Saturday, August 3, 2013

Confessions of an Annecy Virgin

The first time... it is something you will always remember, a special time to be thoughtfully cherished and, when the universe aligns, enjoyed to its fullest in the true spirit of the French mode de vie. I am, of course, talking about Le Festival international du film d'animation d'Annecy, or simply "Annecy", as those in the animation world affectionately call it.

Since my early days as a student, Annecy’s reputation has demanded deference. With each new film, I diligently filled out the entry form and sent in my DVD, wondering if I would ever have the chance to join the historical roll-call of Annecy animators.

This year, the universe did align. A Tangled Tale was one of the 236 films selected from 2461 submissions. And so I joined roughly 7099 other animators and industry professionals in the quintessential French alpine town for a week of animation glory.

I arrived in Annecy directly from the closing night of the Hamburg Kurzfilmfestival, and when I say closing night, we really did shut it down- they were moving on to the hard alcohol when I caught my taxi to the airport at 6am. After a week of explaining sand animation to live-action filmmakers, what a relief for my sleep-deprived mind to find myself in a shuttle to the lake talking about the minutiae of animation theory with animator/professor Raimund Krumme and animation student Sara Shabani (Bike). It was like coming home to my animation family!

Marcel Jean (right) with Pixar's creative team.
I quickly learned that I was not the only newbie at Annecy. There was a new Artistic Director, Marcel Jean. He soon became the charismatic face of the festival, introducing the special screenings, important guests and moderating the morning Q+A with shorts directors.

Also, the famous Bonlieu Theater, which had been the central hub of the festival in years past, was under renovation, which meant the main screenings would take place in a specially constructed theater at the Salle des Haras. This was essentially a giant shipping container plopped in the courtyard of what used to be a convent. Standing outside, one could hear every thunderous Dolby boom shiver through the thin walls. The courtyard unfortunately turned into a giant mud puddle when it rained and the soggy row of portable toilets diluted the Annecy glamour to the level of a hippie music festival. With seating for 800+, this was where all the “important” events took place.

Animator Dustin Rees, ready for opening night in the Salle des Haras
Despite my sleep-deprived state, I was quite eager to see the first Shorts in Competition screening in the Salle des Haras. After picking up my accreditation and tickets (which required waiting in 3 separate lines and talking to 6 people, yet remarkably only took 20 minutes), I met up with Swiss animator Dustin Rees (Ransom) to head into the Salle. After our first 80 minutes in knee-breaking bleacher seats in the main seating section, we learned the best seats in the house were down in the front row, offering high-backed chairs with plenty of legroom in exchange for a mild risk of being hit by paper airplanes. Rees, an Anncey veteran of many years, took me under wing and explained three essential traditions of an Annecy screening:

Paper airplanes - sign of an eager Annecy crowd.
1) The paper airplanes gliding in flocks from the upper rows of the theaters must be wildly applauded should one manage to even come near the massive stage.
2) The certainty of a rabbit hidden somewhere in the Annecy Teaser, which causes the crowd to go wild once spotted.
3) The distinctive popping fish sound and possibly other animal sounds to be produced during any extended period of darkness. 

All these I experienced in every screening, though frankly, I expected the Annecy audience to be much rowdier. There were no shouts or boos or throwing of objects during the screenings. There was always polite and sometimes even enthusiastic applause as soon as the end credits appeared. Every screening I went to was full enough to feel like a crowd, and while the ticket-procurement process was baffling at first, once I figured it out, I never felt like I wouldn’t be able to get into a screening.

The minions invade!
The festival itself was a mixture of all things animated. The headline events were from the major studios, with premier screenings of Pixar’s Monsters University and Dreamwork’s Despicable Me 2, as well as Disney’s “recently-restored” Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse. There were features in competition and out of competition, running the spectrum of the highly produced Arjun from India, the comically-spooky stopmotion O Apostolo from Spain and a one-man labor of love Consuming Spirits from Chicago animator Chris Sullivan. Student films, commissioned films and shorts, both in and out of competition, filled the gaps.

What is the difference between in competition and out of competition anyway? From my perspective, In Competition means that when your film plays in the Salle des Haras, you get to run up into a little patch of light and wave at the applauding crowd. It means the festival will provide a hotel room, which, depending on how important you are, may or may not be a 30 minute hike from the center of town. After a late night of beer and disco bowling, you will be required to roll out of bed before 9am and talk coherently about your film to eager students and bleary-eyed press (who were also bowling). On awards night you will dress your best and sit with sweating palms, secretly hoping your name will be called, even though the buzz above your head says that the Cristal is surely going to some Oscar-winning Canadian from the NFB.
Fabulous view of Lac d'Annecy
My film (A Tangled Tale), was Out of Competition. Which means I got the special “official selection” purple badge that let me into everything and gave people a reason to talk to me without the performance anxiety of being in competition. The only thing I really missed was the opportunity to talk about my film publicly. It was odd to be an anonymous observer in the theater while my film screened, and not having any way to engage with my audience. I sat there absorbing the enthusiastic applause, wondering how many other filmmakers were sitting around me, detached from their films. I've watched my film at several festivals in several theaters and the Annecy projection was the best I’ve seen. Sound levels were perfect, the color saturation was balanced and the screen was immersive. But with no immediate way to connect with my viewers, I was completely unmotivated to attend the other two screenings of my film. There was too much else to see.

And see I did! Though the veterans told me that Annecy has become much more commercial lately, focusing on feature films and the expansive film market (Mifa), I found plenty of shorts to get excited about. You can find a list of the award winners here, but I’ve taken the opportunity to bestow my own awards for a few of my favorite films:

Furthest distance travelled between cuts
Directed by Paul Wenninger

Biggest pile of empty paint tubes

Directed by Robbe Vervaeke

Song certain to get stuck in your head 
for the rest of the festival
Autour du lac

Film that made me wish I spoke Slovenian

Directed by Spela Cadez

Best children’s fable that’s really for adults
Directed by Pierre-Luc Granjon

Most poignant visual metaphor
Directed by Renaud Martin

Film that made me think of Thom
Directed by Felix Massie

In addition to overdosing on shorts, I managed to catch a few features, and wander around the Mifa. Having been to Cannes, I was prepared for miles and miles of booths and was surprised that it only took me an hour to wander most of the Mifa area. Luckily it was lunchtime and most booths were empty so I didn’t get accosted by buyers and sellers. I did get to test out the new Cintiq touch. Cue Tex Avery wolf whistling mayhem - that thing is HOT!

And of course, there were the parties. Several people advised me before I went, “It doesn’t matter what you see, just go to as many parties as you can!” To kick off the festival, Annecy hosted a cocktail mixer for all the directors in the official selection. I adopted my usual strategy: when in a room full of strangers, grab a chilled glass of rose and strike up a conversation with the most impressive mustache in the room. My chat with Belgian animator Kris Genjin (A History of Pets), who has a mustache that would make Poirot proud, led to a delightful week of hanging out with several Belgian and Dutch directors. Not only am I convinced I want to move to Belgium, but I snagged a coveted invitation to the Belgian Party, where the Duvel flowed freely! 

America meets France
National pride is a big thing in Annecy. Each country hosted a party with wine and nibbles and a casual atmosphere for chatting. There were sponsored parties as well, like Nickelodeon’s night of disco bowling. Pixar/Disney imported a bit of Americana to France, by throwing a chilled out beach BBQ at La Plage. Animator Anne Beal (Balance and Swing) and I astounded some French producers by sandwiching our Ben n’ Jerry’s ice cream between two chocolate chip cookies. It seemed like an obvious idea to us Americans. The sun was shining on the mountains across the calm lake as directors, producers and industry VIPs lounged on the sandy shore with paper plates and plastic cups. Here I had a nice chat with Bill and Sandrine Plympton (Drunker than a Skunk)and admired the newest addition to their family. It is only a matter of time before roly-poly Luke ends up starring in one of his dad’s films.

Animators gather at the Saturday picnic
To top it all off, one cannot write about Annecy parties without mentioning Nik and Nancy Phelps potluck picnic on Saturday. At the end of the week, when everyone is exhausted and bug-eyed from so many hours in the theater,an afternoon sharing wine, food, lawn sports and paddle-boating with the many friends you’ve made along the way is just what we all needed.
As Nancy told me, “After all the Annecy snobbery, we wanted to have a party without gates and security guards, where anybody can come and talk to anybody else without worrying if they are good enough or important enough.” This was, indeed, the truest expression of the animation family, and the perfect way to end an Annecy romance with those warm fuzzy feelings that will last until the next rendezvous.
In my memories, the sun will always be shining in Annecy!

1 comment:

Sheila said...

Wonderful blog post Corrie- thank you for the informative report!