For Four Days Volda Becomes The Animation Capital Of Norway
The Animation Volda Festival may be a small and local event, but their celebration feels like a grand, international event. For four days some of the top names in animation from around the world gather in Volda, Norway to give Master Classes and present films. The festival is completely organized and run by a team of students from Volda University College. They select the competition films, choose and invite the guests, and handle all of the little details usually left to paid staff that running a festival entails.
This year’s theme was Music and Sound. My husband, Nik Phelps, opened the festival giving the 1 ½ hour keynote address titled Sound and Animation Through the Past 95 Years: Visionaries, Vaudevillians, and Storytellers. Nik talked about such visionaries as Norman McLaren, Mary Ellen Bute, Lynn Lye, and Oscar Fischinger who made significant contributions to experimental animation. The vaudevillians included the Fleischer Brothers, Disney, and Warner Brothers Studio, and Stacey Steers and Sara Petty were among some of the great storytellers he spotlighted. Representative films were screened to illustrate his points.
Along with Nik, the roster of renowned guests included Neil Pymer, Digital Creative Director at Aardman; Brad Schiff, Animation Supervisor at LAIKA; and sound mixer Greg Curda. Polish animator Izabela Plucinska; Marta Chwalek, head of Etiuda & Anima Festival in Krakow, Poland; Danish Producer Claus Toksvig; and Norwegian voice-over artist Harald Mæle rounded out the guest list.
As Animation Supervisor at LAIKA, Brad Schiff has overseen the studio’s crack team of animators on such films as Kubo and the Two Strings, The Boxtrolls, and Para Norman. At his presentation, Brad took the audience through the evolution of facial animation throughout the last two decades from stick-on mouths to 3D printed replacement animation. He elaborated on the steps entailed in making an animated shot, and other aspects leading up to the “naturalistic” performances that they shoot at LAIKA.
Brad told me that his latest project was as the animation director on a scene in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. He was specifically brought on board to direct the film’s classic sushi scene. This 1 minute of screen time took 2 months to shoot. He also said that he and his 3 person crew were “forced” to eat a lot of sushi at different sushi bars to obverse the sushi chefs at work so that they could recreate the hand and knife position perfectly on screen. Their research paid off because even though the scene is very short it is certainly memorable.
I didn’t realize that Aardman Studio had a special digital department until I met Neil Pymer who works in that department. They specialize in advertisements, shorts, and interactive projects. I am a big Shaun the Sheep fan and was interested to learn that there are several interactive Shaun the Sheep games online such as the Shaun the Sheep Puzzle Putt Game. As you play Puzzle Putt, you help Shaun conquer all of the holes in his crazy golf game. The game is available on iOS and Android.
The digital department and BBC’s research and development have launched a VR experience titled We Wait, an immersive short story for Oculus Rift based on BBC news stories. The experience takes the viewer to a beach in Turkey where you become part of a migrant family waiting to cross the sea to Greece.
Harald Mæle is known as the Norwegian man behind the voice. He has been the voiceover artist on almost every animated feature film or series in his country from The Adventures of Gummi Bears to Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Asterix and Obelix, and is known as the voice for every Disney film. Although his presentation was in Norwegian, I had the pleasure of talking to him about how he is able to change his voice to become almost the entire cast of a film.
In keeping with this year’s theme of sound and music, veteran Hollywood sound mixer Greg Curda gave the audience a look at the do’s and don’ts of sound mixing. He should know. With over 75 films to his credit he has garnered 12 Ampex Golden Reel nominations, 4 Academy Award nominations, and 1 team Oscar for sound effects on Hunt for the Red October. Greg now lives in Norway and lectures at Nord University.
Claus Toksvig Kjaer is a well-known studio executive and producer at Nørlum Animation Studio in Denmark. The studio co-produced Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea as well as Long Way North by French director Remi Chaye. The film won the Audience Feature Film Award at Annecy in 2015. Claus spoke about his approach to making an animated film and what his role is in a co-production. He also said that his next venture will be co-producing Disney’s new series Big Hero 6.
When it comes to claymation, Polish-born Izabela Plucinska is at the top of the game. Her 2005 debut film Jam Session won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. The following year she founded her studio ClayTraces in Berlin. My particular favorite of her films is the 25 minute Esterhazy which is an adaptation of the popular picture book of the same name by Irene Dische and Hans-Magnus Enzensberger. The film tells the story of Prince Esterhazy Jr. The Esterhazy rabbit dynasty in Vienna is threatened by the animals’ shrinking size so in 1989 he is sent from the family home in Vienna to Berlin to find a large wife to save the family line. In his hunt for a wife, Esterhazy meets the rabbits who live in the no man’s land between the Eastern and Western parts of the Berlin Wall and witnesses the wall’s destruction.
Izabela’s latest film Sexy Laundry is about a couple who have been married for a long time and are trying to jump-start their love life again. It is a very sweet humorous film.
Marta Chwalek is the director of the prestigious Etiuda & Anima International Film Festival in Krakow, Poland. In Volda she presented a selection of post-Soviet Polish animated shorts. The films ranged from Piotr Dumala’s brutal and provocative Hipopotamy, which won the 2014 Ottawa Grand Prix, to the absurdist Inside Out, Andrzej Jobczyk’s 2008 film about a man who wakes up one morning and becomes entranced with the phenomenon of turning a sock inside out while getting dressed. This makes him wonder what else he can turn inside out.
No program of post-Soviet animation would be complete without a film by the Polish Grand Master Jerzy Kurcia. His 1979 Reflections takes us through the life cycle of an insect from the time it emerges from its cocoon to its life and death fight with another insect. That leads to their final demise when both insects fall into a puddle where a man steps on them. As he walks away the crushed bugs lie dying in his footprint.
The special screening of A Year Along the Abandoned Road was a pleasant surprise. Morten Skallerud’s odyssey along a seldom-used road to Børfjord, Norway was filmed in 70 mm Super Panavision. For the 12 minute film, Skallerud and his crew built a special camera enclosure that ran on a segmented portable track for smooth tracking. A number of rail lengths could be laid out in front of the camera train and as shooting moved forward, the crew would take up the lengths that the camera had passed over and laid them down again in front. The actual camera enclosure used to shoot the film was on display in the Cinema lobby.
In previous years, Animation Volda Festival has acted as the selection committee for the Fredrikstad Animation Festival which is held a month or two later in Fredrikstad, Norway. This meant that the students were not free to select their own competition programs. That changed this year because Fredrikstad now has their own selection committee, giving the Volda students the opportunity to select their own films. They did a marvelous job putting together excellent programs.
I was intrigued by Martina Scarpelli’s 11-minute black and white hand-drawn film Egg. In the film, a woman is locked in a room with an egg. She is simultaneously attracted to it and scared of it. She eats the egg, she repents. She kills the egg. She lets the egg die of hunger. The film is extremely sensual and repulsive at the same time.
Martina based Egg on a moment in her own life. She has found a poetic way to portray the very serious subject of her battle with anorexia in this animated documentary. The film won the Golden Dove for best animated film at the prestigious DOK Leipzig in Genmary, so Egg has now qualified for the Oscar race.
A Robot Is A Robot by Emil Friis Ernst and Niklas Røpke Driessen asks the question “Can someone be deprogrammed not to kill after they leave the army?” In this 6 minute 3D film, a disabled war veteran robot finds a home with a sweet little old lady who hires him to work in her hair salon for cats. Everything goes along fine until a cat escapes from the salon and runs up a tree. Can the robot leave his past as a ruthless killer behind or does he act on his murderous instincts which were a basic part of his programming? What starts out looking like a cute film turns deadly serious.
The 24 films in the Student Program were all Bachelor Degree projects coming from the 9 schools that are partners with Volda University College; they also share a student exchange program. My two favorite student films both came from the Estonian Academy of Arts. As A Little Bird by Yyhely Hålvin used felt puppets and an organic background to tell the tale of a girl with a birdcage body. The bird inside the cage remains alive because the girl protects it. While the girl and her bird are in the forest picking berries they encounter a cat who is determined to catch the bird. I see the film as a metaphor for how difficult it is to gain complete freedom in a world full of cruel beasts.
The second student film that stood out for me, Clown Follies by Aili Allas, done is full of sardonic humor with an ending that reeks with black humor. A clown is sailing in a boat to his next performance. Everyone is waiting to see him, but why is it taking him so long to arrive? Will he arrive?
It is no coincidence that both Hålvin and Allas are students of Priit and Olga Parn at the Estonian Academy of Arts. The couple is known for their distinctive, strong style of animating with films that are full of sardonic humor and strong stories. It is obvious that their students learn to tell interesting stories in a multitude of creative styles.
Nik and I were invited to Volda for two weeks. The first week Nik worked with students in the music department. His work with the music students was shown off at the closing ceremony when groups of music students performed their live compositions to film. Each group could choose from 4 different animated films created by Volda students in years past. It was very interesting to hear how different groups interrupted the same film.
I coached the Bachelor of Arts candidates for their upcoming pitching session. I also had the bittersweet honor along with Gunnar Strom and Stein-Christian Fagerbakken of curating a retrospective exhibition of the late Inni Karine Melbye’s work. Inni was my good friend and Gunnar’s mentor and it was a labor of love for us to go through her vast body of work to select, frame, and hang pieces to represent the various stages of her career as an illustrator and animator.
Inni Karine was the mother of Nordic animation and was its ambassador to the animation community. She set up Studio Filminnity in Copenhagen where she became well known for her delightfully creative title sequences for the children’s programming on NRK (Norwegian television) in the mid-80’s. They ran on television for over a decade. 1983 saw the creation of her 18-minute utopian short animation Terra Incognita (Reisen til Planeten Nazae).
Inni will also be remembered for her long association with the renowned French animator Michel Ocelot. Her work as a background artist for Ocelot’s beautiful Princes and Princesses, as well as work on several of his other films, helped bring his films to life. She was also very active in the ASIFA Workshop Group for many years. The Workshop Group was organized within ASIFA to facilitate cross-cultural cooperation and animation projects for children throughout the world. Inni loved organizing workshops and teaching animation to children. In 2009 Inni Karine Melbye was awarded a Golden Gunnar Life Time Achievement Award at the Fredrikstad Animation Festival.
The exhibition opened at the festival cinema with a well-attended reception. Inni’s sister Sidsel Melander and nephew Einar Melander were special guests at the opening. Gunnar and I hope that the exhibition will tour to other festivals so that many people can share the joy of Inni’s life and work.
As well as my work on the exhibition I also chaired a panel discussion at the festival. During the panel, Greg Curda, Harald Maele, Claus Toksvig Kjaer, and Brad Schiff discussed together different aspects of their careers. They were joined on the panel by Endre Eidså Larsen, a member of the faculty at Volda University College who is currently doing his thesis in film studies which he also teaches at the school.
Along with all of the speakers and films, there were parties every evening. A special trip out on the Voldsfijorden on a fishing boat was arranged for the guests. We could even try our hand at fishing. Luckily a lot of food and drink was provided since we didn’t catch anything. It was, however, a great way to watch the sunset over the mountains as we ate shrimp and drank red wine.
One Sunday Gunnar Strom took us to Sæbø, a small picturesque town located nearby on the Hjørundfjord. The town and nearby residents organized a soapbox derby race and Gunnar was one of the judges. The creativity and unique styles of the young race car builders (with a lot of assistance from their parents I am sure) was most impressive. The runs down the hill brought thrills and spills.
The race was followed by a screening of The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix at the local cinema. The Norwegian stop-motion feature film directed by Ivo Caprino was released in 1975 and is based on characters from a series of books by Norwegian cartoonist and author Kjell Aukrust. Gunnar told me that it was the most widely seen Norwegian film of all time, selling more than 6 million tickets since its release in Norway, which is quite amazing given the small population of the country. Of course, the film is about a race with homemade cars, even if they are much fancier than soapbox derby cars.
A special thank you goes out to the Animation Department of Volda University College for inviting me to be the pitching coach and allowing me to sit in on the pitching session. I heard some impressive projects from some very talented students and I look forward to seeing their completed projects at festivals in the future.
I cannot thank the Animation Volda Festival organizers enough for inviting me to be a part of it. All of the little personal kindnesses that they showed me during my 2 weeks in Volda made my visit so special. The festival team: Claudia Munksgaard-Palmqvist, Alida Nielsen, Jens Villa, Adrian Dalen, Joachim Berg and team leader Karoline Sundet you all did a fabulous job. Karoline graduates this year and after two years as festival head and whoever steps up to take her place will have some big shoes to fill.
Volda may be a small village of fewer than 10,000 people in Western Norway but it is a wonderful place for a festival. You can learn more about Animation Volda Festival at: www.animationvolda.com