get going until Thursday and by Saturday afternoon most people were beginning their trek back to London. Based on my experience with Los Angeles' World Animation Celebration, placing this event in London would not help attendance. Folks in L.A. tended to keep getting distracted by work during WAC and some were never able to venture out of the office for even an afternoon. The cost of passes and the lack of day passes were cited by some as being the reason for not attending.

Everyone had fun at the various pubs and restaurants located in central Cardiff, but the festival was almost devoid of large parties, another victim of the recruiting hiatus. The closing night party was the traditional day-glo paint bash thrown by Nickelodeon and Klasky Csupo. While still the only evening party of the event, the main room was too hot, loud and smoky to be able to speak to anyone and didn't have the vitality (sorry, I couldn't resist) that the same party had at Cardiff and WAC two years ago. Still the students I saw were dancing the night away and seemed quite pleased.

All in all, as I climbed onto the train to Manchester for a delightful day visiting Barry Purves, Cosgrove Hall and Mackinnon and Saunders, I thought it had been a productive festival. While the contacts were not chock-a-block and every film was not new, I felt that I really got to spend time with and speak to the people I met, and not just hurriedly exchange business cards. (Sometimes though since the professionals were only jetting in for a day or two, one really had to grab them when one saw them.) Perhaps this is the benefit of having so many animation festivals in a year. Not everyone was there--some were too busy working, some didn't want to make the trip, others were just tired of festivals--but frankly, it can be overwhelming and frustrating to not be able to see everyone who is present. I think Cardiff, in the face of Annecy's announcement to go annual in the year of Zagreb, Ottawa and Hiroshima, came out okay. No, the world didn't show up, but there were still plenty of people to meet and things to see and learn anyway, in this important world animation community.

Good job Jane. We'll see what another two years brings us.

Heather Kenyon is editor-in-chief of Animation World Magazine.

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