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In the Hills Above Roma: I Castelli Animati

What is it about Italians?  Give any of them a microphone and invite them to speak and they immediately turn into the best public speakers known to man.  Joking, calling out to the audience, laughing, and then delivering interesting insight and banter.  This is I Castelli Animati.

Genzano di Roma from across the lake. All images courtesy of Heather Kenyon.

What is it about Italians?  Give any of them a microphone and invite them to speak and they immediately turn into the best public speakers known to man.  Joking, calling out to the audience, laughing, and then delivering interesting insight and banter.  This is I Castelli Animati.  Led by unfazable festival director, Luca Raffaelli, the festival bounced along for four days, from November 26 – 30, 2008 in Genzano di Roma, a little hill town north of Rome located around sparkling blue lakes.

Luca has created an usual way of presenting films in that, as usual, there are several categories of films.  However, the categories are broken up into screenings of just 15 – 30 minutes.  So one will see three student films, then a few films from the prestigious international competition, then a few more from the Italian or international showcase and then a retrospective will take place and then next a special guest will have a word, and then suddenly student films will appear again!  And each spoonful of screenings is introduced by Luca who does an impromptu interview with whomever is in the audience with a relationship to the films.  If – and admit it, we’ve all done it – if snoozing at festivals is a habit of yours, it won’t be at I Castelli.  Lights come up, lights go down, films come on, people charge up to the front of the audience for quick interviews, people shout out, children come and go and so on and so on.  But…the presentation isn’t chaotic or irritating or disrespectful to the films.  Rather it is lovely, endearing and charming.  “I liked the festival as the films were presented like in a theatre show,” says juror Gerben Schermer, festival director of Holland’s HAFF.  “This way of presentation creates an intimate relationship with the audience.  And, of course, no screening can begin without Luca yelling out, ‘Bonna visione!’”  He must collapse of exhaustion after helming four days of screenings – most lasting over 12 hours a day – with such exuberance, but such is the gentle charisma of Luca and of I Castelli.

A Lucky Guest I was lucky enough to attend this year as a jury member for the international competition.  Our jury president was Nelson Shin.  I have known Nelson for years as a magazine publisher, president of ASIFA-Korea and founder of Akom, a studio, which has produced over 2,500 half-hours of television animation, including The Simpsons.  However, I didn’t know that one of his first jobs in the States was working on the original Star Wars.  During his presentation, he detailed how he created the lightsaber effects for the film in a week by rotoscoping the light, using black paper cut-outs and high contrast film.  Amazing!  You think you know someone until they are in Italy and handed a microphone!  After 49 years in the business, Nelson said, “I am a lucky guy.  It is a tough market, but if I have one piece of advice, it is: if you have a chance – take it!”

Frank Dietz of Super RTL, Hanna Kallankari of MTV3 and HAFF's Gerben Schermer at the Business Showcase.

My other jury members included Gerben, as I mentioned above, and famous, award-winning Italian actress Sandra Ceccarelli, who has worked with many of Italy’s best directors.  She joined the jury with an “outsider” point-of-view.  Honest, fresh and down-to-earth, I enjoyed Sandra very much.  It isn’t often that a festival includes such a jury member and I think we were all eager to see how she would respond to animated films that weren’t “cartoons.”  “I have always liked animation, so when they called…I said yes!” she explained.  Sandra arrived with her boyfriend who is also famous!  Giuliano Palma and the Bluebeaters have been in the charts numerous times, especially this year, with their jazzy, reggae-tinged tunes.  Rounding out our team was Marco Pavone, an Italian director who has created many short films, music videos and enjoyed the world premier of his first feature-length film, 00 or zero zero, this year at I Castelli.

Italians Front and Center Celebrating 100 years of cel animation, the festival wanted to highlight the triumphs and hopefully brightening future of Italian films.  Therefore, there was a retrospective of the five “fathers” of Italian animation – Giorgio Castrovillari, Giulio Cingoli, Paolo Di Girolamo, Gibba and Stelio Passacantando – plus a new award for the Best Italian Short Film and an Italian Schools Competition.

The works of the five fathers were very interesting.  One of my favorites was Giorgio Castrovillari’s Fischia il Sesso, featuring a lady’s sexy legs strutting across the screen with men whistling.  With perfect ‘70s design and music it is a classic.  And… as Mr. Castrovillari revealed over ten minutes long.  Back in the day, in order to get government funding, the animated shorts had to be over ten minutes long, so throughout the week we saw many films repeating sequences or adding “little extras” in order to stretch the time.  Screenings also featured the masters more modern works as well.  For instance, Giulio Cingoli directed the feature Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas in 2002.  Screened on the last day of the festival, the feature delighted the audience of children and their parents.

A special, special, special, special treat was two of Bruno Bozzetto’s Il Signor Rossi cartoons – Mr. Rossi Buys a Car and Mr. Rossi Goes Camping.  Wow!  Design, pacing, color, music, acting, everything works as well today as it did when Bozzetto created the character back in the ‘60s.  The screening was to announce that a DVD of the funny little man’s many adventures – both feature and short length – are now available from Multimedia San Paolo.  I really suggest picking up a copy.

Italian films showed very well in the two new award categories.  The Naturalist by Giulia Barbera, Gianluca lo Presti, Federico Parodi and Michele Tozzi from Turin’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia took the award for Best Italian School Film.  In any competition this film would be in the running.  The timing is brilliant and the story very well told of a nature lover who perhaps loves nature a little too much.  What I really like about this film is that it is funny and light, but also has a purpose and greater meaning, a combination not frequently found in student works.  The Best Italian Short Film was so good that the jury gave it two prizes!  Blu’s Muto also won the prize for Best Non-Narrative Film.  Filmed outside in Buenos Aires using public sidewalks and walls, the film is genius, bringing graffiti to life.  Why haven’t we seen this before?  It is fantastic!

(l-r) Sandra Ceccarelli, Giuliani Palma and Marco Pavone discuss the films during the jury's deliberation.

Another great moment for Italian animation was the premier of the aforementioned 00.  Directed by fellow jury member, Marco Pavone, 00 is set in 1946 and follows the tale of Yuri, a little boy who must travel through a dark, mysterious wood, which is haunted by a horrible ghost.  “I wanted to write a story about fear,” explains Marco.  “I think that after September 11th, in Europe and America, there is too much fear and that fear can kill our life, our freedom. Yuri’s fear is like a metaphor of our society’s fears.”  What is really exciting about 00 is the way in which it was produced.  The lean production technique is of interest to many people who are wondering how to make feature-length – or any length for that matter – animations in these hard-pressed times.  “My animation studio has developed a new technology to animate. This technology is based on a mix of 2D and 3D animation.  We have done this film with 20 people.  Because of this technology, it’s been possible.  But I think creativity is the best tool, to create a great story and a great film,” says the director.

Another aspect of the festival in its second year and designed to help Italian companies present their products and projects to selected international buyers and broadcasters is the Business Showcase.  Several buyers and co-production partners arranged to have meetings with a number of visiting companies.  Hanna Kallankari, Acquisitions Executive for MTV3 and several other channels in Finland, reported, “For me as a buyer, the b2b meetings were a good way to get to know some smaller production houses and their projects.  Plus, I found the festival very well organized and cozy.  For once, one had enough time to actually get to know and share opinions with people from all walks of animation.  The range of animation we saw was very wide and gave a good impression of the state of animation today.”

Special Guests I will barely be able to scratch the surface of all the animation that was screened at the festival.  But I should really mention a few of the special guests and their screenings and presentations.  Signe Baumane showed a number of her saucy films.  Teat Beat of Sex remains my favorite with its unique female perspective.  In a decidedly different direction, Israeli Gil Alkabetz also took to the stage screening a number of his films, including the brilliant and hugely entertaining Morir de Amor and Rubicon.  A filmmaker and teacher currently based in Germany, Gil tries hardest to impart the importance of storytelling to his students.

(l-r) Mitsue Eguchi, Chief Director of Japan's Gauguins, Emilio Luján Canalejo of Madrid's ESDIP, Trunk's Layla Atkinson, Liz Fairs of I Castelli and Richard Barnett, Trunk's producer.

Layla Atkinson and Richard Barnett where also on hand from Trunk Animation, a London studio whom I had never heard of before and boy, was I missing out!  Their commercial and music video work is really fresh and innovative.  My favorite was a series of Whiska’s cat food commercials that featured hand-sewn colorful text appearing over footage of kittens playing.  “I had to sew the thread on the cels stitch by stitch, scanning the cel with each one!” director Layla Atkinson later explained.

Other international special guests included John Dilworth, who screened the ever-crowd pleasing The Dirty Birdy and his very personal film, Life in Transition.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be the person translating John’s wild tangents and inflections into Italian, but the translator seemed to take it all in stride, laughing along as John ran up and down the aisles and gave an unusually “energetic” performance.  What was interesting is that he discussed the meaning behind his films – how The Dirty Birdy was really a comment and study of his romantic life, and how Life in Transition was heavily influenced by the events of September 11th.  The former New York City-based artist is now living and working in Barcelona.

Kevin Spruce and Pablo Grillo of Framestore.

Another really fascinating presentation was delivered by Pablo Grillo and Kevin Spruce of London’s Framestore.  There is no doubt that Framestore is one of the world’s best, so it was no surprise that Pablo’s opening remarks were all about how the true benefit of effects work is not to reproduce reality, but to abstract it, in order to illicit emotion and take storytelling even further.  First Pablo took us through the great snow bear fight of The Golden Compass.  Spatial clarity was very important in this sequence and he took us through the scene’s development and choreography.  “To get the most out of visual effects, you must really prepare ahead of shooting,” he explained as he showed how the scene was blocked out digitally.  One trick he revealed was how when actors need to appear as though they are riding on digitally created creatures, the filmmakers take the animals’ stride information and plug it into pistons with a platform on top that the actor then rides.  This ensures that the actors’ movements match the digital creatures motion when composited.   Next Kevin Spruce discussed his work as the animation supervisor on Trufflehunter, the badger, in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  Six animators went to a badger sanctuary to study the animals, picking them up and investigating the animals’ weight, fur and paws for reference, which was then continually used during production.  Tons of work and tweaking went into rigging the characters so that they appeared realistic, even when doing actions, like walking on two feet, which is anatomically impossible for the creatures.  A particular challenge was to have Trufflehunters’ eyes register emotion as his black eyes are within the black fur of his face.  Another amazing tidbit – in Aslan’s final mane there are seven million hairs!

Mitsue Eguchi walks through the nearby town of DiNemi.

The Town Itself And finally, one of the best aspects of I Castelli is the region in which it is set!  From the town’s main square, which perches high on a hill, one has a perfect view all the way to the sea.  A charming little town, everyone is aware of the festival.  I went shopping one morning and was asked what I was doing in town.  “I’m here for the animation festival,” I said.  Both ladies were suddenly very excited.  “Really?” they said, grabbing the festival’s catalogue from behind the desk.  “Is one of the film’s yours?  What are you doing with the festival?” they wanted to know.  Not satisfied until they had found my picture and asked me questions, I was re-released to my Christmas gift browsing!  One of the festival’s favorite restaurants is run by a man that thrusts pen and paper at any festival guest that draws.  (And since we are discussing Italy I don’t even need to mention the food is fantastic, do I?)  The drawings are then hung on clotheslines with pegs for everyone to enjoy.  The festival is a real event in town and you get the sense that the townspeople look forward to it each and every year.  Visiting the theater, with and without their children in tow, they pad out the professionals, giving the festival a very nice warm feel.

I Castelli is a great place to delve into not only the current international animated hits, but also learn about Italy’s animation legacy and its upcoming stars and schools.  In a relaxed fashion, with plenty of time for meals and discussion, it affords ample time to get to know your fellow festival mates and enjoy the unique surroundings.  “Bonna visione!”  I hope I am back next year!

Heather Kenyon is currently a consultant specializing in the development of animated and children's media. She is the former senior director of development, original series at Cartoon Network, where she focused on the development of animated comedy, comedy adventure, action adventure and live-action series for children 6-11 years old. Prior to joining Cartoon Network, she was editor-in-chief of Animation World Network, a leading Internet publisher of animation news, information and resources, and was responsible for managing the site's editorial and writing efforts.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.