It took more than 25 years working in the animation industry to at last make the pilgrimage to Annecy, the premiere international animated film festival, held June 7-12, 2004, in an idyllic location on a lake overlooking the French Alps near the Swiss border. The 28th edition of festival and the 14th MIFA, the business market, delivered on most of my expectations.
The town of Annecy is beautiful, sitting on the lake with its picturesque old town and water canals. Vivid tulips and many other gorgeous flowers were blooming quite late into the season and the sky was a warm, bright blue, broken occasionally by passing light rains. The food is delectably good and reasonably priced pretty much everywhere. The three-times-a-week farmers market and swap meet vendors present a feast for the eyes and there is loads of shopping at boutiques and quaint stores to occupy family and friends that may have accompanied you on the "business" trip that you need to make time for between the busy schedule of screenings, lectures and panels featuring legendary animators and exciting new developments.
The festival itself is fairly easy to navigate through registration and locating the many activities it offers. People can congregate easily at the outdoor cafes of the Bonlieu center and nearby restaurants. Business people can mingle well in the market tent and lounge and salons of the Imperial Palace across the lake. Students enjoy a free massive peoples' party nightly in the park in the open air venue across from the center, featuring a gigantic theater screen projecting animation and rock to live groups as well as piped out music. There is an unbelievably high attendance of other animation festival directors, busy scouting for talent and films to bring to their venues.
C'est manifique, non?
The festival attracts hoards of people, and while registration is proficient, attendees stand in unbearably long lines to get their tickets to screenings. Some mornings the lines spill outside the center. Then there is the long wait to get into screenings at the center made so uncomfortable by the lack of air conditioning or fans inside. It was even worse inside the theater. I come from a hot climate (it's been averaging 104 Fahrenheit in Los Angeles this past week as I write this), but it was miserable during the packed screenings as people dripped perspiration on their seatmates. Sure it was lovely outside, but the stuffiness and lack of air in the dark made more people dose off than adjusting to jetlag or hangovers from partying.
It was surprising to a newcomer to see the audience flinging paper airplanes down at the stage at the start of each screening. Some snatched them to fan themselves with in the heat. Also, unique to this festival, the students work up a chant to the Annecy mascot/theme film for an interactive experience much like fans who shout responses during a Rocky Horror film screening. While some of the "older" attendees (I find I've been relegated to now) did not enjoy this discharge of raw energy, I found it actually buoyed and woke me up as I marveled how they could rev themselves up in the stupefying heat. The cleverly designed trailer, featuring rabbits and a carrot, was produced by Bestiol Animation, which was also responsible for the design and production of the festival poster, programs, informational publications and press materials.
A tip to beat the long lines. Go up to the MIFA registration tent or the desk at the Imperial where people easily picked up their passes. The press gets its own table, which is super accommodating as well as the nice pressroom, equipped with many computers (but it's so hard to type accurately on a French keyboard when are used to the other). A suggestion for organizers It might be a good idea to make the pressroom available the night of the awards so reporters can dispatch who the winners are, the most important news to emanate from the festival.
While there were no big breaking films this year to create a stir (the opening night film was Tokyo Godfathers), people were treated to a surprise screening of the Oscar-nominated short Boundin' from Pixar. Roy Disney and his wife seated down front in support his last short film at the Walt Disney Co., Lorenzo, directed by Mike Gabriel.
This year, I've noticed that each big event has a certain animal that seems to dominate the offerings. From NATPE it was monkeys, MIP-TV had dragons, but films with felines where the cats meow at Annecy. In fact, the 2D cat movie, Lorenzo, won the Grand Prix Annecy Crystal in a close contest with the 3D computer-animated Ryan by Chris Landreth (about the life of NFB animator Ryan Larkin). Ryan was given the Special Jury Award. Both were consistently mentioned by attendees in their favorites, many thought the ambitious Ryan would take top prize. So much so that Gabriel had already departed for the U.S. before the final awards ceremony. He and producer Baker Bloodworth were informed on Friday that "it would behoove" them to return immediately for the awards ceremony Saturday night.
While 2D theatricals are still quite a viable, commercial success in Europe, the judges appeared to be politically reacting to the declaration from big studios in the U.S. that 2D was dead in favor of 3D. They said the pencil is still the most important tool of animators.
Yet many stalwarts of 2D, such as Gene Deitch, expressed they were overwhelmed with the beauty and power of Ryan. Deitch said it can take many years before one sees a film of such vision, originality and excellent execution in all areas that it catapults one into a new realm of filmmaking he said.
Another clear favorite was the black-and-white 2D The Crab Revolution by Arthur de Pns, which won the Audience Award. Another one that received the top prize from schoolchildren at the Festival lets the Jica Enfants was Pantoffelhelden by Susan Seidel (Germany), a beautifully executed 2D student work about a little frog who catches sight of a fake frog on a pair of slippers, fails in love with her and tries to rescue her. The execution and storytelling was superior to 80% of the professional shorts.
While a bit long, an important double winner was Daughter - A Story of Incest, produced by the NGO non-profit organization Stairway Foundation in the Philippines, to help kids recognize child sexual abuse and encourage them to report past or present traumatic experiences. The Open Workshop at The Animation Workshop in Denmark supported the film, directed by its recent graduate Paw Charlie Ravn. It won for Best Educational Film and The UNICEF Awards for outstanding work for the rights of children. Simply and beautifully told, they hope the use of animation helps break the taboo around children sexual abuse.
Artistic director Serge Bromberg hosted the closing awards ceremony, donned in a kimono, in a well-paced presentation that called the winners to assemble on the beautifully red, Asian-themed stage, where they sat on low benches and drank tea during the awarding of the trophies.
In the feature film category, momentum built as the week went on for Bill Plympton's American teen, gothic Hair High (USA), while Filmax heavily promoted Jose Pozo's El Cid: The Legend (Spain). Also in the running was Daniel Robichaud's Pinocchio 3000 (Canada) and Maurizio Forestieri's Toto Sapore e la magica storia della pizza (Italy) but was Baek-yeop Sung's Oseam (South Korea) that took the prize.
Asian animators, outside of Japan, had a much greater presence at the festival. There were special presentations of works from Korean and Taiwan, displaying skillful talent but still some cultural problems understanding the stories.
Politics struck the MIFA in an odd way. The conference, even the hotel, was plunged into darkness by the electricians union, with a power outage timed perfectly to coincide with the visit of the French minister of culture and communication, Renaud Donhnedieu de Vabres, to the market. The shutdown was staged in protest to the French government's plans to privatize the electric industry (should they be taking some notes from Californians?). The market had more than 200 exhibitors and 1,200 industry professionals, representing 900 companies from 50 countries. Most avoided the stuffy exhibition tent, as business was conducted briskly in the Imperial lounge, patio restaurant and lobby. Presentations and professional meetings, the 3rd NPAR (Non-Photorealistic Animation and Rendering) scientific conference, held in the Imperial's salons were absolutely packed and too hot and stuffy to sit all the way through.
While some exhibitors report success attracting business and connecting for co-productions the heart of the MIFA is now in the lounge. Perhaps organizers can just charge for the coveted tables and forego booths for an extended lounge area, which more resembles the wheeling-dealing atmosphere and activity of the Martinez and Majestic hotel bars during the MIPCOM and MIP-TV markets. Many called MIFA an important opportunity to finish closing deals started at MIP-TV in March as well as a good way to maintain contacts before MIPCOM in October. That and they like the location - Annecy.
As for the films, 263 made up the Annecy 2004 official selection, representing 34 countries. One wonders why they felt compelled to select so many. I found for myself, and many others expressed this as well, that most of the films lacked storytelling and timing. There were a few memorable films in each program, some for quality and some for being so awful. The student film programs generally outshone the professional short programs.
Many of the films were beautiful executions of art, but lacked a story. They were images that could have hung in an art gallery, but were instead strung together on film. They moved but they didn't bring to life characters or a story, the essence of filmmaking, whatever the medium. I couldn't help thinking if animation schools were concentrating more on technique and not starting with story. Animation starts with the storyboard and not the inverse, it starts with the story, conveyed then by the images on the board.
In the television and motion picture academies, the judges frequently pass on nominating work for certain categories. Perhaps the selection committees and judges should adhere to the tenants of French cooking where more is not better?
Highlights of the festival programs included a visit with stop-motion/visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, who was available through most of the week for chance encounters. Many mentioned seeing the retrospective of the Halas and Batchelor studio (Animal Farm). Teased by a six-minute preview of Folimage's Raining Cats and Frogs, people crowded the theater to see the finished film.
The presentation about Ub Iwerks by his daughter, Leslie, Iwerks, was enlightening to many to discover not only how her father was responsible for designing Mickey Mouse, engineering animation feature production ala Disney and was one of the most prolific animators ever, but also his many pioneering scientific contributions to the optical and visual effects world. Many knew him in one realm but were not fully aware of his accomplishments in the other, this modern-day Renaissance man, a Leonardo de Vinci for his inventions and interests.
More impressive than the films are the people you encounter. Besides the screenings and presentations, people are mingling at organized and impromptu picnics and paddleboat races in the park. The hardy extended their experience late into the night (3:00 or 4:00 am) at the "American bar," which is really a Scottish pub, tucked away in a back street. An enterprising former employee of the bar opened a late-night restaurant next door to catch the overflow and there were two discos operating nearby. One of the biggest parties, besides the opening and closing official parties, was thrown by the Korean delegation, where many of the animators were asked to drawn on a paper mural.
One gets the sense that the indie stalwarts flock to Annecy to catch up with people, enjoying some libations and the camaraderie with their brethren, assess the progress of the progeny and pick up a few insights in the retrospectives. That and hopefully see a spark of new a talent or an intriguing process to recharge their creative batteries.
Herein the festival fulfills this need well, so animation folk look forward to future gatherings in that special week they call Annecy.
Sarah Baisley is the editor of Animation World Magazine.