A Look Back at 2020 Online Animation FestivalsAuthor: Martin McNamara | Date: 2/2/21, 7:59 PM
A Look Back at 2020 Online Animation Festivals
Martin McNamara for ASIFA – San Francisco
Since February the pandemic has forced cancellation and/or postponement of virtually every important international animation festival, including GLAS, Stuttgart, Zagreb, Annecy, Hiroshima, Ottawa and many more. Cancellation was absolutely the right choice in every instance, but, having planned to attend GLAS and Annecy in person once again last year, initially my heart sank at this news. It appeared there might be no way for the animation community to celebrate the year’s crop of exciting new films.
However, to our delight, many festivals devised ways to stream all their competition films for extended periods, some at nominal cost. So I eagerly jumped into the terrific Stuttgart (ITFS), Annecy, Ottawa, GLAS and Espinho (Cinanima) online events, as well as exciting American animation weekends from Brooklyn to Chico. I could have also taken part in online events from Cardiff and/or Montreal (Animaze), but only learned of them after they had begun.
Against all odds, many people actually saw more films in 2020 than in any “normal” year! And the festivals, in turn, built new ties by reaching distant animation communities in other countries, as well as schools that have never before experienced the excitement of viewing an extensive collection of brilliant new works of art. This has become a golden opportunity for animators to finally discover festivals that they may have heard about for years, and for festivals to attract and impress audiences that will grow into future in-person participants.
The Health Question
Festival directors are faced with difficult choices. In past years, international animation festivals have been the type of events that we now consider could potentially become “super-spreaders”. Thousands of attendees travel in from many regions and countries to jam into indoor theatres for up to six programs per day for as long as a week. These conditions, during a pandemic, could make numerous infections virtually certain, with hospitalizations and some deaths probable. Many potential attendees would consider both the travel and the event to be unsafe, especially when there are online alternatives available.
Of course, local viral conditions, safety protocols and risk tolerance vary enormously. Some animation festivals actually decided to meet in person in 2020. Attendees attest that the regions had relatively low infection levels and many precautions were taken to ensure the safety of all. Yet participants may arrive from regions with high rates of infection. Even if festival staff care deeply about attendees’ well being, creating a truly safe environment is extraordinarily difficult. Epidemiologists assert that the larger and lengthier an indoor gathering, the more aerosols are emitted. Local masking and distancing stipulations may prove insufficient for a protracted event.
Given the surge in infections and rising death rates in early 2021, it now seems unlikely that any international animation festivals will be held in person for the next 6-8 months, if not a full year. Until entire populations have been vaccinated, medical therapies improved and travel restrictions lifted, festivals will likely have relatively small attendance, mostly limited to young and immune locals. Older, more vulnerable animators will be less willing to take the risk, and that includes many potential jurors or distinguished festival guest presenters. So, ironically, some attendees may risk the journey, only to end up watching some remote presentations on a screen anyway.
The Online Festivals, Considered Chronologically
Scientific wisdom, local government mandates, severe travel restrictions, and concern for the safety of all participants led to regional bans on large indoor gatherings. Each of these great online festivals was able to devise clever solutions to formidable obstacles.
International Trickfilm Festival Stuttgart
Scheduled for May 5-10; went online May 5-10
Special challenge: pull a coherent digital festival together in only about two months
Result: By March it was clear that all large international events were threatened, so Stuttgart probably had the shortest time period in which to go all digital, but succeeded admirably in staging the first entirely online competition in early May. Few technical glitches turned up, other than incompatibility to certain browsers. ITFS appeared in three different formats:
- Free live-streamed opening and closing ceremonies with special archival screenings, plus workshops, master classes, numerous interviews and children’s programming
- Video-on-demand access to roughly 200 animated short and feature films in all competition categories, many with animator personal video statements, plus national cinema or director retrospectives and an ITFS Best of Animation collection from 2012-2018, all for a 10€ fee.
- Expanded access for professionals engaged in the Animation Production Days marketplace, including continued access to the Animated Video Market for three months, for a total 20€ fee
Pleasant surprises: Midway through the festival ITFS added impressive retrospectives for three European cineastes: Latvia’s Vladimir Leschiov, Portugal’s Joana Toste, and England’s Vera Neubauer. Having admired Leschiov’s work at past festivals, it was a treat to see two of his other films for the first time. There wasn’t enough time that week to explore Toste’s films or revisit those of Neubauer (a Czech transplant to the UK), but one can find representative works by all three directors on the Internet.
Best art medium experiment: Many great films have been created under the camera using sand animation or glass painting. Hugo Frassetto and Sophie Tavert Macian‘s Traces combines the two techniques to achieve the look of ancient charcoal cave paintings in an exciting drama. The film is discussed in part II of this article.
Summary: Because ITFS falls relatively early in the year, its award winners were mostly films that had seen considerable success by 2019, e.g. Jean-François Laguionie and Xavier Picard’s The Prince’s Voyage, Tomek Popakul’s Acid Rain, Mizumi Kiyama’s Bath House of Whales, Daria Kashcheeva’s Daughter, and Anca Damian’s Marona’s Fantastic Tale. Yet, besides other old favorites like Jean-Claude Rozec’s Tadpole, plenty of great new films impressed me just as much or more. Four of those are included in part II.
The pensive puppets in Frédéric Even and Louise Mercadier’s Sororal had uniquely expressive faces, but the atmosphere of its natural apocalypse was primarily conveyed with terrific effects animation and set lighting. It is a film of stark beauty, although many viewers will not interpret its conclusion in the positive, mystical manner its directors intended. This is particularly true during our current crisis of nature, Covid-19, which certainly does not encourage immersing oneself in the oncoming danger!
Other fascinating new works ranged from Ekin Koca’s poignant wartime study of Kurdish collateral damage, Crossfire, to the inventive presentation of an eleven-person Sheridan College student team, The Fox and the Pigeon, a children’s story that plays with the dimensionality of its rhymed couplets. Estonian veteran Kaspar Jancis’ Cosmonaut hit wry comic notes with the constrained tone and pace of absurdist theatre.
Of all the festivals, Stuttgart may have packed the densest programming into a short six days. The nine-hour time difference with Germany and occasional language barriers made planning a viewing schedule difficult, but mostly there were just not enough hours in the day. However, the aforementioned professional pass could enable attendees to extend their networking, recruiting and negotiating beyond the festival proper. To just view films they missed, ITFS’ joint animation archive with the Stuttgart Stadtbibliothek (public library) proved invaluable.
Next year: Overall, ITFS 2020 was an incredible animation festival and marketplace. Current plans are that ITFS 2021 will be hybrid in May with a focus on French animation.
Annecy International Animation Festival
Scheduled for June 15-20; went online June 15-30
Special challenge: present an expansive event over an extended time frame
Result: Annecy had planned special events to commemorate its 60th anniversary and to honor the burgeoning African animation scene. They decided to postpone all of those (except the daily African-themed program openers from Gobelins) until next year to give them proper emphasis.
What remained of the programming was still so massive that they wisely chose to extend the duration of their entire festival from six to sixteen days. This allowed participants to engage in more online programs than any other festival without turning into brain-dead zombies.
Like Stuttgart, Annecy offered three tiers of online material:
- a YouTube channel with free access to much content, including all films in the competitive Commissioned Film category
- a moderately priced accreditation with additional VOD access to all competitive short and feature film categories, plus master classes and many studio presentations
- a more expensive MIFA pass that also provided access to the entire professional marketplace and, for a limited period after the festival, to many of the archived competition films
Instead of allowing participants to view a film/program they had selected for the following 24 hours, as other festivals did, Annecy chose to limit everyone to two screenings of each film. This proved to be a problem when trying to stop a film in mid-playback to select subtitles, take notes, or deal with a household interruption. A few films could not be seen completely even once. Luckily Annecy’s very helpful tech support team was able to provide workarounds to improper error messages indicating that limits had been exceeded. Unluckily, they were not able to make it possible to see a tiny number of films a second (or even first) time. Hopefully this limitation policy will be changed next time; it makes it very difficult to look closely at a film you admire.
The unlimited viewing for a specific time period that other festivals used is preferable. Limitations on the number of devices used could still be enforced.
Note: As a preliminary bonus, Annecy was also one of 20+ film festivals co-curating the WeAreOne global festival from May 29-June 7, a fund-raiser for Covid-19 relief. In addition to a group of independent animations, Annecy’s portion included three Dreamworks shorts that had been featured in its previous festivals, plus a four-part television series, Leon’s Animated Stories, made by Folimage and the NFB between 2007 and 2012. This was a nice warm-up for the festival proper.
Pleasant surprises: Some of this festival’s finest films were oddly placed in the non-competitive Perspectives category. The team-directed Kapaemahu beautifully depicts the Hawaiian legend of four androgynous visiting healers with enormous spiritual impact on the native culture. Design and animation by Daniel Sousa recall his superb direction of the Oscar-nominated Feral in 2012. Equally impressive was a German team effort, Up Here, with the White Gods. This dark, intense film weaves several true stories of Mozambican contract workers in Berlin into a compelling narrative, skillfully blending a theme of animalistic savagery across two disparate cultures in a quest for social equality.
I feel that, if selected for competition, each of these could have been a strong contender for awards. Indeed, Kapaemahu has earned several prizes elsewhere, including a special prize from Hiroshima and Best Short Film at nearby Animation Chico. Another film in that same non- competitive Perspectives program at Annecy, Shoko Hara’s troubling documentary Just a Guy, was actually awarded the Grand Prix at Zagreb. Simply put, tastes differ greatly between selection committees, just as they do in juries. That is why the plethora of animation festivals benefits filmmakers and audiences alike.
A special Annecy treat was a live discussion and Q&A with three Canadian Film Board authors: Jean-Francois Lévesque, who directed the superbly animated clerical fantasy, I, Barnabé, Andreas Hykade, creator of the even more reverential Altötting, soon to win Espinho’s Grand Prix, and Theo Ushev, whose incomparable The Physics of Sorrow captured the Annecy short film Cristal. Neither Theo nor ASIFA-SF members can forget his presentation of that masterwork in October 2019 in San Francisco, prompting a spontaneous and beautiful hallway rendition of an a cappella Bulgarian folk tune by ASIFA’s Kath Dudek and Litz Plummer.
Best art medium experiments: In a festival that had intended to highlight African animation, one of the year’s most exciting socio-political films was unearthed from the DRC. Besides chalk drawings and mechanical objects, Frank Mukunday and Trésor Tshibangu’s Machini animates human characters composed of loose pebbles with surprisingly precise motion design. This unusual art medium and the lack of facial expressions actually support the film’s thesis that these Congolese miners and laborers are universally treated as raw materials, not breathing individuals.
Electric vehicles may help clean the world’s air and halt global warming, but they run on batteries using cobalt and lithium mined in the DRC. Machini illustrates the bitter irony that workers suffer from noxious fumes at factories producing devices to reduce air pollution. In so doing, it skillfully depicts an unexpected cultural and economic exploitation of the Third World.
Two student films, Unraveled, created by a multi-national team at BAU’s stop-motion major in Barcelona and To the Dusty Sea by Heloise Ferlay from EnsAD in Paris, both nicely displayed the flourishing trend of fabric puppets and needle felting that has produced so many fine works in the past few years. The soft texture and frayed edges work well in these studies of mother- child strife, yet also create ironic vulnerability in Andrea Vinciguerra’s comic No, I Don't Want to Dance! Usage of these materials was jump-started by Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, found many adept recent practitioners, and has become stop-motion’s next big thing.
Summary: It was no surprise that animation’s largest festival became animation’s largest online festival. An enormous amount of high quality content was posted and many thousands viewed it, both live and on-demand. All the early online festivals had bumps in the unpaved roads, but snafus did not diminish Annecy’s impressive achievement.
Most animation festivals screen only a handful of feature films, if any. Annecy is the exception, with ten features in competition this year, plus ten more in the sometimes-edgier Contrechamp (reverse angle) category. Unfortunately, eight of those twenty animated feature films could not be seen in the US, including most of the Asian entries and Rémi Chayé’s Feature Cristal winner, Calamity, A Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary. Only ten-minute extracts of those features were available for those willing to risk spoiling their eventual viewing of the entire films.
Annecy’s most engaging animated features are often intensely political. In 2020 two films from the Contrechamp division stood out: My Favorite War, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen’s beautifully designed memoir of her Cold War childhood in Latvia, and True North, Eiji Han Shimizu’s less polished but gripping study of survival in North Korea’s inhumane prison camps.
The Contrechamp category was created in 2019 “to offer a better showcase for the most unique feature films, as well as those that create more challenges vis-à-vis the audience”, but some 2020 feature category award winners seem more unique and challenging than many Contrechamp selections. Despite utilizing Dmitri Shostakovich’s operatic adaptation, Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s The Nose, or the Conspiracy of Mavericks starts out as a more faithful retelling of Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story than Alexander Alexeieff’s celebrated short film, The Nose. However, that clarity may evaporate for audience members not conversant with many characters in Russian political history as the film shifts gears. Those mystified by the satirical dialogue or the reflexive inserts of working animators will still admire the exceptional cut-out design.
Next year: The festival states that, whether on-site or online, Annecy will be on June 14-19, 2021, with an African focus and a 60th anniversary celebration.
Ottawa International Animation Festival
Scheduled for September 23-27; went online September 23-October 4
Special challenge: recreate the festive social atmosphere of a large in-person gathering
Result: By September festivals had proven they could move extensive screenings and massive film markets online. Yet the stimulating social environment that built friendships and nurtured creative partnerships was diminished in a remote event. Ottawa has long served as a gathering place for a sizeable portion of the North American animation community, and has always featured an active nightly party scene. This year the festival persisted in offering evening Hang Outs for networking, and succeeded in capturing some of the old goofiness while hosting numerous events. Even non-party animals would concede that a friendly and often silly vibe permeated the scene and kept spirits from dragging.
At times though, that sociability was a mixed blessing. During live-streamed competition screenings, seeing chat box comments and emojis from other attendees can feel a little like being in a movie theatre next to noisy audience members who share their every reaction. I found myself going full screen and using a second computer for note taking.
Normally a four and a half-day festival, Ottawa stretched to twelve days. Proportionately, this was exactly the same expansion as Annecy’s and it worked just as well. If one did not want a full festival pass, s/he could shrink it to a single day or weekend, or enlarge it to include The Animation Conference (TAC) with its Fast Track pitching sessions, meet-ups and happy hours. Ottawa’s screenings were streamlined into less than an hour each.
Pleasant surprise: Earlier online festivals presented “interviews” with the filmmakers that were actually heartfelt video statements from their homes with no Q&A. Most expressed greetings to all, excitement at being selected, sorrow that we could not meet in person, and hope that everyone would enjoy their film. A few displayed puppets or artwork, or related their motivation for making the film. Uniformly sincere and interesting, these provided less insight to the films than an actual interview or press conference would. Spring festivals simply had insufficient time to generate real interviews with more than a hundred directors.
Ottawa, however, shortened each short film competition screening in order to include a nightly live Q&A session, attended by most of the filmmakers and moderated by OIAF director Chris Robinson. Despite some technical snafus, these were clearly a step up from creator-filmed video statements. To be sure, there were too many standard questions directed at the entire panel, which invariably yield less inspired responses. Specific questions tailored to each film are much better, but audiences often do not formulate those immediately after a first viewing.
Even more informative was a separate VOD series of actual one-on-one filmmaker interviews by Robinson, which came closer to emulating a true press interview. As would be expected, there was some redundancy with the nightly competition screening Q&A sessions, but the cumulative effect was a greater depth of behind-the-scenes exploration than any other festival provided.
Given more lead-time in 2021, other festivals might benefit from this focused interviewing.
Best art medium experiments: Charlotte Arene’s The Sea is Too Much to Drink ran less than two minutes, but floated away with OIAF’s Best Non-Narrative Short award. Pixillation has seldom so convincingly depicted the dream world. Most impressive was that, alone in her room and under the bed covers, Arene both played the supine character and directed the animation with tight sound synchronization! It is hard enough to perform on both sides of the camera, but to do so while moving frame-by-frame in minute, tapered increments boggles the mind (and evidently injured her neck!) Her shots of seafaring volumes on a bookshelf risk distracting viewers momentarily from the immediate experience in so brief a scene, as we try to detect similarities in specific titles. However, Arene’s entertaining film clearly deserved its award.
Ottawa’s Grand Prize and Audience Prize both went to another innovative dream film in an even more esoteric technique, Kang-Min Kim’s KKUM. Kim, a South Korean stop-motion director working in LA, honors his beloved helicopter mom by animating four of her prophetic dreams of his life, one of them a nightmare. And the art medium he chose for this tribute … Styrofoam. Commonly used for puppet sets, the foam’s texture lights well, models easily and is economical, although Mother was a tad disappointed to see the film in black-and-white. For Kim the real misfortune was encountering the foam’s toxicity when using a heat lamp to make it more pliable. He is now able to drink again; don’t do this yourself without adequate ventilation!
Summary: Ottawa put forward a comprehensive program with plenty of vitality. Launching a new competition gala each day with a 24 hour window and bring each back on the final weekend proved to be effective scheduling, although it seemed that the remaining competitions, i.e.
Animated Series, Young Audiences and the strong Canadian Student reel, should have returned as well. Premiering the two Best of Ottawa programs in that final weekend was another good decision and a fitting climax to the entire event.
Due to scheduling conflicts I only saw two of the eight Competition Galas via live streaming, so missed the other six Q&A sessions live. As luck would have it, one I did see was a (rare) technical disaster. However, each pre-recorded Gala screening, plus its Q&A, was available for the following 24 hours. So a viewer could choose either the live stream’s spontaneity and ability to ask questions or the pre-recorded option’s playback control for breaks or note taking.
Most animation festivals have either a separate national competition category (Ottawa, GLAS, Cinanima) or separate national awards (Stuttgart, Annecy) to nurture the animation climate in their respective countries. The aforementioned Canadian Student Competition featured 17 entries in a variety of art media from seven different colleges, and their quality compared favorably to all the Panorama programs and to some of the competitive shorts collections as well.
In addition to a full plate of production panels from Netflix, Nickelodeon and other luminaries, Ottawa curated a group of unique filmmaker retrospectives. Especially appealing were those of two accomplished puppet animators, influential Estonian pioneer Elbert Tuganov and champion of Canadian First Nations causes, Terrill Calder. Seeing the work of these neglected artists was a real treat and a reminder of how much impressive animation is only well known regionally.
Next year: Scheduled for September 22-26, 2021. OIAF could possibly be on-site by then or perhaps hybrid in a new normal.
Scheduled for March 19-22; went online October 5-9
Special challenge: maintain freshness despite a seven-month delay
Result: The timing of the GLAS cancelation was absolutely brutal. California banned large indoor gatherings just the week before the festival and the Bay Area went into lockdown only two days before GLAS would have started. At that time we knew very little about the virus and many animators were poised to attend, although some elders had already decided to stay away. In retrospect, the cancellation almost certainly saved lives.
Postponement was the only option for GLAS; neither on-site nor online was possible at that time. The Bay Area ban on large gatherings persisted. So GLAS had to cope with being the youngest and smallest of these international festivals to attempt a daunting online adventure. Because their problem was aggravated, they had to devise an innovative solution using the resources at hand.
While preparing to post their 2020 films in competition, GLAS decided to spread out their existing resources, putting great moments from past festivals online over a period of several months. These included panels such as tips for pitching, but concentrated on conversations with important new independent artists like Jeremy Clapin or Reka Bucsi. All programs were live- streamed at specific times; there was no video-on-demand (VOD).
Then in October with relatively little publicity, GLAS streamed their entire 2020 competition over five weeknights. The nine film programs were scheduled for either 6:00 or 8:00 PM PST to appeal to West Coast audiences. These time slots may have limited viewership on other continents and even on the US East Coast. Attendance was free and donations were solicited.
Pleasant surprises: Inspired summer screenings were the Georges Schwizgebel, Dennis Tupicoff, and Susan Pitt-Kraning retrospectives, which young animators are seldom able to see, either at festivals or in animation history courses. These programs serve the vital function of building viewer awareness of the concept of directorial authorship. They also allow the audience to relive shining moments from past GLAS festivals. Tupicoff is a particularly under-recognized director who has created several landmark documentaries and memoirs. ASIFA-SF members will remember his two past screening programs on previous visits to the Bay Area.
Best art medium experiment: One of last year’s Oscar nominees, Bruno Collet’s Memorable was inspired by the work of William Utermohlen, whose paintings documented the progression of his own Alzheimer's disease. It employs subjective camera, with a mental POV through the lens of the mind’s eye. The film is primarily stop-motion, but computer-generated 3D effects are also utilized to enhance the surfaces with the look of dripping paint. Van Gogh and Giacometti were clearly visual inspirations.
Dementia manifests differently in all its victims, so films that cannot resist over-dramatizing with hallucinations and metamorphoses can put off viewers. It is extremely difficult to dramatize loss of cognition accurately, particularly for those who have not had first-hand caregiver experience. Memorable tries nobly to convey the frustration, fear and heartache. Often it succeeds.
Summary: GLAS week felt like a very special screening series with much of the high spirits of a festival in the chat room. It was a more leisurely week than other festivals, and coming right on the heels of Ottawa, that was a welcome de-escalation. GLAS was originally scheduled even earlier than Stuttgart, so naturally its competition also featured some distinguished 2019 films like Memorable, Theo Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow, Daria Kashcheeva’s Daughter, Jonas Schloesing’s Riviera, and Xi Chen’s The Six. Additional strong 2019 films like Regina Peesoa’s Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days and Park Jee-youn’s Ghosts, were in the competition but could not be screened online.
The inability to include these gems must have been very frustrating for festival staff, but probably not as much as the deletion of GLAS’ Grand Prix film, Adrien Mérigeau’s Genius Loci. These deletions and the almost seven month delay in screening the 2020 films did slightly diminish the festival’s impact for those who had taken part in events like Stuttgart, Annecy or Ottawa. However, great films should be savored repeatedly, and many of these were brand new to most of GLAS’ participants.
2020 films that stood out included Frédéric Even & Louise Mercadier’s Sororal, with its somber, reflective mood; Dahee Jeong’s Movements, motion studies of well-designed anthropomorphic trees; Soetkin Verstegen’s tactile period piece Freeze Frame; and Anne Huynh’s evocation of Renoir Impressionism, My Grandpa is Hiding, the latter two shown in out-of-competition Showcase programs.
The Family Competition is not what GLAS is best known for, and some films in the past have not seemed child-friendly enough for this category. However, in 2020 GLAS put together a very appealing family program. Other than German Sonja Rohleder’s beautifully designed/colorful Nest, all below hail from France, which was certainly the country this year that produced the highest number of outstanding short animations. In this program they include the well-acted, wordless tale from Folimage’s Raul Morales Reyes, A Tiger with No Stripes, plus two impressive student-team CG marvels, Hors Cours, and Sous la Glace.
Next year: Large indoor gatherings are still banned as the pandemic surges and we enter 2021. Holding the customary onsite Spring festival will be impossible. GLAS has chosen to post their retrospectives, conversations and competition screenings online this year on March 15-21. These will be eagerly anticipated by its legion of fans, myself included.
Cinanima - Espinho, Portugal
Scheduled for November 9-15; went online November 9-15
Special challenge: present a major conference, focusing exclusively on the films themselves
Result: Like GLAS, Cinanima chose to present only films. There were no markets, pitch fests, story workshops, master classes, VR demos, or filmmaker video statements. However, unlike GLAS, Cinanima was scheduled late in the year, so had a lengthy period to prepare to go online. They were able to cram 28 screenings into seven days for just seven Euros. Yet Cinanima’s hope was to meet in person. They planned a hybrid festival, but that proved to be impossible.
Once its online-only status was confirmed, Cinanima held competition in short films, student films, features, and three Portuguese national categories. These contained many strong films, including some not seen in other festivals, but what really distinguished Cinanima from other festivals this year was the creative programming in their Out-of-Competition Screenings. Their 28 programs were equally divided between competitive and non-competitive.
Besides the expected inclusion of two standard Panorama programs of interesting films not selected for competition, the expansion included screenings of the 2019 award winners, school reels from The Animation Workshop (Denmark) and the Estonian Academy of Arts, archival programs from Countryside Animafest Cyprus and the International Film Festival for Children and Youth in Zlin (Czechia), a 30-year retrospective of animated films by cineaste Florence Miailhe, two thematic retrospectives on “A Decade of European Author’s Animation” and one more on “75 Years After the End of WWII and Liberation”. Cumulatively, these provided a wealth of visual riches from the past to complement the current competitive selections.
Pleasant surprises: Most online festivals had posted programs of their previous award winners or audience favorites. In addition, Cinanima actually invited other film festivals to send archival programs. So the festival in Zlin, the town where Karel Zeman created his masterworks, gained a new showcase in Portugal and the wide online world. Meanwhile, Cinanima complemented its own offerings with two fine Zlin compilations and a distinctive Czech flavor.
The Zlin children’s reel was charming and variegated, but their Young Adult reel was a real eye- opener. Four shorts from 2015 and 2016 were standouts. Milos Zverina’s Transport R depicts seven characters in a train car on their way from the Terezin ghetto to extermination at Treblinka or Auschwitz. Notably, this film animates exact replicas of puppets created by child inmates of Terezin. 99% of the 15,000 children there were sent by train to be executed.
Another puppet film with a lighter tone, Lenka Ivancikova’s First Snow is a tactile nature story with imagery and music that sometimes evoke Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Mist. Yet its well-structured script is more dramatic, and the camera captures subtle textures and atmosphere.
Micjhal Zabka adapted Bretislav Pojar’s last story for The Christmas Ballad, a dark, exciting anti-militarism tale that is not as soothing as the title would suggest. Michaela Pavlatova was a consultant. Marek Berger’s The Shadow Over Prague continued the tributes to Czech animation royalty in his wild Marvel Comics-style superhero mash-up of the Golem with Jiri Trnka’s Springman and the SS! This is the only drawn film of these four, and, like Springman, is set in World War II Prague.
Then, for good measure, Cinanima screened the newly restored Trnka classic, Old Czech Legends. For Cold War political reasons, he has been the least accessible of animation’s most renowned pioneers, so it was wonderful to see this accomplished work online. And it could not be more Czech! It was as if Cinanima had chosen the Czech Republic as its 2020 national focus.
Best art medium experiment: From Germany, land of brilliant silhouette pioneer, Lotte Reiniger, comes Caroline Hamann and Fritz Penzlin’s comic love story Criss Cross. Less elegant and colorful than past masters Reiniger or Michel Ocelot, these crisply animated shadow puppets achieve a broader and more dynamic humor, yet remain stylish.
Summary: Despite Cinanima’s great reputation, I have never been able to attend in person because the festival was held at a difficult time in the academic year. So it was wonderful to finally experience it, and graft my memories of a summer visit to Espinho onto the festival.
The competition selection was strong, even if, like GLAS, they were unable to screen their Grand Prix winner in the US - Andreas Hykade’s reflections on his childhood spiritual crush, Altötting. Luckily, it had been prominently displayed at several earlier festivals.
Two winners in Portuguese categories, Alexandra Ramires’ Elo (Tie) and Sofia Salt’s Walkthrough, were particularly well crafted. Of the many outstanding new student works two social parables, Hazhir As’adi’s The Rotation (Iran) and Un Diable dans la Poche by Antoine Bonnet & Mathilde Loubes from Gobelins in France made the best impression.
The aforementioned Thematic Retrospectives brought back gems, each of which I had seen only once years ago. In the design compilation Ballint Gelley’s watery war drama, Otthon (Hearth), and Sergio Negulici’s stunning memoir of literati, A Blissful Accidental Death, stood out. The WWII legacy program was even stronger, featuring Kim Junki’s poignant documentary on South Korean “comfort women”, Herstory; Johan Oettinger’s chilling, atypical 7 Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto; and Renzo Kinoshita’s classic study of the Hiroshima bombing, Pica Don. All the above discoveries are available online for later reference, an added benefit of retrospectives.
Only four feature films were shown at Cinanima, all of them political. The Nose Or The Conspiracy Of Mavericks was discussed above. Zero Impunity by the Blies brothers and Denis Lambert is a predominately live-action documentary that campaigns against wartime sexual violence and is often shown out-of-competition at festivals. Its cause is noble and its content is shocking, but its design and animation are less inspiring.
Canadian Yan Ma’s Up We Soar accuses the Chinese government of persecuting religious cult Falun Gong. This talky 50-minute quasi-documentary mixes live-action interviews with straight motion capture, and feels heavily romanticized and idealized. Falun Gong, best known in the US for the ubiquitous Epoch Times news and Shen Yun performances, is itself accused of misogyny, homophobia, and promoting right wing conspiracy theories, including American election fraud. Chinese persecution of Uighur Muslims, Tibetans and political dissidents are well documented, but Up We Soar’s family prison narrative feels so heavy-handed that it actually makes us feel the Falun Gong claims are suspect.
A bright spot in this category was Ralf Kukula and Matthias Bruhn’s Fritzi – A Revolutionary Tale. This gentle story, set just before the reunification of the two Germanys, is aimed at children, so its over-simplification is less egregious. It uses a charming tree house and a massive border wall, a puppy and a puppy love. The end result is an intelligent family film.
Next year: The plan is unknown at this time, but since Cinanima is a November festival, there is a decent chance that they will be able to meet on-site in 2021. If so, hopefully the event will still contain an online component, so that vulnerable, distant and/or unemployed animators will also be able to join this excellent festival.
Observations on the festivals
Many of us used to think that all the international animation festivals would show a handful of the same outstanding films made that year, then flesh out their programs with lesser films to match their aesthetics or regional tastes. In reality there was a surprising amount of difference between the committee selections for competition at all festivals. And seldom do juries have consensus regarding the excellence of specific films. Many films would win an award at one festival, but be shown out of competition at another, if not rejected outright.
Tastes differ. Also some diversity is due to different films becoming available later in the year, and some filmmakers simply choose to submit their work to only a few favorite festivals. Others have the sponsorship or the time and money to enter every competition under the sun. This diversity widens the viewer’s exposure to additional films and makes each festival more unique and interesting. It also spreads the prizes around.
Yet festivals still have considerable overlap in competition films. So, often we remember most the filmmaker retrospectives and historical thematic programs. The shameful scarcity of animation history courses in college majors and the online absence of landmark animated films create a real need for festivals to fill the gap. So many fantastic animated films exist that 99% of working animators have never even heard of. Festivals could provide a great service to the animation community and distinguish their programming from others at the same time.
Tips for participants
- Get online as soon as possible, to test and trouble shoot. Don’t expect everything to be intuitive or controls to be in their usual place.
- Find the website’s technical FAQ location, preferably before the festival starts. It may be available early, but check again later. New answers are added as problems arise.Check on browser compatibility ahead of time and have a second option available
- Confirm how to select subtitles, when needed, and be aware that a few films may only let you choose between two languages you don’t speak.
- Test any large screen-casting device like Chromecast early. It may not work consistently.
- Festival tech support teams can message you in English and are invaluable for problem solving.
- Be wary of enforcements of viewing limitations for each film when you halt to take notes, activate subtitles when speech starts, adjust video, etc. If the festival has a 24-hour window, which is preferable to a specified number of viewings, there is no problem. If you receive an incorrect error message that viewing limits have been exceeded, you may be able to correct the situation by logging out, then logging back in and resuming the screening. Bugs do happen.
- As you “attend” more virtual festivals, you learn the ropes, but each is a little different.
Time zones and scheduling:
A European festival will have an eight or (more often) a nine-hour time zone difference. This usually means that final day screenings cut off at 3:00 PM Pacific time, not midnight, although occasionally you can finish a screening that you had started before 3:00.
Conversely, if a festival makes its screenings available for 24 hours each day starting at midnight, you may be able to begin your festival viewing as early as late afternoon on the day before it starts. For example, Cinanima started at 12:00 AM on Monday, November 9, so a participant in San Francisco could begin viewing in late afternoon on Sunday, November 8. It was the only way to utilize the entire festival week in our time zone, but many would not think to try it. (Note: some festivals don’t start their first day until 10 AM, or 1 AM for us.)
The Online Upside
Safety: Obviously, everyone is able to avoid the contagion of a deadly virus. This is critical.
Length: Some festivals dramatically expanded their duration. There was still nowhere near enough time to do everything, so you had to prioritize, but ended up seeing more films than ever.
Pace: Even with more programs, you got more sleep, with no nine-hour jet lag or rushing between theatres. There was time to stop, take notes and reflect on each film, which is impossible in a normal onsite festival screening. Subtle or sensitive films that might be buried and overwhelmed within huge programs can be watched, analyzed and savored individually. However, this only applies to Video on Demand, not live streaming.
Value: Thousands of professional and independent animators, students and fans are able to engage in a festival they could not otherwise attend because of work or school conflict, family commitments, extreme distance, or financial insecurity, not to mention the pandemic. The worldwide reach of a festival is magnified enormously.
Diversity: Rather than travel to a single festival, animators, scholars, students and fans can take part in multiple festivals, film markets, and/or animation studies conferences. This is instructive, inspirational, edifying and very exciting.
The Online Downside
Contact: In-person festivals impart a sense of community to animators with a climate of empathy and peer support for filmmakers. They provide opportunities to network with potential collaborators and share knowledge and expertise with other participants in personal encounters. Surprisingly, much of this was still captured online.
Exhibition: Naturally, any film screening will be considerably less impressive on a computer screen than in a large theatre with an audience of cheering animators. For creators nothing beats that thrill. You can win an award online, but it is harder to feel the professional admiration.
Schedule: Live events are more difficult to schedule because participants attend in many different time zones.
Artwork: At Annecy the numerous art exhibits in the public animation museum or the ancient rooms of the Chateau or the other pop-up galleries display brilliant animation artwork, which can lose much of its impact when not seen in person. Other festivals have comparable exhibits. Some shy away from animation-related installations, but others have made them a focus, with the 2007 Platform festival in Portland being exceptionally successful in that realm.
Press conferences: For me the biggest loss would have to be the daily press conferences with simultaneous translation headsets and the possibility of private interactions with the filmmakers on the side. The ability to explore specific questions concerning each film’s conceptual or production challenges or its technical innovations is invaluable.
Will air travel be safe in 2021? What about hotels, campgrounds, toilets, elevators? Will 10,000+ professionals crowded into indoor theatres for 5-7 consecutive days and nights be safe, even if they have been vaccinated? “Herd immunity” only lowers the likelihood of infection in most circumstances; the relatively unsafe situations above will raise that likelihood back up. Each of us must make the choice to attend based on age, health and risk tolerance, in addition to the usual constraints of work schedule and finances.
All these situations will be highly problematic, particularly for older and more vulnerable participants. This virus will eventually be somewhat controlled, but the prospect of holding as large an event as these five safely in mid-2021 is very optimistic.
Many students, independent animators, small studio entrepreneurs, and young parents will be so economically devastated by the pandemic that they will not be able to even contemplate a journey to another continent. Speaking as one deemed too vulnerable to travel, let me hereby cast a vote for online or hybrid in 2021. This would be a win-win situation for the maximum number of participants.
Having attended many dozens of major animation festivals in foreign countries over the past half century, I love the experience and hope to never stop. The pandemic has been devastating, yet it has spawned or expanded many beneficial new practices. When we return to the New Normal, the dramatic increase we have seen in things like working from home, virtual medical visits, distance learning, video conferences and other remote phenomena are expected to return with us.
Perhaps the animation festivals of the New Normal will incorporate some of their innovations too. Just as health care, education and many industries will try to combine their on-site with online procedures in the most effective and efficient manner, animation festivals could install tiered participation, with some activities reserved for on-site participants, while others are offered online to a much larger worldwide audience.
These hybrid events could each contain different cinematic content, aesthetic style, historical themes, national cultures, technical capabilities, and other specialties. Perhaps partnerships between festivals could expand the scope of online offerings. New online-only festivals might emerge. There are many creative possibilities. Can online collections of competition films and retrospectives become part of Animation’s New Normal? Time will tell.
Alert: Many of the best French films mentioned above will be screened in the just-announced Animation First online festival, run by the French Institute Alliance Française from February 5-15. Some classic French features and American premieres of 2020 award winners are also included. Our SF Alliance cultural center on Bush Street has held many great French film screenings pre-pandemic. This event is a great opportunity for American ASIFA chapters.
Martin McNamara has volunteered for ASIFA since the mid-1970s and served several terms on ASIFA’s international board, while creating animated films, writing critical papers, and teaching animation production and history at Bay Area colleges.