Black Maria Essay Series

Retaining an Intuitive Approach in Feature-length Animation: Four Recent Examples

by Tess Martin

Red Turtle (80 mins)
La Jeune Fille Sans Mains (73 mins)
And We Were Young (75 mins)
Torrey Pines (60 mins)

Independent animation has a long history and exists in many contexts. You can find it at film festivals, on the internet, or in art galleries. And yet the medium of animation is still most commonly identified with big studio projects: Disney, Pixar, or, if you meet a stop-motion fan, LAIKA. This is, of course, a shame. If I could have a nickel for every time someone has asked me, after learning I make animation, if I wanted to work for Pixar, I would be a wealthy, rather than cash-strapped, animator. And yet independent animation is still going strong, with interesting, inspiring and awesome results. If you're looking for inspiration, check out some work from some of my favorite contemporary animators, like Vladimir Leschiov, Cesar Diaz Melendez, Nicolai Troshinsky, or Nicolas Fong, or for more context: Caroline Leaf, Yuri Norstein and Jan Svankmajer.

The format with the most advocates within the independent animation community is probably the short film. This format is conducive to an 'auteur' approach, where the creator works primarily alone or with a few trusted collaborators. But there are also people who make long-form animated work in a similar way as short work, that is, outside the studio system. These films are often characterized by non-traditional story structures, creative animation techniques, a strong vision, and as Dutch animator/director Michael Dudok de Wit stated at a symposium in September 2016, a strong dose of intuition. In this article I will be outlining four examples of recent feature-length animated films that retain, in some measure, an auteur approach (these are just four recent ones! For more, look into Chris Sullivan, Don Hertzfeldt, Elliot Cowan, Anca Damian or Signe Baumane).

A note before beginning: just because I have chosen to focus on four recent feature-length films does not mean that a feature-length project is necessarily the ultimate goal for all animators. Especially in animation, short films are a format complete unto themselves. There should be no expectation that animators who make short films should be interested in making feature-length films. And if there is, people who hold those expectations must not be aware of the tremendous ability animation has to pack a punch in a short time. But feature-length films are also interesting, and all the more challenging in animation because this dense medium can be overwhelming over long periods if not treated properly. And it is undeniable that feature-length projects still, despite all the various ways we are consuming video nowadays, have more distribution options than shorts. Simply put, it is more likely that a lay person will hear about your feature-length film than they will your short film.

And yet, within the feature film realm, it is relatively much less likely that someone will hear about Sebastien Laudenbach's The Girl Without Hands, or about Andy Smetanka's And We Were Young, compared with the latest animated feature film churned out by studios. That makes this an interesting niche: films that are the 'appropriate' duration of a conventional viewing (60-90 mins), and yet are made in a very non-mainstream way: by a small team working under strong artistic, and yes, intuitive, direction.

Michael Dudok de Wit, mentioned briefly earlier, is one filmmaker with experience in both formats, having, one might say, conquered the festival circuit in 2000 with his short lyrical animation Father and Daughter (which won an Academy Award the following year), and just recently completed his first feature film, titled The Red Turtle. The Red Turtle is an 80-minute animated film without dialog about a man shipwrecked on a tropical island. It's a beautiful film that runs at a cool, languid pace that might be considered slow by mainstream audiences. It has enough of a story to keep the viewer engaged, but doesn't provide all the answers at the end.

The film was co-produced by the famed Studio Ghibli (responsible for Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and other classics). This collaboration means the film has one foot in the studio system (a Japanese, open-minded studio system, but a studio system nonetheless) and one foot in the independent world (due to Dudok de Wit's strong roots in the auteur realm). This makes it an interesting case study of a film that managed, in a way, to do both, to live in both contexts. It benefitted from the strong vision of its director, and yet the film was produced by a team of people spread out across multiple locations, making the workflow more reminiscent of a studio's (though I'm sure the team was a fraction the size of that responsible for Pixar's recent Finding Dory or Inside Out). In a recent lecture, Dudok de Wit emphasized the importance of holding on to an intuitive approach to composition, design and storytelling. It is interesting in and of itself that he was successful in doing this throughout his studio filmmaking experience. In 2016 The Red Turtle competed at Cannes (where it won a Special Prize in the Un Certain Regard section) and opened the Annecy International Animation Festival. The film was released theatrically in France in June, in the Netherlands in July and in Japan in September 2016. At the time of writing the status of a potential US theatrical release is not known.

La Jeune Fille Sans Mains or The Girl Without Hands is a 73-minute animated film created by French animator/filmmaker Sebastien Laudenbach. It is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale about a man who accidentally sells his daughter to the devil. The visuals were created by the director chronologically with paint on paper animation, in a more or less improvised manner. The drawings of the film are intentionally left unrefined, and the story is unrelenting and brutal, though it ultimately has a happy ending and the stoic heroine keeps the viewer engaged. The film screened at Cannes and Annecy (winning a jury mention), will be released in French cinemas in December 2016 and was acquired for North American distribution by GKIDS, though a release date in this region is not immediately clear.

And We Were Young is a 75-minute documentary created by independent filmmaker Andy Smetanka in his home studio in Missoula, Montana. It was animated one frame at a time using back-lit paper cut-outs, and was shot on Super-8. It uses as a starting point first-person testimonials from US soldiers who had been sent to France in WWI and these testimonials are narrated over the action. The film follows a loose narrative: we see the soldiers training, then being sent overseas, then confronting first-hand the horrors of war. But the film does not focus on one particular character over another. In fact, the silhouette cut-out technique means that it is difficult to distinguish one human cut-out from another. This produces at first, a disorienting effect, as we try to parse through the myriad experiences, but it soon comes to feel appropriate: we are experiencing instead the overwhelming feelings of going to war, and identifying with all of the characters, rather than one in particular. And We Were Young is currently finishing up its festival run, and unfortunately has not met with the same festival success as the two previous examples, meaning the chances of it attracting theatrical distribution are limited.

Torrey Pines is a 60-minute feature film created with paper cut-outs by Seattle artist/animator/musician Clyde Petersen, and a small team of assistants in Clyde's basement studio. It is based on the true story of Clyde going on a cross-country road trip at the age of twelve with his schizophrenic mother. It is full of bright colours, has no dialog and adopts a naive style somehow appropriate to the point of view of the pre-pubescent main character. The project is not just a film, but also a touring theatrical show, with the score performed live by Clyde Petersen's own band Your Heat Breaks, as well as guest musicians. The film has just started its festival run, and its first North American tour (showing in small theatres, DIY spaces, museums, etc.) is almost complete. Clyde hopes that festivals screening the film will be open to having the score performed live as well. Torrey Pines will probably not receive traditional theatrical distribution, but it is possible it will be picked up by a niche distributor and likely that it will eventually end up on a VOD platform. Clyde works with a producer, and is himself highly adept at navigating these types of practicalities.

Each of these projects is unique: The Red Turtle started out with the best possible chances of success, being co-produced by Studio Ghibli. The Girl Without Hands, though created more or less independently, benefitted from the arrival of a French producer just in time for its festival run, no doubt aiding its chances of finding its way into the hands of GKIDS, its North American distributor. The And We Were Young team is doing the best it can without a dedicated producer, and being based in Montana creates challenges for animation-related networking). Torrey Pines is forging its own path via independent venues, eschewing the traditional distribution order of festivals-theatrical-VOD.

Each of these projects had a different path to creation, with different size budgets, varied numbers of team members, expertise, and now, different distribution possibilities. And yet for all their differences, it is important to note that each film retains the original vision of its director and is a unique feature-length viewing experience. Though the big studio films might always get more notoriety (along with bigger marketing budgets), they aren't the only type of animation out there. Here's hoping that with time, and with the diversification of our viewing habits, these alternative long-form works will more readily and successfully reach their audiences.

Tess Martin is an independent animator who works with cut-outs, ink, paint, sand or objects. She has received grants and residencies in support of her films, which have displayed at galleries and festivals worldwide. Tess runs and moderates the monthly Manifest Animation Show & Tell events in Rotterdam, where she is based, and is the director of Haptic Animation Amplifier, a non-profit that helps support & distribute animation from the Pacific Northwest of the USA.