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This Guy Really Knows How to Manage His Time: An Interview with Olivier Cotte

Chris Robinson chats with French animation writer, teacher and director Olivier Cotte to figure out how he gets so much done in the same 24-hour day that we all live in.

Il était une fois le dessin animé is Olivier Cottes latest work on animation.

Il était une fois le dessin animé is Olivier Cottes latest work on animation.

French animation writer, teacher and director Olivier Cotte is a busy guy these days. Hes written an encyclopedia of animation (sorry folks, its only in French at the moment), a monograph on U.S. independent animator David Ehrlich, and is at work on a few books, including one about the Swiss animator, Georges Schwizgebel. Chris Robinson caught up, via e-mail, with Olivier to find out where he finds the time to do all this stuff.

Chris Robinson: Tell me a bit about your book Il était une fois le dessin animé, which is an encyclopedia of animation.

Olivier Cotte: This encyclopedia was an old dream I had. I fell in love with animation when I was about 10, after seeing Fantasia and the work of Norman McLaren. Two very different ways of making animation! After that, I saw as many animation films as I could for years, and I continue today. About 12 years ago, I had the idea of an encyclopedia and proposed it to several publishers, without success. During this time, I worked as a computer artist for features, shorts and commercials. And I had the possibility to work for a magazine dedicated to animation, Animation Reporter. One day, I proposed the old idea of the encyclopedia to Thierry Steff, the publisher of the magazine who also had a publishing company. He said yes. So I spent three years writing the book.

Fantasia was an early influence on Cotte. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantasia was an early influence on Cotte. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

CR: How does the book compare, for example, to Bendazzi's encyclopedia? Did you use Bendazzi as an example of what to do and what to avoid?

OC: Bendazzi's work is very impressive and I'm full of admiration for it. As the history of animation is the same for everybody (we will not change the historical facts!), I've tried all the time not to go in the same direction, but with another point of view. It was a difficult thing to manage, but there are two important things to keep in mind. First, I wanted this encyclopedia to be for a general audience. That's why I've included a technical chapter at the beginning, to inform people how we make animated movies, and to give them a better understanding of all the techniques that are used.

Second, I wanted this book to have a more subjective look, compared to Bendazzi's. Of course, I've tried to talk about all the important directors, even those who don't fit my personal tastes. But at the same time, as I consider that an artist can't make a masterpiece every time, I tried to help people to have a kind of guide to the artist's best works. It means that I wrote about the best works and also about the ones, which are not so impressive. It's very subjective, I know, and very dangerous, but as I'm open-minded (I like cartoon and experimental films, for instance), I think it was an opportunity to give more information and to have a better understanding of an artists career. That point convinced me to also give a (very) subjective list of the 50 best-animated films of all the time.

CR: I was impressed (and yes, I say this with a smidgen of self-interest) that you also included a list of the winners from all of the most important animation festivals. This is very useful and long overdue. Now, during the writing of this book, you met many animators including American David Ehrlich. Last year you wrote an interesting book on Ehrlichs life and career. How did the idea come about? How hard was it to find a publisher? Ehrlichs an experimental animator, so I can imagine that must have taken a pretty ballsy publisher to take this on.

Cotte tries to present a different historical point of view from Bendazzis influential Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation.

Cotte tries to present a different historical point of view from Bendazzis influential Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation.

OC: During the three years I worked on the encyclopedia, I had many contacts with directors, including David Ehrlich. He's a very positive and charming person and he answered my questions honestly. After a while, I wondered if a book about him wouldn't be a good idea. The encyclopedia wasn't finished yet, so the creation of the two books overlapped. The publisher was the same. Of course, I had to more intensively sell this monograph because David is not such a 'commercial subject' as an encyclopedia. But, because Thierry loves animation, and because David helped us a lot, the project was launched. And of course, it was a possibility for me to write a bilingual book. This book was the opposite of the first not planned, a kind of 'accident', a little bit like a lovely meeting and I still like the way it came out.

CR: Its disappointing in a way although certainly not unusual that it took a foreigner to write about an overlooked American animator.

OC: Well, some Americans have written about French artists. I particularly think of Donald Craftons Emile Cohl biography. I don't think very much in terms of countries. I feel very much international; I belong to ASIFA and have many friends all around the world in the field of animation. I felt close to David and to his work, and that's why I have chosen to write about him. I react more in terms of sensibilities.

Cotte covered Dave Ehrlichs career in David Ehrlich: Citizen of the World.

Cotte covered Dave Ehrlichs career in David Ehrlich: Citizen of the World.

CR: What I mean is that there are some really great American historians and academics and yet they seem to devote almost all their time and energy toward covering every possible detail of American cartoons, specifically this Golden Age period. It's great that these folks can find all these theoretical and historical angles, but couldn't they do the same with other countries, other animators like George Griffin, Priit Pärn, Igor Kovalyov, Caroline Leaf (to name a handful)?

OC: The cartoon, which, by the way, is a bad and inappropriate word for these films, is an important style of animation. And it's a popular one, so writers can be surer that they will find a publisher and readers, which is not the case for some other directors. Maybe it's a pity to continue to dig this way: It leaves a lot of other artists unknown. I like Canemaker's books very much because he revealed some new periods, and did a real historians work. His sensibility goes to classical animation and he gives a tribute to it. I think it's very honest. And he's a good director too. I would like to write about Griffin, Pärn and Kovalyov, or Leaf. Maybe one day.

CR: And you actually are writing about one of those unsung figures right now

OC: I have several books in preparation including a bilingual monograph about Georges Schwizgebel for next year.

CR: Who will publish the Schwizgebel monograph? Why do you find his work so fascinating?

OC: I suppose it will be the same publisher. I find Schwizgebel's work fascinating for many reasons. First, there is the question of sensibility, I like painting (I've studied painting myself) and Georges' work is deeply involved in it. And I like his relationship to cutting and music.

CR: And what else are you working on?

OC: Well, I've just finished the French translation of the Richard Williams' Animator Survival Kit. I can tell you that I am preparing another encyclopedia, a new one, more complete on animation. This time there will be French and English editions. I also write articles for different magazines. I'm working on my next personal animated film. And I write scripts for comics and animated TV series, but that's another story...

CR: Normally... an interviewer would now ask, "But Olivier, where do you find the time," but now that I've written two books in a year, along with organizing a festival, and writing articles... I know it's a pointless question... we just manage to find time. I think, sometimes, we actually have more time than we imagine.

OC: Yes, we have to manage to have some free time, and that's not always easy. I try, as everybody else, to schedule everything. If I do nothing, I'm bored. If I have many things to do, I can jump from one to the other and I feel comfortable because I'm never hindered by any problem. And, even if I'm not at my desk, I continue to think about all the work in progress all the time; it's like a 'background application.'

Cotte would like to write in-depth about animators working today like George Griffin (above).

Cotte would like to write in-depth about animators working today like George Griffin (above).

CR: And you dont just write, you also teach. Where, and what, are you teaching?

OC: For the moment, I work at the Gobelins School, famous for the shorts that were shown every day at the 2003 Annecy Festival (and I spent a lot of time on these films).

I teach two different subjects. The first, as you can guess, is a history and aesthetic of animated film. I do a lot of screenings, a melting pot of different styles, and we discuss the film with the students. The main idea is to improve the way they watch films, to give them a desire to open their minds to other kinds of film they don't know.

CR: What kinds of films?

OC: The range of these films goes, during the same session, from the early silent movie to the latest computer graphic work. The other kind of teaching I do is about digital post-production. As I was a computer artist for 13 years, I have worked for 15 features by Polanski, Costa-Gavras etc and on a lot of different kind of films, I have learned and practiced many different ways of manipulating and blending images, and I link all this work to painting. When I began video was analogical, and, when I stopped, it was a digital film resolution media. And, of course, I've worked a lot in animation and digital. All that background gives me the ability to teach students how to manage digital tools for technical and artistic expression.

CR: With the onslaught of digital technology, do you see animation eventually just merging with live action into some new digital medium? So many Hollywood features, for example, heavily rely upon animation effects these days (Attack of Clones, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men). Will animation be absorbed? Where do you see what we call traditional or drawn animation in the next 10-20 years?

Cotte admires historian John Canemakers writing.

Cotte admires historian John Canemakers writing.

OC: Ouch! I don't know, and, sometimes, when I think about that, I feel uncomfortable. Of course, FX that use animation, particularly via computer, are much more important than before. But keep in mind that it's only an extra. It didn't kill the rest. It's a bonus. But I worry more about the culture. Now I see less experimental films than before. All the independent (especially from schools) films seem very 'equal.' It often gives me the feeling that the director wanted his film to 'fit in a mainstream style.' I suppose we will produce traditional drawn films in 10-20 years, probably less, but maybe better films. The real question is who will do that? And, who will be interested to see them?

CR: And thats really an important question: Who will be interested to see them? Will there even be a place for short films? Annecy has more focus on feature animation, and weve just been told in Ottawa thats its in our best interest (financially) if the Ottawa Festival starts focussing more on commercially viable feature animation. Are we now entering a new era that might lead to the demise of the short animation film?

Cottes latest project is translating Richard Willams book to French.

Cottes latest project is translating Richard Willams book to French.

OC: That's a real problem. We wanted to see animation become better known and distributed. We complained about the lack of features films (except Disney's films)? OK! Here we are! A feature is part of a business, it's very expensive and so it means money. A large part of the audience is interested in this kind of production. Today art is much more linked to entertainment (some people don't even make the difference). All these considerations lead to a possibility: the one that a short could only turn to be a 'passport' or a showreel, when you leave the school, destined to work only in the business sector.

CR: How is the animation scene in France?

OC: The situation in France is quite different from other countries. The government can help production, and, every year, about 450 shorts (animation and live-action) are produced. There is Folimage, of course, and there are many other little companies that produce independent films. And when we add student films, its quite a lot. And yes, commercial production, especially feature, is important. Only last month, there were three new French animated features on screen. That's the first time that happened.

CR: Thanks for your time.

OC: A pleasure.

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is also the editor of the semi-annual ASIFA Magazine. Robinson has curated film programs and served on festival juries throughout the world. He writes a monthly column (The Animation Pimp) for Animation World Network and has written for Salon.com, Cinemascope, Take One, 12gauge, City Pages and others. Robinson contributed a chapter on English-Canadian animation to the book, North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980. His book Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation was published in May. He is working on a strange book about childhood, alcoholism and an ex-hockey player tentatively called, The Boy Who Never Grew Up.