Engulfed in the Glory of Stellar Animation at the Annecy Film Festival
by Alex Billington
June 18, 2018
"Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation." -Walt Disney. I decided to attend the Annecy Film Festival this year to see some films, in hopes of catching the best best animated films before anyone else. What I discovered is a festival unlike any other, a community of animation geeks, illustrators, filmmakers, storytellers, and cinephiles; a lovely little town known as the "Venice of the Alps"; and a handful of films that show how incredibly versatile and emotional animation can be as a storytelling technique. I fell in love with this festival, which is no surprise considering I've heard great things about it for years. It is indeed one of the greatest film festivals in the world, and I did indeed see some exceptional films.
In my opening introduction to Annecy, I talked about how animation is not just a genre - it's a medium, and it's a tool. And that's so true. I spent one week in the town of Annecy, France seeing 14 different feature-length films, along with a total of 18 short films, ranging from documentaries to kid's movies to comedies to dramas. Not everything I saw there was good, and that's okay, because not everything can be good. But everything I saw did prove how versatile animation is, and how much work goes into crafting these stories. You have to design the characters from scratch, design the entire world they'll exist in, choose the animation style, figure out where to place virtual cameras, on top of all the usual filmmaking. It's beautiful. Even the most boring films have so much artistry on display, and I enjoyed exploring this within each film I watched.
The experience of being at this festival is exhilarating. There's a very communal feel - thousands of students, young animators, experienced animators, illustrators, filmmakers, and cinephiles descend upon this town for a week every single year. It feels like they're all best friends, and they're all passionate about the glory of animation, and they're all there to geek out for a week. If you attend a screening in the Grand Salle theater inside the Bonlieu (the main building where the festival takes place) you're in for a treat. The crowd is so intensely enthusiastic, they cheer and shout out French words during the amusing introductory videos, they make paper airplanes before the screening, and yet they become instantly quiet and entranced when the film begins. They cheered so loud it gave me chills. These are my people, they're the ones I love seeing films with.
I have been to film festivals all over the world, but this audience was unique. Before every single screening, people would make paper airplanes (out of any paper they could find) and send them flying towards the screen. If one made it to the screen, the entire theater would erupt into applause and cheers. Many would crash and burn and land in the seats, or smack someone on the head. Often times, other audience members would pick up these failed paper airplanes and send them on a second mission towards the silver screen. Most often, they'd crash again. If any plane made it from the back even close to the screen, they would get applause. I hope these cinemas are recycling all this wasted paper (I'm sure they are), but nonetheless it was a wonderful and entertaining experience to sit and watch all this happen before every screening at Annecy.
I adore the Annecy Film Festival. Unlike any other fest, packed with charming geeks who love animation. This woman had her own character on her shoulder - The Little Lab Mouse. The cutest. So glad I came to this festival. @annecyfestival pic.twitter.com/k2BBT4Cy75
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) June 14, 2018
As for the films, I saw 14 in total and enjoyed many of them. A few of the films were made purely for kids - which is not a surprise considering they're animated features. A few of them were made purely for adults - which made them even more fascinating. I'm also happy I took the time to fit in two short film programs - Short Films in Competition #3 and Short Films in Competition #5. Each program featured nine short films, screened one after another. And this is where I saw some of the most groundbreaking, innovative, thought-provoking work of the festival. Nienke Deutz's Bloeistraat 11 is outstanding, and it won the top Short Film prize as well. Rocio Alvarez's Simbiosis Carnal is fantastic, a mesmerizing sensual short film with hand-painted animation. Mojtaba Mousavi's Mr. Deer (from Iran) is also wickedly awesome and totally original.
My favorite feature films from Annecy: Tito and the Birds (from Brazil) directed by Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg; a gorgeous oil-paint-style film about a boy who must figure out the secret of the pigeons to save humanity from the paralyzing effects of fear. Chris the Swiss (from Switzerland) directed by Anja Kofmel; a chilling, riveting documentary about a Swiss journalist who was killed in the Yugoslav War, featuring about 50% hand-drawn animation. On Happiness Road (from Taiwan) directed by Hsin-Yin Sung; a lovely autobiographical film about a Taiwanese woman searching for happiness and learning what it means in her life. Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires (from Wales) directed by Michael Mort; a badass, R-rated stop-motion animation feature about a brute cop who has to overcome his own ego to save the world from a "trampire" invasion. Plus special mention for Seder-Masochism directed by Nina Paley.
Each of these films has something worthwhile to offer viewers through its style and story, and each one is incredible in its own way. I am happy I had the chance to discover them, and now it's my job to encourage everyone else to discover them as well. Find them at another film festival somewhere around the world, or at your local cinema soon, or eventually on DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD. Just find them and watch them and give them your full attention. These filmmakers put so much work into making these films, and they just want them to be enjoyed and appreciated. And they always put something of themselves into the film - whether it's a bit of their own personality or mindset, or a bit of their own values and politics and wisdom, or a bit of what they want the world to learn that they've learned through their own experiences. This is the potential of cinema.
My favorite films of #Annecy2018: Tito and the Birds (Brazil), Chris the Swiss (Switzerland), On Happiness Road (Taiwan), Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires (Wales). Catch these animated gems as soon as you can. @annecyfestival pic.twitter.com/2wA6t1PPnx
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) June 16, 2018
One of thing I kept noticing is how animation styles could be combined. One film that was mostly 3D CGI animation featured a cartoon show that one of the characters would watch, and this show was made to look like old school 2D hand-drawn animation. This mix of styles and techniques is fascinating and something that is mostly connected to animation. I would love to see more live-action feature films do this, and a few of them do (e.g. Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs the World integrating comic book-esque animation into the live-action footage). And this is just one example. There's so much innovative work in the animation world because it allows them complete creative freedom to do whatever, to imagine whatever, to make us believe in anything way they want, to break the mold, shatter expectations, and tell stories in an entirely new way.
After watching one of the short film programs at Annecy, I wrote on Twitter: "Animated shorts are the best. Some of the most creative, innovative, thought-provoking work." It was exciting to sit down and watch nine of them in a row. Annecy knows how to choose the best of the best and give these filmmakers an opportunity to shine and impress attendees. One of the other exceptional Annecy short films I had a chance to see is titled Weekends directed by Trevor Jimenez. This one won the Audience Award for Best Short Film, and it certainly deserves it. There's so many emotions and so much humanity worked into the film, yet it doesn't have any dialogue - only animation. This short film is a testament to what Walt Disney spoke about, that animation has so much great potential to connect us and allow us to empathize & understand together. I can't wait for everyone else to have a chance to see these short films as well, they're certainly worth the wait.
If you've been thinking about attending Annecy, dreaming about it, considering it, then let me tell you - GO. Go to this wonderful festival next year, and make it your home every June. I'm planning to return every year for as long as I can, if only to have the chance to discover more of the best work in animation ever year. To meet more filmmakers, up-and-comers, students, cinephiles, illustrators, and storytellers who are hoping to one day have their work shown at the festival. I knew Annecy would be a fun festival, but I didn't know I would fall this hard for it. Maybe one day I can bring my uncle, who won't watch any animated films at all (because he thinks they're for kids), and show him what he's missing. There's so much beauty in animation, so much creativity & ingenuity, and I'm lucky to have the chance to be engulfed in the glory of this medium.