La Cambre, an Animation School in Brussels

by Philippe Moins
Translated by William Moritz


Not far from the heart of Brussels, hidden by a jewel-box of greenery, the walls of the 17th century Abbey of La Cambre (now deconsecrated) seems to defy time. In 1928 the architect and designer Henry van de Velde established the National Institute of of Decorative Arts there. Partly inspired by the pedagogical principles of the Bauhaus, this college quickly became a major art center for Belgium. A roll call of professors and students at the college from the 1920s until today reads like a review of art during that time--for example Paul Delvaux, Jo Delahaut, Pierre Alechinsky and Folon. Today among the numerous schools that compose the college those of Graphic Design, Typography, Art Direction (Fashion Design) and Animation have made a name for themselves.

History & Background
The Animation School at La Cambre must be one of the oldest on the continent, since it was founded in 1963-64. At first Gaston Roch and Robert Wolski directed the program, but within a few years they were joined by Raoul Servais, who had also founded an Animation Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, the other important animation school in Belgium. Today Guy Pirotte, Robert Wolski, Pierre Lucas and several other teachers follow about 30 students step by step through five years of study in two phases. The first three years include various theoretical courses (Literature, Cinema, Art History, etc.) and parallel practical exercises that make them familiar with the techniques of animation films. The students are also encouraged to sample the courses in other schools at the college in order to prevent narrow compartmentalization or restrictive specialization. The last two years are devoted to producing several short films. The production studio, headed by Guy Pirotte, furnishes the students with equipment and space that approximates those of the animation industry. As always, budget shortages often mean that students end up investing their own personal money in projects, but the School does arrange for the distribution of their films, including sales to television and participation in film festivals. (Close to 80 festivals have already programed films from La Cambre!). While the income from sales comes back to the school (where it goes into the production budget for following years--but never manages to cover production costs completely), the prizes go directly to the individual students.

Madame O'Hara
Madame O'Hara by Benoît Féroumont, 1994
© ENSAV La Cambre

The infatuation with Animation is such in Belgium that the school must reject many who apply. They can then try their luck with other schools for film or advertising, but La Cambre is unfortunately the only school of animation in French-speaking Belgium.

Advantages & Risks
Like the Royal College of Art in England or the CFT Gobelins in France, the Animation School of La Cambre is an integral part of a college of fine arts rather than a cinema school. This presents some advantages, but also a major risk: to cut off the students from the realities of audiovisual production, that is, the universe of cinematography itself. La Cambre has partially avoided this danger through the creation of its production structure, by courses devoted to cinema and by its relative technological autonomy, which allows students to work on animation stands, editing tables, in studios and recently with Silicon Graphics. Unfortunately, the number of students and the limited number of machines sometimes pose certain problems.

If one criticism could be leveled at the school, it would have to be for its tendency to favor the artistic side: in certain films, including those from last year, the script, editing and soundtrack give the impression of being secondary preoccupations compared to the artistic ambitions of the students. Even so, that sometimes also makes the richness of their progress.

The great advantage of the education at La Cambre rests in its openness: the school is not composed of technicians, nor of animators specialized in one particular style of animation, but rather of open spirits, creative spirits who end up finding in one or more techniques the means of expressing their sensibility. And apparently they don't do too badly: one thinks of José Abel, who died last year. He was one of the first graduates in the 1960s, and became a very successful animator, in France and elsewhere. He worked notably for Gerald Potterton (Heavy Metal) as well as doing special effects for Poltergeist. More recently Guionne Leroy, who was a very prolific student in the production studio, has become an animator for John Lasseter (Toy Story) and Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach).

Of course, as in every art school, some graduates take an atypical direction that leads them toward areas very far from their original major.

D'amour et d'os frais
D'amour et d'os frais by Celilia Marreiros-Marum, 1994
© ENSAV La Cambre

A Delightful Diversity
An analysis of the student films from recent years reveals a delightful diversity of inspiration, with mutual influence, inevitable (and desirable) in the context of a functioning studio. The techniques undertaken also reflect a good diversity. But drawing on paper and modeling clay are obviously the most frequently used. The early 1980s was characterized by a sort of rejection of the avant garde side of the school (the complete name of the department, up until recently, was "Experimental Animation Cinematography"). At that time certain student works reflected a desire to make a "finished product," as polished as possible, sometimes as empty as it was well made, full of clichés. That period seems to be over, and the more recent vintage are renewed with a certain spirit of experimentation while devoting more attention than in the past to the effective message and the script. In the realm of the classic 3D (clay or puppet), several personalities emerged, such as Kim Keukeleire, Cecilia Marreiros Marum, Guionne Leroy and Vincent Lavachery. They made films with stories, often with humor, and in the case of Leroy, with a sensitivity for movement that predicted her subsequent successes (Noi Siamo Zingarelle [We are Gypsies], produced in France by Pascavision). Other students branched out by mixing techniques and combining their animation with live-action footage, photography or pixillation (Vincent Brigode, Daniel Wiroth, Sylvia Minnaert).

A tendency toward "Tex Avery," as zany as you could want, is represented by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, while Benoît Féroumont wields the heavy heritage of comic books without complexes.

Some showed themselves to be illustrators with a personal style (Claude Grosch, Eric Blesin) or technicians of classic design (Philippe Capart, Xavier Dujardin). The impertinent, sarcastic side (that is topical satire) is illustrated by Luc Otter, Martin Koscielniak and Eric Blesin. Florence Henrard and Christelle Coopman give a specifically feminine color to this tendency.

Chosen for competition at Cannes, given a special mention at Annecy, the short films of La Cambre have become a valued commodity in the little world of independent animation. Once they have graduated, some have had no trouble integrating into the world of the animation industry and advertising. We hope the others, independent personal animation filmmakers, will find both the opportunities and enough energy to pursue their singular careers.

To purchase a La Cambre Collection video, visit the AWN Store.

Philippe Moins is the founder of the Brussels Festival of Cartoons and Animated Films. A writer specializing in animation based in Brussels, he was Editor-in-Chief of ASIFA News (published by ASIFA-International), and is now Editor of La Gazette du Loup, a quarterly newsletter on animation.

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