Animafest Zagreb is a festival that captures the child in all of us and mixes it with a level of sophistication that every world-class city aspires to.
Animafest Zagreb is a festival that captures the child in all of us and mixes it with a level of sophistication that every world-class city aspires to. From the animated nighttime cycling tour of the upper Old Town to an exhibition of Suzan Pitt’s magnificent hand-painted coats, and of course watching a lot of films, every minute of the week was packed with wonderful things to see and do.
Nik and I arrived on Sunday, a day before the official opening of the festival, to go on the nighttime cycling tour of the Upper Town. On bicycles, or as in our case in a Pedicab, our group of about 45 riders wound our way through the network of narrow little streets that stretch between two hills of upper Zagreb. Along the way, animated music videos from the Cinema for the Ear screening were projected onto buildings from a bicycle rigged up with a projector.
The tour ended at an open-air bar where screenings and performances took place during the festival. That evening we were treated to a live performance of Hedgehog’s Home adapted from Branko Copic’s classic poem. Eva Cvijanovic’s lovely 2017 film Hedgehog’s Home was screened following the live performance.
Animation and Fine Arts were the themes of this year’s festival. With five short film programs and two feature-length films devoted to the topic, it was covered from many different angles. The first two programs, titled Inspired By, featured short films that have been inspired by specific artists, styles, and/or classical art in general.
It was a pleasure to see Joan Gratz’s Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase again on the big screen. The 1992 Oscar-winning film shows images of the human face transposed to communicate the graphic style and emotional content of major 20th-century art masterpieces. Opening with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, then into a self-portrait of the artist, to a Frida Kahlo self-portrait and down to Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe portrait, Gratz takes us through the history of art in seven minutes. The film is a moving clay painting, a technique that Joan pioneered. She worked directly in front of the camera, applying bits of clay, blending colors and etching fine lines to create a seamless flow of images.
In Both Worlds screened works by artists who have one foot in galleries and the other in film. Max Hattler is a perfect example of such an artist. His 4’ 45’’ AANATT, part of this screening, represents the ever-shifting shape of analogue futurism while being 100% digital effects free. He is as at home presenting his installations in a gallery as he is presenting his films in the screening room.
The fourth program, Painting in Motion, was the most exciting for me. It contained classic films that are not often shown on the big screen, such as the 1920’s German avant-garde artist Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 and Tarantella by Mary Ellen Bute. Bute was one of the first female experimental filmmakers; her specialty was what she called “visual music”.
The Freshly Painted program in the Animation and Fine Arts series was a selection of this year’s festival entries which best represented the theme. Austrian animator and VR artist Reinhold Bidner’s In Trance It was inspired by a spontaneous visit to the Museum of Art History Vienna. Reinhold’s photos of 16th and 17th-century portraits morph into each other creating a stunning visual montage of long-forgotten people. If you watch closely you will see one living person’s portrait. The animator has included a photo of himself among the moving gallery of Old Masters’ artwork.
This year the festival awarded their Life Time Achievement Award to Suzan Pitt. She was the perfect choice given this year’s theme of animation and art because she has not only worked in animation, painting, and fashion but she has also designed opera sets.
Two programs of her surreal, psychological films were screened. I was familiar with most of her films but I had never seen her 4’ The Damnation of Faust. Pittman was the scenic and costume designer for the production of Hector Berlioz’s opera of the same name which premiered at the Hamburg State Opera in 1988. The film is part of one hour of animation created by several artists for the production. In 1983 Pitt designed sets, 35 mm film, and costumes for a Hamburg State Opera production of The Magic Flute. This was the first opera to include animated images.
The tribute to Pitt concluded with the 28-minute documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision. The 2006 film by Laura and Blue Kraning delves into the visionary world of the independent artist and explores Pitt’s synthesis of hand-painted images with other techniques such as scratch-on-film, cut out animation, and sand animation that made her work unique.
Paola Orlić, a producer at Animafest, curated a beautiful exhibition of Suzan’s hand-painted coats at the prestigious Gallery Kranjcar. Suzan has said of her coats, “I think my pained coats are like animated objects that can move around the world – walking down the street, sitting in the bar, walking out through the doors of a building . . . Every painted coat is unique, like no other; a real artwork you can wear or simply hang on the wall”. It was truly amazing to have the opportunity to see the coats up close. I only wish that I could afford one.
Sadly Suzan was too ill to attend the festival. She passed away from cancer 10 days after the festival closed on 16 June. It is a great loss for the lovers of animation and art in general, but we are lucky that she left so many great films and artworks for the word to enjoy.
Each year the festival invites an educational institution to mount an exhibition at Gallery Sira. This year students and two members of the faculty from the Department of Digital Art, University of Applied Art, Vienna, showed an interactive exhibition titled #fuckreality. I especially liked Underneath the Skin, Another Skin by Patricia Reis. The audio-visual-tactile interactive allows a person to engage physically with all of their senses. The pod-like object contains interactive devices such as tactile sensors which trigger multiple sensorial stimuli when a person lays on it. The school also had four Virtual Reality projects in Tunnel Gric.
Tunnel Gric was also the location for the six films in the VR competition. The tunnel is part of a vast system of tunnels that run throughout Zagreb’s Upper Town. They were built in 1943 and used as civilian air raid shelters during WW II and in the Croatian War of Independence. Tunnel Gric is the only one still open to the public and it is often used for temporary exhibitions.
The tunnel was the perfect setting for Max Sacker and Ioulia Isserlis’ Kobold. The German duo created a horror experience that blurs the line between cinema and VR gaming. The viewer steps into the shoes of an urban explorer investigating the mysterious case of a missing boy and discovers the secrets of an abandoned villa in the middle of a dark German forest.
The VR competition was new to the festival this year. The VR Jury, Mac Bertrand, producer at the National Film Board of Canada; Portuguese animator David Doutel; and Milan Gostimir, founder of Legame Studio, Croatia’s first VR studio, selected Accused # 2 Walter Sisulu as the winner of the VR competition.
The basis for that VR project is a recently restored sound archive of the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 where Nelson Mandela, accused # 1, read his famous speech justifying why the ANC had resorted to violence. Walter Sisulu, accused # 2, was the first of the group to be cross-examined. This VR experience allows the participant to relive the five days of Sisulu’s gripping confrontation with an overtly racist prosecutor.
The tunnel was a great place to escape the extremely hot weather since it constantly stays rather cold inside, but unless you were bundled up it became uncomfortable very quickly. I don’t envy the VR jury having to stay in there for a long time.
Another first this year was Behind the Scenes, a group exhibition of the Grand Competition authors. After the 46 films were selected for the competition, the animators were all invited to send up to five pieces of artwork from their films for this “making of” exhibition. Fifteen animators accepted the offer to display their work.
I am very fond of Natalia Mirzoyan’s Five Minutes to Sea. The film is about a few small but memorable moments as seen through the eyes of a little girl at the seaside, juxtaposed against time as perceived in old age. Each Animafest juror is allowed to give a special award. Grand Competition Jury member Ruth Lingford selected Five Minutes to Sea. It was a pleasure to see Natalia’s lovely drawings for her film at the exhibition.
It was fascinating to have the opportunity to see the beautifully detailed taxidermy workshop set from Ivana Bosnjak and Thomas Johnson’s stop motion film Imbued Life at the exhibition. The film is about a young woman’s connection with the life force of nature. She uses her talent for taxidermy to “return the animals to their natural habitat”. The film looks beautiful on the big screen and when I saw the set up close, I could only marvel at the attention to even the smallest detail. British born Johnson and Croatian Ivana took home a special merit in the Grand Competition as well as an additional one in the Croatian Competition.
I enjoyed the Behind the Scenes exhibition a great deal and hope that it will become a permanent fixture at the festival. I also hope that it can be located in a more prominent place. It is just the sort of exhibition that the general public should see to help them understand how much work goes into creating an animated film. I am not sure how many members of the general public actually found the exhibition in its location on the 3rd floor above a café.
Last year Boris Labbé’s film La Chute won Animafest’s Grand Prix as well as being selected for special screenings at the 57th Cannes Critics Week. The film, reminiscent of the medieval portrayal of an apocalyptic vision of mankind a-la Hieronymus Bosch is drawn on paper with India ink and watercolor. It consists of approximately 3500 original drawings each 30 x 42 cm.
The Gallery Ulupuh was an excellent location to showcase Boris’s amazingly detailed work at his exhibition titled Becoming Animal. The concept of Becoming Animal, chosen by Labbé as the focus of his artistic work, is defined around the possible transfigurations of a human being into an animal in the sense of integrating the animal through our behavior, thoughts, and actions. His show featured intricately detailed prints and drawings from his films Rhizome and La Chute. His work shows him to be a highly accomplished gallery artist as well as a superior animator.
For the group exhibition The Heart: Poetry Re (Animation) festival guests were taken by a small motorized train to an old factory on the outskirts of town that has been converted into a concert and exhibition space. The exhibition was curated by Bozidar Trkulje, Croatian animator and poet. Bozidar invited fifty Croatian animators, illustrators, and artists working in a diverse range of mediums to choose one of fifteen poems that he has written over a 20 year period. They then created a work of art based on the vision and emotion that the poem created in them. Thus they Re (animated) a poetic cycle making the poems come alive in visual, tangible forms.
The works ranged from animated films and comic books to puppets, tapestries and everything in between. I fell in love with a beautiful picture by a young artist named Petra Kozar. The day after we visited the exhibition Bozidar and Petra presented the picture to me. I am very pleased to have it hanging on my wall.
At the outdoor café of the main festival theatre, Thomas Johnson created a twelve-hour performance titled Cleaning Ritual Number 2 Clay. This was the second of a series in which Johnson animates a stop-motion puppet to perform a manifestation of self-healing. During the performance, an animated puppet, a miniature image of Johnson, shovelled green clay into a hopper where it fell into a glass jar and mixed with water. The mixture was then applied to Johnson’s head and over the duration of the performance, it ended up covering most of him from head to foot.
This year the festival honored Portuguese animation with three screenings featuring some of my favorite films, such as Jose Miguel Ribeiro’s 1999 classic murder mystery on a train puppet film Suspect and Abe Feijo’s haunting Stowaway about one man’s agonizing struggle for freedom.
Along with all of the classic films, the exciting news was a new film from Regina Pessoa that premiered in the Grand Competition. Uncle Thomas Accounting for the Days is a very personal film. It is a tribute to a beloved uncle from a grown woman looking back at her childhood. In the film, Regina describes a humble man with a simple and anonymous life, but who had a profound influence over her. Uncle Thomas was the person who taught Regina how to draw.
At her presentation titled My Creative Process on Uncle Thomas Accounting for the Days, Regina talked about growing up in a small village in Portugal in the 1970s without television or a cinema. To compensate for the lack of moving images she learned to observe everything around her and use her imagination. Her Uncle Thomas took her for walks in the fields and talked to her about how life used to be in the old days. But most important of all, he taught her to draw. Coming from a poor family with no pencils or paper, Uncle Thomas showed her how to draw huge black and white faces with charcoal from the fireplace on walls and doors of her grandmother’s house.
She also said that she discovered animation while studying at Porto School of the Arts and then went on to work at the Portuguese Studio Filmografo under the mentorship of Abe Feijo. Speaking about the techniques that she used for her current film Regina said “I used mixed media. I wanted to keep on developing my 2D engraving style, but I also wanted to animate some scenes with real drawings on the walls and to make some stop motion also, animating the notes, diaries, objects and material that I had kept from Uncle Thomas”. She went on to say that her intention was to combine all of these different visuals and techniques to create an authentic cohesion between all of the mediums.
Unlike Regina’s previous three films which looked at specific events in life from a child’s point of view, this film is strictly from an adult’s perspective. It is beautifully animated with a touching story.
As part of the Portuguese salute David Doutel and Vasco Sa, co-founders of BAP Animation Studio in Porto talked about their focus on traditional 2D and handcrafted painterly animation. The pair shared with the audience some of their experiences running a collaborative studio for eight years. They have created two short films that I admire very much, Soot and Agouro. They also showed some of their past work as well as talking about the new short film that they are working on and a feature film that is in the development stage.
For the sixth year, Animafest Scanners was held in conjunction with the festival. The two-day symposium fosters discussion and interaction of theoretical and practical approaches to animation. This year the speakers focused on four topics: Animation and History; Animation and Fine Art; Animation and (Virtual) Reality; and Animation and Education.
This year the Scanners keynote speaker was Jayne Pilling. She was also the recipient of this year’s prestigious Award for Outstanding Contribution to Animation Studies which was presented at the opening night ceremony. Jayne is an eminent scholar, educator, and animation promoter. She founded and until 2018 was the director of the British Animation Awards. Along with teaching, she collaborates with numerous festivals and is an advisor to the British Film Institute. Jayne is also the author and editor of numerous books.
The award for The Best Animation School went to the Department of Animation at Gobelins. Established in 1975, the school has become respected for its outstanding animation training in visual and craftsmanship techniques. The school has also introduced advanced technologies into its curriculum without losing its emphasis on technique, craftsmanship, and storytelling.
I had the privilege of moderating the presentation of three new books. Olga Bobrowska and Michal Bobrowski introduced Propaganda, Ideology, Animation – Twisted Dreams of History which they contributed pieces to as well as edited. They invited film scholars and critics to reflect upon the dangerous liaison between animation art and official propaganda. The topics covered in the thirteen papers in the book range from noted author and film critic Mikhail Gurevich’s Teasing the Sacred Cows to the End of History: Appropriation of Emblematic Imagery in Late and Post-Soviet Animation to a short text by Theodore Ushev, who works in the fields of animation, multimedia, and art installations. Theodore’s contribution to the book is A-Z Manifesto 2017 (Animation as a weapon). His short piece is accompanied by two of his artworks titled Krakow Manifesto 1 and Krakow Manifesto 2. The book is an indispensable reference for anyone interested in propaganda and animation.
Film Director, writer, graphic novelist, illustrator, and Animation historian Olivier Cotte has created the ultimate book for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of animation techniques. L ‘ Grand Livre Des Techniques Du Cinema D’Animation covers every important method of directing an animated film along with specialized directors giving practical tips and tricks. The 336-page book is lavishly illustrated with more than 400 color pictures. This is an excellent reference book for anyone working in animation but can be equally enjoyed by anyone curious about how animation is created. At present, the book is available only in French but it is hoped that there will be an English language translation soon.
The final book presented was Tom Sito’s Eat, Drink Animate: An Animators Cookbook. This extremely fun book brings together the perfect mixture of receipts and animation history with recipes from legendary animators from Hollywood’s Golden Age to modern masters of the art. Along with personal recipes such as Walt Disney’s chili and Hayo Miyazaki’s Poor Man’s Salt Flavored Ramen, Tom added anecdotes from their professional lives that relate to food along with lots of photographs.
Everyone always looks forward to the annual festival picnic. This year we were taken by bus about an hour outside of the city to Etno Farm. Serving us traditional Croatian food under an outdoor wooden canopy, the farm is also an equestrian center with a wooden barn full of beautiful horses. With so much to see and do at the festival, it was lovely to have the opportunity to sit and chat with friends over beer, wine, and delicious food. Somehow the time at the picnic always seems to fly by and soon, we are back on the bus long before I was ready to leave.
Every evening there was a party and some nights there were even late-night after-parties. One night there was an animator’s jam session, another night festival director Daniel Suljic, who is an excellent DJ, spun disks for our enjoyment. On another evening we all had the opportunity to show off our singing ability at Karaoke night.
If you can only attend one festival a year I recommend Animafest Zagreb. The programming is excellent, the festival staff and volunteers are extremely nice and they go way out of their way to help you. Also, Zagreb is a lovely city. I owe a big thank you to Daniel Šuljić for inviting me to the festival and to Daniel, Producers Paola Orlić and Matea Milić for being there to help me in so many ways and always willing to answer my questions. I also need to thank Dalibor Jakus, head of the press office for making my life so easy with his up to the minute press releases. A big thank you goes to all of the volunteers who were so cheerful and ready to help in any way that they could. I also want to thank the lovely Pedicab drivers who sped me all over the city. The Pedicabs were available for free rides for festival guests and the drivers not only did a great job getting me where I need to go but they were also very fun guys.
Mark your calendar for 8 to 13 June for the 30th edition of Animafest Zagreb.
You can read more about the 2019 festival and learn how to enter your film for 2020 at: www.animafest.hr