Annecy ’21: An Animated Conversation

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Letterboxd’s animation correspondent Kambole Campbell and fellow critic and animation enthusiast Alicia Haddick talk through their highlights from the 45th Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

The annual Annecy animation feast is unique in the world of film festivals in its focus on sneak-peeks and working panels, less so the glitzy premieres of the final products. For those, like us, who are overly invested in the craft of animation, it is a drool-worthy chance to preview the latest from the globe’s best animation artists. 

Last year, we got sneak peeks at Wolfwalkers, Over the Moon, On-Gaku: Our Sound, and the much-teased Inu-Oh. This year: another buzz-worthy Inu-Oh preview, a look at Aardman Animation’s Robin Robin, the doc-hybrid Archipel, an African animation showcase, and, from a team of Studio Ghibli breakaways, The Deer King

With so much to cover, we held our own hybrid festival conversation, talking across time zones about our favorite moments of the 2021 fest. So get your Letterboxd watchlists poised, because a wide world of animation is incoming.

Kambole Campbell (KC): Annecy returned with a hybrid festival after being fully online in a reduced capacity last year. 2020 was my first experience attending the festival in any form, so it was almost overwhelming how expansive this hybrid edition was! 

Alicia Haddick (AH): If only we could have been there in person! Alas, Covid had other ideas. Even with the limitations of attending remotely, I felt like Annecy being a hybrid event worked to its benefit. 

KC: Remote access was a little limited, compared with what those on the ground got to see. Nevertheless I couldn’t get enough of the work-in-progress previews; I think it drove home my interest in the technical intricacies of the craft and the result, which isn’t quite at the forefront of other kinds of film festivals. What was the standout section of this year’s edition for you? 

AH: While there were a ton of animated films at the event that I can’t wait to talk about, I also loved seeing Gints ZilbalodisAway last year, so appreciated the opportunity to see a work-in-progress look at his newest film, Flow

As you said, I think this and the various panels diving into the business of filmmaking and animation are what make Annecy so unique. This year we had a ton of open-access panels where creators discussed business realities and new animation technology; we had Wolfwalkers’ Tomm Moore and The Red Turtles Michaël Dudok de Wit sharing anecdotes about anime that inspired them; we had Disney animators giving portfolio advice to budding animators. They’re fascinating and educational, and bringing these panels online made them accessible to more people, which can’t be a bad thing!

KC: I love Away! As much as I loved the minimalist and DIY nature of that film, I was excited to hear that Zilbalodis is working with a team this time for Flow. It looks exciting—maybe even more personal than the last one. It really is valuable to be able to have all this access to the animators and designers making these projects, even if only to show off the technical complexities of the different mediums of animation. As someone whose favorite parts of Laika’s work are the end credits time-lapses of their set building, I had a particularly great time with Aardman’s Robin Robin presentation. 

I also caught the ‘animators speak about anime’ panel; Moore and Sofia Alexander (creator of Onyx Equinox) had an interesting point about how watching anime opened them up to the idea that specificity about their own cultures only made their work more attractive to new audiences. It was great to see that striving for cultural idiosyncrasies embodied in the program itself.

I feel like in the west (so to speak), people don’t often consider animation beyond the US and Japan, but the main program seemed primed to counter that. I truly adored Flee and The Deer King (funny to pick something from Japan after what I just said, I know), and was interested in Archipel and its conversation about the relationship between people and land.

AH: Exactly, a lot of the lineup was primed to highlight these major animation hubs like the US and Japan—particularly the latter, with three films competing for the main prize, but it was also designed to highlight animation from other regions. Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Archipel (‘Archipelago’) is a great example of a film that was unlike anything else showcased, in how it blended documentary and real-life footage with animation to capture the feeling of looking through a window towards the memories and history of this river in Quebec. I really appreciated what that set out to achieve. 

I really like how varied this event was. We had an African animation showcase, which put the industry in the spotlight and I learned a lot there, and it was catching a lot of these films I hadn’t necessarily heard of before the event that was a highlight for sure. In saying that, I know we both loved The Deer King, which had its world premiere at Annecy. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold off talking about that film!

KC: I was surprised by how taken I was with The Deer King’s story. It has a complex premise but a very simple emotional throughline and the balance really worked for me. I knew it would look beautiful, being familiar with Masahi Ando’s animation direction on Your Name and character designs for Studio Ghibli and later Satoshi Kon

It wasn’t a surprise that even amongst its fantasy trappings and sojourns into the abstract, the characters had such a believable weight to them. All the actions feel so burdened and real that when people get hurt—physically and otherwise—it really hurts. And vice-versa of course, there’s simply a lot of great character acting that helps emotionally direct you through some surprisingly dense world-building—I think I called it “Ursula LeGuin levels of dense” when we last spoke about it!

AH: You did, and it’s honestly the quickest summary you could give for it. Yet it’s never intimidating in its introduction to this world! It introduces all these heavy concepts and ideas of a world completely different to ours, with a decades-long conflict and barely-amicable truce, VERY quickly, and it does all this without ever feeling overwhelming. It was honestly what surprised me so much. 

The original novels the movie is based on are described as ‘medical fantasy’ and though it definitely tones down those medical aspects, it all comes together alongside our tough-yet-soft father and newly-adopted daughter into a rather beautiful film. I’ve already rewatched it!

And even beyond the names in the directing chair (who did a great job with little experience in the role, having mainly worked on the animation side!), the staff list for animators and talent working on The Deer King is immense. It all feels like one of the more commercial of the competition entries, but one that certainly won’t disappoint fans.

KC: You’re very right about how deftly it balances these things—and I’d be interested to see more of the “medical fantasy,” as you said. As for the array of talent on that production, shout out to Hiroshi Ohno (Wolf Children)’s lush art direction. 

I didn’t get much of a chance to scope out the shorts competition, nor the MIFA pitches, which showcase the best original animation film projects in development. Was there anything you found particularly striking there?

AH: Well I mentioned Gints Zilbalodis’ new film, Flow. That was one of the MIFA pitches, and to be honest, my favorite of the bunch. It sounds super interesting (and who couldn’t love a film with a cat in it?). But beyond that, I think Porcelain Birds was perhaps the most interesting of the pitches that I saw. It centers on a Japanese exchange student moving to California in late 1980s America, struggling to express herself and her culture. The film’s going to be a blend of CG and stop-motion animation, with the story touching on the immigrant experience and the abuse of money and power for sexual gain by a wealthy billionaire who has ties to the school. Listening to the directors talk about the film I think they have the potential to create something rather special with it. I think it’s a big one to watch. I’m in love with the visual style.

Of the shorts I saw, my favorite was probably The Mark of Emi (one of the ones screening in the Graduation films, actually). It was a rather intimate short about a girl realizing she was romantically attracted to her female friend. It was all animated on tiny 10 centimetre sheets of paper, which really emphasizes the intimacy in the pencil drawings, and I was captivated by it.

Did you catch any of the Special programme, Kambole? I used it as an excuse to finally watch Son of the White Mare, since they had that programmed as a classic. And, as someone with only a passing familiarity of the end of Will Vinton Studios and the origins of Laika (I was very young when the legal fallout around the studio was happening), the Claydream documentary was an eye-opening experience.

KC: The programming in that Special section is simply cool. There’s access to some real obscurities like György Kovásznai’s Foam Bath. I had already seen Son of the White Mare when the 4K restoration first came out (I actually had a, uh, let’s say no-nonsense talk with Marcell Jankovics for its release). With the likes of Cartoon Saloon in attendance, it’s cool to see the festival show off the kind of filmmakers that seem to have a foundational place in their style—from the outside looking in at least. 

Also, the multiple animation documentaries scattered across the program speak to this festival’s breadth. I need to catch up on Claydream. And, that second glimpse of Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh in the Previews section had me even more excited than I was last year! Anything you’re looking to catch up on, or looking forward to seeing more of down the line, Alicia? 

AH: Has to be Inu-Oh, really. We know Yuasa’s a very talented director, but if the whole movie can deliver on what was showcased here from the opening sequence then we’re in for a treat when it comes out. I just wish we’d get a more concrete release date—that placeholder “2021” date is hurting more by the day!

I think My Sunny Maad may be the main film to catch up on. It intrigued me before, but with it getting a jury prize I feel I need to shift my priorities around and give it a shot. La Traversée is another, simply for being animated with paint on glass (I gravitate to any film that takes a different approach to animation and hearing it’s made like that just leaves me thinking about Loving Vincent from a few years back). Been very impressed with the festival overall, though, so I don’t think either of us will complain about that!

Follow Kambole and Alicia on Letterboxd.

List: The films of the 45th Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

Pictured: Images from The Deer King, Archipel, Robin Robin, Flee, Inu-Oh.