Art animation can be found anywhere in the world, but in Europe it used to be more of a rule than exception. Animation has rarely been used as a commercial entertainment like in the US, although the amount of computer generated 3D pictures has increased nowadays. With that, a major part of signature style is gone. Hardly anyone can create individual pieces of art with this trending vehicle.
European Animation is more uncompromising. The film is as long as it needs to be. There’s not clear restrictions of time, no need to be a standard short film or a feature lenght. The film runs for exactly fourty minutes if it is the time needed to tell the story. At the moment, there’s practically only the French animation with potential of becoming an industry any time soon.
In the US, European animation is generally considered too dark and bold. The other, greater problem is the likes of Disney, trying to maintain a sort of monopoly status. Seen concretely for example when The Mole (Krtek) had it’s try out there.
Traditional animation from (especially Eastern) Europe is usually made of very natural ingredients, there’s a lot of national romantics, painting inspired, folklore based, art nouveu -like, puppet theatre derived illustrations. Dark and crude. Scary even. In addition, there’s not many other mediums keeping the aesthetics of German expressionism live either.
One must respect the variety of styles. There’s the silhoutte films, stop-motion, puppet films, cut-out animation, scratching, destructive, the pin screen technique, mixed-media as well as the hand drawn cel animation, computer generated images and much more.
One of the most essential sources of inspiration is arguably Jiří Trnka’s illustrations from 1939 onwards. His one and only true love was the puppet theatre and later the puppet films. He was financially forced to express his visions through fairy tale illustrations, and the visual style of illustration was heavily inspired by the puppet works.
Quoting Jaroslav Boček‘s book Jiří Trnka – Artist & Puppet Master (1962), his technique and style revolutionised the whole Czech children’s book illustration, when Bruin Furryball in his Forest Home was a sensation of the Christmas book trade in 1939.
Soon even the cartoons were inspired by the crude, puppet-esque character design. The result is highly visible even today, yet not as clearly in the mainstream. The best known big-budget contemporary film makers in the world that owe their style partly to these films and illustrations, are US film makers like Tim Burton, Henry Selick and so forth.
Political changes in Europe circa 1990 had crucial effect on financing the quality animation in Europe. Yuri Norstein is still making his one hour long cut-out animation Overcoat, started in 1981. Jiří Barta could not do a film for decades after his 1986 masterpiece Krysař. The intended follow-up, mixed-media film Golem is still looking for sponsors.
“Usually, animated films were shown in front of feature films in Prague. It was very simple to distribute animation in the last years [of the regime], as we were not questioned about what our films were about. They were simply animated films: not for children, not for anybody. In one way it was a much easier situation. Of course, censorship was a problem; now we have got freedom in our thinking and our ideas. But now we have the problem of finding sponsors and producers and so on. In the Czech Republic, there is not a very strong system for financing film because parliament hasn’t voted in a new [film] law. In this film area, there is very little money in the grant system to finance auteur projects. Of course, you can make some commercials and you can ask anywhere you want—not only in the Czech Republic but also foreign countries.”
– Jiří Barta at Kinoeye
The commonly repeated elements, aesthetics and motifs in European animated films are generally from the long tradition of ones own history and culture, but there’s a few other influences too. For a long time, oriental tales have been popular in both European animation and illustration. The most important title is the Arabian Nights, or, Tales of Thousand and One Nights. It’s a horn of plenty equal to H.C. Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.
Oriental influences also include the Chinese shadow theatre, brought to France in the 1700s. Émile Prisse d’Avennes imports grew interest on Arabic arts in the 1800s, and last but certainly not least the appreciation of puppet theatre in Czech in early 1900s. Later influences would be Japanese ink wash painting, calligraphy and even anime.
Anime is a worldwide phenomenon now, and even though it’s a term for only Japanese animation, it has been stylically adapted to the US cartoons today. Basically, same goes to “European” kind of animation. It can be practised elsewhere. Next time, about the sister countries of European style outside the continent.
Before that, take a look at the unfinished films by Yuri Norstein and Jiří Barta.