ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 3.10 - January 1999
The State of Independence
by Otto Alder
The following observations represent my personal attempts to come to terms with the idea and substance of "Independent Animation." This means we have here some subjective, unsorted ideas. My viewpoint is not that of a theoretician. The following thoughts are based on my extensive activities as an independent festival consultant and programmer, and as an independent observer of the international scene. Here, for the first time, I'll try to tie it all together.
Alexander Petrov's The Mermaid. © Shar Studio.
Definition of Terms
"Independent Film" is an expression that crystallized out of the Avant-Garde film scene of the late 1950s and 1960s, and reached its culmination in 1968 with the political high-point of the Student Movement. At that time the Avant-Garde concerned itself with trying to develop new strategies for communication, and, simply formulated, pressed for the abolition of older aesthetic standards. The Independent Film, overlooking its own dependence, attacked "the monopolization of communication media, and furthered, among other things, jury-free festivals and the communalization of means of production" [from Ernst Scheugl and Hans Schmidt, A Sub-History of Film]. Along with this goes the denial of the filmmaker vis-a-vis the institutions, and opposition against the industrial mechanics of production. Freedom of experience (everyone could and should make films) and the demand for the socialization of production means were further goals of the "Independents." Now the filmic Avant-Garde ever since its beginnings in the 1910s and 1920s cultivated a very close relationship with the Fine Arts (Futurism/Cubism), and since Animation itself can also be seen as a synthesis of film and the graphic arts, naturally the expression "Independent" was also used in the realm of Animation. And it seems to me that the term is much more popular today than it was earlier.
While running the NYU animation department, John Canemaker made time to create Bridgehampton. © John Canemaker.
A Faded Expression
In the past years, this term "Independent Animation," through its indifferent and inflationary use to designate everything that isn't part of the mainstream Disney provenance or produced under contract to television, has been robbed of its true political content. The expression has become a label that anyone can use for whatever their own purposes are. The grounds for this, it seems to me, lie, among other things, in the global animation boom sustained over a number of years, which enormously widened the range of content and technical variety, as well as finding outlets in all sorts of communication media (TV, Internet, CD-ROM, advertising, Art, education, etc.). Further factors, inherent in this quick growth, are rationalization, professionalism, and standardization of all phases of production, with the inevitable accompanying conditioning and leveling of viewing opportunities. Likewise, one can no longer differentiate with the label "Independent" an artistic scene which arose with dizzying growth, from the shallow content and polished aesthetics of commercial production. The original meaning of the word "Independent" (which has in the meantime become rather obsolete historical content) is therefore lost. The rapidity with which the international market for Animation expanded prevented paradoxically the necessary reflection about the nature of the medium itself. The theoretical debate hangs criminally far behind the economic development.
I would make the definition of "Independent" simple. First of all, it stands for freedom of content and economic freedom for the artist. That is, freedom in all phases of the production of a work. The only obligation involved is the individual artistic invention. The fulfillment of the audience's expectations, the attempt to serve trends, speculation on material profit, counting on success with the public, or even the wish for artistic or other recognition, must not be a major concern.
This idealized definition of Independence can, as absurd as it may seem, be applied to the situation of Animation artists who worked in the state-owned studios of the communist countries (ca. 1955-1990), since Animation was treated in the politics of these countries almost exclusively as children's films. In the shadow of the harsher censorship leveled against live-action feature and documentary films, Animation opened an area of artistic freedom which answered, in production techniques and economic structure, all the requirements of "Independent" animation, and represented an island of artistic freedom in a repressive system. Despite government control and intervention, an independent aesthetic developed, and brilliant works were produced, many of which gained a secure place in the history of Animation. Fedor Khitruk, Yuri Norstein, Jerzy Kucia, and Priit Pärn, to name only a few examples, created grand masterpieces that could never have been accomplished outside the context of the state-run studio system. Today, almost 10 years after the political changeover and the "introduction" of capitalism, many artists are forced into very different working conditions. Despite what seems to be a transformation, only a few artists have managed to continue working independently in these insecure, difficult conditions. Economic peaks and valleys, and inadequate government film support have proven rather disadvantageous for Art.
Caroline Leaf working on her first sand animation film, The Owl Who Married a Goose. Photo courtesy of Caroline Leaf.
The National Film Board of Canada
The National Film Board (NFB) for many years offered artists a free space that could be termed "Independent," and similar in structure to the Eastern Bloc animation studios. The work, for example, of Norman McLaren, Caroline Leaf, Pierre Hebert or Wendy Tilby would in my opinion have been unthinkable without the "half-government" production structure that the NFB offered, and still partly offers today, although under a much more sharply curtailed financial framework.
Since information about Independent Animation in this hemisphere is more easily available, especially concerning Western Europe where the means of support for Independent projects seems substantially better than in the USA, we need not go into it too deeply here. An animation film that fits the term "Independent" as I have defined it, would almost exclusively be possible only with some private or government funding. Yet here, especially in West Europe, for the last several years it has been clear that the likelihood of the economic success of a film that receives grant money seems ever more to be the chief criteria for granting funding. Art funding has degenerated more and more into business funding. Projects heavy with serious content or formal values do very poorly in this new system.
The Japanese System
In Japan, by contrast, there has not been nor is there today any significant government funding relevant to Animation. Artists who consider themselves "Independent" (for example, Yoji Kuri, Kihachira Kawamoto, or Renzo Kinoshita) have to fund their work with their own money if they are to work at all. They have it much harder when producing a project that does not seem to be quite marketable up front. Nothing has changed about this situation up to the present.
Death and the Mother by Ruth Lingford stuns audiences. © An Ownbrand Production for Channel 4.
Channel Four - Stronghold of Artistic Freedom
Films that deserve the name "Independent" without any reservations or compromise are for me those productions which have for many years been successfully financed or co-produced by the British television network Channel Four. This situation, unique in the whole world, provides the ideal support structure for the Independent Animation film. They guarantee many filmmakers continuing work, promote young talent, and ongoing support for British Animation to set the worldwide standard for content and technique. The enduring and effective success of this system lies fundamentally in the fact that the primary artistic criterion in the selection of projects is "relevance."
Festivals' Important Role
Festivals, which are actually temporary museums, have for many years felt it their duty to support Independent filmmaking, and have assumed an important role, making connections between the filmmakers and audiences. For many filmmakers, festivals are the only place they can show their films. In 1960 the first festival wholly devoted to Animation was founded at Annecy, in close collaboration with ASIFA. An additional goal of the festival was to improve communication between the West and the East. In the wake of the expansion of the Animation film, more and more festivals have dedicated themselves to the presentation, discussion and support of Animation. Though many of these events have the same structure, one finds in every corner of the globe, festivals with a variety of different emphasizes on content, so one can clearly see that the chances of an Independent Animation film being screened is obviously improved.
Marie Paccou's Un Jour is an insightful student work. © 2001.
Possibly the term "Independent" can be applied first, as far as production conditions go, to the context of schools. As part of education, usually the production techniques and necessary materials are supplied free of cost to the students. In general, the students are also subject to no restrictions regarding content or techniques, which furthers "Independent" creation. Furthermore, schools provide free-space for experimentation and promote innovation. Fine works have come out of the many excellent film schools, including films like Balance (Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein), Secret Joy of Falling Angels (Simon Pummell), Cow (Alexander Petrov), Grand National (Susan Loughlin), and Un Jour (Marie Paccou). In schools it is presumed that without exception all students when producing their film will present a personal artistic expression, rather than a wish for money or fame. One can observe, however, that more and more schools come under pressure from commercial interests. The booming industry wants trained animation specialists, who are thoroughly qualified and can go to work immediately after graduation with 100% performance in the industrial arena. This has developed to the extent that certain Studios create their own "schools," just to educate young people in exactly what the studio needs.
Animation is the Liveliest Artform
Animation enjoys an ever-increasing popularity. Animation is a young artform, which still stands right now at the beginning of its development. Animation is the art of the future, which it owes to the fact that its visualizations can be understood throughout the entire world. Artists and technicians who loved to experiment were from the beginning on the source of strength for the aesthetic and technical development of the medium, and the guarantors of continual renewal. The technical-stylistic diversity, thematic breadth and relevant vitality of animation art depend widely on the efforts of Independent artists. Films by students have contributed their share to further the development of the genre. Festivals remain as before the proven site for presentation and discussion. Thanks to a support structure (which used to be better and more extensive), many artists are able to produce new works regularly and develop their own styles. As usual, the inventions and discoveries of the Independent artists are co-opted by the Industry, assimilated, commercialized and presented as if it were their own achievement. We can conclude from this that Independent Animation with its diverse creativity and endless innovation plays a key role in the popularizing and dissemination of commercial animation. It's very important to understand this: "Independent Animation" is livelier than ever!
In my opinion, we need a new definition of the term "Independent," since the production, distribution and reception conditions have radically changed. Above all, however, we need a new definition of the Animation film, that fundamentally differentiates it from the live-action film, and that stresses the fact that Animation unites all other artforms in it. One should further understand that Independent production today, in general, is no longer in opposition to the commercial system, but in the system, as a self-sufficient part.
Translated from German by Dr. William Moritz.
Otto Alder has been on the jury of numerous festivals, as well as acting as a consultant and programmer for many more. He was the Director of the Stuttgart Festival from 1986-1992, on the ASIFA Board from 1991-1996, founded the FANTOCHE Festival in 1995 and since 1992 has been selecting animation for the Leipzig Festival and Animation Show. He is also a noted writer and film director. His latest film is The Spirit of Genius: Fedor Khitruk and His Films.
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