With Latvian producer Vilnis Kalnaellis (Triplets of Belville and Signe Baumane's new film, Vetrinarian) on the roof of the La Plage restaurant for the Benelux party.

31st Annecy International Festival of Animation
by Nancy Denney-Phelps

I don’t know if it’s that I have finally accepted the fact that the Annecy International Festival of Animation is about money and big business or simply that I got to spend some time with so many good friends that I don’t get to see often enough, but I did have the best time I’ve had in years at the 31st Annecy International Festival of Animation held in Annecy, France this June 11th through the 16th.  From the moment Nik and I arrived on Sunday evening until we headed   home to Gent, Belgium the next Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t walk down the main street, sit on the patio in front of the Leffe Bar, or walk through the Festival center at Bonlieu without running into people that I was delighted to see.

In addition to this, I also saw some very good animation.  From the 1,882 films received this year, the different selection committees choose 233 films from 35 countries, with 182 films in official selection.  This year the spotlight was on Feature Film, with 29 in the official selection and 9 in competition. 

Meet The Robinsons did nothing to change my opinion.   The 3D effects were excellent and the spiffy plastic glasses are a far cry from the old cardboard version, but the characters seemed to be a re-hash of every character that Pixar/Disney has already given us in the last few years, the sound was much too loud and jarring, verging on uncomfortable at times and Danny Elfman reached a new low in his musical career with this score.  On top of all this, the plot - a young “child genius” orphan invents a memory scanner to try to bring back long lost memories about his mother, didn’t have enough substance to make a good short animation, much less fuel a one hour and forty-two minute film.

The popular consensus of many people I talked to was “Why did I have to sit through that?”  Canadian animator Chris Hinton, a juror for the Graduation Films competition remarked that the credits for Meet the Robinsons were longer than most of his film and my husband, Nik, commented that “judging by the number of names that scrolled down the screen in the credits it took fewer people to build the pyramids, and they’re still standing!”

Of the 9 films in feature competition, I had already seen five and talked about them in earlier articles (Flushed Away, Azur et Asmar, Paprika, Free Jimmy and Film Noir).  Of the films that I had not previously viewed, the one that I enjoyed the most was shown out of competition.  Chez animator Jan Balej completely captivated me with his quirky puppets in One Night In The City which, in three vignettes, shows us activities at an apartment building inhabited by various charming and peculiar characters, from a tree and his fishy best friend and neighbor, to the eternal triangle: a woman, a dog and a man who may not be what he seems.

All week, I heard buzz at the festival that Max & Co., the first Swiss animated feature ever made, would win the Annecy Cristal top award for best feature.  It did win the Audience Award, but I was really surprised and delighted when the Cristal went to the Norwegian film Free Jimmy.  I have written about the film before so I won’t go into plot details of director Christopher Nielsen’s story about a drug addicted circus elephant, the low life characters that use and abuse him, and the animal rights advocates who are determined to free him. The film is being mis-marketed  by the publicists as a tale of “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll to appeal to a pubescent audience, who they must think are the only age group going to films.  This strategy is a terrible mistake, because in reality this is a very serious and touching film about greed and animal abuse, which I think any intelligent person will appreciate. I am very pleased that the jurors looked beyond the frivolous and misleading press kit to recognize this film as the serious, thought provoking film work that it is.

As usual, the short film programs were rather inconsistent, but there were some very bright spots, and, overall, the quality was better than past years.  My personal favorite was Madame Tutli-Putli, a visually stunning film by two Canadians, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski.  A tale of mystery and suspense, real and/or imagined, the character Madame Tutli-Putli sets off by train with all of her earthly possessions in tow, but to where? (And why?)  The puppets are not the traditional stop motion puppet armatures but employ hand built aluminum wire skeletons, and the detail making up the eyes has a truly haunting effect.  The film was produced for the National Film Board of Canada by Marcy Page, a familiar figure to ASIFA-SF members.  The film leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions – does Madame Tutli-Putli die, does everyone else on the train perish and she survive,  is her kidney stolen by criminals, is she on the same train that I took through Belarus  last year?

The Pearce Sisters, which won a Special Jury Award for Aardman Studio’s director Luis Cook, is a radical departure from the studio’s  familiar style.  This quirky “black tale of love, loneliness, guts, gore, nudity, violence, smoking and cups of tea” is utterly delightful with a twisted surprise ending.

There is no question that Suzie Templeton’s adaptation of Peter and the Wolf is a tour de force of animation.  Visually, the 32 minute film set to the Sergei Prokofiev score is stunning so that it was no surprise that it won the Audience Award. With a budget of 2.3 million euros and a production time of five years, it is an amazing technological achievement.  The eyes, especially of Peter and of the wolf (which are the same exact piercing shade of blue), are a focal point of the film.  They were hand crafted by cutting small balls in half, hand painting the surface and then building up the surface with multiple coats of clear polyurethane to achieve a natural pupil likeness.  The jury agreed with the audience this year and awarded Peter and the Wolf the Annecy Cristal.

I generally find the Graduation competition much more interesting than the shorts competition. This year, I was particularly impressed with The Wraith of Cobble Hill.  Usually when I see a 15 minute student film on the program I cringe, but Adam Parrish King, a student at the University of Southern California did a terrific job creating a well crafted puppet film with a very compelling story that held my attention until the end.  I developed an empathy for the characters and cared about what happened to the young ghetto teenager, Felix, the store owner Mr. H and his dog. The film garnered King a Special Distinction Award from the jury.

The award for the best graduation film went to t.o.m., a quirky two minute fifty-two second film by Tom Brown and David Gray from the IFSW – International Film School of Wales.  The very peculiar youngster, t.o.m. walks a special route and craves a little extra exposure as he winds his way to school every morning, shedding his clothes in special places along the way.

Serge Bromberg, the Artistic Director of the festival has calculated that it would take 7½ days to see every program that is presented at Annecy if you did not take time out to sleep, eat, drink, or go to the toilette.  Obviously, of all of the above, sleep is the only one that I am willing to give up, so I did not see the Television Films Competition and only some of the Panorama screenings.

There was plenty of socializing and there were parties galore. After suffering through Meet The Robinsons, it was definitely time for a glass of wine.  Nik and I were invited to two opening night parties - the traditional reception at the Hotel de Ville (city hall) which we have attended in years past and a lovely, intimate cocktail dinner inside the restaurant at La Plage.  We opted for the latter, and the party was small, the food some of the best I’ve ever eaten at the Festival and the champagne and caviar flowed.  Nik and I spent a good part of the evening chatting with Chris Hinton, who gave us some behind the scenes glimpses into working with the National Film Board of Canada.  You couldn’t ask for a better evening than we had.

This year, Nik and I rented an apartment with our good friend Rolf Bächler almost in the shadow of the festival center, which made it much easier after a night of partying into the wee hours to make it to Serge Bromberg’s daily 9 am chats with the competition shorts directors. For me these morning sessions, as early as they are, are a highlight of the festival every year. It is a rare opportunity to hear film makers talk about their films with the witty and knowledgeable Serge and to also have a chance to ask your own questions.  In past years Serge, who is completely fluent in English as well as his native French, has done all of the translating for the film makers and the audience.  This year, for the fist time, a team of translators took over the duty, and instead of being distracting as I feared, I found that the chats flowed more smoothly because the talented translators were very unobtrusive and made you feel as though you were hearing the actual conversation. Also for the first time this year, a noon time discussion/chat session for long film directors was also added.

Each year I look forward to the German Animation Party which is held on the beautiful grassy lawn and lake shore of a restaurant situated a 20 minute bus ride from the Festival center.  Even more important than the fabulous food and drink is that almost everyone that you really want to see seems to be there  -- Astor and Peter Parr from the Bournemouth Animation School in England and Norwegian animator Gunner Strom flew into Annecy just in time to catch the bus!   It is a perfect opportunity to have relaxed conversations and a brief downpour of rain didn’t dampen the high spirits especially as the Ukrainian/Russian KROK Festival delegation broke out their delicious vodka and caviar.

Each year the festival honors the animation of a country or region.  This year the Benelux countries were the featured area, with 6 programs covering the 4 Benelux regions (The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Wallonia (French speaking Belgium) and Flemish (Flemish speaking Belgium).  Unfortunately, due to what I consider to be a serious oversight, most Belgian animation schools were invited to participate in the festival, but not KASK in Gent (Flemish Belgium), the oldest school of animation in Europe founded by the renowned animator Raoul Servais.  This omission was compounded by the fact that KASK, which continues to turn out first rate young animators, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Wednesday evening, we attended the Swiss reception at the Galerie Chambre Claire. Along with more excellent food and wine, we were treated to an exhibition of art work by Georges Schwizgebel and Raoul Servais. Both Georges and Raoul were present, and it was nice to see the Swiss honor Servais, giving him the respect that he deserves with a showing of his work.

After the Swiss reception Nik, Rolf and I strolled along the shore of beautiful Lake Annecy to a cocktail party honoring the Benelux countries on the upper terrace of the La Plage Restaurant.  Following the reception we crossed the lawn to the large tents by the edge of the lake for the cocktail dinner party celebrating the opening of MIFA that day.  The night ended by closing down the Scotch Bar with my good pal Gunnar Strom in the early morning hours.

Thursday brought another of my favorite parties, the DreamWorks picnic hosted by Shelly Page.  This is the perfect opportunity to informally get together with old friends while doing what we all do so well – eating and drinking.  After the picnic I made my annual treck to MIFA, the venue at the Imperial Palace Hotel that is the industrial and professional wing of the festival, with booths representing production and software companies and other organizations and technology firms.  At the Latvian National Film Center booth I got to preview Signe Baumann’s new 18 minute 30 second animation Veterinan.  Although the sound had yet to be added, Signe’s tale of a broken hearted vet who’s sadness is healed when the animals he had treated appear to him in a dream is a touching story beautifully animated .  I look forward to seeing the finished film.

Even though the Annecy Festival choose not to honor Raoul Servais, a screening of his 1994 feature film, Taxandria, preceded by two shorts, Papillions de Nuit which won the Annecy Grand Prix in 1998 and the 2001 Attraction, was organized at a theatre.  The screening was followed by a lively question and answer session and a long round of applause.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the premier of the Swiss feature MAX & Co. since it coincided with the Roual Servis screening but I did make it to the Swiss after party where spirits were indeed high.  The evening ended at the traditional last watering hole, The Scotch Bar.  Everyone seemed to gravitate there that Thursday night, and the outside was packed.  Even the heavy downpour of rain that pelted down in torrents about 3 AM didn’t put a damper on the party, we just all crammed in under the awnings and continued on talking and drinking.  Once again I was happy to be staying only two blocks away when I finally made a dash for home.

Some parties were just for fun and some had a specific purpose.  The Friday evening Zagreb International Animation Festival cocktail party was specifically to introduce the new artistic director and staff members.

Three years ago Bill Plympton founded Annecy Plus to screen good films (including his own) that had been rejected by the official selection committee.  This year Bill was not at Annecy (he and team Plympton will be at Platform Festival in Portland, Oregon) and so he asked me to put together a program for what is rapidly becoming a Friday night Annecy tradition.  I had so many excellent rejects submitted to me that I could have created two or three strong programs.  As in past years the Annecy Sprocket Ensemble, Nik Phelps on saxophone, Rolf Bächler playing percussion and guitarist Jesper Fleng entertained a packed crowd of about 400 until dusk.  The show opened with a taped welcome from Bill. Serge Bromberg took time from his hectic schedule to also say a few words of welcome to the audience.  I am very proud of the program that I curated but even prouder of the fact that when rain began to pour down, the audience just put up their umbrellas and continued to watch animation  Our hosts, Le Venitien Bar and Restaurant have invited us back for next year.  The entire evening could not have happened without Jonas Raeber of Swamp Films in Lauzern, Switzerland who projected the program and provided the equipment, Stephan Vernay of Annecy who arranged for our new location and the screen, and last but certainly not least Swiss animator Jordie Doubt (yes, I guess I do hang out a lot with Swiss friends) who created the amazing, beautiful program – I only hope that next year we can afford to reproduce his program in color as he designed it to be presented.

Saturday dawned with a grey sky and threatening rain clouds, so I was a bit worried about the picnic and paddle boat race that Nik and I host annually,  but by the time we met on the grass at the edge of the lake the sky was a beautiful  blue.  The picnic is an informal affair with neophytes and seasoned veterans alike relaxing, eating and drinking our fill until it is time to take to the lake for the paddle boat races.  This year Joanna Quinn and her script writer/husband Les Mills were the race officials giving the starting signal and pronouncing the official race results.  The coveted Annecy Paddle Boat Race Cristal was awarded to the AI Bournemouth teamand second place was captured by  the Welsh team of Tom Brown and Daniel Benjamin Gray who went on to win the Annecy Cristal for best Graduation Film later that evening, an honor that I am sure paled in comparison to their second place victory in the paddle boat race.

The closing night festivities at La Plage are always bittersweet.  It is hard to say goodbye to old and new friends that you may not see for a while, but there are so many lovely memories to take home that my mental suitcase can barely shut.

One sobering note:  Late Tuesday night a good friend and I closed down the Scottish bar together.  We parted ways at the street to my apartment and he continued on his way to his hotel near the train station.  When I saw him the next day it was obvious that he had been mugged on the way back to his hotel.  He’s a tall, hefty guy but he was hit from behind and his face hit the curb with quite an impact when he fell.  He woke up in the hospital but nothing had been stolen from him.  After the closing night party I was walking back from La Plage with the Welsh animators who won the Graduate crystal and one of their friends told me that two nights before he and his girlfriend had been assaulted but nothing was stolen.  He was punched in the face and his girlfriend was hit also.  When they got to the emergency room, the doctor said that they were the second assault case like this to come in that night.  I know that we are all cautious when walking late at night, but many of us have come to feel very safe in Annecy during the festival.  It seems that there is a person or persons who targets foreign visitors late at night.  Next year we must all take care to look out for each other when we have been out late at night partying.

Despite this disturbing news, for the first time in quite a while I can say that I am looking forward to Annecy 2008.

With Raoul Servais at the Swiss reception

Nik and Norweigen animator Gunnar Strom at the German party

 



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