Armed with diverse styles and techniques, a knowledge and love of music, smart, subversive wit and a desire to innovate one never knows what to expect from Sweden's Studio FilmTecknarna, just that it will probably be visually and aurally riveting, while offering some food for thought.
See just one of the many styles of FilmTecknarna in this loop depicting the duality of parenting from Revolver. All images courtesy of FilmTecknarna, unless otherwise noted.
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Formed in 1981 by Jonas Odell, Stig Berqvist and Lars Ohlson, the Swedish animation studio, FilmTecknarna has developed into one of the most respected and innovative animation companies in the world. FilmTecknarna have merged a low and high end mixed media aesthetic to produce a visually exciting body of work that includes award-winning commercials for a variety of clients (Madonna's Music video, Boddington's Cream Ale, MTV, Cartoon Network) along with a unique body of personal films (Revolver, Exit) that have received wide acclaim from international film festivals.
While FilmTecknarna has no consistent graphic style, there is a distinctive humour and rhythm to their work. "The studio," says Odell, "is made up of individuals with distinctly different approaches, but I do think there are things you recognize from film to film." Diverse films such as The Man Who Thought With His Hat, Dawning, Exit, Revolver and Otto, all feature a unique combination of surrealism, social commentary and black comedy. Many of the films are situated in suburban working class environments. Within these seemingly average spaces we find a darker and often humorous world.
The Short Films
The studio's first film, The Man Who Thought With His Hat, was, like most Swedish animated films, adapted from a children's story. "We thought that was what you had to make," says Odell. "We found a children's book that we liked and bought the rights (the author didn't want any money, but insisted that we draw characters with five fingers on each hand). The producer at the film institute was actually looking for someone to adapt this author's work to film. I still like the story, but the film definitely isn't 'us.'"
Although The Man Who Thought With His Hat certainly contains a number of elements usually found in a children's story, the film is a decidedly adult tale that examines class and power while suggesting that social attitudes are inherited not natural. The film follows an oppressive President who does his decision making with a hat. The society he has created is one of conformity and repression. One day, the wind blows the hat away and the President loses his ability to think. After a rather bizarre interlude between the hat and some animals, a small boy returns the hat to the President, but teaches him how to think without it.
Their second film Dawning was closer to the studio's tastes. The protagonist is a 'cute' teddy bear who awakens early one day and wanders through the city streets. Along the way, he encounters a variety of people going about their daily routine. The unassuming narrative then takes a dramatic twist as it turns out that the teddy is wandering through a film set.
One of the studio's first films to receive international acclaim, and arguably their best work to date, is Exit. This was the first film written by the studio and it had two starting points. One was a nightmare that Berqvist had about a bizarre amusement park/department store. The second was a story told by Dawning writer, Joakim Pirinen. "Joakim told us about the trip he made to Berlin," says Odell. " When you enter East Berlin you had to exchange a certain sum of money into East German marks but you weren't allowed to bring them out of the country." Law abiding as he was, he desperately tried to spend the money on what there was to buy (i.e. cheap souvenirs and nylon socks). This developed into a satire on the entertainment industry and the desperate race to have a 'good time.'
An Orwellian nightmare from Exit. From FilmTecknarna's first film, the internationally acclaimed Exit.
Exit opens with Ike and his three friends riding the train to town to visit a mammoth amusement park/shopping mall facility that bears a striking resemblance to the White House. Once inside, the quartet is greeted with a visual assault of neon signs (including a fabulous and ominous opening shot of a 'Get Happy' sign directly above a 'No Exit' sign) offering the allure of sex, violence and immediate pleasures. But what begins as a paradise turns into a nightmarish Orwellian consumer hell of violence and excess.
One of the subtle achievements of Exit is its deceptively simple design, which is more aligned with classical animation (like Dawning and The Man Who Thought With His Hat) than with the more expressionist design of Revolver, Otto and Body Parts. Initially, one laments the lack of stylish graphic design until you understand the consciously alluring effect of the 'cartoony' nature of Exit.
Following Pesce Pesce, a bizarre stop-motion piece about fish, FilmTecknarna made Alice In Plasmaland, a series of 21 short clay animated segments that fuse surrealism, Lewis Carroll and cut and paste hip hop with well known 20th century dialogue. The segments include an old white redneck rapping Martin Luther King's famous words, "I have a dream" before turning into a 'sexy' black woman; King Kong pulling his female victim apart to the words, "Loves me, loves me not;" a sexual relocation of George Bush's famous line, "Read my lips;" and a disturbing piece with Santa Claus masturbating to a peep show booth within which two young children open presents. While many of the segments border on the absurd, Alice re-contextualizes well-known dialogue with images that subvert the original meanings by re-locating them in an ugly but perhaps more honest environment.
Alice was commissioned for SVT broadcasting company in Sweden and marked the first time FilmTecknarna worked with clay animation but also the first time Odell worked with fellow Swedish animator, Magnus Carlsson (director of Radiohead's Paranoid Android video): "Neither of us had done any claymation so we decided that would be a fun thing to try. We made a couple of episodes as a pilot and showed it to the head of the youth department at the SVT broadcasting company in Sweden who like it and commissioned 26 episodes. During this period we spent a lot of time in bars in Stockholm, and most of the ideas were written down on napkins. We shared a common interest in music and decided to use sampled lines of dialogue in the same way it was used in music at that time."
View a loop of a housewife kneading a fish from Revolver.
FilmTecknarna's most famous production is Revolver, a dazzling black and white film with a bold graphic style and a striking minimalist score. The film won awards around the world and to this day continues to be included in "best of" animation programmes. Says Odell: "We had long wanted to do something in black and white but somehow one or two colours always sneaked in and before we knew it we were always back to full colour. We had long wanted to do something using loops, this is usually done to save time and money in animation, but we noticed that looping a movement always added new qualities to it, either it suddenly turned out very comical or annoying or even frightening, and this was something we wanted to use. Animation from the silent era, especially the Fleischers and Victor Bergdahl, were a major inspiration with their extensive use of cycles. We wanted to structure the film in the same way as a piece of music; to start with a couple of themes and let them develop and merge into new themes. Of course this way of working made it impossible to obtain any funding for the film so we had to finance it mostly from our commercial productions, and strangely enough it turned out to be the film that got us the most new commercial jobs, so I guess it was well spent money even from a strictly commercial point of view."
Revolver is comprised of a series of disparate repeated images that flow to the rhythm of a nightmare. The theme of domesticity, however fragmented and vague, seems to be the defining thread of Revolver. A housewife kneads a fish; a literally two-faced father fishes with his son. While the son gazes elsewhere, the father's face turns inside out before quickly reverting back to 'normal' when the son looks back at him. In this one clever image, the film conveys the complexity of parent/child relationships. To the children, parents are a sign of order, normalcy, maturity, but this scene conveys the fragility of such notions, instead presenting the parent as a deceptive, multi-faceted being. Later we see a wedding in a revolving church that cynically links marriage to that of the temporary nature of a revolving restaurant. This image is followed by a bickering couple who exchange lips (notably the revolving church is in the background) so they can yell at each other. In the end, Revolver, like a dream, can be read in a variety of ways or merely savoured for its formal aural and graphic beauty.
Santa is about to see a few too many Body Parts...
Following Revolver, FilmTecknarna made another compilation film, this time exploring in their usual absurdist way, fifteen parts of the body. Similar in pace and tone to Alice, Body Parts was made "in a kind of 2D technique," says Odell, "with flat cutout, animated-like puppets, improvised and held together by the soundtrack." While there is a prevailing sense of alienation and loneliness, it's hard to take a film that shows a man playing Ode to Joy with his armpits too seriously. Other surreal highlights include a man who uncovers a lover and child when he pulls out his nose hair; A man pulls out his brain while cleaning his ears, and a couple who find love in their common gastrointestinal disorders.
FilmTecknarna returned to the Swedish suburbs for Otto, the story of a young boy who, lying in bed, imagines what exciting adventures his siblings might be doing. Filled with bold, bright, UPA-influenced colours and design, Otto is a striking contrast to the stark black and white imagery of Revolver. "The script for Otto was written even before we had started work on Revolver," says Odell, "but we didn't quite now what to do with it design wise to begin with. The experience of working within a very limited style on Revolver made it possible for us to approach design and the use of colours in a new and freer way." While Otto was never picked up as a series (it was intended as a pilot), much of design has found its way on FilmTecknarna animated series for Oxygen, Mom's Online.
One of the distinguishing marks of FilmTecknarna and especially Jonas Odell's work is the soundtrack. Using a clever amalgam of cut and paste dialogue, electronica, hip-hop and reggae, music plays a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining the mood of the work and in orchestrating the direction of many of their improvised films. Odell has created most of the soundtracks, most notably Alice in Plasmaland, Body Parts, Revolver and Otto. "I used to play in bands and I enjoy doing the music myself, it might not be the world's greatest music but making it yourself does make it a part of the overall vision. Besides I am the cheapest composer we ever worked with."
Selling Out and Still Being Cool
Although, FilmTecknarna was created to make 'personal' films, commercial projects have been a necessary part of their survival. Owing to the festival success of their short films (especially Revolver)FilmTecknarna has been hired to make a wide array of commercials in Sweden and abroad. "The situation in Sweden has been kind of special. When we started out there was no commercial television in Sweden. When it arrived in the 1980s there was a big boom in commercials production, but not a lot of people with specialized skills in fields like SFX and motion graphics. We soon got a reputation as problem solvers and were called in to work on all kinds of things. We suddenly were model makers, we did on-location effects, television graphics, visual effects, puppeteering, etc. I have even done sound editing on other projects. So the directors at the studio today have a basic knowledge of the possibilities of most conceivable animation techniques, and are able to choose from them when they design a new project." The success of their recent commercial exploits owes a lot to the studio's remarkable diversity and innovation.
In the past couple of years alone, FilmTecknarna has produced a number of spots including some real gems for Music Is My Anti-Drug, MTV (a very clean/minimalist design), the MTV European Music Awards, Boddingtons Cream Ale (one of the funniest and lewdest commercials of recent memory), retro shorts for the Cartoon Network's Cartoon Shorties program and a nifty animated segment for Madonna's Music video.
FilmTecknarna landed the Madonna segment largely because of their previous collaborations with the video's director, Jonas Akerlund. "The basic brief," says Odell, "was to make something that looked like an animated Madonna TV series circa 1970s so we tried to keep CG effects and 3D stuff at a minimum and only do things that could have been done on an animation stand."
Of the Cartoon Shorties, one of the highlights is Atom Ant. Created for the Cartoon Network's 'shorties' series, Atom Ant is one of a series of reinterpretations of old Hanna-Barbera characters. Using a Cold War/atomic 'look,' Odell works with, similar to Body Parts, a cut-out style using samples from the original soundtrack. Aside from Atom Ant, FilmTecknarna also created re-interpretations of Wally Gator, Jabberjaw and Josie and The Pussycats. The Josie spot is particularly interesting because it uses a variety of techniques (cel, cut-out, CGI with live-action explosions!) as we follow the theme song and the girl's style through a series of metamorphoses based on music stylings over the last thirty years (disco, punk, country, electronica, heavy metal). When discussing FilmTecknarna, Cartoon Network director, Mike Ouweleen, gushes with enthusiasm: "We stumbled upon their reel three years ago and they began doing a piece called Things To Do. They just 'got it' from the beginning. Their design and textures are absolutely brilliant."
Music Is My Anti-Drug was part of a series done by various animators all featuring a young person and their particular anti-drug. Wanting to give the spot a dance music style, the studio looked at rave posters and flyers and out of that developed two styles: "a stylized flat drawing for the main character and the metallic shiny basic 3D style for the characters surrounding him." Rendering the 3D city several times in different techniques and then compositing it together created the imposing backgrounds.
The spot for the 2000 MTV European Music Awards mixes rotoscope with a retro futuristic style as it plays with the idea of the year 2000 as a symbol of the future. The opening sequence opens with a line of text saying, "Stockholm in the year 2000," and follows a 'hip' young couple through their futuristic leisurely life (that oddly enough looks nothing like Stockholm in the year 2000!). "We did several ideas when we pitched to get the project, one featured a herring called Sven sporting porn star style sideburns. They liked the ideas but added another element to the brief: the stage was to be designed in the style of Ken Adam (the art director for several 1960s' Bond movies as well as for Kubrick's 2001). The characters were shot as live-action and then hand rotoscoped. The backgrounds were built as 3D models in the computer and rendered as line images to fit the style."
Rotoscope mixes with retro-futurism in a spot created for the 2000 MTV European Music Awards. A futuristic couple strolls through the world created by FilmTecknarna for the 2000 MTV European Music Awards spot.
Finding the Balance
A new challenge facing the suddenly in-demand studio is balance. The success of their commercial work has meant that there is little time for personal projects. In fact, the studio has not made an independent film since Revolver (Otto, while technically an independent film, was targeted as a TV series). "We were used to being able to use the time in between commercials to work on our own films," says Odell, "but that time doesn't exist anymore. It took us awhile to understand that and to devise new ways of planning the studio's work so we actually will be able to do both. We have now stated as a policy to create independent films regularly." In fact, Odell is currently half way through a new "slightly autobiographical" short called Family and Friends. Jonas Dahlbeck (who became a studio partner in 1994 along with Magnus Carlsson) and Boris Nawratil have also started on a couple of projects.
While the animation industry heads into a drought, FilmTecknarna seems flexible enough to withstand it. "We have been lucky," says Odell, "to get almost all of our films theatrically distributed in Sweden and that's not really a normal thing when it comes to short films." At the same time, any studio that can create inventive and exceptional animation using either the latest digital technology or a simple fax machine is probably going to turn out just fine.
Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and founder and director of SAFO, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is editor of the ASIFA News. 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 numerous articles on animation. His iconoclastic tendencies have led him to be called the "John Woo of diplomacy" and most recently, "the enfant terrible of animation" by Take One magazine. He is currently working on a book about something.