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Sand Animator Ernest ‘Nag’ Ansorge Dies at 88

Animator and filmmaker Ernest “Nag” Ansorge passes away on December 26 in Lausanne, Switzerland, two months before what would have been his 89th birthday.

Sad news from ASIFA Switzerland. Animator and filmmaker Ernest “Nag” Ansorge passed away on December 26 in Lausanne, Switzerland, two months before what would have been his 89th birthday.

Ansorge, along with his wife Gislele, was the creator of an original technique of animation using black quartz sand. The couple received numerous of festival awards over the course of his career.

Born in 1925 in Lausanne, Ansorge moved to Etagnières with his wife in the late 1950s, where the couple established a film workshop specializing in newsreels for local cinemas. During the sixties Ansorge and Giselle made their first two sand animation films, Crows (1966) and Fantasmatic (1969).

A co-founder of ASIFA Switzerland, Ansorge helped guide the organization both as secretary general and president for nearly 25 years. ASIFA Switzerland remains the only professional association for animation in the country.

Following Giselle’s death, in 1993, Luc Plantier and Michel Froidevaux wrote a book about Ansorge and Giselle, “Pris dans les sables mouvants” (“Captured In Drifting Sand”), which is published in French and English by Edition Centre International du Cinema d'Animation.

The animated sand works were released in 2005 by Nag-Film & Association Films Plans-Fixes on a double DVD of the same name (Gisèle & Nag Ansorge: Pris dans les sables mouvants), completed by two short documentary clips and a very touching 50-minute interview portrait of Nag from the Plans-Fixes collection (in French with English subtitles).

Both items are available at ASIFA Switzerland's web shop.

Read the ASIFA Switzerland tribute Nag and his work, below:


Nag Ansorge, the dean of Swiss animation, has concluded the long film of his life. He leaves us a rich body of work of incredible diversity, essentially created in symbiotic complicity with his wife Gisele who passed away in 1993.

The couple gained worldwide recognition with ten shorts of altogether just one hour, animated with blackened quartz sand, produced over a quarter century. Less known but just as highly esteemed by experts are the results of Nag’s work with long-term patients at a psychiatric clinic, whom he guided for nearly two decades, starting in the early 1960s, to develop and realize their own cinematic ideas. Furthermore there is an impressive body of commissioned work (newsreels, educational films, documentaries, etc., including some highly regarded, empathetic portraits of artists in psychiatric custody, but also clips for TV series for children) and even a full-length live-action feature film, most of which produced in close collaboration (or, as Nag put it: osmosis) with Gisele.

Both graduated natural scientists (she was a pharmacist, he a mechanical engineer), they discovered film-making in the early 1950s due to Nag’s infatuation for any kind of engine or gearing, and more specifically, an 8mm-camera which he began to wield in his spare time, while in his professional life he dealt with turbines in a major manufacturing plant in Zurich. Their encounter with the works of Czech master Jiri Trnka revealed the universe of animation to them, and soon after they converted their dining room into a studio and tempted their first steps with puppets of their own design.

They soon earned quite some success in amateur circles, which induced them to become professional film makers and set up their own studio in a small house in the countryside outside Lausanne. Alas, against their expectations, their first effort made with professional ambitions was denied commercial exploitation; and when they showed it at the first International Animation Festival in Annecy 1960, they did gain some personal recognition from the professional community whereas their film did not exactly succeed in raising much enthusiasm.

Bowing to reality, they put puppets and personal projects aside for the time. Gisele went back to work as a pharmacist, but at the same time took on writing radio and theatre plays, followed by short stories later, with increasing success. Nag in turn, by means of newsreels and technical documentaries, worked his way into the vast field of commissioned film.

The cinematic bread-and-butter work allowed them however to continue to live their passion for animation every once in a while, and to experiment with all kinds of techniques. In fact, they owed it the discovery of the material of their destiny: For a film about heart defects they came up with the idea to use sand for the animation of the circulating blood – a loose material, easy to manipulate, to draw with, and to continuously modify the result. When their first film made exclusively with sand, “Les corbeaux” (“The Ravens”), premiered at Annecy 1967 after three more years of research and experiments, it enthralled the experts and the audience at once.

From then on sand became the Ansorge’s hallmark. As a matter which has no shape but can take on any, in Gisele’s hands, sand was not merely a graphic material but also had an impact on the narrative style, and even on the choice of contents, making it the essence of an exceptional body of work of rare unity. Some of the most outstanding films are “Fantasmatic” (1969), “Anima” (1977) and the last joint work of the couple, “Sabbath” (1991).

Nag’s second passion, which he equally shared with Gisele, was his genuine, heartfelt interest in people. It not only had an impact on his cinematic work, but also on other forms of personal commitments. Amongst others, he was co-founder of the charitable Emmaüs community in his home village Etagnieres, as well as of the umbrella association of the Emmaüs organizations in the French speaking part of Switzerland; at the end of the 1970s he co-founded the association Films Plans-Fixes (Still Shot Films), which records oral history with cinematic means; and during the 1990s he offered his experience and knowledge to the students of the Lausanne School of Arts and its film department.

For Swiss Animation his most significant and most sustainable commitment was the co-founding of the Swiss Animator’s Group, or Asifa Switzerland, in the late 1960s. Still the only professional association for animation in the country, he guided its destiny as secretary general and later as president for almost a quarter century. During this time he also served as an expert for the government’s film funding commission, where he succeeded to convey the peculiar nature and specific needs of animation to the authorities in charge, and thus to sustainably change the basic conditions for its production. Beyond this, with his openness, his immense patience and his gentle persistence, he inspired new generations of forthcoming animation filmmakers with the confidence that it was possible to age with dignity in this profession.

Source: ASIFA Switzerland

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Jennifer Wolfe is Director of News & Content at Animation World Network.