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Gobsmacked at Stuttgart: The Dark and Light of Animation

Sabrina Schmid reports from the 15th International Festival of Animated Film, where diversity rules the day.

The award-winning Madame Tutli-Putli opened the Festival of Animated Film Stuttgart '08. © 2007 National Film Board of Canada.

The 15th Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film took place May 1-6, attracting more films and visitors than ever before.

There were 1,700 animated films submitted this year, with 500 selected for screenings over the six festival days. Several well-established competitions form the main element of the festival, where 190 films compete for the prestigious awards that offer a total of €52,500 in prize money.

In addition to the main competitions, there were more supporting programs to see this year, reflecting an increasingly wide range of creative work produced within an expanding and innovative industry. All told, some 50,000 visitors attended the festival's main screenings, presentations, workshops and events, as well as the open-air screenings. Stuttgart has arguably become the second-largest animation festival in the world.

Opening Show

The festival commenced with the first competition program screening to a full house, including official guests, the filmmakers, accredited professionals and students. The crowd exceeded the cinema's capacity and those unable to find a seat were content to line the side aisles.

The general feeling of excited anticipation was well rewarded by the opening film, the astonishing and much-honored Madame Tutli-Putli by Chris Lavis and Maciek Sczerbowski (Canada, 2007). This animation has already won numerous international awards including the Canal+ Award for Best Short Film at Cannes 2007, as well as the prestigious Golden Gate Award for best animated short at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

There is something unique and very startling about this puppet stop-motion animation, due to the innovative technique and special effect developed for the film. In collaboration with the portrait artist Jason Walker, the directors filmed human faces to match the puppets' motion and expressions. The live-action eyes were then combined with the animated figures using digital scaling, positioning, painting and retiming of the footage to achieve the proper nuances. The effect is unnerving because the human eyes give a soul, thought and emotion to the animated puppets that causes us to experience them as living beings.

The Grand Prix was awarded to Franz Kafka Inaka Isha (Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor) by Koji Yamamura. Unless noted, all images courtesy of The Stuttgart Festival.

Joanna Quinn Speaks

A few days into the festival, I had the opportunity to talk to U.K. animator Joanna Quinn, one of the five jury members for the International Competition. Quinn has made seven films and countless commercials, and received more than 90 awards including an Oscar nomination, three Emmys, four BAFTAs and the Leonardo da Vinci Award (1996) for her contribution to the art of animation. I asked Joanna about her impression of the festival and her opinion of the animated films this year. She spoke candidly, conveying a great sense of admiration for all the works of animation, and saying that Stuttgart is a favorite festival of hers because of the strong student presence and the festival's welcoming attitude toward them.

We had to nearly shout to hear each other, as our conversation took place at the start of the Young Animation Party, an event attended by a mix of students and professionals of all ages, held in a downtown venue that has a distinctly retro feel to its décor, with a left-wing edge. Anticipation was building, as attendees awaited the announcement of the 48H 3D Jam competition winners, as well as the appearance of the infamous VDJ Oof, the highlight live performance of the evening.

Joanna Quinn.

Sabrina Schmid: Why is this animation festival considered one of the best in Europe, or what makes it different from other festivals?

Joanna Quinn: I think what makes it special is that a lot of the filmmakers are here, and there's nothing better than being able to meet the filmmaker of a film that you like, or don't like. [laughs] And to find out a little bit about the background of why they did what they did. And that's not always the case at a lot of festivals. Sometimes it's a bit disappointing because the filmmakers aren't there. It's just an extra bonus, and it seems to be a festival where that extra effort is made.

Also, I love the way that the filmmakers go onto the stage... It takes a long time to make an animated film and to be able to stand on the stage and have people appreciate you and the work that you've put into it I think is incredibly civilized, and I wish more festivals did it! I've been to festivals where the filmmakers have been there, but they're not invited onto the stage or they're not even acknowledged in the screenings, and you know they'd just be jumped on if people knew they were there!

SS: Are there any particular trends evident this year from the films you've seen?

JQ: I'm just gobsmacked at the standard of the student work! Technically (maybe it's because I do drawn animation) I just can't believe that some of these films are actually made by humans! They're so accomplished, and students at that! It just makes you want to crawl under a rock!

SS: Does any individual film really stand out?

JQ: One of the difficult things about being on the jury is that you're comparing things that are completely different. Some films are abstract or experimental films that are incredibly strong, and then you're comparing them with very strong narrative films. So it is quite hard to judge. [I wish] we had more prizes to give out!"

Ark's sci-fi apocalyptic vision was one of many highlights among Stuttgart's diversity of artistic animated films. © 2007 Grzegorz Jonkajtys, Marcin Kobylecki.

The International Competition

This year the international competition's Grand Prix, which includes a cash award of €15,000 was given to Franz Kafka Inaka Isha/Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura (Japan, 2007). Based on Franz Kafka's 1919 short story, the animation tells a surreal tale of a country doctor who is on a night visit to a patient. Wrongly assuming that the villagers have summoned him just to annoy or torment him, he fails to notice a fatal wound afflicting his seriously ill young patient. The doctor confides his distorted thoughts to us through narration, echoed visually by the animation's surreal perspectives and imagery such as giant heads in the landscape with doors. Using traditional cel techniques, the animation's textures enhance the tale's dreamlike quality and shifts of reality. In awarding the prize, the jury stated, "The film's exquisite, distorting forms and spaces successfully release a subconscious world from darkness into a waking absurdity."

The equally prestigious Award for Best Graduation Film and prize of €10,000 was given to Camera Obscura by Matthieu Buchalski, Jean-Michel Drechsler and Thierry Onillon, produced at Supinfocom Valenciennes (France, 2007). In its statement, the jury cited the animation's "retro-elegant design and totemistic figures that enable the film's sensitive insight into a poignant, apparently isolated existence."

This graduation film from Supinfocom has also received recognition at other notable festivals, such as a Jury Special Prize at Imagina 2008. The film is a magical blend of live action and 3D animation, in black and white, that speculates on memory, seeing, creativity and imagination. A helmet is placed on the head of a blind man, whereupon a gallery of animated cubistic figures inhabit the surrounding space, as if in his fantastical imaginings or parts of his memory. In this film as well, we find a strong sense of the surrealist aesthetic, with wooden eyes growing on trees instead of leaves and blinking at the sculptural animated figures.

Humor is used to tell a moral tale in Don't Let It All Unravel by Sarah Cox.

The Diversity of the "Artistic Animated Film" Since its founding in 1982, the Festival of Animated Film Stuttgart has greatly diversified its supporting animation programs while maintaining a focus on the "artistic animated film" in its many varied and changing forms for the main competitions. Films that fall into this category tend to be produced mainly by the independent filmmaking sector -- individual animators or filmmakers, animation production companies who see a creative outlet and value in the short film format, and animation graduates, all generally finding an appreciative audience on the festival circuit.

Contemporary animation productions appear more varied and innovative than ever, including mixed techniques or processes from the traditional right through to computer animations that are achieving very tactile qualities in their imagery while demonstrating aesthetic and cinematic concerns, and not merely being used to display methods or software. Given the diversity of styles, techniques and ideas, each film asks to be seen in its own terms, making comparisons very difficult.

Yet there are some distinct conceptual strands that run through some of the outstanding films at the festival, which are discernible in the winning animations. These films deal with apocalyptic visions, surreal absurdist tales, morality tales, abstraction, experimentation with form, as well as films that tell personal stories.

The 3D animation Ark conveys an apocalyptic vision in the sci-fi genre, while humor is used in Don't Fear the Atom and Don't Let it all Unravel to speculate on potential environmental doom.

Ark by Grzegorz Jonkajtys (Poland, 2007) has won 10 international awards including the SIGGRAPH Best of Show Award (2007) and Prix Ars Electronica Award of Distinction (2007). Set in a future where an unknown virus has destroyed most of the human population, the film tells the story of the remaining survivors escaping in great ships in search of uninhabited land. The idea was triggered by the director's visit to Italy's catacombs -- a dark maze of underground tunnels or "cities of the dead," which inspired him visually and impelled him to write the screenplay. The nightmarish film details the claustrophobic small spaces and mazes of tunnels inhabited by the survivors, who are highly stylized characters conveying suffering and terror.

The director used an unconventional technique to achieve the impressive style. Hand-made three-dimensional models of the sets were created, allowing for a lot of realistic detail and effective lighting. These were photographed, bypassing the need for lighting and rendering any computer-generated sets. The animated characters, though, were created in CG and then combined with the photographic sets. The human figures are intentionally stylized and deformed to contrast with the realism of their surroundings. The filmmaker wanted the film to capture the dramatic nature of life and the inevitability of events, and to create "a sort of insatiability which would push the viewer to watch it again and think about it."

Ironic humor communicates a serious message about nuclear energy in Don't Fear the Atom by Till Penzek and Jon Frickey. © SFA.

By contrast, humor is used to tell a moral tale in a highly effective way in the animation Don't Let It All Unravel by Sarah Cox (Great Britain, 2007). Its quirky and unusual handmade animation technique is intrinsic to conveying the film's message about global warming, as knitted images of the earth and some of its species gradually unravel. Sarah Cox explained that she didn't actually do the knitting, just the frame-by-frame unravelling! Her drawn designs for the animation were translated into knitting patterns that were realized by 10 knitters including her Mum, as well as "Helen Brunsdon from Aardman's Mum and Gemma from the Aardman canteen's Mum, and Sarah Jex, an Aardman producer, and Jo Greening (knitting genius…)." Fifty balls of wool were used. The filmmaker says it took the knitters much longer to knit the images than it took to unravel them. The knitted elements were stitched onto cloth and very gently unraveled, literally one stitch per frame. It took two weeks to unravel.

Similarly, ironic humor is used to convey a serious message about nuclear energy in Don't Fear the Atom by Till Penzek and Jon Frickey (Germany, 2007.) Brightly colored 2D characters engage in patronizing questions and answers fraught with irrational argument. The underlying scary message is instantly discerned.

Moebleeraaja (The Next Move) by Laura Neuvonen builds on the simple idea of a couple moving into their first home.

Other animations dealt with more everyday human foibles, telling absurdist tales along narrative lines, such as Moebleeraaja (The Next Move), Red Rabbit, Berni's Doll and The Pearce Sisters. Surreal visuals also feature strongly in these films, in a kind of postmodernist approach to animation.

For example, Moebleeraaja (The Next Move) by Laura Neuvonen (Finland, 2007) builds on the simple idea of a couple moving into their first home. The 3D characters and sets appear to be made of stoneware, reminiscent of nicely crafted pottery that suggests toy-like and decorative qualities. The moving of furniture about the apartment to find the perfect arrangement goes on endlessly, until the objects themselves become part human and the humans turn part object. The resulting imagery and designs suggest sculptural assemblages in animated form.

The CG animation Red Rabbit by Egmont Mayer (Germany, 2007) explores the consequences of a surreal situation. The animation concerns two people who are keeping very oversized pets that fill a whole room in each of their apartments, causing havoc.

Elements of the absurd and surreal humor are also found in the most popular film of the festival, Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) by Claude Cloutier (Canada, 2007), a fairy tale parody resolved by a surprise ending. Based on audience votes, it won the SWR Audience Award with a prize of €6,000.

Set apart from the narrative animations were the strongly abstract works that experiment with inventively different techniques and forms, including Bildfenster-Fensterbilder (Framing), Meischeid and Energy.

Bildfenster-Fensterbilder (Framing) by Bert Gottschalk (Germany, 2007) takes images of windows, cityscapes, and film frames -- including filmed and found footage, individual frames, photographs and film strips -- and plays with their multifaceted visual combinations. As the title suggests, it is a play on the film's picture-frame (or literally "picture-windows") and windows (or "framed-pictures") and the visual correlations created through abstraction. It took nine months just to sort the materials, which were then scanned and animated digitally. The form and flow of the animation was determined by a Schubert piano piece. A kind of homage to film itself, the digitized animation has been output to 35mm film for festival screenings.

In Red Rabbit, two oversized pets create havoc.

In the animation Meischeid by Matthieu Auvray (France, 2007) a simple star-shaped 3D geometry is animated in response to a short music piece, attempting to prove that computers may generate poetry.

Energy by Thorsten Fleisch (Germany, 2007) uses an experimental technique where a cathode ray tube (such as you might find in a TV set) is used to emit a 30,000-volt electron discharge, or flash of light, to expose photographic paper, which results in a series of abstract and contrasting black-and-white images and textures. The film received an honorable mention in the International Competition. As described by the jury: "In the blink of an eye, we witness the exquisite capture of brilliant uncontrolled electricity. The film's montage expands the experience of subjective perception and also notions of animated form. Conceptually it is simultaneously connected to the period of '20s classic avant-garde."

The Student Animations

Interestingly, the student submissions to the festival this year outnumbered the professionals, with 689 student films submitted to the Young Animation competition, compared to 551 submissions in the International Competition, where some student films also competed in the main international category.

Many of the student animations screening in the Young Animation section were outstanding, showing great technical accomplishment, high-end production values, creativity and control of the narrative form. Mostly, they also tended towards lighter themes.

One of the films that stood out in several screenings was Oktapodi by Julien Bocabeille, Emud Mokhberi, Quentin Marmier, Francois X. Chanioux, Olivier Delaberro and Thierry Marchand (France, 2007), produced as a graduation film at GOBELINS, l'école de l'image. This entertaining 3D animation has also achieved acclaim at other festivals, including Best Animation at Imagina 2008 and Best in Show nominee for SIGGRAPH 2008. Told through wonderfully choreographed and comical animation sequences, the film features two octopuses who overcome insurmountable odds to reunite and stay together.

Bildfenster-Fensterbilder (Framing) is a strong abstract work that experiments with inventively different techniques. © Bert Gotschalk.

Another film also impressive for its high-end 3D designs, animation and narrative flow was the student animation Marin (Sailor) by Alexandre Bernard, Pierre Pages and Damien Laurent (France, 2007), produced at Supinfocom Arles. It holds our attention via its universal theme of survival. Aboard a ship caught in a wild storm at sea, a sailor and a fish in a bowl are fighting for survival and water, essential to both in the right amount.

The award for Best Student Film, with a prize of €2,500, was won by the animation 1977 by Peque Varela (Great Britain, 2007), produced at the National Film and Television School. The film takes an entirely different approach, combining a mix of media and animation techniques, including 3D animation with a 2D look, cut-out styles and drawing. It deals with a personal story of a girl searching for her identity. In awarding the prize, the jury stated that they "saw a lot of inspired and professionally crafted films, but the film we chose stood out because of its strong personal message. This particular story transcends an exclusively personal experience to the universal theme of finding one's identity. The narration is supported by the appropriate choice of cinematic language, and it managed to captivate us from the first second to the very end."

Students also receive attention at the festival through the 48h 3D Jam. This live competition involves several teams from different film schools. Each team of two had 48 hours on location to create a 3D animation of the festival's mascot "crazy horse" character. The films were presented at the Young Animation Party, where the three teams -- Ruslana Kojouharova & Michele Danze (Bulgaria/Stuttgart), Ceyhan Kapusuz & Enver Tokmak (Turkey) and Alex Donnee & Edward Williams (Great Britain -- were awarded a shared prize.

Energy uses a cathode ray tube to produce a series of abstract and contrasting black-and-white images.

(Re)contextualizing the Animated Film

The animated film may be contextualized in different ways to gain a better or wider understanding of this form of expression and entertainment. Festivals provide the best context for seeing new works, and for comparison and discussion. Animation as an art form, or as a film genre, can be seen in different ways. It may be understood in terms of historical context, in terms of new developments, in terms of the industry and its commercial context, or through hybrid forms of animation. It becomes incredibly difficult to compare and unequivocally "judge" works when there is such diversity.

The supporting programs at the Stuttgart festival provided relevant contextualization for animation and the main programs. The supporting programs included animation history, animation retrospectives, school presentations, animation studio presentations and talks, filmmaker talks, workshops -- including animation for children (Tricks for Kids), as well as business platforms such as the Animation Co-production Forum Eastern Europe, the Animation Production Day for Industry, and a new festival partnership with the Bitfilm Festival.

The "Best of Animation" retrospectives, curated by animation film critic and historian Giannalberto Bendazzi, presented international works from 1997-2007. These programs, screened each evening before the international competition, revealed that the past 10 years of auteur animation compares incredibly well with contemporary animations. The screenings provided a useful context for audiences who may not have seen the earlier films.

And, in a postmodern way, the festival also saw the re-contextualizing of historical animation. At the Young Animation Party, Parisian VDJ Oof presented a live performance titled Cinemix/Mc Laren. One of the first VDJs working in Paris, Oof is supported by the Canadian Film Board to create visual mixes using the wonderful animated films by animation pioneer Norman McLaren and bring them up to date! Cinemix/Mc Laren was an amazing visual and sound mix that kept the audience mesmerized for literally hours. Those who had never seen McLaren's films were enthralled. Those who knew the films and recognized their significance saw them in a new way.

Oktapodi, produced as a graduation film at GOBELINS, l'ecole de l'image, was a standout student animation.

The festival continues...

Stuttgart now has a partnership with Bitfilm Festival, an online festival showing films that use digital technology in creative and innovative ways. In addition to being screened at Stuttgart, all films in the Bitfilm festival competition will be shown on the Internet for two months until the awards in July 2008. Encompassing some of the more hybrid forms of animation and digital filmmaking, the competition includes machinima, films shot live in computer games, and realtime animation filmmaking, among other categories. The worldwide Net community can decide the winners by online votes.

Awards of the 14th Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film

International Competition:

Grand PrixFranz Kafka Inaka Isha (Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor) Koji Yamamura, Japan, 2007

International Promotion Award/Award for Best Graduation FilmCamera Obscura Matthieu Buchalski, Jean-Michel Drechsler, Thierry Onillon, France, 2007, Supinfocom Valenciennes

SWR Audience AwardIsabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) Claude Cloutier, Canada, 2007

Special Award: Music For AnimationHezurbeltzak, una fosa comun (Hezurbeltzak, A Common Grave) Iziben Onederra, Spain, 2007

Sony Bravia: Play Doh was singled out for Best Commissioned Work.

Other awards:

Best Student Film1977 Peque Varela, Great Britain, 2007, National Film and Television School

Best Children's Animated FilmThe Curse of the Skull Rock Ben Smith, Great Britain, 2007

AnimovieSlipp Jimmy Fri (Free Jimmy) Christopher Nielsen, Norway/Great Britain, 2006

Best TV Animated SeriesHairy Scary: No. 33 Wolf-Rüdiger Bloss, France/Germany, 2007

Best Commissioned WorkSony Bravia: Play Doh Darren Walsh and Frank Budgen, Great Britain, 2007, Passion Pictures

Best German-Language Screenplay for a Feature-Length Animated FilmDer Letzte Neandertaler (The Last Neanderthal Man) John Chambers

Honorable Mention Grand PrixEnergie (Energy) Thorsten Fleisch, Germany, 2007

Honorable Mention International Promotion AwardMilk Teeth Tibor Banoczki, Great Britain, 2007, National Film and Television School

Honorable Mention Young AnimationDionysos Joerg Weidner and Anke Spaeth, Germany, 2007, Hochschule fuer Bildende Kuenste Hamburg

Sabrina Schmid holds a BA and postgraduate diploma in fine art painting and a graduate diploma in applied film and television in animated film. Her award-winning animated films have screened at international festivals including Ann Arbor, Annecy, Hiroshima, Stuttgart and Sydney. Since 2001, she is senior lecturer in animation at the University of Teesside, U.K. She curated animations for the Animex 2005 festival and continues to make animations. She also writes for the U.K. magazine Imagine.

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