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'Brava' Castelli Animati!

Barbara Robertson flies to Genzano, Italy, for the I Castelli Animati festival and says bravo to what she found there.

The theater (above), the Internet café, and two restaurants serve as home base for I Castelli Animati attendees. Photo credit: Jon Hofferman.

I cant think of a better place for anyone who loves animation or creates animation to be than the I Castelli Animati festival in Genzano, Italy during the first week of December.

Its a small festival with big names, said Paul Bush, the London-based filmmaker perhaps best known for his scratch animation, The Albatross, and, more recently, his experiments with animated films created with time-lapse photography. On the other side of the lobby, I could see Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord sitting next to his wife, and Danish animation legend Borge Rings white hair and beard as he walked outside with his wife.

Some festivals insist on premieres, Bush said. Its ludicrous. It makes them less of an animation festival. Here, the most interesting thing is the program and the guests. And there are lots of guests.

Indeed, festival director Luca Raffaeli estimated that 20% of the festivals attendees were guests, with 50% animation fans from Rome and 30% from elsewhere in Italy.

I traveled from Rome to Genzano in a small van with four other festival attendees: journalist Tsvika Oren and his wife and young daughter from Tel Aviv, and Annick Tennige, director of the school la Poudriere in Valence, France and former AWN general manager.

As the highway unrolled south of Rome, the countryside turned rural and hilly, and the road narrowed into two lanes. We drove alongside horses in small pastures, past vineyards and underneath arches made by pine tree branches stretching across the road. A sign pointed to a castle in Gandolfo, but we turned in another direction and rounded a lake instead. Later, Id learn that the castle was the Popes summer palace built on the foundation of a Roman emperors villa. The Castelli Romani area of Italy, which is only about 20 miles from Rome, has long been a summer playground for Romans who enjoy its bucolic volcanic hills and mirror-like crater lakes. Genzano hugs the rim of a crater with one such lake.

With a few hours free before the festival began, Annick and I explored the old part of the village that winds between a grand palace, a medieval church and the craters rim. Inside the rim, dark Lake Nemo reflected the amber, rust and dark green leaves of the autumnal forest growing up the craters sides. The weather was drizzly. Rainwater glazed the narrow cobblestone streets and splattered the yellow buildings. Laundry hanging from the windows was draped with plastic sheets. We heard a woman singing.

Peter Lord sits with his wife while he draws a picture of Wallace and Gromit for some lucky fan at I Castelli Animati. Courtesy of Barbara Robertson.

Near the church, next to an Internet café, we discovered a small building with a Castelli Animati sign on the front. Inside, two men were wiping clean several rows of blue plastic chairs facing a small stage. Neither Annick nor I had been to Genzano, or to Castelli Animati. We counted the chairs, looked at each other and said, This will be a very small festival.

We stopped for an espresso and hot chocolate and then continued exploring, walking past stores selling sausage, cheese and Genzanos famous bread. In many of the shop windows, we saw Castelli Animati posters. When we went back to the festival building, no one was there and the chairs now sat around small tables. One of the men laughed and told us this building was for the childrens part of the festival, which began later. He sent us to a movie theater across the way and down another cobblestone street. The theater, the Internet café, and two restaurants would be our home for the largest part of the next four days.

We checked in at the lobby, opened the doorway into the theater and walked into complete blackness. Annick put her hands out in front of her, I put one hand on her shoulder and we moved forward like the singers the Blind Boys of Alabama walking onto a stage. When her hands reached the heavy curtains, she pushed through and we saw Castelli Animatis director Luca Raffaeli standing in front of a large movie screen, introducing the first set of films. His children, a three-year-old sprite named Rosita and his son, six-year-old Jocomo, danced around his legs.

For festival director Luca Raffaeli, two things are crucial to the I Castelli Animatis success  presenting a variety of animation and letting the audience watch everything. Photo credit: Jon Hofferman.

Raffaeli had organized the festival into roughly four types of sessions workshops with filmmakers, the international competition, the Italian competition and an international showcase. In addition, Annick and Chiaro Magri of Tornino-based Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia presented student films on the first day, and Italian visual effects studios sprinkled examples of their work throughout the program.

Two things were very important to me, Raffaeli said. First, having a variety of animation. And, second, letting the audience sit in their chairs and watch everything in the festival. Otherwise, people have to choose what theyll lose. At other festivals, I see people watching films with a worried expression, and watching a 25-minute film is terrorizing for them.

During the day, he divided the films into approximately 20-minute groups having, for example, a set of films in the international competition followed by a showcase or films in the Italian competition. Before each session, Raffaeli introduced the upcoming films and any filmmakers in audience.

I think its important to turn on the lights, to break the silence, to present the films, he said. The audience needs to digest and understand.

Included in the international competition were films that many people predict are current Oscar short animated film contenders: Cedric Babouches Imago, Anthony Lucas The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, Bill Plymptons The Fan and the Flower and John Canemakers memoir, The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation. Also in competition were four of the five Annie short subject nominees, John R. Dilworths Life in Transition and Igor Kovalyovs Milch, in addition to The Moon and The Son and The Fan and The Flower.

Argentinean, but London-based filmmaker Oscar Grillo led a jury that gave Belgian animator Jonas Giernaerts clever urban comedy Flatlife the Grand Prize. Milch earned a special jury prize; Matthew Walzer of the University of Wales took best first film honors for Astronauts and Finnish animator Laura Neuvens The Last Knit won best European film honors. The Fabrizio Bellocchio Prize for social content went to John Canemaker for The Moon and the Son. The entire list of prizewinners can be found on I Castelli Animatis website.

But equally interesting were the retrospectives. In addition to guest of honor Peter Lord, the festival honored Isao Takahata who received a career award, and showed four of his films: the heartbreaking A Grave for Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas. Lord previewed 20 minutes from Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, not yet released in Italy, and participated in an on-stage conversation with Mr. Takahata. Also honored were the animation masters Paul Bush; Italian animator Gianluigi Toccafondo; animation historian, teacher and filmmaker John Canemaker; and Oscar-winners Borge Ring and Daniel Greaves, all of whom showed retrospectives of their work.

Included in the international competition were Bill Plymptons The Fan and the Flower (left) and Anthony Lucas The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. © Plymptoons (left) and © Monster Distributes

Rather than showing only his own films, though, Ring brought commercials made in the 60s by John Hubley and Art Babbitt, about which he said, This is some of the best animation I know. I wanted everyone to see it. The black-and-white spots included those for Starkist (Charlie the Tuna), Western Airlines (the only way to fly), Hamms (the beer refreshing) and others. Rings Oh, My Darling, Anna & Bella, Run of the Mill were shown at other times so that people could appreciate the lightness of this masters animated strokes.

I wanted to have people with a variety of styles and ages, said Raffaeli. And so he did from Toccafondos sensual animation to Paul Bushs experiments with time and space to 84-year-old Borge Rings exquisite hand drawn characters.

Each morning, two or three guest filmmakers held workshops in which they talked about and then presented a selection of films; their films were also shown throughout the festival. Thus, people at the festival, fans, students, teachers and other animators, could learn from the filmmakers by watching films shown during the festival, from their presentations, through questions and answers during the workshops and by talking with them in the lobby, on the sidewalks and in restaurants and cafes during the festival.

The festival began at 9:30 in the morning and lasted until after midnight, but with long breaks for lunch and dinner. In the theater, you might be sitting behind John Canemaker talking with Borge Ring. And, Mr. Takahata might be sitting at the table next to you during lunch. At lunchtime and at dinner, filmmakers shared tables in one of the two designated festival restaurants with other guests and attendees.

Fusako Yusaki and the some of the children who took part in her animation workshop. Courtesy of I Castelli Animati.

Attending Castelli Animati felt like being part of a large, interesting, creative, joyful community. Someone new to animation could leave with an understanding and appreciation of the depth of this artistic medium; someone working in animation could not help but be inspired. I saw films I hadnt seen before and will remember forever and be grateful to Castelli Animati for opening my eyes to everything or many things that animation can be and to the work of great filmmakers. I believe Rafaelli achieved his goal to have a festival thats a unit, not a collection of spots. I would go again in a New York minute.

Some highlights from the workshops: Paul Bush on pixilation and his film Furniture Poetry: Pixilation is not to be confused with digital pixels. It comes from the word for pixie. Pixilation means insane, crazy, bewitched, magical. When it works, it has a way of bringing to the audience a childlike, dreamlike quality.

What tends to happen is that animators graduate from college, learn a technique and carry on with this technique and develop and improve this one technique. Maybe because Im not a graduate of an animation school, or maybe because art school in the 70s didnt emphasize product we did minimalism Ive been interested in trying out ideas.

Belgian animator Jonas Giernaerts clever urban comedy, Flatlife, was awarded the Grand Prize by a jury that included Oscar Grillo. © Jonas Geirnart.

Im interested in films driven by cinema and technique, not by narrative. If I have an idea about cinema, I think about what story will hold it together. So a film like Furniture, is not a narrative film. The idea could be shown in another way in a gallery or a museum.

Borge Ring: Im 84 years old. I was brought up on black-and-white Mickey Mouse films. All of you here are seeing films by one person. That was unthinkable when I was young. I became a studio animator and animated in other peoples features, but, in between that, I made three films and won 30 awards. So people ask, Isnt it terrible to work in a factory with many people? The answer is, No, its not. Youre like an actor doing a part in a film. If you do your own film, youre like cabaret artists who write their own material. I like both. I like working on a team. Its like being a musician in a big orchestra. Bt its nice sometimes to make a film with no one telling you what to do.

Paul Bush on first seeing Borge Ring: He looks like Father Chistmas!

Peter Lord (while waiting for Isao Takahata to join him on stage): The first thing people often ask, which is horribly obnoxious, is How did you get started? But people are interested. [For example,] we had a visit from Mr. Takahatas colleague, Mr. Miyazaki who is the owner and founder of Ghibli Studios. They have a museum of animation and we were flattered to be asked to put an exhibit of our work in the museum. (This was before the massive fire in our studio in Bristol, so the material we hoped to put in the museum is now in a large pile of ashes.) One of our colleagues visited the museum, measured the area and planned the exhibition. But Mr. Miyazaki said, No, I think this is the wrong exhibition youre planning.

He thought the exhibition should be a story rather than any attempt to record objective truth, and the one thing that interested him most was in how we got started. I think he thought that was an inspiring story to tell children. There are two competing versions of the story of how we got started. The one he thought we should tell was of me and Dave Sproxton as starving artists pictured standing on cobblestone streets with our pockets open. We did suffer and there was a sort of truth we didnt have money for a few years and being dramatic at heart, I was happy to tell that story. My partner Dave said, No. We were rich middle class kids. But, Ill go with Mr. Miyasakis version.

Because Wallace and Gromit were existing characters it was possible to negotiate creatively with our partners at DreamWorks and what that meant was that Nick Park and Steve Box were allowed to make the film they wanted to make. Im sure thats the case with a number of the best animated films that are made. But, unfortunately, thats not true of animated films generally. The costs are so great and the potential rewards so great that big studios have an instinct to make films by committee. The studio disposes of directors with strong voices and style and replaces them with a fabulously tuned filmmaking machine. Thats strange to me. Not wrong, but profoundly different from the culture in which I was brought up in festivals like this with auteurs, the animator/directors.

Peter Lord previewed some of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which had not been released in Italy at time of I Castelli. Courtesy DreamWorks Animation SKG © and  Aardman Animations Ltd.

Conversation between Isao Takahata and Peter Lord (as told through a Japanese/Italian and Italian/English translators):

IT: The friendship between Studio Ghibli and Aardman goes further than the exhibition in Tokyo at Studio Ghibli. I hope that it can grow into a collaboration. We have a very similar way of working. When I saw their films, I was very excited about them. They are different from the American style. They were realistic and credible. An example of something we can learn is how the characters speak. Its a wonderful test for us, Wallaces mouth. Its something really special, the way the mouth is. Also, in A Close Shave, the thing that impressed us was Wallaces shyness towards women. I think this is one of the reasons why everybody loves Wallace.

PL: The way Wallace behaves is directly influenced by the film, Brief Encounter. I wanted to say this about his mouth. When I met Nick Park, he was making A Grand Day Out, and, in the first shot of lip synch, Wallaces mouth was very small. It was realistic and small and he didnt think it was very funny so he tried extreme exaggeration. He always used to say, as a joke, theres a certain way to be funny in film make the mouth as wide as possible and the eyes touching. Thats comedy.

Daniel Greaves: Theres a theme in all my films the challenge of doing something different every time. Rabbit Rabbit came around when I was writing the ambitious Flat World. I wanted to do something simple and direct, something quickly.

Ive always wanted to make short films and when we set up Tandem, the idea was to work on commercials to finance films. Some studios opt to make commercials and make lots of money from that. At Tandem, we invest the money we make from commercials in short films. Well never be rich, but its so rewarding and so satisfying and enjoyable. When Manipulation won an Oscar in 1992, it opened the doors for us and enabled us to create Flat World, which was initially funded by the BBC. After that, we got commercials commissioned in the same style, and, oddly, each film after that spawned several commercials. So, we decided if we stopped making short films, the commercial side would dry up. We have to make short films to get commercials and the commercials fund the short films. It has become a cyclic thing.

John Canemaker won the Bellocchio Prize for social content for The Moon and the Son. He screened his film at I Castelli Bridgehampton (right) in 1998. Photo credit: Sarah Baisley (left) and © John Canemaker. All rights reserved.

John Canemaker (on inserting animation into a film): When someone comes to me and asks me to insert animation, I ask, Why? I think you have to have a very good reason to use animation and not live action, something intrinsic in the art form itself. So in the film on child abuse, I used it not to show the abuse, but the emotional impact of it. The question became how to show it. The answer was in research. At NYU where I teach, I convey to the students that they can solve most of their problems with research not to imitate but to inspire. For child abuse, I looked at photos and drawings by the victims and certain themes turned up. Hands were very important. Eyes. Children were locked into structures with doors but no key. That sort of imagery.

Animation is a unique art form. We can personify emotions on the screen. We can go into the mind and make it come alive. Its something I try to do in my films.

After Canemaker showed his film, Bridgehampton, an animation created from paintings of his garden, during the question and answer session, Raffaelis three-year-old daughter Rosita, walked up to Canemaker and handed him a paper crown with stars drawn on the points. He put it on, turned, and tipped the crown to his image on the screen behind.


Barbara Robertson is an award-winning journalist who has covered visual effects and computer animation for 15 years. She also co-founded the dog photography website Her most recent travel essay appears in the new Travelers Tales anthology, The Thong Also Rises.