I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, University of Waterloo, Williams College, Brown University, Roblox, Unity, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Annecy 2016

Annecy is picture-perfect
The Annecy International Animated Film Festival is the oldest and largest regular animation festival.

The program spans the gamut from blockbuster 3D films to avant garde indie experiments. This is where emerging animators and upcoming hot new films often first debut---it is a glimpse into both the near future of film and to many great ideas that never emerge commercially.

Part of the charm of the festival is the way it mixes so many cultures and media in a beautiful old city in the French alps. Contrasts and synergy abound. Sitting in a screening, you'll hear ten different languages spoken in your row, and find that you're sitting between a purple-haired film student from Spain and Matt Groening.

Continual storms turned the park into a second lake but
produced dramatic cloudscapes over the mountains.
I've been attending the Annecy festival for over a decade. You can see some of my previous summaries here.

In recent years I've been joined by friends and family in the industry, which has deepened the experience and my perspectives on the works. The trip is always a personal and professional highlight of my year (and exhausting! Screenings run very late and this town parties hard).

The Year of Living Safely

One standard for judging a film: would I rather
leave the screening and go eat a crepe?
This was the most conservative slate of films I've ever seen at the festival. The highs were sparse and concentrated in a few screenings. The lows were also sparse...everything was reasonable, just often not exciting.

I'd rather the animators and the jury take more risks to give us lots of gems mixed among some truly awful films than play it safe all around. I left happy to have seen what I did and collected a lot of great films, but also wondering where the magic had gone from the programme as a whole.

One more word about the disappointments before moving on to the highlights. Almost everything I saw had good technique. In particular, the 3D films were all gorgeous, which has not been the case before. I think we're finally getting the hang of CGI for animation and not just showing off the technology.

However, much of that technique was wasted on weak scripts and self-indulgently long works. A character or art style that is charming in a two minute film needs a lot more to sustain it when the run time stretches to 30 minutes for a "short." Perhaps the falling cost of animation production has encouraged sloppy pacing. For features, production costs are still pretty high and nothing was self-indulgent. But it was disappointing to see great production teams execute well on scripts and characters that were simply generic. Fart joke. Skateboard. Squash and stretch an animal. Token female and token heavy-set or dark-skinned character. Video-game like quests. Really? When working in a medium that can depict anything, why keep re-making two old CGI films with a fresh coat of new paint and names? Can't we produce blockbusters that are also imaginative any more?

I was delighted to see a VR programme for that nascent animation medium. This is clearly experimental and I hope that this continues. Most of the "VR" films in it were 360 videos, and interactive experiences that really leverage VR and create telepresence. That makes sense because the technology for hosting true VR screening to large audiences doesn't exist, but perhaps in a decade we'll be closer to jacking into The Matrix between ice creams and crepes at Annecy.


Here are the strongest films my group saw at Annecy in 2016. We were able to cover all of the shorts in competition and almost all of the features, as well as many of the side programs. I look forward to using many of these in my courses next year.

Usually our picks align closely with the jury's...since they didn't this year, I suspect that the conservatism in the program came from them and not the submission pool. Although we usually disagree a bit (why would you discuss films with people who always agree?), there was pretty clear consensus that these were the hot films and we just had different favorites among them.

Especially interesting is that the best films landed on opposite ends of the spectrum of complexity. Some were great because they did so much with so little, focusing on the pace and characters to deliver without bells and whistles. I'm personally a fan of very short shorts that deliver a complete experience in under 5 minutes.

Other films were great because the stories received the elaborate productions that they deserved. Like a magic or circus act, many great animations create dissonance between the fact that the audience is aware of the painstaking hours behind the work and the apparent effortlessness and grace of the performance.

All of these embrace their medium, which is one of my criteria for a great work. They would have been undermined if the same script was filmed as live action and wouldn't have worked at all if directly translated to static images or prose.

Ma vie de Courgtte (My Life as a Courgette)
Claude Barras
France and Switzerland
1h 5m

Courgette deservedly won both the Audience Award and the Feature Film Cristal this year. This is a stop-motion feature about an orphan boy named Courgette ("Zucchini") that offsets its realist darkness with bright colors in a way that underscores instead of undercuts them. It is ultimately charming and upbeat, and would be appropriate for older children as well as adults.

Frankfurter Str. 99a
Evgenia Gostrer
5 min

This student film was my favorite this year among all films for its visuals. Each frame is abstract back-lit oil paint on glass. When viewed as a film, they form snatches of representational images illustrating the garbage collector's voiceover. Each image is geometrically precise. Despite the inherent sloppiness of the chosen materials, their placement is impeccable and the result is controlled, beautiful, and minimalist. This graduation film is a vignette without a real dramatic arc and conclusion, but Gostrer is clearly a new animator to watch closely and I'm already a huge fan.

25 April
Leanne Pooley
New Zealand
1 hour 25 min

I missed this screening. The senior McGuire in digital media production, Mick, writes,

"Taking the unique approach of animating the characters in a documentary film, director Leanne Pooley and team brought to life the tragic tale of New Zealand soldiers during the disastrous WWI Battle of Gallipoli, Turkey.

Stories extracted from letters and diaries of the soldiers were told by the actual realistic animated characters during the time of the invasion. The crisp color images brought a sense of realism to the documentary that is often lacking in grainy, scratched, black and white stock footage.

This poignant film stands alone as a documentary, as well as an animated feature film."

Dancing Line
Shelly Dodson
2m 25s

Dodson's economy is inspirational. A single (aliased!) line performs a burlesque act. Apparently good animator can make art with one bit per pixel. The integration of visuals and music is excellent and sells the piece.

Le Bruit du gris
Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier
Belgium and France
3 min

Using only a child's toy set, this film tells a fun story and develops several memorable characters in its short run time.

Kaspar Jancis
10 min

In the structure of a classic European animated short, Piano weaves several storylines--sex, violence, mystery, romance--together with impeccable animation. The conclusion isn't as resounding as I might have hoped, but at every moment up to it I was pleasantly kept on my toes and enjoyed the ride.

Pieter Coudyzer
20 min

This is a longer short that earns its runtime. Social justice, politics, science fiction, and character study are all packed well into this piece. Every time that you think you know where it is going, it makes a justifiable yet surprising turn. The story is very reminiscent of early Heinlein or Clarke.

Caminho dos gigantes (Way of Giants)
Alois Di Leo
12 min

A beautiful, slightly abstract story told through beautiful 2.5D animation. The setting of indigenous people in the forest was fresh and explored with love.

Celui qui a deux ames (He Who Has To Souls)
Fabrice Luang-Vija
17 min 30 s

The official description is completely accurate but (at least in the English translation) undersells the film:They called him "He Who Has Two souls". He was beautiful like a woman and handsome like a man. He hesitated.

Instead, this is straightfoward film about gender expression without affectation. The arctic is a frequent short film setting, but this is one of the first films that I've seen which chooses native characters and researches and then integrates a non-European culture carefully with the plot.

Jailbreak ("Ausbruch")
1m 20s

A tongue-in cheek stop motion animation (see the behind-the-scenes set shot) that feels like a student film. It screened out of competition but could have held its own in competition...the length is perfect for the two-note story and it is a great example of how to develop a character, get in, deliver the twist, and then get out crisply.

Journal Anime
Donato Sansone
4 min

A great nonfiction film requires luck--the direction, style, world events, and funding have to all come together at the right time. Animating daydreams and criticism over the actual pages of leftist French newspaper Libération is a nice art project. When rising European tensions over immigration and the economy form a backdrop and then the Paris attacks explode on to the page, that project becomes essential.

Ainslie Henderson
United Kingdom
2 min 30 sec

Henderson is a singer-songwriter who has also made several warmly received short films. This stop-motion film about stop motion is clever, poignant, and effective. It also boasts drippingly gorgeous cinematography that is honest and stops just short of parody.

Trial & Error
Antje Heyn
5 min 27 sec

The film looks like ballpoint pen on graph paper (I'm almost certain it isn't). Heyn tells two stories: the foreground of a man trying to repair a missing button, and the background of his life and marriage. The latter is done entirely through his monologue on the former, through what is said, how it is said, and what is unsaid.

There's no attempt at a heavy hit here. Instead, we're treated to a character study presented elegantly through good technique.

Marc Hericher
3 min 30 sec

I admit that the description sounds grotesque: a Rube Goldberg machine made out of human body parts. It isn't grotesque...it is fascinating in a clinical sense, and the CGI is near-perfect. Each body part is used for its corresponding function, such as a lens for focusing light or a tendon for contracting.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and the Skylanders series for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.