By Chris Pallant.
Now in its sixth year, Canterbury Anifest continues to grow from strength to strength, this year hosting representatives from studios such as Aardman, Double Negative, DreamWorks, and Pixar. What started out as an ambitious but small-scale council initiative in 2007 has grown steadily over the past five years thanks to the direction provided by the conference organisers Animate and Create. With funding coming from a variety of backers, including Canterbury City Council, Canterbury Christ Church University, the Kent Film Office, and the British Film Institute, to name but a few, Anifest has little difficulty attracting presenters of international standing. Furthermore, the fact that Anifest unashamedly presents itself as an animation festival for all ages and backgrounds makes the event one of the most inclusive in the UK’s film festival calendar.
Although the Anifest programme placed a clear emphasis on providing professional perspectives, the honour of opening the festival fell to a film historian rather than practitioner. Presenting a talk about the life and works of Ray Harryhausen, archivist and biographer Tony Dalton captivated the audience with tales of how some of cinema’s most iconic creatures and monsters were painstakingly brought to life. Dalton also brought more than just polished storytelling to this opening session, coming armed with two instantly recognisable armatures. For many of the adults in the audience, who grew up with Harryhausen’s fantastical worlds, the chance to view first hand one of the original skeleton swordsmen from Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) and the Sabre-toothed Tiger from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (Sam Wanamaker, 1977) proved worth the entrance fee alone.
Closing the first day was the Anifest Awards Evening, with contested categories included Best International Film, Best British Film, Best British Up and Coming Animation Talent, and an Audience Award (focussed on the British film category). Responsibility for judging the first three categories fell to Ethan Lewis Maltby, a Kent-based composer, and Dani Deverux, who recently provided matte paintings for Disney’s John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012). While it would be awkward to list all the nominees and winners within this review, it is worth noting which films prevailed in the two headline categories: Best International Film went to Oh Willy… (Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, 2012) while Best British Film went to Tosh (Daisy Jacobs, 2012). Both shorts tackled distinctly adult themes and experiences, yet did so with delicacy, with Oh Willy… employing a knitted stop motion style and Tosh adopting a hand-drawn painterly aesthetic.
The second day of the festival delivered a string of inspirational presenters. Cassidy Curtis from DreamWorks initiated proceedings and immediately set a very high standard for those who had to follow. In an entertaining talk that focussed on a number of animated features, some made by DreamWorks and some not, Curtis did well to paint a picture that revealed the mutual respect shared by those working at marquee studios such as Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar. Such a representation of professional harmony serves as a helpful counterpoint to the popular view that these studios operate in a blinkered fashion, focussed primarily on competing for the largest market share. In reality, this is perhaps only an attitude shared by the 1% occupying the very top tier of these marque enterprises.
Following Curtis, Jim Parkyn and Will Becher proceeded to give a fascinating discussion of how both state-of-the-art and home-brew processes are now used to help create the models that populate Aardman’s films. Like in the Harryhausen session from the previous day, the audience were given the opportunity to get up close with a number of original armatures from the film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, 2012). Whereas Dalton just posed the Harryhausen armatures for the audience to take pictures, Parkyn and Becher put the models to work, conducting a live demonstration of stop motion animation. While this was a clear crowd-pleaser, the revelation that they had produced approximately ten thousand interchangeable mouth parts using three-dimensional rapid prototype printing for Pirates! drew the biggest reaction from the audience.
While Aardman are undeniably Britain’s most famous animation export, the next session, delivered by Double Negative’s Head of Animation Eamonn Butler, went a long way to raising audience awareness of what is an oft-overlooked site of British animation excellence: visual effects. Focussing primarily on John Carter, Butler put forward a strong case why audiences should give the big-budget box-office flop a second chance, drawing attention to the careful and passionate design process that underpinned many of the visual effects featured in the film.
The festival closed with a retrospective from Pixar’s Dan McCoy. Filled with exclusively re-rendered material, the clips of some of Pixar’s earlier films had never before looked so good on the big screen. McCoy, who is now a Supervising Technical Director at Pixar, in addition to giving the audience a chance to see the short film La Luna (Enrico Casarosa, 2011), which accompanied the recently released Brave (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 2012), also offered numerous entertaining insights into how Pixar’s recognisable visual aesthetic has evolved over time.
Although Anifest 2012 was only a two-day festival, it squeezed plenty of high quality content into the programme’s sessions. Looking forward, it is easy to envisage Anifest growing to be a three or four day festival, expanding to accommodate animators from the fields of video game production and web design. Furthermore, there is great potential to develop academic synergies alongside the festival, perhaps in the form of a parallel conference administered by a scholarly research network such as the Society for Animation Studies. Ultimately, whatever developments the future does or does not bring, Anifest 2013 promises to be another entertaining and eye-opening event.
Dr Chris Pallant is a Lecturer in Film and Digital Media at Canterbury Christ Church University. His research interests include animation, filmmaking production practices and technologies, and video games. He has published in book, book chapter and journal form on a range of topics, including Disney feature animation, animation and landscape, the ‘cartoonism’ of Quentin Tarantino’s live-action films, and most recently the work of Rockstar Games.