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Annecy 2009: Life on the Animation Riviera

Nancy Denney-Phelps reports back from Annecy while Don Duga once again dreams a vicarious sketchbook of festival highlights.

Annecy 2009, June 8 through 13th, was its usual mixed bag. On the plus side there were lots of old and new friends to see and some fantastic special screenings. On the other hand, the majority of the short films in competition were mediocre. Since networking and doing business has become one of the major purposes of the festival, it was definitely a success in that department.

Monday morning the festival started off on a high note for me with A Thorn in the Mind. Mathieu Bergeron and Yves Martel's fascinating documentary gives us a touching and incisive look into the creative imaginations of six prominent animators from around the world: Jacques Drouin from Canada, Great Britain's Barry Purves, Pjotr Sapegin of Russia, Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel and Raoul Servais of Belgium. One of the most touching moments in the film was Georges talking about how satisfied he is with his life and his work. His face beaming down at the audience was the very picture of a life well spent.

I alternately laughed and cried as I watched The Boys, another documentary. You may not know the names Robert and Richard Sherman but you certainly know their music. Their combined musical genius earned each of them two Oscars for Mary Poppins, one for Best Musical Score and another for Best Song, "Chim Chim Cher-ee," as well as giving us the longest word in the English language, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The rise of their careers at Disney Studio, where Walt called them simply "the boys," their legendary craft and their eventual estrangement from each other is told in interviews and film footage with family members, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke who worked with them on Mary Poppins, Roy Disney and many others who knew and worked with them.

Most important and moving of all was the commentary from Bob and Dick themselves. Their sons, Jeffrey C. Sherman and Gregory V. Sherman, who wrote, directed and produced the film, brought the estranged brothers together for the first time in years to give us a touching glimpse into a past that lives on with their music in films that have delighted generations of adults and their parents.

Monday evening brought us to the official opening ceremony and screening. The first surprise in store was provided by Pixar with a screening of their delightful new short Partly Cloudy. Everyone knows that the stork delivers babies, but where does the stork get the babies from? Animator and story board artist Peter Sohn answers this question in his directorial debut.

The opening night centerpiece, A Town Called Panic, began life as a cult favorite series of five-minute episodes featuring toy plastic action figures. In their first feature-length film, Belgian animators Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier tell a tale of their classic characters of Cowboy and Indian wanting to give Horse a birthday present. Of course, soon it all dissolves into chaos. The stop-motion animation utilizes the plastic miniatures of our childhood which they have remolded and reformed into all sorts of bizarre positions to create a hilarious animated film. The hundreds of figures and sets that Patar and Aubier have created were on display upstairs at the Bonleiu Center.

Following the screening, we went to a party at the lovely Hotel de Ville ("House of the City" or City Hall) where we all enjoyed delicious food and drink along with our first chance to catch up with old friends. From there, Nik and I went to the late night party at the La Plage restaurant for champagne and yummy hors d'oeuvres. There are very few things lovelier than walking back from La Plage along the lake front late at night with the moon shining on the water, a fitting end to a perfect evening.

This year Annecy spotlighted Germany's contribution to the world of animation with numerous special screenings, including a presentation of Lotte Reiniger's 1926 classic The Adventures of Prince Ahmed with live musical accompaniment. Stuttgart's renowned Studio Film Builder, celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, was saluted with a screening of their films and Throwing Light on Works in the Shade took us deep into the archives of German animation from the 1920s to the 1960s along with interviews with surviving witnesses of the dynamic German avant-garde film scene.

My favorite party every year is the Stuttgart Animation Festival event, and this year as the honored country they went all out. In past years the event was a large affair but this year Filmforderung Baden-Wurttemberg was co-hosting the party, as well as the opening MIFA event and so this fete was a "petite animation reception." After a bus ride up a very curvy mountain road we arrived at the beautiful Auberge la Mageriaz. This tranquil, cozy inn is owned by Vincent and Cathy Ferris. In case Vincent's name sounds familiar, he is the former manager of MIFA. The superb French-Swabian regional food (Swabia covers much of Germany's Southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg) was only matched by the lovely rustic country surroundings. The food and atmosphere was totally complemented by music provided by Rolf Bachler and Nik.

In 2009 the festival strengthened their new policy in favor of feature films with 10 feature films in competition chosen from a field of 45 entrees, nine shown out of competition, three film premieres and, of course, the night time outdoor shows on the giant screen.

I had already seen Adam Elliot's brilliant Mary and Max, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's beautifully animated Brendan and the Secret of the Kells and Coraline, Henry Selick's modern masterpiece, but there were still delightful surprises such as My Dog Tulip.

Paul and Sandra Fierlinger created a beautiful adaptation of A. J. Ackerley's 1956 book telling of the 14 years he shared with a German shepherd that he rescued, who he named Tulip. The film features the voices of Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini. The Fierlingers and producer Norman Twain have created a very personal love story which is definitely an adult film, which once again proves that animation is not just for children or dog lovers.

The other feature that grabbed my attention was The Story of Mr. Sorry. A group of five South Korean students from the Korean Academy of Film Arts adapted Lee Jeok's delightfully strange story of Mr. Sorry, a professional ear wax cleaner who, due to a chance encounter with a fortune teller, finds himself shrinking and shrinking until he is small enough to climb into his customers' ear canals. This tale of social comment, emotional resonance and mystical fantasy answers the question: "What will happen to Mr. Sorry now that he knows his clients deepest thoughts?"

I was a bit surprised that $9.99 was shown out of competition, but at least Tatia Rosenthal's Israeli/Australian co-production was screened on three separate occasions throughout the week.

By and large I found the five short film competition programs not particularly inspiring. Of course, there were some outstanding exceptions. I have been anxiously awaiting Latvian animator Vladimir Leschiov's new film, and his Wings and Oars definitely did not disappoint me. The beautifully drawn film tells the tale of a pilot looking back over his past with extreme sensitive, delicate hues and superb art work.

With all of the mediocre computer animation that seems to fill festival screens lately it is a real pleasure to see a film created by an animator who practices the fire art of drawing with such skill. With subtle touches of humor Vladimir inserted references to his past films, like the man climbing up the side of a building with a pick ax from Insomnia. One very funny aside was naming the boat for his friend Alexi Budowsky, who could be at Annecy in name only this year.

New York animator PES demonstrated how he makes pasta sauce following his mother's recipe and using common household items such as velvet pin cushion tomatoes, a cube pulled from a Rubik cube as a garlic clove and pick-up sticks for spaghetti. The film is 1 minute and 45 seconds of pure delight and the audience agreed with me, awarding Spaghetti Western the Audience Award crystal. I have watched so much bad Chinese animation lately that it was a pleasant surprise to see The Winter Solstice. This graphically beautiful film takes us into the mind of a man as he relives scenes from his recent past as he lies dying after being shot in the head.

Of course, my hands down favorite film was Ivan Maximov's surreal The Additional Capabilities of the Snout. I have always loved Ivan's quirky films and so Nik and I were very honored when he asked to use Nik's music for his latest film.

Even the short film competition seemed to have longer films with Kasper Jancis' wonderful Crocodile at 16 minutes, Nick Park's most entertaining Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death running 29 minutes and Pritt and Olga Parn's totally delightful Life Without Gabriella Ferri at 43 minutes. I love all three of these films very much but I hope that this is not a trend and that the 3 to 5-minute well told story film will not become a thing of the past.

Five uniquely different programs gave us the opportunity to discover the world of visual harmony and rhythm. The highlight was the two programs devoted to the master Russian ballet choreographer Alexander Shiryaev. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Shiryaev began filming the movements of ballet dancers on an amateur 17.5 camera. He also made drawings of dancers' movements and step sequences which he also annotated. He then traced these drawings onto paper strips, which were projected with an optical device similar to a praxinoscope. He also made papier-mâché puppets, which were wired and could be moved and filmed.

In 1995, documentary filmmaker and historian Viktor Bocharov used restored footage to create A Belated Premiere. The second program, Shiryaev: Animation and Movement, was made up of recently restored films, including much of the puppet animation and the paper films. An exhibition on the 1st floor of the Bonlieu Library presented original items from the Shiryaev archives.

The 10th birthday of SpongeBob SquarePants was also celebrated with an exhibit at the library, along with a display of characters and sets from Selick's Coraline.

The short walk through old town to the Musee Chateau d'Annecy was well worth it to see the Angels and Demons exhibition, a collection of sculptures, design boards, watercolors and collages from the amazing world of animator and visual artist Walerian Borowczyk.

For the Videomappings: Aida, Palestine presentation, Till Roeskens asked people living in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem to sketch a card of things around them. The drawings were videoed while they were being done along with the commentaries that went with them to give a very personal view of day to day life under extremely difficult circumstances.

The Courier Center offered an exhibit of design boards for Miyazaki's latest feature Poyo on the Cliff. At La Turbine you could experience an interactive exhibit for the entire family as a companion piece to the open air screening of Ratatouille on the giant screen. La Turbine also paid tribute to the renowned German DEFA Studio for Animated Film in Dresden with an exhibit of the beautiful puppets created between 1955 and 1990 for their more than 1,500 animated films.

Along with the usual really fun programs that we have come to expect like Politically Incorrect with something to offend everyone, Are You Bothered?, a program of raw and edgy shorts and Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, Act Up screened a program of provocative shorts to commemorate the group's 20th anniversary.

Two of my favorite features at Annecy are the daily Shorts and Breakfast chats and Features at Noon. Erudite festival Artistic Director Serge Bromberg, master of the early morning hot seat, interviewed the previous day's short film makers. It is always interesting to listen to animators speak about their work, techniques and sometimes even their motivation for making their film. Their words very seldom change my opinion of a film but it is interesting to hear an animator talk about their work.

Monica Tasciotti's Features at Noon interview series with the previous days' Feature Film directors usually leaves me anxious to see the film again with a new perspective. The highlight of the week for me was Monica's chat with Henry Selick. The two of them talked so comfortably that it was more of a living room conversation than a formal interview. Henry brought three puppets from Coraline and talked extensively about their construction, and why his studio is in Oregon rather than Los Angeles. He said that he has wanted to make a 3-D film for a long time but was willing to wait for the right project because he didn't want it to be just a gimmick. Selick thinks that Coraline is just as enjoyable without the glasses but that the 3-D heightens the contrast between Coraline's two worlds she inhabits.

While Serge sometimes seems to intimidate or badger the animator in his hot seat, Monica Tasciotti is a very gentle and intuitive interviewer, making her guest feel completely at ease. That said, Serge often has several animators that must be given time in one hour where as Monica can devote a full half hour or more to an interview, which does make quite a difference in the ways they work.

It's hard to believe that this is the fifth year of Annecy Plus, and once again the screening played to a packed audience at the Le Venitien Bistro. Bill Plympton and I began Annecy Plus to present films that have been rejected by the Annecy Official Selection Committee but that we feel deserve to be seen. It has now grown into an "unofficial-official" Friday night event, and this year, as befits a real festival, we awarded our own statutettes. Stuttgart producer Teymour Tehrani designed and produced the Golden Bone award for the film that the audience voted the best underdog film, and Omid Javanshad, on behalf of Welle beer manufacturers, presented the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place audience favorites each with a case of beer.

The Annecy Plus band regulars, Rolf Bachler on percussion and Nik Phelps on saxophone, were joined by Annecy Selection Committee member Alexei Alexeev on guitar to entertain the audience before and after the show and during intermissions with their melodic tunes.

After all of the audience ballots were counted the Bronze Bone was given to Divers by Paris Mavroudas for an experimental animation that was inspired by Busby Berkeley, mass gymnastics and experimental cinema of the '20s and '30s. The Silver Bone went to Alexi Budowsky for his 3 minute 50 second Flash film Royal Nightmare, the story of an evil King whose life is turned into a nightmare by a pilgrim.

The audience voted the very prestigious Golden Bone Award to Signe Baumane for Teat Beat of Sex: Job, which really shouldn't need any explanation. Annecy Plus has now grown to a point where we have a staff, so thanks go to Signe Baueman and Pat Smith who helped program, Kerri Allegretta our program designer, Jonas Raeber, who provided the projection and ED Distribution,who helped sponsor Annecy Plus.

Far too soon it was time to get ready for the closing ceremony. With two good friends, Adam Eliott and Alexei Alexeev, on juries (Adam on the Short Film Competition jury and Alexei on the Short Film Selection Committee) I was very curious to see who the winners would be. Each year Serge Bromberg, who emcees the closing night festivities along with Tiziana Loschi, CITIA managing director, arrives on stage in a novel and outrageous way. This year, to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of man landing on the moon, Serge arrived on stage in a "lunar golf cart" dressed in a space suit. Tiziana wore a wonderful space age dress with a hair style to match.

It was no surprise to me when Mary and Max and Coraline were announced as co-winners of the Feature Film Crystal nor that Brendan and the Secret of the Kells won the Audience Award. I was also delighted that PES was voted the Short Film Audience Award for his very cleaver Western Spaghetti and that Runaway by Canadian animator Cordell Barker garnered a Special Jury Award. Cordell, known for his delightful film The Cat Came Back, is as charming as his films.

I was very pleased with all of the awards until we got to the Annecy Grand Prix Crystal, and Slaves by Hanna Heilborn and David Aronowitsch was named the winner. The film is based on a 2003 interview with two children aged 9 and 15 who were taken by the government sponsored militia in Sudan and used as slaves. Undeniably, this is an important issue that deserves all the attention that it can get. Slaves certainly was a perfect choice for the UNICEF Award, which it received at the festival, but it was definitely not the best animated film at Annecy this year.

One of the big topics of conversation at the closing night party was the top award. Should the Annecy Crystal be given as a political statement or should it be based upon the quality of the work? I personally believe that the Crystal should be awarded to the best film not only for its story but also for the quality of its animation. I was not alone in thinking that the jury voted with its heart and not its head.

The last official event at Annecy was the closing night party at La Plage. It is always a bittersweet time when you realize that you will not see so many good friends again for quite a while. There were many congratulations for winners and hugs and kisses of good bye. It was a long lovely evening. I had not seen Adam Elliot since he had visited us in San Francisco on his way to the Oscars, or his producer Melanie Coombs since Annecy five years ago, so we had a lot of catching up to do. Adam had been kept very busy as a juror and this was a chance for a really good talk.

I am very happy to note that this year, unlike in the past few years, there were no attacks on festival participants that I heard of. It had become quite a problem the last few years, and I am delighted that the festival and city seem to have managed to control the muggings that were definitely casting a black cloud over the festival. Over the years, I have watched the festival change and grow from a celebration of short independent animation into a big money marketplace where feature films are slowly but surely becoming the star of the show. Major deals are made at MIFA. At first I resented the changes but I have come to accept them. As an industry we do need one major event a year that is all about business. This allows other festivals to retain their character as celebrations of animation as a great form of art. I applaud MIFA and hope that it will continue to grow and foster the animation industry.


Nancy Denney-Phelps has produced music for animation for the past 15 years. She has written about animation and animation festivals for such publications as Animatoons, Film/Tape World, Reel World and the ASIFA/San Francisco news magazine and is a member of the ASIFA International Board. In 2006, Nancy and her composer/musician husband Nik Phelps moved from San Francisco to Gent, Belgium, where they now have their home.

Don Duga is an animator, director and producer of animation. From UPA to Rankin/Bass to commercials to Sesame Street to feature films, he is an industry veteran. He has storyboarded such classics as Mr. Magoo, Underdog, The Last Unicorn, Frosty the Snow Man, Mad Monster Party, Wind in the Willows and more. He is also the co-founder of Polestar Films in New York, and has been an instructor of animation at The School of Visual Arts in New York City since 1962.