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Annecy’s Short-Form Magic: A Sneak Peek at the Stunning 2021 Edition

Clockwise from top left: Conversations with a Whale, No Leaders Please, Darwin's Notebook, In Nature, Mom, How to Be at Home, Under the Skin, the Bark and June Night

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Annecy’s Short-Form Magic: A Sneak Peek at the Stunning 2021 Edition

***This article originally appeared in the June-July ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 311)***

This year’s edition of the Annecy Festival (June 14-19) offers a rich collection of highly original and inspiring shorts from around the world. Here is a sampler:

No Leaders Please

No Leaders Please

No Leaders Please
Directed by Joan Gratz

Celebrated Portland-based animation auteur Joan Gratz is best known for memorable shorts such as the Oscar-winning Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992), the Annecy-nominated Kubla Khan (2010) and Candy Jam (1988). Of course, she has also worked on features such as The Prophet, Return to Oz and The Adventures of Mark Twain. This year, the brilliant artist returns to the festival circuit with the clay animated No Leaders Please, a homage to the works of Basquiat, Banksy, Keith Haring and Ai Weiwei.

“I was inspired by the poem by Charles Bukowski,” she tells us via email. “Though he was a cynic and ‘The Laureate of American Lowlife,’ this poem celebrates individualism, change and creativity.”

Gratz began animating her short on May 26 of 2020 and finished the visuals on July 29, 2020. “The film evolved from an interest in graffiti artists and their motivations,” she notes. “My animation tools consist of my finger, an easel and oil-based clay. I shoot digitally and then edit in After Effects. I do all the design, animation, editing and producing, and Judith Gruber-Stitzer did the music and effects.”

She says one of the advantages of being the producer, director and animator is that she can choose not to have a budget! “I know independent short films will not be profitable, so why consider a budget?” Gratz asks. “I was pleased to make a very short film based on such a powerful short poem read with such eloquence. The most difficult part of the film was to find the right music which did not compete with the words and images. I think No Leaders Please is such a positive film. It is the Just Do It of animated shorts!”

The distinguished director, who turned 80 this April, says she is a huge fan of the works of fellow indie artist Theodore Ushev (Blind Vaysha, The Physics of Sorrow). Gratz says she also admires animated features from Aardman Animations and Cartoon Saloon. “As an independent short film director in Portland, during an epidemic, I don’t have a take on the big picture,” she adds. “All I know is that Netflix is producing two features in Portland, which brings together animators, directors, producers and craftsmen from all over the world. If it wasn’t for COVID, I might be enjoying their company!”

Darwin's Notebook

Darwin’s Notebook

Darwin’s Notebook
Directed by Georges Schwizgebel

It’s always cause for celebration when we have a new animated short by Georges Schwizgebel. The Swiss animation master, who is best known for celebrated work such as Jeu, Romance and The Man with No Shadow, is back with a stunning work titled Darwin’s Notebook, which looks back at the atrocities committed by colonists to the people of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost province of Argentina.

Schwizgebel was inspired to base his short on these incidents after visiting an exhibition on Charles Darwin at the Notre Dame University campus museum near Chicago. “There were several documents on this mishap that happened to three natives of Tierra del Fuego that Darwin recounts in his diary,” he says. “But it was only a few years later that I started this project and read other books on this topic that helped me better understand what had happened to the Alacaluf. The initial scenario was changed a lot and arrived at post-production, and the COVID pandemic also delayed the finish. In fact it took me three years spread over five years to complete the short.”

Made for about $250,000, the short’s length expanded from its originally planned seven minutes to nine minutes. “I’m still working the old fashioned way, so my tools are paint brushes, acrylic paint and cels. I am using an animation desk with a digital camera and the Dragonframe program instead of a 35mm camera, which is now stored in a cabinet,” the director tells us.

He says the toughest part of realizing his vision was the beginning. “The big challenges are the first line tests, to come up with ideas for telling this story without using dialogue and how to move from one shot to another in an elegant way. Then the more the work progresses, the more ideas lead to others. I am most pleased with the music Judith Gruber-Stitzer composed for the film.”

Like many animators around the world, Schwizgebel had to deal with the restrictions of working during the pandemic. “It all happened the moment the images were finished for the short, but recording studios were closed. So in the meantime, I started another film at home without having to go to my studio.”

The director who has been nominated four times for his work at Annecy, leaves us with a few words of advice for aspiring short directors. “First, be passionate about moving images. The tools have evolved a lot and allow you to make very ugly but also beautiful films. This is what I did not understand when digital animation was first introduced. At the time, I thought it was only useful for video games and the army!”

How to Be at Home

How to Be at Home

How to Be at Home
Directed by Andrea Dorfman

A short film about the global pandemic era’s social isolation is perhaps the perfect work of art for 2021. Andrea Dorfman collaborated closely with National Film Board of Canada producer Annette Clarke, poet-musician Tanya Davis and sound designer Sacha Ratcliffe to create the wonderful short How to Be at Home. As Dorfman tells us via email, “Early on in the pandemic, my friend and sometimes collaborator, the brilliant poet Tanya Davis, sent me her new poem about life in isolation, which is a tender, aching, relatable piece, the kind of poem that needed to get out, and I knew animation would give it wings to fly on.”

Made with an approximate 70,000 Canadian dollar-budget ($57,000 U.S.), the short uses pages of books to illustrate the many moods and ideas of Davis’s timely poem. “I wanted to work in acrylics, but supply and shipping were disrupted by the pandemic and I couldn’t get animation paper — but I had lots of books,” recalls Dorfman. “I love animated projects that use books (especially The Opposites Game by Lisa LaBracio) and I was curious. Also, the motif of a book — of reading, an activity we might turn to while isolated at home — lent itself well to the theme of the poem. The books, themselves, were another story. I wanted old books that had yellowing pages. I found several books in my boyfriend’s mother’s basement and the rest came from a friend who works at a second-hand bookstore. I used around 15 books in total.”

Production on the short began in early June of 2020, and it was completed in mid-August. Dorfman combined painting in books with stop-motion paper cut-out animation. She shot the books with a Canon 7D camera with a Nikon fixed lens at 12 frames per second, using the popular stop-motion software Dragonframe. The toughest part, according to the director, was dealing with the unusually hot summer weather in Nova Scotia last year. “I loved making this film, but I was animating in a tiny room with the window shut!” she remembers.

Naming the works of Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, Lizzy Hobbs, Daisy Jacobs, Daniel Bruson, Alê Abreu and Signe Bauman as some of her favorites, Dorfman says she is always drawn to hand-made animation, where the audience can see and feel the presence of the animators. She also mentions that she loved the overwhelmingly positive response to her short. “The pandemic has been so hard for so many, and Tanya’s poem deeply resonates,” she notes. “The music, composed by Daniel Ledwell, is emotional and embracing, and the sound design by Sacha Ratcliffe pulls the viewer in to create a moving and immersive experience.”

In parting, she also leaves us with some great advice. “If you have an idea for a short animation, begin it!” she says. “Don’t get overwhelmed by how many options there are for materials, style or approach to use. Once you start, even if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you’ll figure it out!”

In Nature

In Nature

In Nature
By Marcel Barelli

Swiss artist Marcel Barelli has always been fascinated with nature. But for his latest animated venture, he decided to make a film that talks about homosexuality for a wide audience. “I read many articles that pointed out that homosexuality is very common among animals,” he says. “I thought it was an interesting idea and a little-known topic. In fact, there are very few books and documentaries on the subject, maybe about three or four books in English and one in French.”

The next step was to contact the French authority on the subject, ethologist and journalist Fleur Daugey. “She agreed to help me write the short film, as a French expert on the subject,” he notes. “The writing was very fast. I decided to turn the film into a children’s film, using simple language. It took me a year to make the five-minute short. I usually draw on paper, but for the first time, to work faster, I decided to animate the film with Toon Boom Harmony. I used my own daughter as the narrator for the French version! Altogether, it cost around 100,000 euros [about $121,2000].”

The director says his biggest challenge was keeping it short and simple, despite the complexity of its subject. “Talking about homosexuality without talking about sexuality and sex was a bit of a challenge,” he notes. “I am very happy with the result, because I feel we can tell everyone about the fact that homosexuality is present all over the world, and that it is something that is naturally present in nature.”

Barelli says his favorite animated film of all time is Frédéric Back’s Oscar-winning The Man Who Planted Trees. “I love films that make us think about the impact our way of life has,” he says. “And I try to do the same with my shorts. I hope that our short will make people smile, because it is also a funny film (I hope) but also makes them think a little bit!”

Mom

Mom

Mom
Directed by Kajika Aki

When Kajika Aki was 16, she battled anorexia because, as she tells us, her body no longer understood how to live. “Then, at 18, I very quickly understood that drawing for me was about survival and introspection, I worked really hard for a long time,” she recalls. “If I wasn’t doing the job, at the end of the day I couldn’t eat nor sleep.”

The idea for her new animated short Mom came to her one night when she started thinking about images of running horses and dogs, so she drew them. After leaving her studies at Gobelins University in France in 2017, the artist made the short using TVPaint and After Effects, skipping the storyboard process completely. “I just drew shot after shot based on what was coming freely into my mind,” Aki recalls. “I need freedom to create and I can’t work for an audience. I work with ‘flashes’ of evidence and intuition; there is no limit to my honesty while I am creating because I’m not in control of it — it’s a pure, selfish act.”

Aki says she threw herself into the project and worked on it nonstop. “It took a long time then to find musicians and financial means,” she says. “My composers (Théophile Loaec and Arthur Dairaine) did an impressive job, I feel so lucky to have met them at the right time. I know how important the audio is in a movie.”

She finds it funny that it was only at the end of the process that she realized her short was about love. “It’s about the first form of love I received on Earth, so I called it Mom,” Aki explains. “The title always comes at the end, because I don’t know what I’m talking about until it’s done. Freedom and honesty are essential parts to my definition of love; and it begins with being true with myself.”

Looking back, she says the biggest challenge for her was respecting her own body during the production of the short. “I can work like a computer and forget to eat or move. After two months of work on Mom, I got out of my bed and fell down on the floor because my legs weren’t moving any more. I was alone in my flat and for five minutes I thought that I had lost my legs. Then, I had to exercise for 30 minutes each day … I’m not a good example of someone leading a healthy life! Working alone and creating is just like breathing or living, and everything seems logical when I’m alone: I struggle more when I’m on vacation!”

Under the Skin, the Bark

Under the Skin, the Bark

Under the Skin, the Bark
Directed by Franck Dion

French artist Franck Dion has made splashes at Annecy in years past with his shorts Edmond Was a Donkey (2012) and The Head Vanishes (2016). This year he’s back with a new project that he says he made as a response to his previous work. “I think it was a failure since I spent a year and a half working to get a result that was not at all what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “It was extremely frustrating and sad. I blamed myself very much, and this had the effect of accelerating the process of a depression that had been hanging over me for a long time.”

Inspiration arrived a couple of years ago when Dion worked on a video mapping project with Gael Loison and discovered the music of the Dale Cooper Quartet & The Dictaphones. “I immediately recognized in their music a very inspiring emotion,” says the director. “At the same time, while I was writing my first feature, I had the idea for a short film which featured a character unloved by its author.”

The 2020 pandemic pushed Dion to focus on his short and to collaborate with Loison and his band. But his process was different from his previous ventures. “For this project, I turned this whole process upside down,” he notes. “I started by building the demiurge puppet without really knowing what its story would be. I changed his appearance dozens of times to finally realize that it was not his story that I wanted to tell but rather the story of his creation, the character of the hunter he draws.”

Dion used scanned ink drawings and worked both in 3D modeling and digital 2D to assemble the project. He adds, “Of course, there is the talent of the Dale Cooper Quartet who made the music for the film as well as Chloé Delaume and Didier Brunner, whose voices we hear on the answering machine. Then, there is the unwavering support of my wife, who is particularly precious to me.”

The director says he enjoyed improvising and exploring the pleasures of craftsmanship. “I loved going from traditional drawing to sculpture, from animation to compositing, with always the same joy. I find these different techniques so fascinating and complementary. I, who have known animation in Super 8, often tell myself that It’s a great opportunity to be able to take advantage of today’s digital tools with such ease.”

Of course, each creative journey has its own rewards. For Dion, the short allowed him to play with a radically different way of working. “I learned to let go of the usual contingencies: I think I needed to let off some steam! It was a very strong and happy experience which allowed me to continue working on my feature film with much more serenity!”

Conversations with a Whale

Conversations with a Whale

Conversations with a Whale
Directed by Anna Bergmann

Even horrible rejection letters from film festivals can act as unlikely sources of inspiration. Just ask Anna “Samo” Bergmann, who created a special folder to save all the rejection emails she received from animation festivals around the world. “I was spoiled by the previous festival success of my student days, and I was expecting things to be the same for my new film. Upset about my failure, I was trying to understand the reasons for the scale of my depression and to find new motivation to continue to work as an artist and filmmaker.”

Her new short Conversations with a Whale allowed her to reinvent her creative process. “I tried to keep the creation more intuitive, allowing things to grow on the go,” she explains. “I didn’t have any storyboard or animatic, only a rough idea, a feeling. The ideas for the film were born on the animation table, while making animation. It was scary and annoying for me not to know exactly how the film would develop, but it also brought more excitement into each phase of the filmmaking.”

According to the helmer, Conversations with a Whale was created directly under the camera lens. “I was drawing with charcoal pencils and dry pastel on kraft paper, using cut-out animation and pixilation as well as objects I have built,” she notes. “I was mostly working on one layer, but sometimes I would have a second glass layer to add depth to the frame. I also made good use of Duplo blocks and white sticky putty to fix and hold objects in my animation. As for the software and equipment, I was using Dragonframe together with a Nikon D800 camera and did editing in Adobe After Effects and Premiere.”

Bergmann, who picks My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, The Wolf House, When the Day Breaks and Tale of Tales as some of her favorites in the animation realm, says she feels lucky that she was able to solve the puzzle of her animated project. “I wasn’t sure until the end that I’d be able to find all the missing pieces,” she notes. “I feel lucky it all worked out! This film is my love letter to artists, art, its audience and in particular to animation. I hope that people who watch this film will feel this love and get the taste of magic happening that I have every time my characters start living their own life.”

June Night

June Night

June Night
Directed by Mike Maryniuk

The many faces of silent film legend Buster Keaton and the natural world figure heavily in the latest short by artist Mike Maryniuk. The filmmaker says he wanted to explore pandemic dreaming in the project. “Dream logic is something that I really enjoy as a viewer and dreamer; it provides artistic elbow room and allows for a cinematic universe to blossom,” he explains. I also had been growing seedlings for the garden and imagined them yearning to go outside. I wanted to examine our relationship with nature, which can only be repaired by recalibrating, acknowledging the futility of certain pursuits, and dipping one toe from each foot simultaneously into the pools of the past and the future, while staring at the tangled pool noodle that is the present!”

The National Film Board of Canada project, which was produced with a 68,000 Canadian dollar-budget (about $55,400 U.S.) was completed last summer in a four-month period. “I used many X-Acto knives, lots of printer ink, card stock, miniatures, UV lamps, time-lapsed plants growing — all captured using Dragonframe and a few Sony cameras,” recalls Maryniuk. “My producer, Jon Montes (NFB), helped come up with some of the ideas and sourced archival images. The production department was a one-person army. We had a really great sound and music team (Andy Rudolph, Kelsey Braun, Sarah Jo Kirsch and Aaron Funk). Many people from the NFB worked their magic behind the scenes.”

The director says he was quite pleased with the level of artistic freedom he was granted on his passion project. “You experience creative synchronistic interventions from the world around you, too strange and exciting not to include in the creative process,” he maintains. “I guess the process of creating this film was actually the most pleasing part — that and paying tribute to Buster Keaton, the original independent filmmaker, was pretty special.” And the toughest part of the job? He replies, “I have to say it was probably cutting 16,000 individual Buster Keatons out of paper!”

When asked to tell us about some of his favorite animated work, he mentions Caroline Leaf’s Two Sisters, Virgil Widrich’s Fast Film, Ed Ackerman and Greg Zbitnew’s 5 Cents a Copy, as well as anything by David Daniels, Leslie Supnet, Helen Hill and Winston Hacking. He’s also wonderfully open-minded when it comes to advice about the art form. “Animation can be a lot of things,” he points out. “The latest technologies are fantastic, however working with your hands, antiquated technologies and an arts-and-craft mentality can become the antidote to sitting in front of a screen. This allows for editing, coloring and compositing to become the antidote to tedious handmade work. Ultimately finding some sort of balance is important when working. You don’t need to be good, you just need to work hard, and be yourself.”

For more info about this year’s Annecy selection, visit www.annecy.org.

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