All You Need Is Words: Lucerne International Animation Academy

by Nobuaki Doi for ASIFA Magazine, Summer Issue 2010

In August 2008, I found a little red flyer in Hiroshima International Animation Festival declaring Lucerne International Animation Academy would be held in the near future. I felt excited by names that were listed on it. In December 2010, I flew to Switzerland without hesitation. There I met with first-class animators and researchers. But what is more exciting was the encounter with their words.

According to the official website, "the goal of this Symposium is to encourage a theoretical debate about current and historical questions of animation as an independent form of the Moving Pictures Production in Switzerland". But, in fact, this conference has a more pragmatic aim that is concerned with the problem that suffers many people belonging in this animations community. As Otto Alder, the head of this event, said at the opening ceremony, we still lack and need a method of teaching animation.

Yuri Norstein

The list of speakers is very unique. Most of them are the directors who make short animation. International conferences concerning with animation always deal with Disney/Pixar or Anime things but here is not. This is good if considering one of the aims here is to discuss a teaching method of animation because short animation and education have very close relationship each other. What do students make when graduating from animation department? Short animation (unless they are crazy to make a feature). As Jayne Pilling said at the close ceremony, their only weapon to survive after graduation is their own short film. They should make a good one. On the other hand, who teaches them? Short animation is very hard to make money so, for animators who make such kind, teaching at a school is one of the main ways for make a living. In fact, during the list of speakers there are many animators/teachers. If there are great animators who have a method, words, or the way of thinking to teach animation, there is no reason not to gather them and spread their wise all around the world.

What is needed for teaching? Words for animation. In this conference there were many sessions but the number of the film shown was very small. Words, words, words…(By the way, Michaela Pavlatova was one of the most referred animators through this conference.) What was great in LIAA was that animators' words were not like those in a formal (and sometimes boring) autobiographical talk in a retrospective in a festival but very fundamental about the nature of animation.

We need words for another reason. Some of the participants officially and unofficially said that they want their animation to get out from the position of "loser". Like Chris Robinson (unfortunately he wasn’t in the conference) once said in an interview, artistic animation is too arty for public, but is looked down by people in art community. We fall into a crack. We need words to declare what our animation is towards outside our community.

In LIAA, I found some unique thoughts that can be produced only from animators who create short pieces. Judging from their words there, short animation is very different from animation of feature-length or television series. (They are driven by character/personality so they tend to be just a sub-genre of live-action films or drama.) Now let me introduce some of the interesting topics.

Priit Pärn

In what points does animation differ from live-action? After finishing to explain his way to teach student to make a good script, Priit Pärn seems to have answered, if not directly, this question in the Q and A session. He recognizes the strong point in animation is that you can use not a real actor but a "sign". Character as sign is very different from an actor, who has been living from the day he/she was born and has a unique history. Character as sign is more abstract and exists only on a screen.

Gil Alkabetz

Gil Alkabetz seems to take over this topic. His lecture was very distinctive because he didn't say anything about his own films. His main concern was to understand the uniqueness in animation. He finds it in the abstract nature of animation. In animation, what you can see is not "the" man, "the" woman or "the" dog, but "a" man, "a" woman or "a" dog. Following his discussion more directly, for example, in Father and Daughter by Michael Dudok De Wit appear not "the" father and "the" daughter but "a" father and "a" daughter. This won't limit viewer's imagination. These people can be any father and any daughter. Each of viewers finds their own story in them. It is more universal than what we can see in the concrete figures.

Both Pärn and Alkabetz take notice the abstract nature of animation. Colors and lines essentially don't mean anything but in it viewer find something that doesn’t exist truly and what they will find is not always necessarily a substitution of human or animal. It can be more abstract. In this context, "abstract" doesn't mean a pure one like in Oskar Fischinger's films. You can understand the abstract nature when watching some of Pärn's films. For example, Triangle is the story of "a" man and "a" woman even if they have a personal name. They are not real and more like a concept but still you can understand them. This is what animation can do.

Yuri Norstein seems to have given us a method not to make a short animation just as a short version of feature-length. Some thought his two presentations in LIAA were too abstract and difficult to understand, but it seems to me that his main point was very simple and pragmatic: how can we express the sense of totality or eternity in animation and make viewers feel it? It is partly the same with the discussions of Pärn and Alkabetz. The point is to turn abstract nature of animation to provoke viewers' imagination or perception actively. One of the Norstein's advices there is not to use photorealistic way of visual style, in other words, not to imitate the reality in a straightforward way. If you draw characters in a very realistic way, we will find a very strong connection between what is drawn and what it means and it will limit viewer's imagination very strictly. What is important is simplicity and uncertainty. Since Hedgehog in the Fog depicts Hedgehog who is thrown away from the daily routine to the unknown world, it is important for this theme to put an uncertain and vague thing: fog. When making animation you should put something very visually concrete on a screen. (It is obvious if you compare animation with literature.) In such circumstance how can one avoid from preventing viewer's imagination growing? What Norstein tells us was the very concrete method to do so.

David O'Reilly

David O'Reilly, the youngest speaker in LIAA, destroyed unconsciously shared prejudice in animation. His main topic seems to have had a doubt on the idea of authenticity in animation. He said in the animation community people tend to think unconsciously what human's hands produce or what makes people warm as authentic, but he think it is not right and there is another reason why people feel authenticity. As you can see very easily when watching his Please Say Something, O'Reilly put an importance on using very artificial images. Artificiality seems to be very distant from humanity or authenticity. How does one can provoke the emotion, very humane feeling, in viewer's mind by using artificial elements? According to O'Reilly, what is more important is to think about coherence (or organic connections between elements) in a film. Judging from what he accomplished by Octocat, in animation even very sloppy drawing (he uploaded Octocat pretending he was 9 years old) can provoke the emotion in viewer's mind. However awful the visual image is, if a film has coherence in it, viewers feel it as authentic. Animation can make us think sloppy things as genuine.

These yet unheard ways of thinking towards animation were conceived through the struggle to make a good animated film, especially short one. From here we can start to think more productively on animation study, education or creation. I found something very symbolic in O'Reilly's speech. There he criticized the use of live-action footage in the latest part of Waltz with Bashir. He said the filmmaker doesn't believe the power of animation and thinks only live-action can produce something dramatic. From my subjective perspective, what is important in that film is the contrast of reality between live-action and animation and the filmmaker make a good use of it. I don't find any ground that O'Reilly is right. But O'Reilly's emotionally strong words made me feel excited and I felt the expectation that it is possible that, by exploring more, he will find unknown nature of animation that will convince me that he is right. Animation community still lacks words to tell or thoughtful investigation, especially in a short form, which is freer from restriction. Of course I don't think words are omnipotent but, in this conference full of thoughtful words, I felt sure that yet there is something words can do. Animation has unexplored possibilities so it can be most exciting media in the future. This is what LIAA proved.

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