When we think of animation, it’s not uncommon that the first names that come to mind are Disney, Pixar or Ghibli. The industry seems to be dominated by two of the world’s great countries, the United States and Japan. However, it is clear that, for several decades now, European animated films have not had to blush at the big names, even offering a different and innovative way of looking at this medium, which can be explained in different ways.
A historical reason and a dynamic sector
The ’80s, a pivotal decade.
It was at the end of this decade, in 1987, that the Media program (set up by the European Union), took part in the creation of the European Association of Animated Film, commonly known as Cartoon. The objective was clear, to give back its letters of nobility and its legitimate importance to the European animation cinema, who faced Japan and the United States.
It has been a long journey, it took many meetings with the Cartoon coordinators to understand and develop the offer they would propose thanks to the Media program. The main particularity of the association is that no matter what new events or new measures were implemented, everything was done in contact with professionals from the 4 corners of the continent with the sole idea of restructuring the European animation industry and giving it a second wind. This initiative of the Media program highlights one of the specificities of European animation: transversality between the different countries. Indeed, today there are very few productions that are made in a single country, and a lot of co-productions. It seems obvious that, in order to make a place for themselves on the world market, such countries need to join forces, but Europe, mainly through the Media program, has succeeded in setting up a dynamic conducive to co-productions between the countries that make it up, allowing the resurgence of many films that could not have been made by a single country. This was no easy task, before the introduction of Cartoon, the European industry was really destructured and fragmented, unable to compete with Japan or the United States. Thanks to the establishment of an era of trust between the different countries and thanks to a lot of time and patience from the main actors of this change, European animation is nowadays much better than ever and encourages emulation between the countries that make it up.
At the same time, the Annecy Animation Film Festival, created in 1960, set up a new award in 1985: Le Cristal du long métrage (The Crystal of the Feature Film), showing here a will to develop and to put forward animated films. A few years later, in 1997, the festival changed from a biannual edition to an event that takes place every year, proof if any were needed of the success of this festival, considered to be one of the most important (if not the most important) when it comes to animation. This move is symptomatic of a change in mentality and an increase in interest in animation in France on the one hand and in Europe in a wider sense. This trend is constantly developing and continues even after the 2000s with, in particular, the creation of the EFA (European Film Award for best Animated Film) in 2009 which is keen to highlight the best of European animated film.
Beyond the Annecy Festival, there is a significant concentration of festivals dedicated to animation in Europe, such as the Anibar Animation Festival in Kosovo, Anifilm in the Czech Republic, the London International Animation Festival in England and Anima in Belgium. In comparison, the Siggraph in the United States and Hiroshima International Animation Festival in Japan are the only equivalent festivals in the rest of the world. The importance of animation in Europe and the desire to highlight the diversity of productions explain this density.
France, a leading country
Through these various organizations and festivals, the animation industry in Europe is improving, becoming more professional and above all getting more important. This is notably possible thanks to one country, which represents 40% of the region’s animation production and a renowned know-how: France. Indeed France is considered the third most important country in terms of animation, behind Japan and the United States.
As we might have expected, animation is the country’s best export. The explanation is relatively easy. The genre is more universal and dubbing an animated film will not distort it in any way, as it can be the case for live action.
The trend in the country is to support animation, indeed since 2016, there is a willingness from the State and various public authorities to refocus French animation and promote the Made in France. Expenditure related to the sector has therefore increased drastically, representing up to 344 million euros in 2017, i.e. 182 million more than in 2005.
The animation industry in France is very dynamic, with more than 120 animation studios in the country and a willingness from the Syndicat des Producteurs de film d’animation to further increase the sector’s wage bill. It is therefore an important sector, but one that is still expanding.
Some figures for the year 2017:
Animation that year is 5 feature films for the cinema, making 31 million cinema admissions and 187 million euros in takings.
The country’s dynamism is a great model and a driving force for the rest of Europe.
Focus on Estonia
Estonia is not a country known for its large film industry, however, it has and still knows how to make a place for itself on the European animation scene. On the one hand, it is one of the first countries to have made animated films. The first one was “The adventure of Jugu the Dog” by Voldemar Päts and dates back to 1931. Estonian animated cinema has, since its beginnings, been centered on “hand-made” and opened to new experiences (which is quite revealing of European cinema in general), it is a curious and truly ambitious vision of cinema. As Aurelia Aasa says in the introduction of A Quick Introduction to Estonian Animation: “[Animation] is about finding your peculiarity. Because where else, if not in animation, could you bring your most bizarre dreams into life?”. It’s a rather intimate, niche cinema, but full of ideas and talented directors like Heino Pars or Elbert Tuganov.
But its history is far from over, today it is still a growing field in the country, always looking for new talents and new animators. A large part of the animation studios remains in the historical lineage of the “hand-made” (Handicraft) and others, such as A fim Estonia, one of the biggest studios, are trying to free themselves from it and to follow a more commercial and export-friendly dynamic. But what makes Estonian animation so rich is the diversity in the works on offer, which is growing every year.
Perhaps what makes it special is the irony and sarcasm that are prevalent in its productions. Indeed, social satire is one of the historical spearheads of Estonian animation.
The country’s various organisations are working to boost animation in their territory, the Estonian Film Institute for example offers interesting financing of up to €280,000 for a short film. This funding is designed to attract other countries and increase Estonian productions/co-productions. For co-productions of animated features, the budget is at least €2,000,000 per year, which is a huge sum for such a small country.
It should also be noted that, as in most European countries, a festival focusing on animation takes place every year: the PÖFF short. Estonia is therefore an unsuspected but truly representative country of the different dynamics that govern cinema in Europe and which make it so special.
Whether in France, Estonia or anywhere else in Europe, animation is really starting to find its audience, accounting for 15% of admissions on average per European country (including Russia and Turkey) between 2010 and 2014, rising even to more than 20% in the Baltic countries and an average of 180 million tickets per year.
Innovative films and an innovative way of working:
“Europe is much bolder than Hollywood, not hesitating to tackle current issues: immigration, the environment, poverty and social issues,” told what Marc Vandeweyer, Cartoon’s managing director, to La Croix newspaper during the annual Cartoon Movie, an event that helps to find funding for co-productions of European animated feature films.
Indeed, if Japan and the United States have reached a certain phase of industrialization of animation, Europe remains in the development of more artisanal techniques and always seeks to innovate, thus proposing a more artisanal animation cinema. Nevertheless, we must recognize a main difference in the way of seeing animation between the two big countries. The United States are mainly known for their majors, Disney, Pixar, leaving very little space for the director, while in Japan, despite the influence of Ghibli studios, the director is most promoted, such as Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon or Isao Takahata. The logic of industrialization is therefore greater in the United States, which produces several films a year, than in Japan, which rarely produces more than one each year.
Europe, for its part, is considered a third set, mainly due to the numerous co-productions. European animation is imbued with the duty to remember, whether in Europe (Where is Anne Franck by Ari Folman, Tre Infanzie by Simone Massi), on Europeans in the rest of the world (Another Day of Life by Raul de la Fuente and Damian Nenow on a Polish author during the civil war in Angola) or on events that took place on the other side of the world (Funan by Denis Do on the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia, Les hirondelles de Kaboul by Zabou Breitman and Éléa Gobbé-Mévellec).
Some of these films (Another Day of Life among those mentioned above but also The State Against Mandela and the Others by Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte) are animated documentary films, which makes it easier to recount events for which we have no archive images and to adapt historical books more freely.
But of course, European animated cinema is diverse. It even follows American commercial successes. Indeed, Klaus, the film produced by Netflix, is a Spanish film by Sergio Pablos inspired by the Scandinavian story. Although it is another American production, its origin and inspiration come from Europe.
Zoom on Checkered Ninja, (Ternet Ninja)
Checkered Ninja is a Danish animated film that seems at first glance relatively consensual. Indeed, the spectator follows the story of a shy little boy named Alex, who falls in love with an older girl and is mistreated by the big boys at school. He will be helped by a ninja doll that will come to life to push him to accomplish himself.
But we quickly realize that we are not in front of a Disney production as the tone of the film is so offbeat and the humor sometimes corrosive. Above all, the film deals with many societal themes beyond harassment, reconstituted families and even forced labour in Asia.
The film was a real success at the Danish Box Office with more than 950,000 admissions (almost 1/5th of the Danish population). Spotted in Annecy afterwards, the film is on its way to a European or even an international career.
In conclusion, European animated cinema has a lot of hidden gems to offer, for all tastes and all genres, offering a less policed work than what can be found at Disney for example. This kind of cinema is not afraid to shock or be innovative and is worth taking an interest in.
Book: « A Quick Introduction to Estonian Animation » by Sigrid Saag and Eda Koppel