Something Must Remain:
Between Worlds at "Cartoons on the Bay"

by Russell Bekin

The beautiful Amalfi Coast, site of the Cartoons on the Bay Festival.

The Lay of the Land
Everyone here seems to roll downhill; cartoonists and journalists, television executives and school kids, fishermen and German tourists, all eyeing warily the long trek up the steep mountainside to their abodes. Nearby sit the tents of the festival under a sodden sky, looking for all the world like an endurance test for large gray Glad bags.

It's an odd meeting of worlds. A fishing village turned tourist haven, an impossible stack of terraced houses and hotels meeting the flat calm Mediterranean. Such an atmosphere breeds long and languorous chats in the bars that front the short beach at Positano. Producers, instead of talking about the economics of co-production, discuss the artistic collaboration that it impliesAh, Italy.

And over all this hangs a war. It is perhaps hard to understand how close the war in Serbia and Kosovo is to Italy until you see the children's animations created at a frenetic pace in the few days of the festival by local school kids. There were soldiers transforming into missiles, then flowers; refugees and bombers; fire and destroyed homes; a cat threatening a family of mice. It was the children who kept their eyes on the real world as the elite of the animation world settled into their seaside working vacation.

Here, the animation industry becomes a village, febrile but functional. People listen. Life and business mix here in a way that few other festivals or conferences can claim.

The Apple of Yer RAI
Cartoons by the Bay was created by RAI, the state television network of Italy, as a way to promote domestic production of animation and co-production. In the three years since its inception, RAI's three broadcast channels have added a series of new cable channels, including several channels in a new satellite network RAISAT, with several digital channels oriented solely to educational audiences, and RAI Ragazzi (RAI kids) for home viewing

Bruno Bozzetto showing Italy is, well...different.
Photo by Russell Bekins.
Traditional and high-tech forms of digital imaging were on view.
Photo by Russell Bekins.

The results of an intensive commitment to domestic production are only now starting to bear fruit, and RAI made the most of its sponsorship of this event by announcing a series of new productions to feed the Italian (and international) animation pipeline. These included:

A series of 75 spots entitled "Cartoons with the Best Intentions," a co-production with the United Nations Office for Project Services. These are 70 didactic commercials promoting such themes as environmental awareness, energy conservation, participatory democracy, immigration problems and domestic safety. Despite the banal-sounding themes, there are quite a number of radical approaches to the subjects. Italian masters Bruno Bozzetto, Giuseppe Laganà and Guido Manuli were among the directors, but some wonderful expressionistic spots on the environment were also contributed by Maurizio Forestieri and Graphilm.

Zorba the cat from Lucky and Zorba. © Lanterna Magica.

A new series for pre-school kids inspired by the characters of cartoonist Francesco Tuillo Altan: Arriva la Pimpa (Pimpa Arrives), a mix of live-action and animation.

New episodes of Glu Glu, a variety show.

This didn't sound like a whole lot at the press conference, and the scrappy Italian press contingent wasn't about to let RAI toot its horn without controversy. The session degenerated (as most Italian political discussions do) into dense and incomprehensible polemic about what was new programming or not. Perhaps RAI executive Emmanuel Schvili might have pointed to other works in progress:

Monster Mash, an animated film co-production with DIC
Corto Maltese, a television series co-production with French companies Ellipse and Canal +
"Venice Above," a 26 x 26' series with Swiss producer EBU
The Spaghetti Family with Italy's Animation Band
Mammouth, a feature, also with Animation Band

By American standards, this might not be considered much, but by Italian standards, it's a regular Renaissance. Italian animation companies have been steadily growing over the last few years, in large part thanks to RAI.

More Cartoons Than You Can Watch
The festival is organized so that some sixty-five cartoons in the competition are screened in four days, and others not making the cut are in the "showcase" sixty-nine of them available for viewing on demand. Independent television shorts were a major topic of discussion and had their own series of screenings.

I Married a Strange Person. Courtesy of Bill Plympton.
Michel Ocelot's Kirikou and the Sorceress.
Courtesy of Les Armateurs.

The judging of the festival is arranged in a unique way: there is a jury of adults and a jury of children, assuring that each of the screenings had a full complement from both adults and children.

Finally, there were also a number of feature screenings, including:

If you came to watch animation, you were in luck. Many in the profession found themselves cursing their rigorous schedule of meetings and conference activities. What they wanted was to see the cartoons! "We don't have enough time as producers to see what is being made," lamented Dominic Boischot, President of French-based Les Films de la Perrine, describing his motive for coming to the conference.

Bob and Margaret. Courtesy of and © Comedy Central.

The Conference: Sitcom Bubble, Scandalous Barry, and Co-Production Love
One of the conference sessions, and one of its awards, was dedicated to adult animated series. On the strength of its writing, the Nelvana series Bob and Margaret won a Silver Pulcinella (puch-ee-nella named for a popular figure in Comedia del Arte from Naples) for best series for adults. There was also a great deal of admiration for The PJs seen here for the first time in Europe. Grand maestro of Italian animation Bruno Bozzetto has joined his former protégé Giuseppe Laganà at Animation Band to develop an Italian answer to The Simpsons called The Spaghetti Family.

British animator Barry Purves got a lot of press over the "scandalous" homoerotic overtones of his Achilles, in which heroes of the Trojan War saunter about in the buff. Purves had a dedicated session in the workshops, and showed two another films as well, including Next, in which a stop-motion actor goes through all the works of Shakespeare in a matter of minutes.

Another session, dedicated to co-productions, was entitled "Italy and France Love Each Other." Large portions of the French and Italian contingent were seen watching cartoons in the main tent at the time.

Barry Purves' Achilles. © 1998 Bare Boards Productions/Channel 4.

The Winner: Children's Books
This year's awards leaned heavily on innovative drawing-based animation inspired by children's books. The Golden Pulcinella for the best program went to L'Enfant au Grelot, translated into the banal-sounding Charlie's Christmas. This same program of muted gouache and pastel drawings with Klee-like backgrounds won "best special" at the Annecy Festival last year. Though the story is fairly predictable Christmas fare, there are times when the art takes over entirely and lends a uniquely magical atmosphere to the tale. The team of Jacques-Remy Girerd (writer, director, producer), along with designers Damien Louche-Pellisier and Benoit Chieux, deserve credit for sticking to the virtues of their elegant, consciously two-dimensional design.

The winner of the Silver Pulcinella for the best TV film Eugenio was also a French production of a similar stripe. The virtues of the original children's book by Lorenzo Mattotti have been maintained: looping curvy characters and surreal imagery on a palate of bright reds and oranges which contrast against a dark and mystical background. Again, the situation is simple: a clown loses his laugh. Though the issue would never be in doubt when presented in traditional animation styles, the weird pacing and imagery, as well as a page-turn animation technique create a tension all their own.

An English entry, The Bear featured a similar fidelity to the artwork of the children's book on which it was based. In this case, it won director Hilary Aldus a direction award for following the original pastel drawings of Raymond Briggs' book. The result was a shimmering technique, which lent a dream-like atmosphere to a polar bear's visit to a girl's home.

LčEnfant au Grelot.
Jim Jenkins and David Campbell took the kids of Positano by storm. Photo by Russell Bekins.

In The End...
In the end, the kids had their say. In the final awards presentation, jury member Enzo D'Alò spoke about the importance of the message in the animation industry. "There must be something that inspires a doubt," D'Alò declared. He was seconded by Bruno Bozzetto. "Something must remain," Bozzetto affirmed.

The children, as if to underscore this message, gave a special award to Robby London, one of the producers of Our Friend Martin. This 62-minute special on the life of Martin Luther King, a combination of live-action and animation, was what they found most inspirational. The pre-teen angst of Disney's Doug also seemed to capture the children's hearts; they awarded another special prize to creators Jim Jenkins and David Campbell.

All of this cross-pollination between children and professionals, artists and audience, reality and imagination, is wonderful. Yet, the very intimacy of the Positano venue may lead to its extinction.

For RAI, the payoff is the live television feed of the awards ceremony, complete with outdoor stage for the obligatory singing pop artists to add a bit of prime-time Italian style to the events. This year it was greatly scaled back "due to the war." Even more awkward are the logistics of the situation: one of the great mysteries of this year's festival is how production trucks were ever navigated through the impossible streets of this tiny and tortuous fishing village. On the last day of the festival, organizer Alfie Bastianich was reluctantly admitting that next year, the festival may move to the larger town of Amalfi, farther down the coast. Well, it'll still be cartoons on the bay, only it may be a bigger bay.

Russell Bekins is a disgruntled expatriate of the film industry, now living in Bologna, Italy. Serving his apprenticeship as story and multimedia analyst for Creative Artists Agency, he went on to be a creative executive for Tidewater Entertainment at Disney Studios, where he achieved his level of incompetence in studio politics. He is now working on theme park attractions and consulting on multi-media projects, as well as struggling with the subjunctive tense in Italian.

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