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Over these past 10 years of existence the Animator Festival in Poznan has grown in respect internationally so it was a lovely honor to be invited back this year to help celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary.

Over these past 10 years of existence the Animator Festival in Poznan has grown in respect internationally so it was a lovely honor to be invited back this year to help celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary.  Along with the short and feature film competitions and the special programs, the Polish film industry conference has become an important component of the festival and Animator has become an Academy Award qualifying festival.  The 10th anniversary edition also celebrated the 70th anniversary of Polish animation and the 90th birth year of the renowned Polish animator Witold Giersz. 

This year’s theme, Brothers and Sisters Prepare, the Storm Is Coming . . ., was particularly fitting given what is happening in Polish politics not to mention in the rest of the world.  The political theme ran through special screenings, retrospectives, and a conference on Animated Politics From Melies to Mulloy.

Political Metaphors in the Polish People’s Republic screened 10 film, most of which, thanks to the use of metaphor, indirect speech, or the use of parables managed to avoid political censorship.  Tractor A-1 (1950) by Wladyslaw Nehrebecki is a socialist realism story of a tractor helping farmers.  The so called process of tractorisation in the development of the socialist village did not quite disguise its message quite enough, so the authorities soon relegated it to a storeroom shelf instead of releasing it in the cinemas.

The 1981 Solo On The Wasteland by Jerzy Kalina is a perfect example of the use of sardonic humor to thwart the censors.  In the film an old man hitches a horse to a plough.  As they begin to till the soil, the hard monotonous work is accompanied by the patriotic song Beloved Country, Cherished Country . . . 

Sometimes even pure nonsense or surrealism couldn’t save a film from censorship.  The principal of “if you don’t understand it, lock it away” was applied to Daniel Szczechura’s 1968 Landing.  The film is a funny, pure nonsense story about 2 soldiers who forget to open their parachutes when they jump out of an airplane.

The 2 day International Scientific Conference:  Animated Politics From Melies to Mulloy was inspired by world events over the past year.  With the wars in the Middle East, the refugee crisis, the rise of the fundamentalist movement, and surprising election results in several countries around the world, the conference topic had plenty of food for thought.  Scholars, critics, and theorists addressed such topics as Puppets as a Form of Political Satire in Post-Communist Poland, Animation in Islamic Countries, and Animated Films by Women in the (Masculinized) Structure of Polish Cinematography.

Jurors Dorota Szwareman and Phil Mulloy with Nancy at the festival tent

No contemporary animator consistently personifies the political animator better than Britain’s Phil Mulloy.  His biting satirical films have won numerous awards at all of the major animation festivals.  Phil’s 2016 Endgame won the Grand Prix in Zagreb and was also awarded Animator’s Bronze Pegasus last year.  Endgame is a satirical, minimalist 6 minute animation which portrays problems in the second decade of the 21st century:  conflicts, terrorism, and computer games whose main objective is to kill. 

Phil was an obvious guest for this year’s festival.  A retrospective of his work was presented as part of the animated politics program.  A series of extremely short trailers based on this year’s theme, The Storm is Coming, were created by Phil.  A different trailer was screened each day before every screening.  He was also a member of the short film jury.

One of Phil Mulloy's festival trailers

In conjunction with the animation department of the University of the Arts Poznan, a student project created one minute long animations in different techniques that presented different attitudes and ways of interpreting socio-political issues.  A new one was screened before every program each day. 

Five feature films were in competition:  Louise In Winter by Jean-Francois Laguionie, Ann Marie Fleming’s Window Horses, Bill Plympton’s Revengeance, And We Were Young by Andy Smetanka and Have A Nice Day by Liu JianThe only feature I had not seen previously was And We Were Young by Andy Smetanka from the United States.  Smetanka used paper cut outs and Super 8 camera to bring to life his oral history of American soldiers, known as Doughboys, in France during the last months of World War I.  He also used written and recorded words of survivors of the Great War for the dialogue but he never made it clear either at the beginning of the film or in the end credits whether some of the voices were the real soldiers recorded by living history projects or voice actors.  The voice overs were fascinating but after a while the cut out visuals became boring and repetitious, making the film seem longer than its 75 minutes.

The 6 Short Animation programs offered a wide variety of stories and animation styles.  Estonian animator Ulo Pikkov has created a fascinating anima doc.  Empty Space is based on the true story of a man who went into hiding during the Russian occupation of Estonia.  When he disappeared his daughter was a baby, and during the 11 years he was in hiding, he built an exact replica of his apartment as a doll house for her. 

When he finally came out of hiding in 1953 after Stalin’s death, his daughter was very happy to find out the father she had thought dead all those years was actually alive.  When he was finally able to give her the doll house, she was disappointed because by this time she considered herself to be a young lady who was too old to play with dolls.

Ulo met the daughter, now in her 70’s, who told him her story, and the film is told from her point of view.  The actual doll house is in a museum in Tallinn and she arranged for it to be moved to Nukufilm Studio where he shot the film using the actual doll house. The beautiful girl puppet was created using photos of the daughter as a reference and the lady herself appears at the end of the film along with a description of the real life events that led to the film.

I saw the doll house and heard the story from Ulo on a visit to Tallinn so I understood the story from the start.  Several people did tell me that they wished that the written description had been at the beginning of the film because they didn’t understand why this puppet was wandering from room to room in the house.

   I Don’t Feel Anything Anymore is at the complete opposite end of the animation spectrum.  Belgian animators Noemie Marsily and Carl Roosens’ absurdly delightful film has a very serious message.  It is a tale of a couple, he’s a magician and she is a firefighter, who are isolated from the chaos of a world in turmoil.  They live in a crane basket high in the sky where they go about their daily life.

The drawing style fits the story of the pair who are trying to keep their heads up in the sky while everything is falling apart down below on the ground.  Noemie and Carl created this delightful 9 minute satire of life in a world which has gone off the rails in conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada.

A new film by Australian animator Dennis Tupicoff is always animportant event for me.  His 1997 His Mother’s Voice moves me deeply every time I watch it.  His latest film A Photo Of Me is equally disturbing and takes several viewings to unravel.  The ani-doc harks back to the 1950’s when Dennis was a baby sitting in his back yard as his father takes a photo with a box camera.  Next he is a sleepy child in a movie theatre who wakes up to a film noir movie, watching a doomed man.  According to Dennis “My mind flickers from past to present, in memories and dreams.  The man dies. CLICK!  The photo is taken.  I walk home from the pictures fast asleep”.  In the 10' 48” black and white film, Dennis used animation, photographs, and fragments of an old film to create scenes from his childhood that manage to leave a very disturbing feeling in the viewer.

Signe Baumane celebrating Animator Festival

Animator had an impressive roster of guests this year.  Signe Baumane presented a retrospective of some of the 15 short films she has written, directed, and animated over the past 20 years.  Her feature film, Rocks In My Pocket, appeared at over 300 festivals and won numerous awards including the Best Feature Film Award at Animator in 2014.  Signe is currently working on her new feature film My Love Affair With Marriage which I am sure will have all of the wit and wisdom of her previous feature and be another big hit.  She was also on the festival’s Feature Film Jury.

Sheldon Cohen, a multi award winning animator, director, and book illustrator, has had an impressive 30 year career at the National Film Board of Canada where he brought several children’s books to life on the screen. The Sweater, his 1980 adaptation of Roch Carrier’s classic short story about a young boy who is given an ice hockey sweater with the wrong team’s logo and colors on it, earned Sheldon a BAFTA (British equivalent of an Academy Award) as well as numerous other international honors.  He told me that he had retired from animating until an unfortunate personal event caused him to come out of retirement in 2015 to make My Heart Attack.  It is a true story of “a nice Jewish boy with Buddhist inclinations” who should have been the last person in the world to be rushed to the emergency room one sunny afternoon for cardiac surgery.

Sheldon Cohen, Nancy and Nik at the closing night reception

As part of his retrospective Sheldon also screened Pies, a 1983 film about ethnic prejudice and showed I Want A Dog, his 2004 film about a young girl who wants a dog more than anything in the world. He was also a member of the Short Film Jury.

David Silverman is no stranger to any fan of The Simpsons.  He has directed 23 episodes of the show, which has garnered him 4 Emmys.  He also directed the 2007 The Simpsons Movie and directed and co-wrote the short film Maggie Simpson in: The Longest Day Care  which earned him an Academy Award nomination.

David’s Masterclasses are always full of humor and fun stories about our favorite Springfield Family.  At his Masterclass he showed Simpson clips and talked about the evolutionary history of the characters.  He also presented some of his more unusual animations frame by frame and talked about his technique and approach to animation.  To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of The Simpsons Movie there was also a special screening of the film, which David introduced.

Mike Johnson's King Kong poster

One of my favorite special presentations was given by Mike Johnson who shared his love affair with the original 1933 film King Kong.  He said that he has always been fascinated by Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation in the film and after watching it many times he shared some of the secrets of the making of the film that he has discovered but are not readily apparent to the casual viewer, such as frames where the rod which O’Brien used to move Kong’s arm was left in the shot by accident. 

King Kong was declared “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1991.  Following Mike’s talk there was a screening of a beautifully restored print of King Kong.  Watching it made me feel like a kid again at the Saturday matinee.  All that was missing was the popcorn.   

 Mike is a director, artist, animator, and educator specializing in stop-motion animation.  He got his start in feature films as an assistant animator on Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas.  He teamed up with Burton again to direct Corpse Bride.  Mike, who lives and works in Los Angeles, presented a workshop where he talked about the highlights and challenges of his life as a stop-motion animator, director, and designer.  He showed clips from Corpse Bride as well as art work and behind the scenes photos from the various television, film, and independent projects he has worked on during his 25 year career.

Participants in the Creative-Creation Invasion Workshop creating full head masks

I was totally fascinated by my visit to Erminio Pinque’s Creative-Creation Invasion Workshop.  Erminio is director of the Big Nazo Lab, an international performance group and creative workshop based in Providence, Rhode Island.   I found the group busy with scissors, staplers, magic markers, and thin sheets of foam which they were shaping into creative full head masks.  Erminio showed me several very involved large masks that he had brought from his Providence workshop.  He told me that the foam which he uses to make his creations is so light and pliable that he brought the masks on the plane to Poland rolled up in a sleeping bag.  After the hands-on portion of their work shop, the group took to the streets in their creations to make a video of them interacting with passersbys.

Erminio Pinque performing with his band

One evening the group presented their Creative Movie Mash-Up in the festival tent.  The special event was a surreal fusion of visual and performance art featuring live music by four young German musicians and the premier of the workshop’s funny film.  As the band played the “creatures” took to the dance floor in their plasti-foam creations for their own version of the Monster Mash.  The audience was invited to join them on the dance floor to become part of the spectacle.  It was quite a memorable event indeed.

Dancing with the creatures

At the opening night ceremony Witold Giersz received the festival’s Life Time Achievement Award.  To celebrate the 90th birthday of Poland’s renowned visual artist, screenwriter, and animation director, Witold presented a retrospective of his work which showed why he is so revered.  During his long career he has made over 60 films using a wide variety of techniques.

Witold Giersz and his wife showing off his Lifetime Achievement Award

His 1960 animation Small Western is a parody of Westerns and was an excuse for Giersz to play with color.  The film represents his first attempt to break away from traditional hand-drawn animation and paint figures with a simple steady stroke of his brush.  His latest film made in 2013, Signum, was inspired by cave paintings located in France.  To recreate the cave paintings in the 14 minute film, Witold made thousands of drawings on a single piece of stone.  He erased each drawing after filming it with a digital camera in order to create the next image.

Animator For Children, organized by the Children’s Art Center in Poznan in conjunction with the festival, gave young cinema goers the opportunity to see programs of animated shorts designed especially for them.  Witold Giersz’s 1978 feature film Be My Guest, Mr. Elephant about a small porcelain elephant who takes multivitamins to grow into a full sized elephant was also screened for the younger audience.  The humor along with the reality of life in Communist Poland in the ‘70’s made this one of the country’s most loved children’s films.

Young animator at work

Each morning there were workshops where young animators could try their hands at various animation techniques.  The workshops created films in such techniques as pixilation, rotoscopy, and hand drawn animation as well as cut out and puppet animation.

Austria has long been known as a mecca for animated avant-garde films.  Austrian professor and animator Thomas Renoldner curated 2 programs representing films made over a 70 year period in Austria.  The first program, Animated Avent-Garde Austria, covered films made from 1960 to 2000.  Many of these films were made on 16 mm or 35mm film.  Thomas said that his criteria for this program were that the films used single frame technique.

The 2nd program, Austrian Animation 2000 Plus – The Most Frequently Screened was a collection of Austrian films that have been selected most often for screening at international festivals.  The program reflected the connection between the most popular and accessible films to the public and the strong Austrian tradition of avant-garde films.

Animator Pro has become an important part of the festival.  The 2 day conference, held at the University of the Arts Poznan, was designed for professionals in the animation industry to discuss such important topics as Financing Short Films In Poland and How To Sell A Short Film.  One morning was devoted to a meeting of Polish animation professionals to discuss the current state of animation.  This is a very important topic given the recent changes in the Polish government.

L to R - Signe Baumane, Mike Johnson, Anca Damian, Sheldon Cohen and Nancy at the Master Session

I was invited to chair a Master Session on What Makes A Good Story?  The members of the panel discussion, Signe Baumane, Anca Damian, Sheldon Cohen, and Mike Johnson, all have very radically different approaches to storytelling.  Our topics ranged from” Story wise what does it take to maintain a good story in a TV series as opposed to a one time feature animation?” to “What if anything is the difference between adapting someone else’s work to film and telling your own story?”  It was an honor to be invited to moderate the hour and a half panel discussion with such august animators. 

Music is an important part of AnimatorAt the opening ceremony, Polish animator Marta Pajek’s multiple award winning Impossible Objects and Other Stroies II was screened with live music performed by Orkiestra Antraktowa (the Orchestra of the Polish Theatre in Poznan).  The new original score was composed by Szymon Brzoska. 

Marta Pajek tries out playing David Silverman's tuba

Marta’s 15 minute 2D drawn film is the second part of the Impossible Figures and Other Stories triptych which was inspired by the impossible figure concept.  Each segment of the triptych tells about the pursuit of perfection and fulfillment in a reality full of traps and pitfalls.  Marta is now at work on the third film in the series.

The Festival Tent

Each evening there was a musical event at the festival tent before the feature film was screened.  One night Nik on soprano and David Silverman and his tuba were joined on stage by saxophonist Ken Field for a program of traditional jazz which they played live to classic American silent cartoons ranging from the 1915 film Colonel Heeza Liar to Felix In Futuritzy from 1928.

Silverman, Phelps and Friend(s) Ken Field

On another evening Nik joined Ken Field on stage to preform scores that Ken composed for his late wife Karen Aqua’s short films as they were screened.  Karen passed away in 2011, leaving a body of work that explored the themes of ritual, journeys, and the human spirit reflecting her interest in symbols. She also began producing shorts for Sesame Street in 1990 and produced, directed, and animated 22 segments of the show. Ken and Nik were joined on stage by two young local sax players for the special tribute to Karen Aqua.

Nik Phelps and David Silverman serenading festival goers Festival Artistic Director Marcin Gizycki lends an ear to David's tuba playing

David Silverman loves to play tuba and whenever he and Nik are together they are liable to pop up playing anywhere.  Late one night Nik, David, and Ken along with four of young German musicians who had played for Erminio Pinque’s Creative Movie Mash-Up gave an impromptu concert on the beautiful Poznan Opera House steps.  As passerbys heard the music they stopped to listen some joining in dancing on the Opera House steps.  Erminio Pinque in his dog head and suit made a guest appearance and joined the band to sing a number much to the delight of the large crowd that had gathered.  The band played on until after 2 AM.

The Dog joins the band Dancing on the Opera House's steps

Each evening following the music programs an “Adults Only” feature film was screened.  The films selected for these screenings all talked about ethical, social-political, or philosophical matters.  They included Fritz the Cat, Perfect Blue, Waking Life, Princess, and Phil Mulloy’s Intolerance Trilogy, a very hard hitting group of very adult animations.

Closing ceremony

2017 was not only the 10th anniversary of the festival.  In 2007 Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski premiered Madam Tutli-Putli. Their 10 minute film won the first Golden Pegasus/Grand Prix award at Animator as well as over 50 other awards.  To commemorate the event composer, pianist, and visual artist John Kameel Farah created a new score for the classic film.  His composition was performed live by a 4 piece ensemble when the film was screened at the closing night ceremony. 

Following the announcement of the awards there was a reception at the Palacowe Cinema.  Then we all adjourned to the festival tent for the closing night party.

Nancy with festival programmer Filip Kozlowski

A big thank you goes to Festival Director Marcin Gizycki for inviting Nik and I to Animator and for making our visit so memorable. I also need to give a big thank you to festival programmer Filip Kozlowski for always being there to answer questions.  Joanna Stankiewicz, director of Animator Pro took care of my travel arrangements and made everything run so smoothly at the panel discussion.  Last but certainly not least a thank you goes to Marianna Piskorz who was an invaluable help to Nik at the festival tent.  I look forward to my next visit to Animator and hope that it won’t be too long before I am invited back again.  A complete list of the jury and winning films is at the end of the article.  There was so much more happening at the festival but I couldn’t write about it all but you can read more about the festival at:


A Dad dir. Robert Cambrinus / Austria 2016
Justification of the verdict:
An award for intelligent, humorous and ironic allusion to the spirit of Dadaism, a crucial trend in the art of the 20th century, in the hundred years’ anniversary of the movement.

A photo of mine dir. Dennis Tupicoff / Australia 2017
Justification of the verdict:
For its monumental simplicity and the deep resonance of its poetic juxtaposition of found footage and rotoscoped imagery.

Sparrow's Flight dir. Tom Schroeder/ USA 2016
Justification of the verdict:
A film where friendship and creativity outlive tragedy. Told with a keen cinematic eye that looks back on a lost collaboration. It is a spirited tribute that celebrates the art of animation.

Window Horses / reż. Ann Marie Fleming / Kanada 2016
Here’s the statement from feature films jury: “A film that shows the value and reward of opening up one’s heart to different cultures, especially at a time when many chose to close them. And, a film that connects emotionally with its characters, which, though stylized in appearance, are fully dimensional.”


Chateau au Go Go dir. Steve Gentile / USA 2016
Justification of the verdict:
An award for witty form and brilliant combination of image and excellent music by Vijay Lyer.

Pussy dir. Renata Gąsiorowska/Poland 2016
Justification of the verdict:
A playful film that bravely takes for granted the right of every woman to pleasure her own body, a right that for too long has been portrayed by authorities as dirty and shameful.

The Wrong End of the Stick dir. Terri Matthews / UK 2016
Justification of the verdict:
A well-crafted film filled with wry humour. Impressively written, designed and animated. Very solid in its execution.

The wind suddenly dir. Edris Samani / Iran 2016
Justification of the verdict:
A film worth mentioning for its inspiring vision. It is a worthy parable in today's troubled world.

With the artist's kind permission / Piotr Bosacki / Poland 2016
Justification of the verdict:
For an interesting and humorous exploration of unconventional relations between image and text.

With the artist's kind permission / Piotr Bosacki / Poland 2016

Louise en Hiver / Louise by the Shore / Jean-François Laguionie / France, Canada 2016