China was in the spotlight this year at the Annecy International Animation Festival, and their presence was very evident with 9 special programs and a film in the Feature Film Competition. Most people in the West know very little about the rich history of Chinese animation so this was a wonderful opportunity to fill this void.
Big Fish and Begonia, a 12 year project that was a labor of love for Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang from Beijing, screened at the festival in the Feature Film Competition. The epic fantasy film is about Chun, a celestial being in charge of Begonias. When she turns 16, she is sent into the real world disguised as a dolphin as part of a coming of age ritual. Her life is saved by a human, Kun, who dies in the process. Chun tries to revive Kun’s spirit so she can thank him for saving her. The plot is weak but the film is visually stunning and not the type of artwork that I am used to seeing in Chinese feature films.
Unlike most Western fantasy films, Big Fish and Begonia has no overt evil villains, but rather, it has supernatural ones such as two headed snakes. The film is rendered to look like a traditional hand drawn film but is actually enhanced with CG and 2D animation. Big Fish and Begonia doesn’t have a US distributer yet but I have a feeling that it will find one soon.
It was a big treat to see Princess Iron-Fan on the big screen. The 1941 film by Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan was the first Chinese animated feature film and only the 12th animated feature in the world. Based on the epic novel Journey to the West, the film focuses on a duel between the Monkey King and the Princess for her iron fan. She is also known as the Demonic Lady because of her powerful iron fan which she never lets out of her sight.
The Monk of Tang and his disciple’s journey to the Western Paradise to bring back sacred books. Upon their return journey the Flaming Mountain lays in their path. They can only cross it if they have the princesses’ magic fan, which after three waves would produce rain to put out the fire. The Monkey King offers to help the monk obtain the fan and thus a duel of wits begins between the princess and the Monkey King. Even though Princess Iron Fan was screened with the original Chinese dialogue and French subtitles, I enjoyed the film because the plot was easy to follow and the sets inspired by traditional etchings were beautiful. The Wan Brothers were true pioneers in China. They ha studied films by Disney and the Fleisher Brothers before producing their first animated short Uproar In The Studio in 1926.
Three special programs traced the great era of the Shanghai Animation Film Studios from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. After their victory in the 1950’s the Communist government promoted the production of movies for children. In March 1950 the animation team from Changchun led by Te Wei was moved by the government to Shanghai. After they were joined by animators such as the noted Wan Guchan and young art school students, the studio began to develop an original style of animation based on traditional Chinese art, which was supported by the government.
In 1955 Wan Guchan, inspired by the ancient art of paper cutting and shadow puppet theatre, ushered in a new animation technique known as articulated cut-outs which he used for Pigsy Eats Watermelon. The main character of the film is Zhu Bajie, a Chinese folklore character from Journey to the West.
The 1960’s began with great innovations in animation techniques. Animated ink wash was used to bring ink paintings to life. A second innovation was in the production of origami films by Zhiguang Yu using stop-motion. The decade ended with the Cultural Revolution which banned many classic works of art and film, and forbade all artistic animation activities. Six additional programs rounded out the Chinese spotlight including two that featured the country’s new generation of animators.
On a disturbing note, Have A Nice Day, the black comedy/ gangster film by Liu Jian was pulled from the feature film competition after pressure was applied by Chinese officials. Recently the Chinese government has instituted a harder line on permissions they grant for any Chinese film to be shown overseas. They now require that any animation that is to be screened at an international festival has to be approved by the authorities. The film’s producer Yang Cheng confirmed that his team had asked the Annecy organizers to pull the film. Patrick Eveno, Annecy CEO, said that the film had to be withdrawn from the festival because they “did not have the right to endanger the film’s team”. The official statement from the Annecy team went on to say that the decision to withdraw the film “has been imposed on us”. Although Have A Nice Day is not a political film it does portray a side of Chinese life that the government does not want the outside world to see especially at a festival where they are the honored country. Given the Chinese government’s current treatment of anyone they consider “dissident artists and writers”, it is not difficult to imagine what threats they made against Lin Jian and his film crew and possibly even their families.
At a time when the festival was honoring China, the country managed to thoroughly embarrass itself, especially since the film has already been shown at a number of European festivals. Have A Nice Day premiered at the Berlin Berlinale in February. I saw the film the week before Annecy at Animafest Zagreb and reviewed it in my Zagreb article. I watched it again in July at Animator Festival in Poznan, Poland. The film has also been picked up for distribution in Europe by the Paris based Memento Film International and will be released in the United States this Fall by Strand Releasing. It looks like the Chinese government has managed to accomplish the exact opposite of suppressing the film and has given it so much publicity that every festival wants to screen it now.
Five rooms at the Chateau d’ Annecy were turned into an extraordinary walk through the history of Chinese art. Animators working outside of the studio system get no government support so many of them have turned to the booming private art market to make a living. The first room was devoted to 1950’s and ‘60’s creations from the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. The Movement and Tradition room featured installation work exploring the clash between history and destruction that urbanization is causing all over China today. Another gallery displayed pictures by contemporary artists/animators such as Lei Lei, Ye Lingham, and Wu Chao.
Throughout the week Sun Xun created a wall painting at the chateau. Sun Xun has an international reputation and has exhibited his site specific installations at such prestigious locations as the Guggenheim Museum. It was fascinating to watch his beautiful peacock set against a traditional mountain background. The exhibit opened on 1 June and will run for four months.
The biggest buzz at the festival this year was about Loving Vincent. Each of the 65,000 frames of film was hand painted by 115 professional oil painters who traveled from all across Europe to the Loving Vincent studio. 94 original Van Gogh paintings were also integrated into the film. That in and of itself is an amazing achievement but unfortunately it doesn’t make for an excellent film. People that I talked to either really liked it or disliked it. There seemed to be no middle ground, but to be fair, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman did receive a ten minute standing ovation after the first screening at Annecy as well as being selected as the best feature film by the audience.
I found a number of problems with the film. I am very familiar with Van Gogh’s paintings and although some of the likenesses of his portraits that the film brings to life are good copies, many of them were not. Something that really disturbed me was that Van Gogh used a lot of green in faces but it was finely blended, not big bold bright green lines down the face. Also off-putting is the made up story which tries to turn Van Gogh’s death into a mystery. It is a well-documented fact that he shot himself in the stomach, there has never been a mention anywhere before of his doctor killing him. Van Gogh’s life is interesting and tragic enough without any embellishment. The old Kirk Douglas film Lust For Life comes closer to being a good film representation of the great painter’s life than this film does.
I am not usually impressed with Virtual Reality demonstrations but this year the most impressive thing that I saw at the festival was Nothing Happens, which exists as a Virtual Reality project as well as a separate 2D film by Michelle and Uri Kranot. I’ve written about the short 2D film which was in the short film competition but this was my first opportunity to experience the VR version and it was an amazing experience. As in the film a group of people slowly gather and stare at something, black birds flock to the bare branches of a tree, but what are they looking at?
Sitting in a warehouse type room on the mound of real earth with my feet dug into the dirt and a rock in my hand I discovered that the group was looking at me and I became part of the film. I actually forgot that I had on VR goggles and headphones. Uri Kranot explained that the VR project grew out of the need to involve the audience more in Nothing Happens. He also said “that naturally led us into the world of VR. With film there is always a safe distance between the screen and the viewer. Here there is no screen. Everything happens around the viewer”. I will never forget the feeling of sitting up on a tree branch with a large flock of black birds. No two people will have the same experience and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else by writing about my experience, but if you have the opportunity to become part of Nothing Happens don’t pass it up.
With 217 films from 49 countries in the Official Selection there was more to see than anyone one could in a week but I always make sure to watch The Big Sleep which honors members of the animation community who have passed away since the previous Annecy. This year the screening had an especially deep meaning for me because my friend Eduard Nazarov passed away in September 2016. Eduard was a master of Russian animation as well as being the Russian President of KROK, the joint Russian/Ukrainian Animation Festival. He is best known for his 1982 Once Upon A Time Lived A Dog, an adaptation of a Ukrainian fairy tale which received a Special Jury Prize at Annecy in 1983. His list of film credits is very long including work on the Russian version of Winnie The Pooh. Even more important he will long be remembered by everyone who knew him for his generous spirit and great sense of humor.
Also honored in the program was British animator David Anderson who gained recognition with his 1982 animation Dreamland Express. The 14 minute adaptation of H. R. Miller’s 1927 novel earned Anderson a BAFTA (British equivalent of the Academy Awards)
George Geertsen was born in Denmark and moved to Canada early on to begin a long career at the National Film Board of Canada. The Big Sleep screened two of his classics, La Bastringue Madame Bolduc and Words.
The final film on the program was PlayBack directed by Sarah Mallinaon. She created the film in 1981 to evoke the workshop where she and her deceased partner Peter Foldes created his graphic novels and they worked together on their films.
In past years a photo along with the date of birth and death of each of the animators was shown after their films, and I missed that this year. The Big Sleep is held first thing on Monday morning and tickets are always easy to get for it so there were a lot of students there who I don’t think knew who these animators were or why we were honoring them, and the picture would be nice to connect a face to the films.
This year MIFA was bigger than ever. The business arm of the festival has expanded from three to four days and more than 10,000 square feet of space was added by putting a second floor on top of the main tent. The first thing to meet the eye when you walked into the main tent was the Chinese Pavilion which occupied both sides of the first isle with Chinese production companies led by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television). In total there were over 550 international companies exhibiting. MIFA was so large and crowded that it took me two days to find a booth I was looking for.
Along with the usual exhibitors, and numerous masterclasses, conferences, key note speakers, studio focuses, making of’s, and work in progress sessions held every year, the MIFA campus was a new addition in 2017. Students and professionals from emerging nations starting out in the animation industry met with seasoned professionals at the one day MIFA Campus for workshops and training sessions. They also discussed internships and training programs in France. Chat With gave the participants a chance to meet with recruiters from Disney, ILM, and Folimage to learn about the studio’s work environments, job openings, and what the studios are looking for in new recruits. Noted director Guillermo del Toro was patron of the MIFA Campus and took part in the “chat with” sessions.
Women in Animation (WIA) is an organization dedicated to bringing together a global community of animation professionals to empower and support women who work in the art, science, and business of animation. In 2015 WIA launched the 50/50 by 2025 program which aims to bring gender equality to the animation industry. During Annecy the first Women in Animation World Summit was held. The one day session included such topics as Exploring Unconscious Bias, 50/50 by 2025 – How Are We Doing?, Developing Diverse Stories, and Artists’ Experience. Les Femmes s’ Animet and Women in Animation also hosted a series of breakfast meetings to further discuss these topics in a less formal setting.
The European Animation Awards Board of Directors held a meeting to announce that the first annual Emile Awards will be presented on Friday 8 December 2017 at le Nouveau Siecle in Lille, France. The 16 categories will honor and reward excellence in the field of European animation. The European Animation Awards aim to become the highest animation honor in Europe, similar to the Annie Awards in the United States which is the inspiration for the Emile Awards. All paid members can vote in every category – if you are not already a member you still have time to join so you can have a voice in the awards. You can read more about the awards and how to become a member at: animationawards.com
One of the most interesting pieces of news at Annecy this year was the announcement that the Annecy International Animation Festival, independent film distributor GKIDS, and Variety Magazine will launch ANIMATON IS FILM. The annual festival will be held in Los Angeles with the first edition running 20-22 October 2017 at the TLC Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Twenty programs are planned including feature films in competition, special presentations, and shot film programs. It was also announced that Annecy will launch the Annecy Asia International Film Festival in Seoul, Korea in 2019. Interesting to see that Annecy is now becoming a franchise.
As always Annecy is a social whirl. Whether eating bar-b-que at the Pixar party or sipping French wine and eating strawberries at the DreamWorks picnic hosted by Shelly Page, head of DreamWorks International Outreach, the parties are the place to network. This year Animation Magazine celebrated its 30 anniversary, and founder and publisher Jean Thoren cut the celebratory cake at the DreamWorks picnic. With 10,000 badge holders at the festival this year it was quite possible to go all week without running into someone you wanted to see but your best bet to find them was at one of the many parties and receptions.
The Ukrainian reception was held to introduce us to their new feature film Mavke, The Forest Song. Based on a Ukrainian legend, Mavka is the soul and guardian of the forest. In keeping with the party’s forest theme there were young ladies making floral wreaths for the guests to wear and traditional Ukrainian drinks.
The best party of the week is always the German reception. Guests are bused around the lake to a lovely lakeside restaurant with tables and chairs that spread down to the water’s edge. The food and drink are delicious and plentiful and it is the perfect place to catch up with friends in a relaxed atmosphere away from all of the hustle and bustle of the festival. A special thank you goes to Andrea Bauer, Head Programer at the Stuttgart Trickfilm Fesival, for organizing a wonderful party every year.
The big news at the picnic was that Dittmar Lumpp will be retiring as Managing Director in charge of organization and finances of the Stuttgart Animation Festival as of 1 October 2017. Dieter Krauss, former senior executive at MFG Regional Film Fund in Stuttgart, was introduced at the picnic as the new Managing Director.
It used to be that Thursday was the big social day at the festival but now every day is crammed with social events from the formal festival parties at La Plage to picnics and receptions hosted by individual countries. Of course the annual picnic, paddle boat race and Skwigly rounders game that Nik and I host on Saturday on the grass by the lake is my favorite picnic. Unlike most parties at the festival no one needs an invitation and everyone is welcome. The mix of people are always as diverse as the food and drink at the picnic and Nik, Rolf Bächler and anyone else who plays an instrument make music while everyone eats, drinks, and chats while sitting on the grass.
I’m not sure exactly what rounders is. It looks like a chaotic softball game to me, but thanks to Jamie Badminton of Karrot Animation and the team from Skwigly Online Animation Magazine who organize the game, all of the players have fun. The trophy awarded to the winning team is created annually by Joanna Quinn who initiated the rounders game at our picnic several years ago.
The paddle boat race is always great fun. This year the weather was extremely hot at Annecy which is much better that the previous years’ heavy downpours. Unfortunately it was so beautiful that everyone wanted to take to the water so when it became time for the paddle boat race there just weren’t enough boats for everyone who wanted to race. Next year we will tell everyone to reserve their team’s boat early.
All too soon it was time for the closing ceremony. Along with the awards being handed out the highlight of the closing ceremony was the presentation of the Honorary Cristal to Georges Schwizgebel, one of Switzerland’s greatest animators. From his 1974 Flight of Icarus to his 2015 film Erlking Georges’ films have won numerous prizes at all of the major international festivals. Two of his films, 78 Turns (1985) and The Ride To Abyss (1992) are on the list of the 100 best animated films that was compiled several years ago by animation professionals . As well as being an extremely talented animator he is also a very nice person.
Georges’ son Lewis is a world renowned concert pianist who has performed the music for several of Georges films. At the closing night ceremony Lewis performed the film music live while Erlking was screened.
The week seemed to fly by and all of a sudden it was time for the closing night party. It was a time to congratulate festival award winners and say so long until the next festival to friends. Despite the size of the festival and the difficulties many people suffered trying to get tickets, I have many happy memories of the week and had a lovely time. Next year’s edition will run from 11 to 16 June.
Feature Film Jury: Mohamed Beyond, Morocco; Celine Sciamma, France; and Alberto Vazquez, Spain
Feature Film Cristal: Lu Over The Wall – Masaaki Yuasa, Japan
Jury Award: In This Corner Of The World – Sunao Katabuchi, Japan
Audience Award: Loving Vincent – Dorota Kobuela and Hugh Welchman, Poland and United Kingdom
Short Film Jury: Maryam Kashkoolinia, Iran; Stephan Roelants, Luxembourg; Laurent Valiere, France
Short Film Cristal: Min Borda – Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Sweden
Short Film Jury Award: Kotu Kiz (Wicked Girl) – Ayce Kartal, France
Jean-Luc Xiberras Award For A First Film: Splendida Moarte Accident (The Blissfu Accidental Death) – Sergiu Negulici, Romania
Jury Distinction: L’ Ogre (The Oger)– Laurene Braibant, France
Audience Short Film Award: Pepe le Morse (Grandpa Walrus) – Lucrece Andreae, France
Graduation and Off-Limits Short Film Jury: Philippe Caza, France; Jean-Baptiste Garnero, France; and Chao Wu, China
Off-Limits Award: Dix puissance moins quarante-trois seconde – F. Francis, France
Graduation Film Cristal: Sog – Jonatan Schwenk, Germany
Jury Award: Natsu no gero wa huyu (Summer’s Puke Is Winter’s Delight) – Sawako Kabuki, Japan
Jury Dstinction: Pas a pas – Charline Arnoux, Mylene Gapp, Lea Rubinstayn, Florian Heilig, and Melissa Roux, France
TV And Commissioned Films Jury: Ying Huang, China; Thomas Meyer-Herman, Germany; and Anna Serner, Sweden
Cristal ForTV Production: Revolting Rhymes – Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer, United Kingdom
Special Distinction For A TV Series: BoJack Horseman “Fish Out Of Water” – Mike Hollingsworth, United States
Jury Award For A TV Series: The Man-Woman Case “Wanted” – Anais Caura, France
Commissioned Film Cristal: Material World – Anna Ginsburg, United Kingdom
Jury Award: Moby “Are You Lost In The World Like Me?” – Steve Cutts, United States/United Kingdom
City Of Annecy Award: Maacher Jhol – Abhishek Verma, India
Andrea-Martin Award For A 2016 French Feature Film: La Jeune Fille Sabs Mains /The Girl Without Hands) – Sebastien Laudenbach , France
Andrea-Martin Special Distinction For A French Short Film: Negative Space – Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, France
Andrea-Martin Award For A French Short Film: Nothing Happens – Michelle and Uri Kranot, Denmark/France
Canal + Creative Aid Award For A Short Film: L’ Ogre – Laurene Braibant, France
Gan Foundation Award For Distribution: Petit Vampire – Joann Sfar, France
Best Original Music Award For A Short Film Sponsored by SACEM: Radio Dolores – Katariina Lillqvist, Finland
FIPRESCI Award: Negative Space – Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, France
Young Audience Award: Hedgehog’s Home – Eva Cvijanovic, Canada, Croatia
Junior Jury Short Film Award: Valley Of White Birds – Cloud Yang, China
Junior Jury Graduation Film Award: What A Peaceful Day – Eden (Kai-Hsun) Chan, Taiwan
Festival Connexion Award – Region Auvergne- Rhone Alps/In Partnership With Lumieres Numeriques And Pilon Cinema: Nothing Happens – Michelle and Uri Kranot – Denmark/France