Russell Bekins takes in the animation family reunion at I Castelli Animati, a festival where filmmakers come to connect with colleagues in a laid-back atmosphere.
I Castelli Animati has often been called the "family reunion" of festivals for the convivial atmosphere, the hospitality, good eats and, most importantly, some very impressive red wine. While America has a fine tradition of tense Thanksgivings with cutting remarks from dad about your lack of career in animation, let us say that this is Italy, where the family is another thing altogether. Here, the tradition is to argue like soccer mobs and finish it all off with a good plate of risotto di zucca.
This year the laid-back atmosphere of the village of Genzano (gen zah no) -- the traditional home of the festival -- was exchanged for the surreal back lot of Cinecitta (chee nay cee tah), the immortal studios which gave birth to the films of Italian cinematic history. The backlot is still crammed to the gills with whimsical sets, props and sculptures, adding to the levity of the atmosphere. Indeed the business of watching films seemed secondary, as luminaries from Italian and international animation hung around the bar and conducted endless conversations about cartoons, commerce, reality -- and the lack thereof -- in this wacky setting.
The Search for the Father Figure
"I don't come to see the films," grins animation immortal Oscar Grillo, "I come to talk with my colleagues." This wag whom the festival refers to as "our Grillus ex machina" set the tone by showing the 1930s animation classic Joie de Vivre, a joyous romp in which two girls in flowing skirts cavort through a landscape of high-tension wires, flowers and streams. It was this tone, the euphoria of being together, that dominated the festival, and Oscar Grillo -- garrulous, fluent in many languages, ironic and always with a sketch pad in hand -- was its high priest. As if the irreverence needed maintenance, Grillo also drew an exhibition of portraits of Franz Kafka alongside cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and Homer Simpson.
David Silverman, longtime director of The Simpsons television series and helmer of The Simpsons Movie, was not to be outdone. He set the tone by playing the tuba in the bar area in duets with animation composer Nick Phillips on the clarinet. He also gave a number of lectures about the origins of The Simpsons on the Tracy Ullman show, the "Krusty Gets Cancelled" and "Treehouse of Horror IV" episodes, as well as The Simpsons Movie. David's eyes were red from drawing Homer and Bart hundreds of times for festival visitors and working hard to see that his lectures were well-translated and comprehensible to the Italian audience. Despite the language barrier, the audience laughed long and loud during his shows.
The presence of Italian animation's granddad Bruno Bozzetto rounded out the list. Bruno gave a moving lecture on his work and process, as well as being the object of a tribute on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his Italian animation classic Allegro non Troppo. Bruno also engaged his colleagues in rousing discussions. "I could never be a festival judge," shrugs Bruno, after silencing a room full of animation students with the notion that the graphics were simply the clothing of any work. "To me a film has to be a full sentence, not just words or ideas."
To his credit, festival director Luca Raffaelli seemed nominally in charge, while deferring to his honored guests for the dysfunctional father figure.
Archetype of the Eternal Mother
It also helped that mom wasn't home.
RAI, the state broadcaster that commissions most of the work in the Italian animation industry, maintains "Cartoons on the Bay" as its festival. Without "Mama RAI" present, the festival has more of a relaxed feel, and Italian animators feel free to criticize the way RAI publicizes and programs the series which they lovingly create on tight budgets. "I made two perfectly good series, The Spaghetti Family and I Cosi, which nobody has ever seen," laments Bruno Bozzetto. Indeed, it seems that the most opaque aspect of this public broadcasting network is the way in which it makes its programming decisions, which sometimes seem improvised and hurried. "It's like putting steak on the menu of a vegetarian restaurant," sighs Bozzetto when commenting on the problems he had with the programming of The Spaghetti Family.
A case in point is Rat Man, the highly anticipated series based on the comic strips of Leo Ortolani. Contacted by RAI, Ortolani agreed to try adapting his character to TV. "We want the Italian Simpsons," Ortolani quotes the RAI executives as saying. Working closely with the writing team from Stranemani and director Massimo Montigianni, he managed to turn out a series of very funny, rapid-fire episodes in a very short period of time.
Then the trouble started.
While Ortolani laments some of the "absurd" and belated requests from RAI to change scripts and even finished episodes, it sounds like a normal give-and-take with a network; but he makes a clear point about the lack of objectivity in censorship. "There is no real child psychologist or other professional" to lend objectivity to the odd requests from the executives on behalf of the sensibilities of children. He recounts being pressured to change the name of the statuettes that grace lawns worldwide -- "garden midgets," as they are called. A midget working at the studio might be offended.
The far greater problem, however, was a disjunction between RAI Fiction and the programming department at RAI. Once the series was finished, the programming arm of RAI, despite commanding three broadcast and two satellite channels, did not seem to know what to do with it. They first put it in an obscure children's time slot, right after the Power Rangers show. "They called in the media and gave it a proper launch, with an appropriate lead time," Ortolani said grimly. "Twenty-four hours." The irony of the writing was lost on the few young children watching during that time slot. "Shortly thereafter, the entire children's programming block from three in the afternoon to six went up in smoke. People credited me for having finally gotten Power Rangers off the air."
Next, they tried a morning weekend slot, where Rat Man did quite well. Summer ended and so did the series, without broadcasting half of the episodes. Once again this fine series is in limbo, awaiting a time slot. "All that money that was spent on the series," Ortolani sighed, "couldn't they have spent it better than finding exquisite ways to torture me for three years?"
Joshua Held, co-creator of the wildly popular Gino the Chicken series and the current goofball cooking show Cooking Italian with Arturo and Kiwi, is sympathetic. "Now we have a consistent airing time," he says, "but it changed twice before that," stranding the acerbic Gino the Chicken at times when young children could only watch the jokes fly over their heads. "There must be a reason," Held nods sincerely, "but it's not.... evident."
We hope that a courageous programming executive [sic] will find a time slot for the show that allows children and adult co-viewing, the original intention of the exercise. Hint: RAI 2 shows classic Warners and Disney cartoons in the evening before dinner time. Why not put some real funding into a domestic product that might have a chance to fly in that spot?
Good Girl Stereotyping
And what would an Italian family get-together be without a good argument?
The question of whether cartoons lead culture or are simply reflective of it became the hot topic of debate as two authors presented their books at the festival. Authors Loredana Lipperini and Roberto Maragliano both have published books recently about media and its influence on children, with conclusions that may be less far apart than they apppear. Lipperini admits that her book Ancora della Parte delle Bambine (Once Again on the Side of Children) has an "angry" tone. She points in particular to the popular fairy school-based Winx Club TV series as having a particularly pernicious effect on girls, pointing them toward a vapid consumerism. "We have gone from 'with great power comes great responsibility,'" she points out, "to 'with great power comes great popularity.'"
Maragliano, who has just published Immaginare l'Infanzia (Imaginging Childhood), points out that he does not particularly disagree with Lipperini, he simply believes that children are more aware of irony and better able to distinguish play from reality than we give them credit for. He also points out that direct attempts to get networks to censor ideas and shows are harmful and counterproductive.
The discussion carried out into the bar, but it was impossible to maintain an impassioned tone while Nick Phelps and David Silverman were playing clarinet and tuba duets. Once again, everything ended in taralucci e vino -- wine and cookies.
The Report Card on Schools
"Have you seen our son's latest project?" These words, which strike dread in the hearts of American animators, are universally shared. The good news is that some of the product from the Italian schools is actually amusing. The bad news is that you must sit through them all to see these few.
An entire afternoon dedicated to film schools, hosted by illustrator and director Mario Addis, gave a pretty good idea of the state of Italian animation schools. Addis teaches with the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Animation Department, which has its facilities in Turin. This intensive three-year program consistently turns out excellent animators whose films win prizes at festivals around the world. Wives Supermarket, a graduation film that won a special jury prize at Castelli Animati, is a case in point.
Two other schools demonstrated the beginnings of professional competence. The Istituto Eurpeo de Design (both Milan and Rome) showed off some projects that were admirable at a technical level, and one of their projects, The Audio Guide, which uses a visit to a museum as a vehicle for introspection, deservedly was chosen the best Italian animated short this year. Scula Internazionale di Comics in Florence, where director Massimo Montigianni (Rat Man) has been at work for a year, showed an Egyptian-themed Alba di Kepry, which combined 3D and 2D work and showed some knowledge of professional methodology.
After that, the results were spotty. The Scuola Italiana di Comix of Napoli is proud of their contact with the production house Gruppo Alcuni, and produces bits for their television programs. Other Italian schools presenting were the the Scuola del Fumetto of Palermo, the Istituto D'Arte of Urbino and a couple of ambitious high schools such as the Istituto Statale d'arte in Pomezia. "The schools are mostly formed by autodidacts who teach their own methodology," Addis sighed afterward. "Up to now, there are not that many that are capable of teaching the classic methodology of animation, including script, storyboard and layout."
Fortunately the afternoon included presentations by Larry Bafia of the Vancouver Film School and John Parry of the Bristol Film School. Larry presented a fascinating program of special effects done by students in Vancouver, while John showed a series of shorts that displayed a high level of professionalism along with the inimitable British sense of humor.
What is clear is that the schools of animation in Italy need a shake-up. Programs that aspire to be professional need to bring working professionals and methods into all of the schools, and deepen the schools' contacts with the world at large. Visiting professors from other countries (particularly England and France) need to be brought in, and English, the working language of European multinational productions, must be part of the program. Additionally, student exchanges should be arranged, and video libraries adequately funded.
Addis looks forward to the day when Italy will again produce animated features on a regular basis. "Right now, 95% of our students who graduate leave the country and work abroad," he sighs.
Oh Yeah, and They Showed Some Movies Too...
The International Competition was dominated by some clear winners from the circuit this year -- Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura, which took the Gran Premio, and Madame Tutli-Putli, which took the Special Jury Prize. Yamamura's film, snubbed at Annecy, has been cleaning up everywhere else. The same may be said for the technical achievement represented by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbovski's atmospheric Canadian stop-motion film about a woman's paranoid journey aboard a freakish train.
Good comedies were also on display. A comedy in which various petty criminal enterprises give new meaning to the term "running gag," Marathon by Estonian Jasper Jancis won best European film. Special favorites of this writer were from Canada and England. Sleeping Betty is a really amusing Canadian sendup in which a prince who looks suspiciously like Charles comes to the rescue of a sleeping princess in a court that seems drawn by Tenniel. Author Claude Clotier creates a series of delightful gags out of this very simple premise. Another successful comedy was Horn OK Please, a stop-motion of a day in the life of a very poor taxi driver in Mumbai (Bombay), animated by Vibhav Kumaresh and Joel Simon. The syrupy wraparound story is more than compensated for by a series of passengers who are laugh-out-loud funny.
Any good family gathering needs a couple of visitors to relieve the dreariness of the same old faces and to remind the participants that there is a world beyond the confines of their home. This year the honors fell to festival judge Thomas Mayer-Hermann and workshop presenter Geert Van Goethem. Meyer-Herman, whose Studio Film Bilder has consistently pushed the creation of art shorts while funding these creations with a variety of commercial animation endeavours, showed off a series of very good shorts, including the chilling Annecy winner The Runt by Andreas Hykade, Phil Mulloy's satirical parable The Final Solution, and Creation, Mayer-Herman's own tongue-in-cheek sendup of Genesis. Van Goethem's S.O.I.L. group has been methodically working on animating Belgian poetry and two of their works, Bruised and With My Quantum Stroke, were selected as the best nonnarrative films -- ex aequo.
Often, after the midnight screenings, the festival protagonists would gather in the hotel lobby for a "laptop showcase" -- a friendly show-and-tell of current and past works, with no rules, no mom and no dad. Smuggled wine was provided by Nancy Phelps, who presented an inspiring history of animation workshops and was also one of the festival judges.
Return of the Prodigal Sons
The culminating event of the festival was really the reunion of four of the original crew who made Bruno Bozzetto's 1976 Allegro Non Troppo. Joining Bozzetto was animation great Giuseppe Lagana, Maurizio Nichetti, who played the enchained animator, and Maurizio Micheli, who played the Presenter. This work, which was shown in an impeccable 35mm print, stands up even today. Nichetti related how they came up with the idea of having an orchestra composed of old folks -- a combination of a discussion in the van during location scouting and the fortuitous discovery of a retirement home nearby.
Cut! That's a Wrap!
There were some minor inconveniences. Cinecitta is on the outskirts of Rome, so it became a struggle to get into the city and see the sights, if one so wished. The use of the Cinecitta commissary, good as it was, left one with the desire to sample another trattoria, and the segregation of festival visitors from the invited guests at mealtimes was not in the spirit of things.
Festival organizers are coy as to whether the festival will remain in Rome. This is critical for Castelli Animati's identity. There is no intention necessarily to keep it at Cinecitta, but the old location lacked a good theater and the hotel infrastructure to allow the festival to grow. (Castelli Animati is not the only festival in this sort of quandary.) Another factor affecting festival identity is the balkanization of media, from mobile phones to 4D and vfx, which strains festivals to try to be all things to all festivalgoers. Often festivals leave our harried protagonist with the uneasy sensation that he has missed something that was going on in the other room. This festival remains a wonderful occasion for the free flow of ideas in the same living room, and we hope it remains such.
In the end, there was a sorrow to be returning to the cubicles and rat burrows where animation is made. There is a sense of warmth and belonging at this festival that is hard to find elsewhere. Most of all, it's a living room for a very likable family.
Russell Bekins has served time in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.