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3 Key Ways That Europe’s Feature Animation Scene Differs From The U.S.

The differences between the European and American feature animation scenes were never more apparent than when I attended Cartoon Movie in Bordeaux, France last month.

Fifty-five animated projects were presented at the pitching and co-production forum, now in its 19th year. Films were presented in all stages of the production cycle; some projects were in the early concept stages, others further along in development, and some were deep into production.

A presentation at Cartoon Movie last month. © CARTOON.
A presentation at Cartoon Movie last month. © CARTOON.

Some of the differences are fairly obvious. For example, every European producer resisted the temptation to add a talking piece of poop to their trailer. But I also observed some deeper fundamental differences between how Europeans and Americans approach feature animation filmmaking. Here are three key ways that the playbook of European producers differs from their American counterparts.

1. There is no culture of secrecy surrounding animated features

Possibly the most surprising thing about the European animation scene is its openness. European filmmakers pitch their concepts in front of hundreds of attendees, and increasingly, they have started releasing their Cartoon Movie concept and pitch trailers online after the event. Cartoon Brew, in fact, premiered three such trailers this year: Kensuke’s Kingdom, Icarus, and Wolfwalkers.

Coming from the United States, where film studios protect the plots to animated features like Trump protects his tax returns, it’s something of a novelty to see European filmmakers openly sharing their film ideas, years before the films are actually made.

In part, it’s done out of necessity; in Europe, big entertainment conglomerates rarely fund entire films as in America. Budgets are cobbled together with financing from different countries, with various producers chipping in parts of the budget, along with presales to distributors in different countries. There’s less chance of finding production and distribution partners unless others in the business know about the project. It’s no exaggeration to say that for many European films, the process of lining up the funding often takes longer than the actual production of the film.

But there is also less need for secrecy because European features, at their best, aspire to an auteur model that allows the film to bear the tonal imprint of its creator. You could pitch Alberto Vázquez’ Unicorn Wars, Tomm Moore’s Wolfwalkers, or Rémi Chayé’s Calamity, A Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary, and yes, another studio could superficially copy all of the same elements, but in the end, none of the copycat films would ever be the same as a film by Vázquez, Moore, or Chayé because they put so much of themselves into their ideas.

2. Lower budgets create opportunity for graphic diversity

Most of the films pitched at Cartoon Movie were in the ballpark of 3 to 15 million euros. That amount is significant enough to assemble a solid crew and develop a custom-pipeline for production, yet not so much that it makes risk-taking impossible.

By contrast, big-studio American feature animation budgets range from $60-200 million. At that cost, risk-taking is no longer the priority; the goal is to reach the largest audience possible and recoup the investment.

Graphic diversity means a lot of different things. Among the trends at this year’s Cartoon Movie was stylized cgi projects, among them The Siren, Charlotte, A Skeleton Story, Fox and Hare Save the Forest, The Prince’s Journey, and Zombillenium. The move toward stylized cg is a good lesson learned by European producers, who in the past have often run into trouble when they’ve tried to replicate Pixar/Dreamworks-level graphics on a fraction of the budget. Stylizing the look of the production results in something that stands on its own, and can’t be compared unfavorably to slicker American productions. Stylized cg features are being made successfully in Europe and beyond, and some excellent pieces have been completed in recent years, including Adama, Louise by the Shore, and Seoul Station.

Graphic diversity also means that hand-drawn animation is alive and well in Europe. There is no single technique that dominates the European animation scene as here stateside. Below are just a few of the teasers for predominantly hand-drawn projects pitched at Cartoon Movie this year:

Going back to the auteur concept, European producers often allow the director to determine the right technique for a film. The lower the budget, the more experimental things can get, such as the pitch for The Fantastic Voyage of Marona by Romanian director Anca Damian (Crulic: The Path to Beyond, The Magic Mountain). Her project mixed all kinds of techniques, including digital 2D animation, painting, cut-out, and cg to tell its story of a dog remembering its different masters.

3. Real life as inspiration

The amount of projects at Cartoon Movie based on real-life figures was staggering: Aurelien Froment’s Josep (a hand-drawn film on the life of cartoonist/artist/Spanish Civil War refugee Josep Bartoli), Bibo Bergeron’s Charlotte (toon-shaded cg film about painter Charlotte Salomon who was killed by the Nazis at the age of 26), Juan Lozano and Zoltan Horvath’s The Red Jungle (stylized video footage with animation elements based on the 2008 death of FARC guerrilla commander Raúl Reyes), Salvador Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (hand-drawn film based on an early project in the career of Spanish film legend Luis Buñuel), and Johan Poher Rasmussen’s Flee (hand-drawn documentary about an Afghan immigrant in Denmark).

cartoonmovies_real

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There were plenty of pitches based on historical figures or events. Those projects include Jan Bultheel’s Canaan, Sepideh Farsi’s The Siren, Michaela Pavlátová’s My Sunny Maad, Rémi Chayé’s Calamity, A Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary, Jung Henin’s Single Mom in Korea, and Manuel H. Martin’s Awakening Beauty.

There aren’t many comps that European producers can point to as successful examples of films rooted in historical fact. Over and over, I heard producers highlight two films—Waltz with Bashir (an Israeli production with European co-producers) and Persepolis. They are the existing success stories driving the trend: both films screened at Cannes and were nominated for Oscars (Bashir in the foreign language category), and both films performed well financially.

This is the pace of how trends develop in animation. Both of those films were released a decade ago, and only now have other producers been able to convince financiers and distributors that there is a demand for mature animation targeting young adult and adult audiences. The variety of projects on display suggests that there’s no turning back: European producers are developing new audiences with this latest wave of films, and if even a few of them achieve success, expect further efforts in this direction.

  • Giovanni Dreas

    Yes, there is no doubt that this is a wonderful moment for european animation. Honestly, I find it way more interesting than the actual american industry.

  • ea

    I say let’s start a similar process here in North America, seeking funding to create all sorts of animated films with distinct visuals and stories worth telling (not safe, kiddy crap).

    • AmidAmidi

      You can’t start a similar process in the US without understanding how films in Europe are funded. Funding for animated features throughout the continent comes from a combination of private and public sector. If one eliminates public sector funding for the arts, as we virtually have in the United States, then corporations dictate culture, and they will always pursue projects that first and foremost benefit their bottomline. That’s why we have Cars, Trolls, Emojis, Smurfs, Minions, Legos and Disney princesses.

      • That should be the #4 difference – Europe has more government funded options than the U.S., especially for independent productions. Unfortunately many of us indie animated folks are lumped in with the American animation scene when a lot of us don’t want to do kiddie films and if we are adding talking poop to our trailers, it would actually be funny.

        • This is why I never vote conservatively. Without public funding, there’s no public awareness that any of it is available to them.

          • Dusty Ayres

            You have to do more than just not vote for neocons, you have to vote smartly, and I’m sorry, but many left-wing Americans don’t do that well enough, which is why the neocons always win.

      • Dusty Ayres

        The $64,000 question, Amid, is can any of you guys and gals produce this work now under the current system? Another question I have is can you and other Americans vote in next year’s election, 2019, and 2020 to get Democrats into power who would restore funding for the arts so that you can make said similar films like they do in Europe?

        • AmidAmidi

          Government funding for the arts has been abysmal under both parties in the U.S. There has never existed any kind of consequential funding for filmmaking of the kind that exists in Europe. There are, however, billions of dollars worth of financial incentives and tax credits for film/TV productions, and most of that money flows back in one form or another to the six major conglomerates that control American film & TV entertainment.

          • Dusty Ayres

            Government funding for the arts has been abysmal under both parties in the U.S.

            I realize that, but you still have to be willing to vote to get what you want, and right now, like it or not, your only hope is the Democratic Party (the Greens aren’t going to give you the power you want, because they have to start from the bottom and work their way up to become a force in U.S. politics anyway.) Somebody (a very wise old somebody) said it best a while ago:

            Politics 101 For The Left, Revisited

            Considering that there are boutique divisions of the major studios, and considering that Wes Anderson was able to make the delightful stop-motion puppet movie The Fantastic Mr. Fox at one of them, can’t you and other animators make similar films like the ones mentioned in this article and have them distributed through those companies? Or set up production companies, make said films at them, and have then distributed through independent companies like Elevation Pictures, Summit Media, and Lionsgate like Tyler Perry has done?

  • Metlow Rovenstein

    Hearing that 2D animation is alive and well, hopefully some producer in the American film industry will make a 2D film, do pretty much everything but the animation here, and outsource the animation to a studio in Europe.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Meanwhile in North America…
    1) It’s not really a culture of secrecy, they’re still writing it as they make it. It’s easy to keep a secret when there is no secret.
    2) Budgets are higher since it’s being written and rewritten while in production. A lot of times artists are sitting on their hands doing nothing waiting for story. When it does arrive they have to work overtime to get it out on time.
    3) They can’t usereal life as inspiration because some people won’t get it and they want to appeal to the largest group of people.

    • It is sad thinking there’s certain things we just don’t have since it’s not available to us on a commercial level.

    • Metlow Rovenstein

      If that’s the case, why don’t they finish polishing the story BEFORE they can move on? I mean, that makes sense! Hello!

      • BlueBoomPony

        Audiences have shown little desire for rational storytelling.

  • Jake Stueber

    This is why I’m so much more interested in the European scene these days. A combination of artistic integrity AND business savvy, imagine that! This very trend of excellent, artistic films is proof that those two things are not mutually exclusive, no matter what people say.

    • If only Hollywood knew!

      • BlueBoomPony

        Getting them to look past their own navels is probably impossible.

  • Greg Sharp

    So many historical biopics too! Nice.

  • Johnny Marques

    Another interesting thing is how much variety there is even within the same style. In other words, hand drawn/CGI/stop motion/etc. movies/shorts usually don’t look the same, there’s distinctly personal artistic touches separating the work of people like Sylvain Chomet or Michaël Dudok de Wit, to cite just two names.

  • Cameron Ward

    Unless it’s from Disney, Pixar, or Laika, most of my hype comes from what GKids is going to release or distribute. Shout! Factory is sort of getting better at bringing films over, but they have a long way to go from being at GKids level.

    There is just something more interesting and vibrant about the foreign animation scene. Not to say they don’t have their garbage from time to time, but it’s less consistently mediocre quality than what American animation has gotten in terms of films.

  • J

    Why can’t Canada have this? We’re smaller than the US and have lower budgets, but all our money is being spent to subsidize Hollywood productions. There’s nothing of any interest coming out of Canada except for a bit of NFB shorts. All the money is going towards big studios doing service work for the US. Not even one studio that characterizes “national identity” the way Aardman does for England or Disney does for America. And if you try to get government support, the American or European studios just come over and poach your talent and take advantage of your tax credits.

    • That is a shame there isn’t more a grass roots movement for someone in Canada to do a film that is produced solely within Canada using those credits that should be rightfully used by said Canadian studio and not as a workaround for a foreign ‘collaborator’.

    • Marielle

      Check out Window Horses. It’s a feature-length 2D animated film made in Canada. It was playing in theaters a few weeks ago. My fairly ordinary theater had it. There’s also Snowtime and The Legend of Sarila, though these are CG films. The studio behind that last movie is working on their next movie called Mission Kathmandu. It’s based in Quebec City and appears totally Canadian. Another Canadian movie that I know of is Arctic Justice Thunder Squad, which is being produced in Toronto, possibly with foreign support. There are also many French films animated in Montreal, which is not so different from how European countries collaborate. I don’t know if you want to count The Nut Job as a Canadian film because it’s a collaboration, but that studio is based in Toronto.

    • Pocket

      Not having a “national identity” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The US has one and I wish we didn’t. Most of what makes us unique as a country is garbage, and the rest I wouldn’t mind spreading to the rest of the world and thus becoming not uniquely American anymore. But yeah, it’s a crying shame that the grants that were supposed to foster Canadian-made media just turned it into a place the US can cheaply outsource to, essentially subsidizing our bottom line instead. They should really close that loophole.

    • Dusty Ayres

      If you’d ever watched Teletoon and YTV these past years, you’d note all of the Canadian shows that were produced by Nelvana and other companies are somewhat Canadian at their core, with a Canadian sensibility-we haven’t been just sitting on our butts doing nothing but be an outpost of the USA.