Search form

The SAS Conference in Utrecht

Gunnar Str relates the papers and ideas of the 9th Society for Animation Studies Conference.

The Society for Animation Studies (SAS) held its 9th conference in Utrecht in the Netherlands from the October 8-12. This was the second time the conference was held in Europe and actually only the third time it has been arranged outside of the U.S. For the SAS to become truly international, the conference in Utrecht was a major step to include more European scholars. Hopefully, it will come back to Europe in two or three years time and maybe even institutions in Australia, Asia or Latin-America will be future SAS conference organizers.

Utrecht was in many ways an ideal site for the conference. The beautiful city dates back to a Roman settlement in the year 48 A.D.. In the Middle Ages, Utrecht was a major Dutch city. With its canals, old impressive churches and beautiful small streets, a walk around the ancient town center is a really interesting and pleasant cultural experience. As an university town, Utrecht is the oldest in the Netherlands. Utrecht University is the largest in the country with 25,000 students. Both Utrecht University and Vrije Univeriteit Amsterdam were coordinators of the SAS event, but the principal SAS contact and the main organizers were Ton Crone and his colleagues at the Nederlands Institute for Animation Film. The aim of this national institute is to reinforce and broaden the infrastructure of animation films in the Netherlands. As such, they really demonstrated their qualifications and skills by holding a very well organized conference.

Opening Night

On the first night, the conference was opened in the beautiful aula (main hall) of the Utrecht University by Stevijn van Heusden, Head of the Arts Department in the Ministry for Education, Culture and Science. This leading Dutch cultural politician gave an informed and, it seemed, personally inspired speech about animation and the state of the art. Apart from the French Cultural Minister Jacques Lang, who spoke about animation in Annecy some years ago, I have never heard a politician on such a high level speak about our art form from such a personally involved viewpoint. Unfortunately, the follow up presentation that was probably meant to be a highlight of the conference, did not live up to its expectations. Professor Nadia Thalmann was introduced as the world expert on the development of computer animation. She took us through an "Overview of the State of the Art in Human Figure Modeling Animation." She showed examples of the work from her studio/laboratory in Geneva, but neither Marilyn Monroe or the other clips she showed particularly impressed me. A virtual tennis match between two players - one placed in Geneva, the other in Zürich - was a fascinating technical experiment of real-time motion caption control, but as animation, the performance was a disappointment. However, the reception afterwards was excellent! So was the conference dinner party, and the 't Hoogt Film Theater, where most meals were taken, was a great meeting place.

An International Retreat

More than 100 participants from 16 nations illustrates both the popularity and geographical variety among the animation scholars. There were participants from Australia, Canada, Iran, Israel, Japan, the U.S. and several European countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Even though I met several translators the first day of the festival, I never heard them work. The conference was open to papers presented in both French and German, but only Philippe Moins (Belgium) presented his paper in French, and all of us had written English translations for his presentation. The only French panelist, Pierre Floquet, chose to present his paper on Tex Avery in fluent English. I believe our SAS association has a very long way to go before it becomes bilingual. Maybe it never will, but I believe that if we want to attract our French speaking colleagues, it probably has to.

U.S. Papers

The papers presented a broad spectrum of animation studies. The central subjects to be addressed were: "The Influence of the European Animated Film," and "Animation and New Media." Papers on other topics were accepted as usual. Also as usual, papers on American animation history were very present representing 10 out of 28 papers. Sybil DelGaudio (U.S.) presented "Animation and Anonymity: The Uncredited Work of John and Faith Hubley," and Maureen Furniss (U.S.) spoke about "Stars and Stripes: Animation in American Advertising," focusing on Leonard Glasser and the quite unknown American animation production company Stars and Stripes Forever Productions. Mark Langer (Canada) analyzed the Disney telefilm Man in Space (1955) and related it to the Cold War, the Swede Gunilla Muhr discussed "Modernist Traits in the Silly Symphonies" and Kevin Sandler (U.S.) looked in detail at "Looney Tunes and Merry Metonyms: Disneyfication, Identity Politics, and the Corporatizing of Bugs Bunny" where he compared the old Bugs Bunny films with Space Jam. As usual the U.K. SAS veterans Robin Allen and David Williams were among the highlights of the conference. This time Robin Allen presented his main argument about European artists influence on the Disney films through the animation art collection of Disney engineer and puppeteer Bob Jones. Through a new video lecture, David Williams presented "Sons of the Drawing Board: Laurel and Hardy as Cartoon Characters."

Animation Histories

Because of the European focus of the conference and the large presence of European scholars, different national animation cinemas were discussed. Philippe Moins' paper was on Belgian animation and its relationship to the strong comic strip tradition in Belgium. Mette Peters (The Netherlands) spoke about and showed the Dutch silhouette film De Moord van Raamsdonk (Murder in Raamsdonk, 1933-36), Boris Pavlov (Russia) presented Russian animation from the 1920s and `30s and I, Gunnar Strøm (Norway), discussed Norwegian cinema commercials from the 1930s made by European producers Desider Gross and Gaspar Color. Nikolai Izvolov (Russia) discussed "The Idea of Artificial Sound in Russian Animation," while Sergiy Trymbach (Ukraine) presented the animation of his country. All of us were concerned with animation history in our respective countries. A special mention goes to Marty McNamara (U.S.) who looked at "Patterns of Social Metaphor in New German Animation." Japanese anime was discussed in a Jungian perspective by Edward Gamarra (U.S.), while veteran John Lent (U.S.), and a young Turkish doctorate student Asli Tunc, took us through the history of Turkish animation, an experience new to all of us.

New Theoretical Angles

A more theoretical approach was taken by Anatoly Prokhorov (Russia) in his "Space as a Screen, Perception as an Illusion, Culture as Sorcery" and by Suzanne Buchan (Switzerland). She discussed the influence of James Joyce on modernist cinema and related that to Betty Boop and Felix the Cat, as well as to animated films by Cathy Joritz, Emile Cohl, Caroline Leaf, Giannluigi Toccafondo and the Brothers Quay. A quite unusual study for SAS conferences was Masao Yokota's empirical paper on "Face Preference of Animation Characters by Japanese University Students." To me perhaps the two most interesting approaches to the study of animated film were presented by Edwin Carels (Belgium) and Bernadette Kester (The Netherlands). Priit Pärn's homage to 100 years of cinema, 1895 (Estonia, 1995), had been screened at the conference cinema on the conference's second day. In the morning the day after, Edwin Carels presented a very solid lecture called "1895: Animation, History and the Metafilm" where he discussed Priit Pärn's film in relation to Godard and other modernist filmmakers, and to new historiography in the tradition of Hayden White and Robert A. Rosenstone. In the same panel Bernadette Kester presented her newly started research on "Emancipating from Realism?: Historical Representation in Animation Film." Her starting point was an animated historical film from World War I, On les aura!. Her summary states: "The fact that the filmmakers used animation instead of constructing realistic looking fakes, brought me to the question if perhaps animation films are aptly suited to grasp certain historical events which are beyond mere realistic representations. From this the idea naturally followed that animation film might be also an intellectual inspiring and stimulating medium for developing a critical view on the constructed images of the past." Bernadette Kester apologized to the audience for being new to animation and asked the audience for help to find relevant film titles for her further research. The audience was glad she asked. Obviously her research in this field is just beginning, but I found her and Edwin Carels' historiographical approach to be a new way of thinking in the field of animation studies, and I suggest that for a coming SAS conference this should be one of the subjects asked for in the call for papers.

No Time to Talk

A problem with conferences like this, is that because the organizers want to include as many papers as possible, time for discussions and participation from the audience is too short. Our Russian-American colleague Michael Gurevitch tried several times to raise philosophical topics to be discussed by the audience and the panels, but long sessions and time shortages usually put an end to that. Some papers did evoke both emotions and reactions though. This time, Richard Leskosky discussed "The Quest for Depth: Mechanics and Aesthetics of the American Cartoon," and there were obviously different ideas in the audience on how the multiplane camera actually worked. The young Americans Chandra Mukerji and Tarleton Gillespie got the audience going after their paper on "Recognizable Ambiguity: Cartoon Imagery and American Childhood in Animaniacs." Two other youngsters also provoked the audience. Dutch dramaturgs Arnoud Rijken and Bas Brinkman had, fresh from University, started their own animation dramaturgy consultant business offering to help filmmakers and other professional animation communicators to improve their scripts and focus their ideas. They presented quite a schematic method as background for the way they were working, and this obviously seemed too simple for the older scholars in the audience.

But the most provocative study was probably "It's About Time," presented by Dan McLaughlin (U.S.). With the help of a laser disc player and some statistical computer software, McLaughlin had coded and counted every shot in eight classic animation films. Among his results was the fact that the average length of the surveyed European film was 140 frames or 5.8 seconds while the length of the American films were 177 frames or 8.5 seconds. The professor was heavily attacked by the audience which claimed that his choice of films was not representative enough, the number of films was too small, etc. And how do you actually define a shot in an animated film? Not much came out of the discussion, but I believe that Dan McLaughlin got his point through: This kind of empirical study has no position in the field of animation studies today; this is not what modern scholars find interesting. But, I believe that on a bigger, more representative scale such material and empirical studies can give us basic knowledge for further research. Plus, Dan McLaughlin definitely managed to provoke us all. Plus, Film Screenings Fortunately, the 9th SAS Conference did not forget the film screenings! As always William Moritz (U.S.) was an inspiring lecturer. His thoroughly illustrated presentation of "Absolute Film: The Next Generation" included abstract films from filmmakers like Bärbel Neubauer, Michael Scroggins, Sara Petty and Robert Darroll. German film historian Jean Paul Goergen introduced a solid program of cartoons by the completely unknown filmmaker Paul Peroff. Peroff founded his own animation company Peroff Pictures Inc. in New York in 1927 and he worked both in the U.S. and in Germany until the early 1960's.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early on the last day of the conference. Therefore, I missed an exciting-looking film program from the Nederlands Film Museum and a Laterna Magica show at the Christiaan Huygens Theater. I'm sure this made a most successful end to an interesting and very well-organized event. The Utrecht conference managed in a most pleasant way to make us participants feel good, to inspire and provoke us, to give us the opportunity to meet old friends and introduce us to new colleagues. As an animation scholar from a small country, it is paradise to be able to discuss my subject with colleagues who have the same references and a similar background. I do hope I'll be able to attend again in California next year! it the Society for Animation Studies web site in Animation World Network's Animation Village: Gunnar Strøm is Associate Professor at Volda College in Norway, where he is head of the animation department. He has published a number of books on animation and music videos. He is president of ASIFA Norway, and a board member and former secretary general of ASIFA International.