'You Are Having a Festival for the Future'
Annecy, 'The Lovers' and animation newsbits.
Happy Sunday! Welcome to our annual issue dedicated to the Annecy Festival — the world’s biggest animation event. Here’s the agenda:
1️⃣ Annecy, in summary.
2️⃣ The Lovers and other news.
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Now, on we go!
1: The festival of festivals
For one week each year, the animation world descends on the French Alps. Thousands of artists, producers and viewers go to Annecy — a city, like Cannes, whose name has become synonymous with the film festival it hosts. It’s the largest animation event anywhere in the world.
This past week brought us Annecy 2023. And, according to the metrics, it was bigger than ever. Attendance beat the record numbers from last year: “15,820 accredited visitors (an increase of +19% compared to 2022), from 102 countries.”
As impressive as that may be, it doesn’t give you the festival’s color. For that, we turn to the words of Guillermo del Toro — a guest of honor at Annecy 2023. Here’s what he said in an interview this week:
... I think it’s one of the most vital festivals in the world. If you realize, when you have festivals like Cannes or Venice or Berlin, which are established film festivals, for very established directors, but are attended by the critics, [the] market. It’s very, very sort of adult. Middle-aged.
Annecy is attended by everybody that is a young filmmaker. It’s very alive, very youthful. People that are up to speed with art, up to speed with the latest animation, that are actively doing animation, that want to change cinema. That’s very important here in Annecy. You are having a festival for the future.
On that note, let’s start by exploring the peeks that Annecy offered of things to come.
In the discussions of what’s next for animation, it was del Toro himself who stole the headlines. During his Annecy master classes this week, he revealed his plans to quit live-action films after finishing just “a couple more” of them — and to dedicate himself entirely to animation from then on.
At the same time, del Toro attacked certain trends in commercial animation, where cliches and stereotypes can seep into characters’ motions and interactions and stories. “I think it’s urgent to see real life in animation,” he said, continuing:
Emotions are codified into a sort of teenage rom-com, almost emoji-style behavior. […] Why does everything act as if they’re in a sitcom? I think is emotional pornography. All the families are happy and sassy and quick, everyone has a one-liner. Well, my dad was boring. I was boring. Everybody in my family was boring. We had no one-liners.
He called on animation workers to “take over the asylum and then run it” — pushing back against the corporate element. For his own part, he’s developing the stop-motion film The Buried Giant, which he says will take four or even five years. He’s also co-writing a Mexican stop-motion feature for director Karla Castañeda (Pinocchio).
Mexican animation was the special focus of Annecy 2023, which was reflected in the previews at the festival and in the news of the week. For example, director Sofía Carrillo (Pinocchio) of Mexico announced her feature-length Insectario — also done in stop motion. It’s based on her macabre short Cerulia (watch), and a producer from Roma is on board.
Or take the Ambriz brothers, known for the stop-motion series Frankelda’s Book of Spooks. At Annecy this week, they spoke about and showcased their new feature Frankelda and the Prince of Spooks, which is nearing completion. It was del Toro’s influence, they say, that helped to make the film happen.
The Ambriz brothers confirmed that their studio, Cinema Fantasma, is working on three other stop-motion features planned to wrap in the next “five or six years.” These are The Bee Revolution, The Ballad of the Phoenix and the adult-oriented Vermin of the New World. One is already written; another is entering production. (It came out during Annecy that Woo Films will co-produce Bee Revolution and Phoenix.)
At the festival, the Ambriz brothers drew attention to these projects and brought along some of their finished puppets. It’s another show of strength for Mexican stop-motion, which is becoming the country’s signature animation style. “I think it’s tied to the lack of resources,” Roy Ambriz told Screen Daily this week. “Stop-motion allows you to achieve a good finish without the Pixar technology.”
He continued, “In Mexico there has always been a great visual culture. If you go to the Museum of Anthropology and see the sculptures there, all the art of our ancestors, you will see it was always very physical, very volumetric and with a highly developed aesthetic.”
Meanwhile, director Jorge Gutierrez (Maya and the Three) designed the poster for Annecy 2023, gave a master class and announced his next limited series based on Mesoamerican mythology. It’s produced by his California company Mexopolis.
That said, Mexican stories didn’t claim all of the future-focused Annecy headlines. In fact, just one project from Mexico (La Espectacular Saga of the Mask!) appeared at Annecy’s MIFA market, where animation-in-progress vies for attention and cash. France ruled this year’s MIFA awards — especially the gorgeous On the Run, which nabbed three of them.
On the Run is a film to keep an eye on. It’s directed by Julien Bisaro — the lead on Shooom’s Odyssey, one of the most charming animated films of recent years. On the Run looks similar: a story about animals (a penguin that takes care of an echidna) based in wordless storytelling. “We played a lot with pantomime when writing and staging,” Bisaro told Variety. “We draw on silent cinema, which allowed us to develop Chaplin-esque situational comedy that dispenses with dialogue.”
Two other intriguing MIFA pitches that Cartoon Brew singled out, but that didn’t win anything this year, were Heirloom (India) and Mfinda (Japan, America, Congo). A lack of direct prizes doesn’t equal failure, though: the point of MIFA is to get a project out there.
Heirloom comes from the co-director of the violent, stylish Wade (watch). The stills already have quite a bit of beauty to them — parts of Heirloom are animated with stop-motion embroidery. As for Mfinda, it’s a team-up between anime legend Gisaburo Sugii and Arthell Isom, founder of Japan’s “first Black-owned anime studio.”
Lastly, we can’t neglect the major-studio previews.
Disney was there in part to show Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire (trailer) — its pan-African short film anthology, produced by Triggerfish in South Africa. The project has been hyped for a few years and is due out on Disney+ in July. One of its films, Moremi, is directed by the artist behind Liyana’s “breathing paintings”: Shofela Coker.
And then there was Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget — the sequel to the 23-year-old Chicken Run. Aardman’s preview presentation got a good write-up in Deadline, with quotes from the creators like, “We got into this notion of it being a Bond movie with chickens.” It takes place in the ‘60s, and it’s about the invention of the chicken nugget.
Pitches and previews matter a lot at Annecy, but they aren’t the main event. The festival hosts one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in animation — up there with the Oscars and the Annies. And, like those older European film festivals that del Toro named, it’s a go-to place for premieres.
At Annecy 2023, the top prize for features went to Chicken for Linda! from France. It’s an unlikely story about a mother trying to cook chicken with peppers for her daughter — during a national strike day. Chicken for Linda! has a loose, impressionistic look that leans on color shapes. Co-director Chiara Malta said that the team “made the film for children, putting ourselves in their perspectives while adopting their language.”
The result is high-style despite a low budget. According to a report, Chicken for Linda! cost only €2.69 million (around $2.94 million), but clips like the one embedded below look great regardless. GKIDS announced this week that it had picked up the film for North American distribution.
Like every year, a long list of awards were handed out at Annecy 2023. Another winner was Spain’s Robot Dreams, which got the Contrechamp prize for features. Excitement has been growing around this one, and it’s set to reach America via Neon. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a robot and a dog dance to September on rollerskates, check out the clip embedded down below. There’s real joy in it, and we’re excited to see more.
Among student films, the grand prize went to La Notte from Italy, while the harsh and moving Mano (watch) from Denmark took home the Lotte Reiniger Award.
The Siren, the first animated film by director Sepideh Farsi, got a special award for feature-length music. This is a graphically bold piece about the Iran-Iraq War (see a clip), and one of the buzziest festival films of the year. This week, its producer Sébastien Onomo received Annecy’s “French Film Animation Trophy” for his work in France’s industry, not just on The Siren but on Annecy 2023 attendees Heart of Darkness and The Forest of Miss Tang.
One other feature nominated but unfortunately shut out this year was Art College 1994 from China, by Liu Jian (Have a Nice Day). Even so, Annecy’s artistic director raved about Jian’s work in an interview:
For me, Liu Jian isn’t one of the great active animation filmmakers, he’s one of the greatest filmmakers, period, to go along with what Guillermo del Toro says. Almost no other director speaks to us about China the way he does. He manages to say things about life in that country that are difficult to express.
Elsewhere at Annecy, the long-awaited Sirocco and the Kingdom of Air Streams had its world premiere — its screening opened the festival. The film is billed as Studio Ghibli meets Yellow Submarine, but it also has parallels with Catnapped! (1998). It cost just shy of €5 million, and Variety calls it “a truly spectacular psychedelic excursion.”
John Musker’s personal short I’m Hip premiered as well (see his Cartoon Brew interview), as did the stop-motion feature The Inventor by Jim Capobianco. The latter is about Leonardo da Vinci, and the road to making it a reality was a long one.
According to Capobianco’s co-director, the Inventor project stretches back around 12 years. It draws from Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials and the work of Jiří Trnka. Ultimately, the production ended up in France because of the “C2I” tax credit. “It is thanks to this tax credit that the film was made in France,” said the co-director. “Without it, Jim Capobianco would not have come here.”
For Capobianco’s part, the experience of doing stop-motion was wild and new. It was also, despite its long gestation, fast. He’s from Disney and Pixar, and he called the actual production of The Inventor, which took just 42 weeks, a whole different thing:
It was really unbelievable how fast we put it together. It was like I blinked and we were almost done. I mean, I’m used to being on a film, even in story development, for three years. […] Foliascope managed everything. And I have to say, with a studio pretty much built from the ground up, they did an amazing job.
Based on turnout and attendee takeaways, it’s safe to say that the 2023 edition of Annecy was a success — one that continued to establish the festival as one of the world’s major film destinations. Although we couldn’t attend this year, we’re looking forward to 2024.
Which, as usual for Annecy, is already in the planning stage. The festival revealed over the weekend that Portuguese animation will be the special focus of Annecy 2024. It starts next June.
2: Animation news worldwide
The secrets of a viral Kickstarter film
Indie animation is hard — especially in America, where most states lack real funding or infrastructure for animators. Even California, the industry’s home, can be a tough and sometimes hostile place for independents.
This is one reason to pay attention to The Lovers: an animated short film whose Kickstarter campaign (started May 9, ending June 23) is a viral success right now. The project has raised over $340,000 from around 6,200 backers. It’s been boosted by Catsuka and written up in the mainstream Filipino news.
All for a production based, in part, on the East Coast.
The Lovers comes from Studio Heartbreak, an all-remote team scattered around the world. It’s led by A. S. Siopao, the collective name for Heartbreak’s two directors and co-founders (it’s a combination of their real names). One is a student at Yale — the other at the University of Toronto. Together, they oversee a large group of contributors. “There are 25 of us on the team,” the directors told us over email.
The strategy behind The Lovers is a little unusual. On Kickstarter, there’s no video pitch from the people involved — just a slick, 46-second teaser, cut in a style somewhere between a movie trailer and an anime opening. It’s gory like Jujutsu Kaisen, with shot ideas that recall Satoshi Kon. From the text description, we learn that it’s about a chef in Manila and a live mermaid she has to prepare for a rich client, and the romance that arises between food and cook.
It’s a story that wouldn’t (as Studio Heartbreak admits) fly in the established industry, but that hasn’t hurt The Lovers. Neither has the lack of team footage. “We hit our goal of $60,000 in under two hours,” wrote the directors.
The teaser went huge on social media several times over. That wasn’t the only driver here, though. Many months of slow hype-building went into this. According to the directors, “[W]e have been making this film publicly on social media for over a year. We’ve been posting concept art, team doodles and background paintings as we go.”
The “strategy was just to work on the film as publicly as we could.”
Heartbreak had roughly 50,000 followers on Instagram (and about the same on Twitter) before The Lovers even reached Kickstarter. Tiny snippets from the teaser were dropped along the way, often doing viral numbers. Followers aren’t dollars, but real excitement grew, and the campaign launch channeled it. In the directors’ view, it “helps that folks have watched us work for so long, and this was the first chance that they could help and contribute.”
To round things out, we asked about The Lovers’ remote pipeline. The team communicates via Discord group chat, and the project is organized with a custom spreadsheet tool that Studio Heartbreak released for free. Here’s what A. S. Siopao told us:
The biggest upside is that our communication is lightning-fast! It’s also very easy to refer back to past communications since it’s all right there. The biggest challenge is probably trying to set up any sort of call or meeting, since everyone is in a different time zone. For our non-mandatory weekly meetings […] some people on our team woke up at 4 a.m. to hop on. We told them they didn’t have to, but they still showed up every week. Pretty wild.
After the success of the Lackadaisy pilot film, another indie production done remotely, this pipeline is beginning to feel like the future for independent animation teams. We wish the creators of The Lovers luck as their campaign enters its final stretch. You can find the Kickstarter page here, and Studio Heartbreak on Twitter and Instagram.
The American film Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse continued its success in theaters, with an estimated $27.8 million domestic weekend. On Thursday, it also remained the #1 film in Russia — it hasn’t been released there, but its pirate screenings are earning millions. The film’s global take is now over $489 million. (Also, check out this in-depth technical interview about the film.)
Another from America: Pixar’s Elemental is struggling at the box office, with a global opening weekend of $44.5 million.
The Hungarian feature Heroic Times (1984) is getting a restored release via Deaf Crocodile.
A story from Japan, courtesy of fellow Substack newsletter Animenomics: Netflix is shifting strategies on anime, moving away from exclusive films and series.
In August, Japan is getting a theatrical release of The Wolf House (its new poster is excellent). The Bones, by the same directors, will screen alongside it.
One of the strangest and most memorable animated shorts we’ve run across at any film festival, Naked from Russia, is now online.
Lastly, we looked into the remarkable talent and career of Lin Wenxiao, one of China’s greatest animators.
Until next time!