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A Feast for the Eyes and the Stomach: 2018 Thessaloniki Animation Festival

The 4th Thessaloniki Animation Festival ran October 18-21, 2018 in a beautiful Greek city full of ancient architecture and delicious food, making it the perfect place for an animation festival. 

Thessaloniki is a beautiful city full of ancient architecture and delicious food, making it the perfect place for an animation festival.  Dimitris Savvaidis, festival founder and director, not only knows how to program excellent films he is also a most gracious host.  Add to the screenings three days of special presentations and workshops and you have an ideal festival.  The fact that all screenings and presentations were free for everyone was the icing on the cake.

Stavros Savvaidis, festival production manager and Dimitris Savvaidis, Festival Director, photo credit Nopi Ranti

Each of the festival guests gave a special presentation or master class that was aimed at the Greek professional animation community.  Independent Greek animator Irida Zhonga is a stop-motion animation director and she comes by her talent naturally.  Her father is the award-winning Greek animator Joan Zhonga, and Irida helped him in his studio from a very early age.  Her current project is a short stop-motion film titled Man Wanted.  The film is set in a 1950’s New York subway station.  As a young man enters the station full of ads with beautiful women on them, the women come to life and begin to chase him.  As he tries to get away from the women he realizes that what he is really running away from is his fear of commitment.

Irida Zhonga discussing the making of her film Man Wanted

In her presentation, the audience was taken step by step through all of the production stages, from concept and design to pitching as well as how to fund the film.  Man Wanted is the first Greek/Estonian co-production so Irida talked about the difficulties encountered in an international co-production and how she made it all work to end up with a successful film.

I first saw Man Wanted when Irida presented it at the Anima Syros pitching competition and then again at Animarkt 2017 when the project was further along.  Now that the film is almost completed I am looking forward to seeing it at festivals.

Toon Boom is a leading Canadian supplier of animation and storyboard software for animation studios and media production houses.  Toon Boom regional sales manager Frederico Vallarino demonstrated the various applications of the products as well as giving us a peek at some of the new innovations that we will see in the future.  He also held a drawing and gave away a package of Toon Boom software to one lucky audience member.

Nick Deligaris, a Thessaloniki native, is an illustrator, 3D artist and graphic designer.  In 2010 he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the documentary Death Masks for the History Channel.  His workshop Visual Language – Color and Composition analyzed elements that are part of the visual language as well as demonstrating the psychology of visual communication.  He also showed the audience how to use the tools to create a beautifully balanced composition.

Oleksandra Lutsenko, line producer of Mavka

Mavka, the Forest Song is a Ukrainian feature film currently in release.  Directed by Aleksandra Ruban, the film is set in a vast Ukrainian forest which is home to mythological creatures.  Mavka is the soul of the forest and its guardian.  When she falls in love with a mortal their romance faces numerous challenges.

Oleksandra Lutsenko, line producer of Mavka, the Forest Song, represented Animagrad Animation Studio.  She told her audience about the film’s plot in detail and screened the trailer.  I liked the background designs and the costumes which beautifully represented traditional Ukrainian culture.  Unfortunately, the character designs left a lot to be desired for me.  The world just doesn’t need another snub-nosed, big-eyed heroine.  The entire film was screened in the festival cinema followed by a question & answer session with Oleksandra.

Illustrator Aristarchos Papadaniel is a co-founder of Studio Syllipsis.  His illustrations have graced magazines and television shows.  During his presentation at the festival, he talked about his work as co-creator of the educational animated series A Letter – A Story which is designed to teach Greek primarily to young people but can also be used as a digital interactive learning tool by anyone of any age who wants to learn the language. 

The multi-talented Aristarchos also co-edited 70 Years of Greek Animation which ASIFA Hellas published to celebrate the occasion.  The first Greek animated film is Duce Narrates by Stamatis Polenakis.  Stamatis began making the film on the isle of Sifnos in 1942, during the heart of the Italian occupation.  The antifascist satire film was completed in Athens in 1945. 

Nik Phelps giving his presentation

Nik Phelps opened the Master Class series talking about the history of animation through music.  He then transitioned into talking about his process of composing music for animation.  During his lecture, he showed numerous film clips to illustrate his points.

I presented a talk on The Unsung Women in Animation.  I began by talking about Lillian Friedman Astor who was hired in 1933 by the Fleisher Brothers Studio and became the first female studio animator to receive ascreen credit for Pudgy and the Lost Kitten, a 1938 Betty Boop film.  The body of my talk focused on Joy Batchlor, half of the legendary British animation studio Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films.

After spending the previous week together at ANIMARKT in Lodz, Poland it seemed only natural that Tim Allen would be in Thessaloniki so we could continue having fun together.  Tim gave an intensive stop- motion workshop.  He has worked in stop-motion for over 18 years with film credits on such classics as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie.  He also animated on the Oscar-winning Peter & the Wolf and his latest project was as a key animator on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Tim Allen discussing his work on Isle Of Dogs at his Master Class

Along with Tim’s hands-on workshop, he gave a Master Class to a packed audience.   Tim took us through his early career sharing behind-the-scenes clips of his work on Corpse Bride as well as puppets he has created for such popular television shows as Postman Pat and Shaun the Sheep.

Tim Allen with characters from his workshop

Tim is a naturally funny person so his Master Class provided much laughter along with a lot of serious knowledge.  He talked about the part that he played in Isle of Dogs where he animated many of the primary human characters in the film such as Mayor Kobayashi, Major Domo, and Atari.  Tim said that “The Wes style is direct and clear.  I take the old stop-motion phrase ‘Less is More’ and embrace it”. 

Running concurrently to the Master Classes at the library, animation programs were screened in the Cinema Makedonikon located around the corner from the library.  For the first time, the festival hosted a special program on the environment, Animearth: Animation for Environmental Education.  The 10 films in the program ranged from tales of environmental disasters to possible solutions to earth’s global warming problem.

Nurton is a hand-drawn animation by Aris Apartian and Sofia Avramidou, Graphic Design students at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Design in Athens.  The 6-minute film takes the viewer into a world where nature can’t take the destruction of the earth any longer.  A flock of revolutionary flamingos decides to take matters into their own “feathers” to deal with the threat to their habitat.  The film is inspired by the real environmental threats to Lake Natron in Tanzania.

With so many people in the world living under oppressive conditions and attempting to migrate to countries where they hope to find a better life, the topic of human rights is very fertile ground for animators.  The festival’s Human Rights Animated program covered topics ranging from children sold into slavery to the fate of Holocaust survivors.

Yasmin Mistry is an American Emmy Award-nominated animator.  For a Better Life tackles the issue of child trafficking.  The 9 ½ minute documentary tells the story of Fekri who was sold for 100 dollars at the age of 5.  He suffered through years of abuse before his plight was discovered.  After almost a year of hospitalization and therapy, Fekri was finally able to move into a group home where he found support, mentorship, and eventual forgiveness towards his family that sold him.

Noch Am Leben (Still Alive) by Australian animator Anita Lester is an extremely haunting film.  It is the story of a woman’s memories of her great aunt Eva Nagler who became mad after she survived the Holocaust.  Through her time in the ghetto to cradling her dying sister, Eva left her mind on the beaches of the Baltic Sea during one of the largest death marches of World War II.  Being only one of a handful of survivors out of tens of thousands of Jews, the film is told from Eva’s perspective which is often distorted, romantic, and affected by her warped memories.  Still Alive captures a snapshot of the cold reality of war and its terrible aftermath.  The film is narrated by Eva’s niece with additional narration by Eva Nagler herself taken from the Spielberg Holocaust Archives and funded by the International Jewish Film Festival in Australia.

Nik and Nancy with Violette Delvoye and Chloé Alliez

Gaia In (Stop) Motion is the extremely creative project by the Belgian/French duo of Chloe Alliez and Violette Delvoye.  With a desire to travel throughout Europe in their van named Kevin, the pair spent 9 months touring with their puppet Gaia creating 10 short stop-motion episodes of Gaia’s travel adventures at children’s and adult workshops.

The first episode Ruined Picture was created in a 2-day workshop at the 2017 Thessaloniki Animation Festival so it was only fitting that they returned to the festival in 2018 for the world premiere of Gaia in (Stop) Motion.  It is a delightful project, full of wit and humor.  It is also a tribute to what can be accomplished in a 2-day workshop with talented teachers.

Story Telling without Borders is a creative partnership between 5 creative organizations in Sweden, Greece, and Denmark.  The project’s aim is to reach as many refugee children and youths as possible to help them express themselves and make sure that their stories reach the public.  Animation makes it possible to communicate despite language barriers.  The workshops are held at refugee housing and camps.  The festival screened a selection of stop-motion films created by the young refugees and although the works were primitive, they presented loud and clear messages about what war and famine have done to these young lives.

Anastasiya Verlinska, program director of Linoleum Animation Festival

Anastasiya Verlinska, program director of Linoleum Animation Festival in Kyiv, Ukraine presented a screening of films from Linoleum’s past festivals.  Linoleum showcases short independent animation as well as offering workshops and lectures by such well-known names in the animation world as Ulo Pikkov and Mauro Carraro.  There are also opportunities for children to create clay stop-motion characters and make them come alive.  You can learn more about the festival which will be held 6-9 September 2000 on their website:

Festival Jury (L to R) Festival Director Dimitris Savvaidis, Nancy, Nik Phelps, Aristarchos Papadaniel, Tim Allen, Irida Zhonga, and Festival Curator Angeliki Kontoni

As a member of the short film jury, I got to watch 135 films at the festival.  My fellow jurors were Festival Director Dimitris Savvaidis, Tim Allen, Irida Zhonga, Aristarchos Papadaniel, and Nik.

The official jury portrait

Some very interesting puppet animation is coming out of Mexico.  I thought that Mexican director Sofia Carrillo’s 13-minute film Cerulia was the strongest film that I saw at the festival.  The film tells the story of a girl who sets off to say goodbye to her childhood home which is for sale.  Once there her repressed memories and the presence of her dead grandparents won’t let her leave the house again. 

Cerulia by Sofia Carrillo

Sofia said that the idea for the film came to her several years ago when she was 15 or 16 and her grandfather passed away.  Our jury appreciated the evocative story as well as the intricate sets and puppets.  The film was awarded the first prize in the Short Film Competition.

In the Student Film Category, the 4-minute film Mutuem by Aggie Park Yee Lee caught my attention immediately.  The humorous film has a group of young students being taken through an art museum by their very prim and proper teacher.  No matter how hard their teacher tries to ride heard of them and enforce “proper” museum behaviors, the students still find chances to make fun of the paintings behind her back. 

Mutuem by Aggie Pak Yee Lee

Aggie is originally from Hong Kong and is now studying in Estonia under Priit Parn.  She says that the film is “a reflection of the atmosphere of my school in childhood – the ridiculous control to maintain silence, the traditional way of art education and how students learn to play inside the system”. 

Anyone who is familiar with well-known paintings will particularly enjoy Aggie’s portray of such familiar works as Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam and Matisse’s The Dance.  The jury selected Muteum as the Best Student Film.

Along with the standard festival awards, the Thessaloniki Animation Festival also gives The Selected Respect Award for the Outstanding Human Rights Animation, an Anima Earth Award, and an audience award for Storytelling.  A complete list of all of the award-winning films is at the end of this article.

Thessaloniki Animation Festival was established in 2015, and last year more than 1,400 short animated films were submitted.  It is organized by Add Art, a non-profit organization which promotes culture in Thessaloniki.  Along with the festival, Add Art organizes exhibitions, performances, and festivals focusing on the visual, audiovisual, and digital arts.

Festival Director Dimitris Savvaidis is a most gracious host.  Lunch every day was delicious but dinner each evening was a special event which I will long remember.  Dimitris and his brother Stavros, festival Production Manager, were born and raised in Thessaloniki and know everyone in town.  When Dimitris took us out to dinner each evening no menus were ever in sight, Dimitris would order and sumptuous dishes of fried calamari, whole fish, and a seemingly endless variety of delicious plates of food would begin to arrive at our long table for all of us to share along with pitchers of delicious Greek wine.  I have to admit I did gain far too much weight while I was there but .the pleasure gained was worth every pound.

Nik, Aristarchos Papadaniel and Nancy enjoying a Greek feast.

Thessaloniki is the second largest Greek city.  It is a port city located on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean in Northern Greece.  The city has a rich history with Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins.  Everywhere we walked we found evidence of the ancient civilizations that once lived in the city.

One morning Stavros took Tim Allen, Nik, and I the Museum of Byzantine Culture.  The museum is well worth a visit with displays of ancient pottery, tiles, and intricately woven gold jewelry.  The numerous jewel-encrusted gold tiaras were especially impressive.  Each exhibit is clearly labeled and every room has extensive written texts explaining the contents of the room.  I could easily have stayed there all day.

Tim Allen and Nancy enjoying a glass of wine at the Thermaic Gulf on the Aegean Sea

Thessaloniki also has a rich Sephardic heritage.  Nik and I made it a point to visit the city’s Jewish Museum.  Not long after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 some 20,000 Jewish asylum seekers were settled in Thessaloniki as part of an official Ottoman program to invigorate key cities that had been depopulated by invasions, dynastic wars, and pestilence that occurred in the Balkans up to the 12th Century.

The Jewish community thrived until 1941 when the city was occupied by the Nazis.  By the end of 1945, only a handful of Jewish residents remained in the city, 96.5% of the Jewish community was exterminated in the death camps.  The museum’s 3 floors of exhibits give a clear picture of Jewish life in the city until the community was deported.

Stavros Savvaidis and Nopi Ranti

On our last day in the city, Stavros and photographer extraordinaire (and my red-head-sister) Nopi Ranti took Nik and me to the Lagada Baths.  Of Byzantine origin, the thermal baths were beautiful inside and the grounds were lovely to walk around.  Soaking in hot water was exactly what we all needed after several days of eating, drinking, and watching film.

Ruins of the castle and old North wall of the city
Old wall of the city with a view to the bay

After the baths, Nopi and Stavros took us to visit the castle and old walls of the city where we had a gorgeous view of the entire city, the port, and the bay.  The walls of the castle date from the 4th century AD.  The castle was built on the spot of the ancient Acropolis founded in 316BC.  In more modern times the castle was turned into a prison which was known as a place of torture.  Many political prisoners were lead there never to be seen again during the Metaxas Regium (1936-19419), the Axis of Occupation, the Greek Civil War (1946-1949, and the Regime of the Colonels (1967-1974).  Today the castle and main gate to the city are undergoing renovations. Our final stop for drinks and a bit of lunch was at a restaurant far up in the Pangaion Hills with a breathtaking view of the city.

Nancy showing off her glass TAF award

There is no way that I can possibly thank Dimitris Savvaidis enough for all of his hospitality.  While handling all of the problems a Festival Director has to deal with he found time to be the perfect host and a very fun person to be with. He even had one last surprise for all of the guests at the closing night of the festival where he presented each of us with a glass award with our name engraved on it.  A very special remembrance of our time at the Thessaloniki Animation Festival.

I also owe a big thank you to Stavros Savvaidis who found time in his busy schedule to drive me from my hotel to where ever I needed to be.  Another thank you goes to Nopi Ranti for sending me so many pictures to remind me of what a wonderful time I had at the festival. Last but not least I must thank all of the festival staff and the numerous volunteers who were always on hand to answer any questions. 

If you are ever invited to the Thessaloniki Animation Festival I urge you to attend because it is an experience that you will never forget.  You can read more about the festival and how you can submit your film at:


Short Film Competition:

  • Grand Prix – Cerulia, Sofia Carrillo, Mexico
  • 2nd Prize – An Island, Rory Byrne, Ireland
  • 3rd Prize – The Box, Dusan Kastelic, Slovenia

Select Respect Award 

  • The Stained Club
    Melanie Lopez, Simon Boucly, Marie Ciesielski, Alice Jaunet, Chan Stephie Peang & Beatrice Viguier, France

Animearth Award

  • Pulse
    Sarah Forest, Cecile Floucot, Pauline Javelot, Juliette Gales, Thibaut Wambre, & Kevin De Garidel, France

Storytelling Award

  • Homesick
    Hila Einy, Yoav Aluf, & Noy Bar, Israel

Student Film

  • Aggie Park
    Yee Lee, Hong Kong/Estonia

Special Mentions:

  • Leo Minor, Tai Wedekind, France
  • Velo, Glenn D’Hondt & Birger Platteeuw, Belgium
  • My Little Goat, Tomoki Misato, Japan