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Inside Zagreb: The Preselection Process

Independent animator John R. Dilworth describes his experiences as a preselection committee member for the 1998 Zagreb Festival of Animated Films.

It is a tremendous thrill to have your film invited to a film festival and seen by a large audience. After the struggle to complete your film, the struggle continues to get it into festivals. When I was invited to be part of the preselection committee for the 1998 Zagreb International Animation Film Festival, I eagerly accepted, anxious to uncover the mysteries behind the process of invitation.

I was very honored to be invited to participate in the selection of this year's program and I took the responsibility very seriously. Zagreb had a three person, multi-cultural jury consisting of myself, an American filmmaker, whose film, The Dirdy Birdy, won the Audience Prize at Zagreb in 1996, a distributor from Germany via Hungary, Detelina Grigorova-Kreck, and a Croatian studio executive, Vedran Misletic. The hosting country of a festival will always have a native representative on the jury. The trio and a senior festival director will decide which of the 800 plus films will be presented in this year's festival.

John Dilworth, left, with Niko Meulemans at Zagreb `96. Photo by Maureen Furniss.

John Dilworth, left, with Niko Meulemans at Zagreb `96. Photo by Maureen Furniss.

The Basics

The process begins with a first night dinner hosted by the festival. Here the ground rules are laid out and the festival philosophy is expressed. Quality and artistic expression are top priorities. It is important for the directors of the festival to "push young people to be creative, so that in 25 years they are not waiters." Another important issue is funding, as arts money continues to erode even in Zagreb, a town rich in it's historical artistic significance to animation. One way the festival finances itself is by including commercials and television series categories. This insures advertising dollars from the submitting studios while avoiding becoming a market like Annecy.

For the next ten days the jurists will sit in a large dark room with three separate tables lit by small lamps. Twenty feet away is a large video projection screen and a large television set. The TV is for more accurate color. All entries are viewed on video. Each jurist is given several thick books containing specific details about each entry. At the bottom of each page are several boxes. One box is for comments and the other boxes are for voting. A `+' vote indicates the entry is in. A `-' means it's out and a `?' means it isn't bad, but it isn't good either. The jurist cannot decide. After 14 hours of watching films, all the `?' votes will be revisited and who knows which way it will go. The worst vote is the `?' with a big `-' next to it. It is as one jurist put it, "the kiss of death."

Individual Influences

Many factors go into the voting process. The most inalienable factor is individual taste. A film that is well done overall is indisputable. Andrej Khrjanovsky's The Long Journey is an example of a film well done. Many others are not. The jurists may share similar likes and dislikes, but they will not like or dislike something for the same reasons. Thus, a three-person jury. An entry can only be approved if a majority agrees. If there is still a dispute the final decision rests with the organizing director, who has a strong opinion as well.

a well envisioned and executed film stands out, like Richard Reeves' Linear Dreams. Image courtesy of Richard Reeves.

a well envisioned and executed film stands out, like Richard Reeves' Linear Dreams. Image courtesy of Richard Reeves.

Films that are well done have a strong narrative, interesting characters and an overall arresting presentation. So many submissions do not pay enough attention to all the elements that go into making a film. For example, one entry might have a strong design but no story. Although each jurist favored traditional filmmaking as a standard, when an abstract or experimental entry screened, the vote became even more of a personal decision. Yet, even in this category, a well envisioned and executed film stands out, like Richard Reeves' Linear Dreams.

Besides the jury members' personal points of view, there are many disadvantages filmmakers give themselves. For instance, there were many more applications submitted but the films never arrived. Some films were submitted in rough cut and some others without a track. It is truly impossible to judge submissions like these. Unfortunately, because of the amount of films and the limited time, one does not have much of a chance getting in with a half completed work unless the work is very good, as was the case with an entry by Paul Bush. Another disadvantage is not having subtitles or a translation. Only when a film is accepted does the festival provide subtitles. A film with unique pacing that relies heavily on dialogue or narration, but does not provide subtitles, will most likely be passed over. Explain Yourself! The issue of taste is a mighty stone and pushing it up a mountain is what the voting process is like, only with the chance that the stone could roll back down and crush you. It is nearly impossible to exclude one's ego when deciding which film is acceptable and which is not. It is part of the discipline to select as a group. Everyone must deal with the certain presumed imbalances of fellow jurists, like a lack of experience, limited contextual film knowledge, and inadequate exposure to less typical or common film vocabulary. Even at advanced levels of expertise, these issues exist, but to a much greater extent because no one likes to show off their warts. It is a true struggle to remain objective and address the film itself without deferring to one's own level of subjectivity. It is very easy to become passionate about a film. If something is pleasing to you, congratulations, but now could you tell us why? Here is where all the fun is. The jury must explain their choices and defend their selections with something more influential than, `Because I like it.' So we then become ever so genteel and polite and debate in English; the language of choice, because there are many more non-Americans who speak English than Americans who speak anything else. It is tough enough to communicate in one's own native tongue, but to do so in another language is asking for compassion.

Parring Them Down

Not all films are viewed entirely. If a film is long the jury will watch a few minutes and have an immediate impression. Sometimes one jurist will cast a negative vote soon after the film begins and leave the room, or if a film inspires someone to call out, "I've seen enough", and the other jurists agree, the film will stop and we move on to the next entry. To keep everyone happy each jurist and the organizing director is permitted one unchallenged favorite. At the end of each day the jury gathers and reviews their choices. An eye is kept on such topics as: the number of entries from each country, whether or not the popular films by name filmmakers are in, and which films go to competition versus which go to the panorama or noncompetitive screenings. The organizing directors work extremely hard. The details and considerations that go into molding the final festival form are numerous. Curating the programs is a last minute affair without knowing for certain which directors will attend. The festival doesn't want to have one program with all the visiting directors taking a bow, leaving the other programs without anyone to introduce. The Student Category The student films are judged as professionals. No special consideration is given to their young talents. The jury was hard on the student entries. There were over 250 submissions from schools around the world. The best came from England, a country determined to conquer the world through animation. The Royal College of Art is doing a very good job yielding young talent like John Colin's The Hapless Child. However, not all is encouraging. A large percentage of the student work failed miserably with storytelling, especially those using the computer in the creative production process. Most computer entries focused on what appeared to be exercises in fabric studies, lighting, texture mapping and modeling. I should think these young artists would do well to reconsider the art of storytelling, before trying to impress the world with the abilities of technology's latest software. Professors should take better care with guiding their impressionable pupils. Most East European schools do not have computers on which students can experiment. The work coming from these areas was more interesting than from the high-tech west, despite the higher tuitions!

Commercial Categories

Two other difficult groups to judge were TV series and commercials. The blur of watching so many TV series, mostly from Europe, as the bigger budgeted programming went to Annecy, was saddening. They were all so similar, as if the world TV community was collaborating to ruin the minds of children, selling a quality that will leave indelible psychological trauma for years to come. The jury watched over 30 hours of material in 2 hours. The stars of most of these productions had their personalities texture mapped on, so that when you peeled their skin back they were hollow. Among the best of the bunch was Ted Sieger's Wild Life, produced by Hahn Film Berlin.

The commercials were better only because they were shorter, but I cannot remember a single product. What the jury found tedious was when a studio submitted it's entire production slate for the year, or worse, submitted nearly all pieces from a specific campaign. Is this an act of repressed lack of confidence to submit everything? Egocentricism? Or a deficient ability to judge one's own work for quality? It is difficult for a jury to select one episode from among so many in a series.

J.J. Sedelmaier's Casablanca, from his

J.J. Sedelmaier's Casablanca, from his "TV Funhouse" segments for Saturday Night Live, caused "a serious debate" among preselection committee members. Image courtesy of J.J. Sedelmaier Productions.

Interestingly enough, a serious debate waged over a J.J. Sedelmaier production featuring a gas-passing Humphrey Bogart from a re-created Casablanca scene. Some believed the entry should be in competition, only so that the audience could see what non-traditional projects are coming out of America. The argument concluded with the piece relegated to panorama. It is insulting to artists who have worked so hard at their art to be included in a festival like Zagreb, only to share a category with a film about farting. Another curious must-see production is Shikato by Uruma Delvi Productions, Japan. This film is guaranteed to have an audience singing its contagious chant for days.

The Croatian Entries

There were only three entries from Croatia: a student film, one series and a rather disappointing short professional film, titled The Cake. The student film was already accepted into panorama by virtue of having no competition and the series was only a promising beginning, therefore a lot of weight was put on The Cake. The film tells a story about a group of people sitting around a table cutting a cake. The style is black and white and the figures are only representational, there are no details. When the slices are distributed it is discovered no two slices are equal. The people at the table begin to fight, cheat and find innumerable ways of getting a bigger slice until they war and nothing remains of the cake except crumbs. Then they repeat the same behavior and fight over the crumbs. Without the film's acceptance the host, Zagreb, a bastion of animation, wouldn't have any representative entry. Therefore, politically, it would not be good to exclude the film from the festival. It's a tough position to be in.

The Zagreb Festival is going to be a wonderful experience. If you are able to attend I highly recommend it. In the end, it still remains a mystery how to win approval of your art. Sometimes national encouragement, personal relationships and politics play a role in deciding which selections are made. I believe that the artist must always drive from the spirit and continue to explore the mystery of creativity. It is a very personal endeavor. Being on the pre-selection committee has alerted me to my many personal challenges, and I have come away humbled from the lessons that hit me in the head like a brick when I wasn't looking.

The 1998 Zagreb Festival of Animated Films will take place June 17-21, 1998 in Zagreb, Croatia. For information, visit the Zagreb web site, accessible from Animation World Network's Animation Village.

View John R. Dilworth's comic strip, Dirdy Birdy every month in Animation World Magazine.

John R. Dilworth is a New York-based animator whose award-winning films have been seen all over the world. Since his return from Zagreb, John has vowed to converse only in Croatian, so please keep this in mind when contacting him.