Indie Online

Presented by: The Animation Workshop / VIA University College
Center for Animation, Visualization and Digital Storytelling
Research and Development Center for Creative Industries and Professions, Denmark.

Authors: Michelle Kranot, Uri Kranot, Ellie Land, Vassilis Kroustallis, Clémence Bragard. Supervisor: Jakob Borrits Skov Sabra

About: Adapting to new online platforms: a focus on independent animation project development, distribution, and professional training. Following the shift to digital and internet festivals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we aim to document and lay the groundwork for further research and to be a resource for animation creators and producers.

1. Introduction:

The members of the research team authoring this paper are uniquely positioned at the intersection of the professional animation community and the animation education environment. This gives us the opportunity to expand and reach out to the most pertinent resources, as well as to produce materials which are created in a relevant context. We hope that we can use this as springboard for further collaborations with other researchers in comparable practices and institutions while deepening contacts with new partners. Our aim is that this approach of using our network as practicing professionals to gain insight and access will allow a transfer of knowledge back into the education and the community in which we operate. We hope this contribution will be integrated and useful, paving the way for further research and practice-based research at The Animation Workshop.

Recently, due to the restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, all public events including film festivals have been either cancelled, offered online, or reimagined as hybrid events. This is having a huge impact on the animation industry, particularly independent animation creators, artists, producers, and filmmakers.

Furthermore, all in-person education and training activities have migrated online. This may be our “normal” in the years to come.

As new online platforms and solutions emerge, what are the challenges we face? As an educational institution at the intersection of art and industry, and as providers of these activities – we must consider the impact on our students, graduates, and on existing models.

Under the auspices of The Animation Workshop’s Center for Animation and in collaboration with peers and colleagues, we have produced a research project, based on interviews and case studies in cooperation with our partners, to be used as a resource in these transitional times. We wish to map current offers and address the “new online life” with a focus on independent animation project development, distribution, and professional training. We will endeavour to publish and disseminate our research among our network partners, conferences, and relevant outlets. This research will be available both online and in print.

2. Discussion:

2.1 Statement:

Artistic research and development is a major field for deepening knowledge and broadening outreach – a resource and, potentially, an interface. We aim to use this opportunity to challenge and contribute to the art of understanding the changing world around us, with all the cultural, technological and environmental challenges that present themselves, in not only global and increasingly polarized society, but within our independent animation community as well. The shifting cultural and social climate is an opportunity to re-examine many aspects of our work life that we may have otherwise taken for granted.

The starting point of this research paper was to examine how animation film festivals and markets are managing their unexpected shift to online formats? We touch upon documentary film festivals, because they were the first to adapt and offer online festival content. How are filmmakers and the independent animation industry reacting? 

Film festivals have three stake holders with different agendas and expectations: the filmmakers, distributors/buyers, and the audience/public. This report will focus primarily on the experience of the filmmakers, and touches upon the other stakeholders through the prism of personal experiences.

For us filmmakers, animation creators, and media artists, festivals are not just about publicity, visibility, and awards. They are primarily about interaction between people and being a part of an international community. The upheaval of the global COVID pandemic, has transformed the traditional festival circuit as well as the way we watch films, consume content, and participate in events.

In theory, migrating a physical film festival to an online platform is a perfect solution, since we cannot travel, are limited in travel, or are confined.  We cannot gather or go about our ‘usual’ business. Therefore, an online festival allows us access. Whether it’s an organized streaming platform such as YouTube’s hosting of ‘We Are One’ global film festival’ (a partnership between more than 20 film festivals worldwide); or a spontaneous, one-off webinar offer – having access to all this content is the key. In practice, however, this approach isn’t always so accommodating or well thought-out as it may seem.

Without festivals, filmmakers can’t share their work, audiences are deprived of the opportunity to discover new works, sales agents have difficulty finding buyers, distributors, critics, writers, researchers, recruiters, and students are all impacted. Technicians, hosts, programmers, facilitators, and festival staff are made redundant. At the beginning of this current COVID pandemic, most filmmakers were reluctant to let their work be shown online. Not necessarily because they are opposed to streaming – most films end up online anyway.  It’s just that having spent years crafting these films, now everyone has to rethink how best to share that work with the world.

If sharing films were the only goal, then online festivals would be perfect. Directors stand to reach more people than they ever would, but doing so means disrupting the industry’s business model.

As opposed to the tumult in the feature fiction industry, in the documentary film festival world, filmmakers are more willing to take the plunge — as the high filmmaker participation in CPH:DOX ’20 and Cinéma du Réel ’20 has shown — perhaps because their projects are born out of a spirit of activism rather than profit. When taking a closer look at Animation Festivals in 2020, the results are mixed: there is either way too much content or not enough and, since festivals are all struggling at the moment, there is little room for compensation for the filmmakers. Those who have pledged to innovate hybrid options will need to think long and hard about how to improve this model.

2.2 Purpose of study:

As more and more festivals and creators are gaining first-hand experience in this, the settings, the culture, and ideas are evolving. This project wishes to demonstrate the value of discussion with industry professionals and artists, in the context of our research department and knowledge centre.

This research must be an ongoing process, the questions we were asking in Spring 2020 when the first online festivals started popping up, are not the questions we are asking in Autumn 2020, when the pandemic has dramatically changed the playing field. The political cultural climate has clearly morphed.  Budget cuts to cultural activities are echoing the growing nationalism and leading to compartmentalization and demotion of the arts in the broadest sense. At first, it felt uncomfortable, having to make the ‘shift’ to online, ‘out of our comfort zone’, but by now we should be wary, as it is becoming apparent that across sectors, under the guise of COVID restrictions, many cuts to undermine culture and progress are being made.

Especially now, and since the COVID-19 crisis, there has been an increased awareness of the need for long-term strategies and formats for the arts that extend beyond the event culture and the film festival format.

3. Methodology:

3.1 Approach and relevance:

This research project is focused on interviews, conversations, and what could be considered case studies. Our approach has a dual target audience in mind: it is using an academic format, with the goal of being presented in a relevant academic context; it also should communicate as an accessible resource, or springboard for further discussion:  a blend between documentation of our current situation and a contemporary navigational guide for professionals, students, artists, and trainers in our community and beyond.

Taking into account the challenge of duael readership, we engaged with our collaborator Ellie Land, who filled the role of qualifying and contextualizing this project in an academic setting. Ellie also has access to relevant academic networks and publication. Ellie reviewed, revised, and contributed as editor. Ellie has also co-authored Chapter IV: Findings and Conclusion together with Vassilis Kroustallis. Ellie is uniquely positioned within the University and Higher Education context; however, it is her sensibility and investment as an awarded filmmaker and director, which give her contribution its authority.

In order to ensure relevance and engagement within the broader, professional, independent animation industry, we initiated the idea of creating a resource package for practicing creators. This was a response to the initial understanding that to have impact and build knowledge, we should outline a digital media strategy for wide and relevant visibility. The context of this research project is an opportunity to offer a practical guide. For this, we are fortunate to collaborate with Clémence Bragard who authored Chapter 5: Framework / Tool Kit.  Clémence is not only a long-time partner of The Animation Workshop and engaged in the Professional Training, Research and Development Department but in her professional capacity, she has unprecedented access to the international business and artist network.  

Vassilis Kroustallis, writer and acclaimed film critic, comes with a journalistic background and, as editor of a prominent online Animation magazine, has outreach to a wide audience. He has been engaged to conduct the interviews with the filmmakers who have contributed to this body of work. With his vast experience as an interviewer and multiplier, Vassilis enables this project to paint a comprehensive picture, taking into account the limited scope of the research.

3.2 Guidelines:

In selecting the filmmaker interviewees, we were guided by the need to address a variety of practices, gender equality, and interests. Having input from established professionals as well as young talents, from people working within the industry, and those on its fringes is crucial. With a mix of feature films, short films, series, and projects in development as well as distribution, we are focused on European productions and have a special interest in The Animation Workshop programme graduates, or makers associated with The Animation Workshop / VIA University College.

Similarly to the guidance criteria in selecting participating filmmakers, the selection of interviews with festival directors, distributors and decision makers, aims to portray a range of relevant points of view: Large, established festivals alongside smaller, independent platforms.

Questions directed at professional trainers, publicists and programmers, support the toolkit aspect of the research. Some of the interview questions were standardized, such as with filmmakers, where we used a set of questions as a general guideline, while other interview questions emerged from the context of the interview setting, often in conversation, or as part of an arranged panel.

3.3 Structure:

In Chapter 4, the interviews are clustered in categories, as well as presented in the chronological order in which they were conducted. The idea behind this format was to ease readability and provide access to this bulk of texts, as well as to illustrate the fluctuations in our culture, over the short, but volatile timespan during which this research project was conducted (April – October 2020).

This research began with my participation in the online version of DokuFest International Documentary and Short film festival in August 2020, in a panel directly connected to my work as producer of ANIDOX: a professional training programme for the development of animated documentaries. This is why the first section of Chapter 4 bundles the response of the panel and focuses on the prominent documentary film festivals and their immediate response to the COVID pandemic.

Documentary festivals seemed to be the first to react. However, in Chapter 4.2, this work expanded to include more specific input from leaders of animation festivals, from persons in key positions in the animation community and their reflections. Animation festivals and their position regarding filmmakers became more central to the discussion. As we dove deeper into positioning this research as a practical instrument, and in order to enhance the advisory aspect, we included interviews with other professionals in distribution, communication, and training.

The final section of Chapter 4 is dedicated to the filmmaker interviews, conducted and edited by Vassilis Kroustallis, who focused on the creative process and outcomes.

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The author Michelle Kranot wishes to express sincere appreciation to the collaborators and co-authors for their invaluable input to this project:

Ellie Land, Filmmaker and Senior Lecturer in Animation at Northumbria University, Vassilis Kroustallis, writer and editor Zippy Frames Animation online magazine. PhD Cand. Ionian University, Corfu, and Clémence Bragard, Artistic Director of the French Festival of Animation Film, AFCA – French Association for Animated Cinema.

In addition, special thanks to Uri Kranot whose understanding of the needs and ideas of the targets was helpful during every phase of this undertaking. Thanks also to administrative staff and Lone Thaarup Nielsen, as well as to the members of the school council for their valuable input.

Special thanks to Tim Leborgne, Department Director, Open Workshop & Professional Training at The Animation Workshop / VIA, for initiating the idea of this endeavor and for his kind support.