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Not All Animators Yearn to Direct Big Studio Films

Small budget auteur-driven animated feature films offer inspiring and compelling stories rarely found at the local multiplex.

'Rocks in my Pockets' by Signe Baumane (2014).

Independent animation has a long and storied history, created using countless styles and contexts. You can find these films everywhere you find film or visual art: at festivals, art galleries, DVD shops and on the internet. They are awarded top honors at the most prestigious, highly publicized awards ceremonies across the world. And yet the medium of animation is still most commonly identified, by audiences, even the majority of the entertainment industry, with big studio projects: Disney, Pixar, or, if you meet a stop-motion fan, LAIKA.

As someone possessing an independent animation background (via a fine art education), I think this is, of course, a shame. I have spent 10 years making short films using hand crafted and digital techniques, with a side job as a freelance animator for hire, to fund my animation habit. I admire, if not relate to, animators wishing to work for big studios, but my focus has always been on creating enough time and money to make my own work. If I could have a nickel for every time someone has asked me, after learning I make animation, if I wanted to work for Pixar, I would be a wealthy, rather than cash-strapped, animator.

And yet independent animation is still going strong, with interesting, inspiring and awesome results. If you're looking for inspiration, check out the films of some of my favorite contemporary animators, like Vladimir Leschiov, Cesar Diaz Melendez, Nicolai Troshinsky or Nicolas Fong. Or, for more context: Caroline Leaf, Yuri Norstein or Jan Svankmajer. These makers' work epitomizes for me the beauty of an independent approach. Their films are creative, with many different techniques and methods used. They are experimental, in the most literal sense -- they experiment with everything from technique, to narrative, plotting and pacing. And, they are somehow intimate -- as a viewer, you feel very close to the director's vision, usually because the director and animator are the same person, or the production team is very small. Despite the challenges of (usually) low budgets and (sometimes) a lack of producers, the films benefit from one person making all the creative decisions.

'Consuming Spirits' by Chris Sullivan (2012).

'Crulic' by Anca Damian (2011).

The format the independent animation community most often advocates is probably the short film, uniquely conducive to an 'auteur' approach, where the creator works primarily alone or with a few trusted collaborators. But there are also people who make long-form animated work in a similar manner, which is to say, outside the studio system. These films are often characterized by non-traditional story structures, creative animation techniques, a strong vision, and, as Dutch animator/director Michael Dudok de Wit stated at a symposium in September 2016, a strong dose of intuition. In this article, I outline four examples of recent feature-length animated films that retain, in some measure, an auteur approach (these are just four recent ones! For more, look into Chris Sullivan, Don Hertzfeldt, Elliot Cowan, Anca Damian, Signe Baumane or Bill Plympton).

Keep in mind that just because I focus on four recent feature-length films does not mean that a feature-length project is necessarily the ultimate goal for all animators. Especially in animation, short films are a format complete unto themselves. There should be no expectation that animators who make short films are inherently interested in helming feature-length films – anyone who thinks all animators yearn to make a feature lacks insight into the tremendous artistic and emotional impact, both to creator and audience, that short films routinely achieve. But feature-length animated films are also interesting, and all the more challenging because this dense and difficult medium can be overwhelming over long periods if not treated properly. And it is undeniable that feature-length projects still, despite the various ways we consume video nowadays, have more distribution options than shorts. Simply put, it is more likely that a lay person will hear about your feature-length film than they will your short.

And yet, within the feature film realm, it is relatively unlikely that someone will hear about Sebastien Laudenbach's The Girl Without Hands, or about Andy Smetanka's And We Were Young, compared with the latest animated feature film churned out by mainstream studios. That makes this an interesting niche: films of 'appropriate' conventional viewing duration (60-90 mins), and yet are made in very non-mainstream ways by a small team working under strong artistic, and yes, intuitive, direction.

'The Red Turtle' by Michael Dudok de Wit (2016).

Michael Dudok de Wit, mentioned briefly earlier, is one filmmaker with experience in both formats, having, one might say, conquered the festival circuit in 2000 with his short lyrical animation Father and Daughter, which then won an Academy Award the following year, and as well as having recently completed his first feature film, The Red Turtle, which was nominated, though did not win, an Academy Award. The Red Turtle is an 80-minute dialogue-less animated film about a man shipwrecked on a tropical island. It's a beautiful film that runs at a cool, languid pace that might be considered slow by mainstream audiences. It has enough of a story to keep the viewer engaged, but doesn't provide all the answers by the film’s end.

The film was co-produced by the famed Studio Ghibli (responsible for Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and other classics). This collaboration means the film probably does not technically qualify as 'independent,' which is precisely what makes it an interesting case study -- the film has roots both in the studio and auteur worlds. It benefitted from the strong vision of its director, and yet the film was animated by a team of people at a professional studio (primarily Prima Linea in France) with a budget of €10 million (still a fraction the size of the $200 million budget for Pixar's recent Finding Dory). In his previously mentioned lecture, Dudok de Wit emphasized the importance of holding on to an intuitive approach to composition, design and storytelling, and one can see this come through in the final film. It is both notable that Dudok de Wit not only succeeded in maintaining this intuitive approach throughout the years-long process of collaborating with a studio, but also himself recognizes the rarity and importance of this feat.

In 2016 The Red Turtle competed at Cannes (where it won a Special Prize in the Un Certain Regard section) and opened the Annecy International Animation Festival. The film was released theatrically in France in June, in the Netherlands in July and in Japan in September 2016. It was released in the USA by Sony Pictures Classics on January 20 and as mentioned above, garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film earlier this year.

'La Jeune Fille Sans Mains / The Girl Without Hands' by Sebastien Laudenbach (2016).

La Jeune Fille Sans Mains or The Girl Without Hands is a 73-minute animated film created by French animator/filmmaker Sebastien Laudenbach. It is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale about a man who accidentally sells his daughter to the devil. The visuals were created by the director chronologically with paint on paper animation, in a more or less improvised manner, primarily by himself. The drawings of the film are intentionally left unrefined, and the story is unrelenting and brutal, though the stoic heroine keeps the viewer engaged and it ultimately has a happy ending. The film had a final budget of €415,000 and was picked up by a French producer after the first animation sequences were completed. The film screened at Cannes and Annecy (winning a jury mention), was released in French cinemas in December 2016 and was acquired for North American distribution by GKIDS, though a release date in this region is not immediately clear.

And We Were Young is a 75-minute documentary created by independent filmmaker Andy Smetanka in his home studio in Missoula, Montana. It was animated one frame at a time using back-lit paper cut-outs, and was shot on Super-8. It uses first-person testimonials from U.S. soldiers sent to France in WWI as narration.  The film follows a loose narrative: we see the soldiers training, then being sent overseas, then confronting first-hand the horrors of war. But the film does not focus on one particular character over another. In fact, the silhouette cut-out technique means that it is difficult to distinguish one human character from another. This produces, at first, a disorienting effect, as we try to parse through the myriad of experiences. But it soon comes to feel appropriate -- we experience the overwhelming feelings of going to war, identifying with all of the characters, rather than one in particular.

The visuals for And We Were Young were made completely by Smetanka on a budget of about $80,000, crowdsourced and personally invested. The film is currently finishing up its festival run, and unfortunately has not met with the same level of festival success as the two previous examples, making the prospect of theatrical distribution much more challenging.

'And We Were Young' by Andy Smetanka (2015).

Torrey Pines is a 60-minute feature film created with paper cut-outs by Seattle artist/animator/musician Clyde Petersen, and a small team of assistants in Clyde's basement studio, for a budget of about $30,000. It is based on the true story of Clyde going on a cross-country road trip at the age of twelve with his schizophrenic mother. It is dialogue-less, full of bright colors, and a naïve style somehow appropriate to the pre-pubescent main character’s point of view. The project is not just a film, but also a touring musical show, with Clyde Petersen's own band Your Heart Breaks, as well as guest musicians, performing the score live.  The film has just started its festival run, but its first North American tour (showing in small theatres, DIY spaces, museums, etc.,) finished this past December. Clyde hopes that festivals screening the film will be open to having the score performed live as well. Torrey Pines will probably not secure traditional theatrical distribution, but possibly will be picked up by a niche distributor and likely end up on a VOD platform.

All of these films are unique: The Red Turtle started out with the best possible chances of success, being co-produced by Studio Ghibli. The Girl Without Hands, though created more or less independently, benefitted from the arrival of a French producer in time for its festival run, no doubt aiding its chances of finding its way into the hands of GKIDS, its North American distributor. The And We Were Young team is doing the best it can without a dedicated producer, and being based in Montana (not exactly ground zero for animation-related networking). Torrey Pines is forging its own path via independent venues, eschewing the traditional distribution chain of festivals-theatrical-VOD.

'Torrey Pines' by Clyde Petersen (2016).

Each of these projects had a different path to creation, with different budgets, number of team members, expertise, and now, different distribution possibilities. And yet for all their differences, it is important to note that each film communicates a powerful, intimate vision, and is a unique feature-length viewing experience. Though the big studio films might get more notoriety and widespread theatrical distribution (along with bigger marketing budgets), they by far aren't the only type of animated feature films being made each year.

These independent films can be found at film festivals, at your local arthouse cinema, on video-on-demand platforms like iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo on Demand, at art galleries and museums, or even on the filmmaker's personal websites. You may hear about them if you scan news headlines from animation news outlets like Cartoon Brew, AWN, Animation Magazine, or the Edge of Frame blog, or film news outlets like Indiewire, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Keep tabs on animators you like by following them on social media, just like you would other filmmakers or artists. Keep an eye on groups that promote or distribute this type of work, like GKIDS, your local ASIFA chapter, or your local film archive. It takes a bit more effort to keep up to date with independent animated features, but don't let that stop you. Your efforts will be rewarded, because chances are, these films will be much more original and memorable than whatever's playing at your local multiplex.

The Red Turtle (80 mins):

La Jeune Fille Sans Mains / The Girl Without Hands (73 mins):

And We Were Young (75 mins):

Torrey Pines (60 mins):

Tess Martin's picture
Tess Martin is an independent animator based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Her hand-made films have been displayed at galleries and festivals worldwide. She runs a monthly animation event called Manifest: Animation Show & Tell.