The Annecy Story: 40 Years of Celebrating the Art of Animation

by Annick Teninge

The poster from the first Annecy Festival. Courtesy of Annecy.

The poster from the 2000 Annecy Festival. Courtesy of Annecy.

Annecy, the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious of all animation festivals, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The International Animated Film festival takes place every spring in Annecy, France. It is a major player in the animation industry -- for its 1999 edition, the festival received 995 films for selection and attracted 5,000 participants, from 55 countries -- and has long been a pacesetter for the others that followed. Here is a look back at the origins of the festival and its evolution through four tumultuous decades.

Annecy Meets Animation
It all started in the late 1950s with a week of cinema organized in Annecy by the National Cinematography Center (CNC). The event enabled two groups to meet: the Film Distribution Association, led by Pierre Barbin, and the Annecy Ciné-Club (local film society). Founded in 1945, the Annecy Ciné-Club was one of the biggest in France with over a thousand members. It was headed by Henry Moret, an assistant architect and true film enthusiast. (Once, when he was a jury member at the Cannes festival, he was turned away from the festival’s opening party as he was not wearing a tuxedo, so he asked to be served champagne on the palace stairs!) At the close of this week of cinema, both parties decided to collaborate to present an animated film program (Homage to the Pioneers of Animation) at the Cannes festival in 1956, with the help of André Martin and the support of the Monte Carlo Forum for Computer Arts. A hundred films from all over the world were screened at the first JICA (Journées Internationales du Cinéma d'Animation), generating considerable interest among festival-goers and animation professionals. A second JICA took place at Cannes in 1958, this time with the participation of international artists such as Jiri Trnka, Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff and John Hubley, to name but a few. However, animation was not getting a lot of exposure in Cannes; plus, none of the organizers felt comfortable in this glittery world. They asked the town authorities if they could transfer their activities to Annecy for the 1960 Savoie Region Annexation Centenary celebration, which was to be attended by General De Gaulle. Thus, the first ever international animation festival was born.

It was also during these meetings at Cannes that the idea sprang up to create an association for the animation world. This was seen as a way of strengthening animation's presence within the live-action film world and giving all animation artists an official voice. Obviously, the idea was reinforced by the announcement that the first animation festival was to be held. ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation) was officially founded in July of 1961. Its first President was Norman McLaren, followed by John Hubley. An Annecy local, Nicole Salomon was instrumental to the creation of ASIFA. She was, and still is, a key member of the organization. She naturally became involved in the festival organization. (Today ASIFA has branches in 34 countries, with three official languages: French, English and Russian). The forming of ASIFA is noteworthy. As stated by former President Raoul Servais, many international associations begin as local organizations which grow to national, and then on to international levels. ASIFA, however, was founded without these developmental steps. It was born in France but, from the very beginning, artists from the entire world were involved in this new venture. It was not a kind of academic society, but rather a group of enthusiastic animation filmmakers gathering together to share experiences, exchange information and try to come up with the formula that would promote the art of animation around the world.

The International Scene
ASIFA naturally took part in the shaping of Annecy, and, through a patronage system, developed rules on how an international festival worthy of the ASIFA name should treat films and filmmakers. ASIFA strove for non-political representation of films at festivals (no national programs), a very courageous position in the context of the Cold War. ASIFA supported Annecy's goal to improve the communication between the East and the West, and a general agreement ensured the permanency of an international festival, shared between the two sides: one year a festival would be held in Annecy and the next year in Mamaia on the Black Sea in Rumania. In the beginning, Annecy took place on the even-numbered years: 1960, 1962 -- then starting in 1963 it occurred on the odd-numbered years. There was no festival in 1969, which was a year of political turmoil in France. Annecy's counterpart, Mamaia, only happened three times, in 1966, 1968 and 1970. A number of other festivals sprang up during the first decades of Annecy. The non-competitive Cambridge Animation Festival, which later became the Cardiff Festival, was born in 1968. When Mamaia ceased to exist after 1970, Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia, took over as the showplace for Eastern Europe; despite the war, Zagreb has continued to hold its biennial festival in even years since 1972 -- and it is still one of the main alternatives to Annecy for art film viewing. Ottawa, the only still existing North American festival, appeared in 1976. Varna, also held on the banks of the Black Sea, started in 1979 but was discontinued. Other international festivals that still exist from these early days include: Cinanima (Portugal), annual, founded in 1976; Stuttgart (Germany), biennial, in 1982; and Hiroshima (Japan), biennial, in 1984. Krok, which takes place on board a ship in Russia, appeared in the 1990s.

The Magic of the Beginning
The first edition of the Annecy festival took place June 7-12, 1960. Patronized by Alexandre Alexieff, Max Fleischer, Paul Grimault, Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Jiri Trnka, the festival welcomed representatives from no less than 20 countries, and the list of participants was quite impressive for a premiere: Bruno Bozetto, George Dunning, John Halas, John Hubley, Grant Munro, Ernest Pintoff, Bretislav Pojar, Dusan Vukovic, Karel Zeman and many more.

By forging the international animation community, ASIFA was instrumental to the success of the Annecy festival, which became the official rendez-vous. Veteran festival-goers concur; of course, it was a fantastic experience to be able to see all of these films and, sometimes, meet the great masters. But the diversity of techniques and styles was also an eye-opener, and the festival was an unprecedented opportunity to share experiences with other filmmakers. For every artist, Annecy was a barometer.

Belgian director Raoul Servais read the news about the creation of ASIFA in the newspaper. Provincial and self-taught, Raoul had been working on personal films for a few years without any contact with other animators. Upon reading the news, he immediately decided to join ASIFA. When he received his membership card with the registration number 1001, he wondered if there were already a thousand members. Later on, he realized that he was the first Belgian member! Servais learned through ASIFA that a festival exclusively devoted to animation was held in Annecy. He attended the first edition as a tourist -- he did not have a film in competition. "I was not admitted into the inner circle. But it was a joy to see so many personal films and admire Norman McLaren in front of the Casino-Theater, surrounded by Paul Grimault, John Halas, Jiri Trnka and other stars. I had that feeling that I would not be doomed to loneliness anymore."

Swiss animator Nag Ansorge remembers the first edition: "In 1960, we had only heard about Walt Disney -- we had discovered Jiri Trnka quite by chance. When we heard about Annecy, Gisèle [his wife] and I hastened to go. It was a fantastic, unforgettable meeting with the best animators in the world, and we were discovering the films with emotion and enthusiasm. One of our first films, Le Pont du Diable, was in competition. After its screening, it was greeted with a chorus of jeers and laughs, prompted by the film's innocence as well as the voice-over's pubescent and hoarse tone. This refreshing baptism made us realize how amateur we were and we put the film in a closet, where it remains. But the experience definitely activated our immutable passion for animation."

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