Both ‘Chicken for Linda!’ and ‘Letter to a Pig’ push the medium’s artistic boundaries with constant motion, unrefined lines, and imprecise shading and coloring, proving more experimental, auteur-driven animation can be every bit as compelling and entertaining as mainstream films.
Magnificent 2D linework took the spotlight at Animation is Film (AIF) this year with both Grand Prize Award winners: Chicken for Linda! (Linda veut du poulet!) and Letter to a Pig. Though completely different in tone, each film shared the common design theme of busy sketches to illustrate how memories and moments etch themselves forever in someone’s mind, whether from a time of existential crisis or a day spent chasing a live chicken through a city to satisfy an overwhelming craving.
The festival, which recently wrapped its 2023 edition, fills a gap in the U.S. market as an established world-class animation festival on par with major events in Europe and Asia. The festival, produced by GKIDS in partnership with Annecy International Animation Film Festival, is based in the world capital of animated filmmaking - Los Angeles. Since it was founded in 2017, AIF has been a passionate advocate for filmmakers from around the world who routinely push the medium’s artistic boundaries.
And both GKIDS’ Chicken for Linda! and The Animation Showcase’s Letter to a Pig do just that, making the most of constant motion, unrefined lines, and imprecise shading and coloring to prove more experimental, auteur-driven animation can be every bit as compelling and entertaining as mainstream work.
“The name of this festival makes sense to us who come from both live-action and animation,” says both Sebastian Laudenbach and Chiara Malta, co-directors of Chicken for Linda!, which was their first co-directing experience. “We make cinema above all, without worrying whether we should follow one vein or another. Unlike American and Japanese animation, European animation, and particularly French animation, offers prototypes that very often do not fit into any stylistic or budgetary models. Linda is a good example.”
Chicken for Linda!, winner of AIF 2023’s Grand Prize and Audience Awards, follows the antics of mother Paulette and her daughter Linda in France in the years following the loss of Linda’s father. One day, Paulette feels guilty after unjustly punishing Linda and will do anything to make it up to her. Linda immediately asks for a meal of chicken with peppers, which reminds her of the dish her father used to make. But with a general strike closing stores all across town and pushing people into the streets, this innocent request quickly leads to an outrageous series of events that spiral out of control, as Paulette does everything she can to keep her promise and find a chicken for Linda, even if it means stealing a live chicken and finding a way to kill it herself.
From Miyu Productions and Dolce Vita Films, Malta and Laudenbach’s animated feature is drawn with a similar design to a 1930s children’s book, where the line work of the characters doesn’t connect completely, and is filled with circular motifs where each character is assigned one color that makes up their whole figure; Linda is yellow, her mom is orange, her aunt is pink, and so on and so forth. It’s a visually striking film and lots of fun to watch as characters move fluidly and gymnastically from one side of the screen to another, the lines of their bodies never standing still for too long, even when the character isn’t in motion.
“We wanted to make the film our own way, for instance, by recording all the voices in real shooting conditions, and by deciding to only do one color per character,” note Malta and Laudenbach. “If that makes the film different from others, that’s a happy consequence. But making a film for children, dedicated to children, means taking them seriously and truly acknowledging them. And that means treating them to something excellent, surprising, and personal.”
More than anything, the directors say they wanted their film to feel “alive.”
“Since it is a film of free-spirited children, we wanted to make this film in a way that was also free, without forbidding ourselves anything,” share Malta and Laudenbach. “All the graphic and sound choices were made to meet these objectives. And even if it was fanciful, burlesque, and fantastic, we wanted a film that spoke truth.”
That’s one of the reasons Chicken for Linda! was created on a modest budget.
“Our storyline addresses social injustice, strikes, and a population living on the outskirts,” both directors add. “The interest that we see in using animation is that this allows us to speak of reality in a certain way. We wrote the script a long time ago, before making our own first films. But it stayed in a drawer, patiently biding its time. And it is with great pleasure that we see that the public likes it.”
Letter to a Pig, in its own way, speaks truth with fantastical flare. But if Chicken for Linda! is a free-spirited comedy, Letter to a Pig is its dark counterpart, also speaking of social injustice but with unsettling shadows and far more distressing geometry than Chicken for Linda!’s world of circles.
Letter to a Pig, directed by Tal Kantor and also produced by Miyu Productions along with The Hive Studio, brings to life the memories of a Holocaust survivor as he addresses a classroom full of students. When he begins to read a letter he wrote to the pig who saved his life, a young schoolgirl sinks into a twisted dream as she listens to the survivor’s testimony and finds herself confronting questions of identity, collective trauma, and the extremes of human nature. In addition to winning AIF’s Grand Prize - Shorts Award, the short film also received honors at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in Israel in 2022.
Kantor had no idea that the film would become so relevant in 2023 after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel last month and the subsequent war in Gaza.
“The film was selected for AIF in September, and who would have imagined that October would be like this?” says Kantor. “We planned to attend the film’s L.A. screening and found ourselves in the midst of this terrible horrifying situation that paralyzed all lives here. Long-standing historical conflicts that are entangled in untreated collective traumas can create a never-ending cycle of further hatred, pain, and suffering in future generations.”
Kantor continues, “I feel that, especially now, faced with a discourse of polarization and hatred, our role as artists is to offer a different perspective on human complexity, to bridge into dialogue and deep questions.”
Unlike other Holocaust stories that have come before it, Letter to a Pig not only recounts the cruelty and hatred expressed by the evil actions of Nazi soldiers, but also the hate-fueled revenge Holocaust survivors sought to exercise in the aftermath of their torment. The film also calls into question the Jewish mindset that pigs are disgusting beasts without value or purpose.
“I found the pig to be an interesting symbol to show the complex and volatile way in which people see and perceive the ‘other,’” explains Kantor. “The pig is a fascinating and intelligent animal that is surrounded by different myths, religious beliefs, and cultural connotations around the world which are often negative, such as its impurity according to the Jewish faith. That's why, in the film, the pig changes its form and role according to how the characters learned or chose to see it–as good, as bad, as a savior, as an evil monster, or as an innocent creature.”
The overwhelming message to be gleaned from Letter to a Pig is that anyone, from anywhere, is capable of becoming the monster they fear, the evil they hate, or the “pigs,” so to speak, that they despise.
“The pig embodies the inheritance of traumatic narratives, biases, and prejudices that we automatically project on those who are different from us,” says Kantor. “It is there to reflect back to us deep questions about ourselves.”
The deeply introspective storyline of Kantor’s short also influenced its symbolic and emotionally stimulating visuals. Though Kantor is known for heavy line work in previous animated projects, Letter to a Pig’s animation was more focused on the way memories are stored in the subconscious, which is a similar concept to Chicken for Linda!’s first few minutes, showing the scattered subconscious of a toddler in small, colorful bubbles that grow and shrink as memories become clear and then fade away with time.
Letter to a Pig’s scenes never fade entirely, but the details of faces and certain colors become more prominent as emotions intensify. The film is primarily black and white, with live-action characters deeply layered in 2D linework and shading. As memories intensify, details of eyes and skin wrinkles start to reveal themselves out of the white backgrounds, but then fade again as a character’s interest fades, their focus becomes more narrowed, or if they feel themselves shrinking into the background.
“This technique allows me to visually trace how human memory works–to show how and what we remember, like how we focus on certain details that remain realistic and clear in our minds, while others become elusive and tend to change or disappear,” says Kantor. “Therefore, both the world and the characters in the film appear fragmented and incomplete, so we can sense their inner world and subjective point of view through their visual appearance. It might be through a vibrating dark color stain that covers the face with pain and rage, subtle animated lines that express one’s shame or a desire to disappear, or realistic eyes whose penetrating gaze is engraved in our minds forever.”
While Kantor couldn’t have anticipated Letter to a Pig’s timely appearance at AIF, the filmmaker shares that the film is getting the chance to be shown to a global audience. It is currently available online on the ARTE channel and on The Animation Showcase streaming platform.
“I hope that the questions it raises about the extremes of human nature, together with its universal call for compassion, will resonate with people,” says Kantor. “I can't say much at the moment about my next film, except that, unlike the other films I made that dealt with the subject of memory and the past, the next one will try to deal with questions about the future.”
GKIDS is also planning a U.S. theatrical release for Chicken for Linda! In 2024. More details have yet to be released.