Animation festival vet and historian Harvey Deneroff lends his perspective to latest Cartoons on the Bay, a uniquely Italian event celebrating television animation.
It seems strange that, in its eighth edition, Cartoons on the Bay, the wonderful little festival that took place in Positano, Italy, April 21-25, 2004, remains almost unique among animation festivals in its devotion to TV animation. After all, television is not only the biggest market for animation, but it is also where considerable amount of its creative energy is focused.
As a first-time visitor, I found the festival to be a rather cozy affair. Its location and facilities in the former fishing village turned vacation resort south of Naples dictates almost dictates this approach. The screenings and awards ceremonies were held in a modest theater-in-a-tent on the beach set up just for the occasion; the other main venue was the somewhat more spacious conference room of the elegant Covo dei Saraceni Hotel, which also served as festival headquarters.
Festival director Alfio Bastiancich says Cartoons on the Bay was my idea and I was involved with it from the very start. Up until that time, all our animation festivals, such as those in Annecy, Ottawa and Treviso (which I managed from 1985- 95), were devoted to shorts and to auteur films; and there was not, during this period, one that discussed and put into competition industrial production.
So, in 1996, with the help of Rai Radiotelevisione Italiana, the Italian public TV network through its Rai Trade division, and the local government, the first Cartoons on the Bay was held. To this one must add the presence of the broadcasters Rai Fiction unit, a major funder of Italian TV animation; and one must not forget the leading Rai TV personalities who acted as emcees for each evenings entertainment and screenings. Needless to say, it is not surprising that Italian studios large and small make a special point to show up. As such, Cartoons on the Bay provides a unique window into the world of Italian animation.
Though Italian cinema has a long and glorious history, animation in Italy has often taken a back seat to other European countries. Several world-class Italian animators, such as Bruno Bozzetti and Giulio Gianini, are of course familiar on the festival circuit, but unfortunately they are little known to the general public outside of Italy. (Bozzetti, incidentally, is a leading producer of TV animation in Italy and it was announced he is developing a new series for the fall season.)
When asked at a press conference if Italy now ranked third in TV animation, a Rai executive had to admit that the honor still belongs to France. In this regard, Bastiancich told me Italy, as well as France and Spain, also lags behind Britain, Because they have the possibility of the American market, they are also more classic and more cinematic, especially with regard to their stop motion work. They are also more experimental, because they have production for commercials, which is very strong in animation there.
This sense of Italian animation striving to overcome was felt in some of the three roundtable discussions that were part of the festivals International Conference on Television Animation, which focused on The Challenge of Innovation. The first roundtable centered on promotional stage shows based on TV shows; this sort of thing, while not unusual in North America and Asia, is still a fairly new concept in Italy. The festivals new UNICEF-Campania Region Prize dedicated to the uses of animation in educational and social contexts, spurred a discussion of various Italian initiatives in this area by educators and producers. This included a project sponsored by the City of Rome involving Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, who are collaborating with professional animators to produce a film promoting peace in the region. Finally, there was a roundtable on animation in videogames.
These daily discussions were followed by a series of talks nominally dealing with various aspects of innovation. I was the leadoff speaker, with my topic being Innovation in Feature Animated Films. Others included Linda Simensky, whose speech on Innovation in Production centered on the reasons she left Cartoon Network to go to PBS. In particular, she recalled her growing displeasure with the networks shift toward action/adventure series from comedy, and how this reflected current trends in American TV animation.
Los Angeles-based Craig Miller, of Wolfmill Entertainment, talked about Innovation in Writing. Although he did discuss the use of computers and the Internet, which he feels have made the writing process easier, he did not see them as changing the process in any fundamental way.
The hot ticket though was Richard Williams talk on Innovation in Animation. As might be expected, he mainly spoke about how he came to rediscover the secrets of the masters, or in his phrase, how he learned to drink the blood of the likes of Ken Harris, Art Babbit and Grim Natwick. When asked about the difference between drawn and computer animation, he believed that 2D animation is an extension of the drawn image, while CGI is an extension of puppetry; he also felt the current swing away from traditional animation is temporary.
Williams was also on hand to receive one of Cartoons on the Bays two Pulcinella Lifetime Achievement Awards. The other was given to Giulio Gianini, which was long overdue, since the symbol of festivals prestigious Pulcinella Awards was modeled on the famed l6th century Neapolitan Commedia dell'Arte character, as seen in the Pulcinella, his 1973 film he made with Emanuele Luzzati.
The conference concluded each day with presentations from representatives of four studios who were competing for the honor of Studio of the Year. This years lineup featured Japans Toei Animation, Frances Folimage, Englands HIT Entertainment and Italys Gruppo Alcuni; while the latter ended taking top honors, there really did not seem to be much sense of competition among the companies.
The retrospective screenings were rather limited and mostly featured historic Italian TV commercials shown in tribute to Rais 50th anniversary. However, the real revelation was Kimio Yabukis1969 Puss n Boots from Toei, especially as seen in a beautiful new 35mm CinemaScope print. This is certainly a film that deserves to get a DVD release in the U.S.
There were also a series of preview screenings of movies prior to their Italian release, starting off with Jacques-Rémy Girerds La prophétie des grenouilles (Raining Cats and Frogs), from Folimage, which might be best described as an offbeat version of Noahs Ark. The others included Jose Pozos El Cid, from Spains Filmax, a rather uneven retelling of the familiar tale, combining some impressive Disney/DreamWorks-style animation which is marred by some awkward character design and inept motion capture work. And then there was Roberto Liones Kate, a version of Shakespeares The Taming of the Shrew that was inspired by Cole Porters Kiss Me Kate; it is remarkable for its stop-motion technique, which uses sculpted paper puppets first used in the studios Obie & Bingie TV series.
The major award winner among the programs in competition was CinéGroupes polished sci-fi comedy, Tripping the Rift (Canada, 2003), which won Pulcinella Awards for Best Program of the Year and Best TV Series for Teenagers and Adults. The CGI series was cited for its outstanding script and an exotic cast of memorable characters. The computer animated Zoé Kezako (Sparkling, France, 2003) also earned two Pulcinellas: Best Character of the Year and Best TV Series for Children and showed how effectively CGI could be used at producing child-like 2D imagery.
Aardman Animations not surprisingly took the Pulcinella for Best European Program for Creature Comforts (U.K. 2003). It is, of course, based on Nick Park's classic short, which had also inspired a series of popular British TV adverts for British Gas. The award for Best TV Movie or Special was given to Janet Perlman's hilarious Penguins Behind Bars (Hulascope for Cartoon Network, Canada, 2003), a parody of American women-behind-bars films of the 1950s, which she co-wrote with Derek Lamb. The National Film Board took a co-producer credit, though its involvement was actually quite minimal.
Konstantin Bronzits The God (Melnitsa, Russia, 2003), cited for its clever use of 3D animation and great comedic timing in winning a Pulcinella for Best Short Film, is a real tour-de-force which bodes well for the filmmakers future. Other Pulcinellas went to Millimages Corneil & Bernie (France, 2003) for Best TV Series for All Audiences, DECODE Entertainments Frannys Feet (Canada, 2003), named Best TV Series for Infants, with special mentions given to Bill Plymptons Guard Dog (USA, 2003), for its unique personal style and outrageous humor, and to Quipos Pimpas Magic Day (Italy, 2003), in part, for its bold and colorful art direction.
As appropriate for a festival devoted to TV animation, there was a separate competition for Best Pilot open only to Italian entries. The winner was Stefis World from The Animation Band.
New this year is the UNICEF-Campania Region Prize, which was given to Gayatari Raos Raju and I from Indias Animagic Special Effects, for courageously dealing with difficult and up-to-date social issues and problems such as the exploitation of child labor. It also falls within a strong tradition of socially conscious animation, which has long been one of the strengths of Indian animation. Special mention was also given to Italys Hocus and Lotus Adventures, which is shown on Rai as part of an innovative initiative to help teach foreign languages to preschool children.
Harvey Deneroff is a freelance writer and head of the London-based Animation Consultants.