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A Brief History of Swiss Animation by Rolf Baechler (Rolf Baechler’s Introduction to LIAF 2008 Country of Focus; Switzerland)

Image credit: ‘Animatou’ (R Andreani, C Barras, D Delachaux-Lambert, G Schwizgebel & C Luyet, 2007)

Image credit: ‘Animatou’ (R Andreani, C Barras, D Delachaux-Lambert, G Schwizgebel & C Luyet, 2007)

To commemorate its 20th anniversary in 1988, the Swiss Animated Film Group (ASIFA Switzerland) published a book, treating historical and contemporary aspects of the animated Swiss cinema. Roland Cosandey, film historian, animation scholar and author of many publications on Swiss animation, opened the anthology with a provocative statement:

“There is no such thing as a Swiss animated cinema, even though it is possible to dedicate a whole book to it. Surely, animated film makers do exist in Switzerland, but their work does not bear any other particular national sign except its common place of origin.” Roland Cosandey.

20 years later, at the time when the fostering organisation of Swiss Animation celebrates its 40th anniversary, there still isn’t any better way to sum up what makes – or does not – Swiss animation as a whole. In fact, there is no common concern neither on a formal nor a thematic level that would allow denominating any specific currents or trends. In other words: Diversity rules. Yet diversity was already the main denominator at the very outset of Swiss animation as we understand it today. It first surfaced in the 1950s, following and inspired by the general trend to experimental and authors’ cinema observed all over Europe, taking example on the first artistically successful challengers of the American Cartoon hegemony – Mc Laren, Trnka, Zagreb Studio, et al. The first Swiss non-narrative abstract works of the new avant-garde won the first prices on international festivals exactly half a century ago. Along came Annecy, 1960, the first fully-fledged international animationonly festival, just a stone’s throw away in neighbouring France, and Asia, the International Association of Animated Film, founded at the same time in the same place. Not surprising, it was the animation adepts of the region who picked up the threads, entered their first films in the thriving authors’ animation circuit and gave a body to Swiss animation by founding one of the first national chapters of Asifa, the Swiss Animated Film Group, in 1968.

Some of the protagonists of that time, like Nag Ansorge, the dean of Swiss animation, who in exceptionally close cooperation with his wife Gisele (deceased 1993) created an impressive body of work with animated sand, and then young-blood Georges Schwizgebel with friends Claude Luyet and Daniel Suter from the Genevese Studio GDS, one generation younger than Ansorge, are still active today. Schwizgebel actually came to be the most prominent and acclaimed of all Swiss animation authors, whose work probably reaped more festival nominations and awards worldwide than all the rest combined. Many have joined the bandwagon since then, yet almost just as many have left it again. Because another characteristic feature of Swiss animation is its prevailing form of production: an individual enterprise, structured by the rhythm imposed by mostly solitary, excessively long labour (compared to the duration of the result), with generally rather basic, limited infrastructure, the difficulties of financing a product with no proper market, and the necessity for most protagonists to make a living besides – none of it likely to make the life of an author more attractive. The statistics are clear: Although the Swiss Animated Film Group counts more than 100 members for quite some time already, the active core of Swiss animation never consisted of more than some thirty individuals – amongst them LIAF-participants Isabelle Favez, Claudius Gentinetta and Claude Barras –, while well over two thirds of those who entered the scene at one time with a first film never managed to make a second.

The inconsistencies of indispensable cultural funding by public and private bodies, TV and others, usually focusing on individuality, are not likely to change the picture (without it most works would not have come about, continuity entirely depends on it). With the rise of ICT (Information and Communication Technology), its digital production tools, new applications of moving images and new distribution channels, also a new breed of animation has emerged. New scenes of web, game and SFX designers have grown to form their own networks and platforms, and approach animation completely apart from the traditional circles (at LIAF: Oliver Conrad). Accordingly, encounters, let alone exchanges are rather scarce and all the more faint-hearted, if not reluctant – despite of the great potential (let alone the bare necessity) of learning from each other. Alas, judging from the works that gradually infiltrate the traditional domain, animation in Switzerland seems to attract the same type of cranky egomaniacs on either side (maybe due to some kind of residual mountaineers’ mentality, although most of us spent all our lives in urban settings), so there is no hope for redemption from this side.

However, there have there been signs of change lately, in the shape of production collectives, studios and schools – all attempts to focus efforts, favour teamwork and thus enable a shared tradition (although it is still too early to tell whether we witness just another short-lived phenomenon or a sustainable development). For example, Jonas Raeber’s SWAMP studio in Lucerne, just celebrating its 15th anniversary of producing commissioned work and TV content, taking credit for a string of highly successful shorts of authors such as Claudius Gentinetta (‘Poldek’ 2004) as well as his own (e.g. ~‘Gruezi’ 1995, ‘Credo’ 2001); or Zoltan Horvath of Nadasdy Film, Geneva, author of the acclaimed short ‘Nosferatu Tango’ (2002), who engages in TV co-productions with France and just released his latest work, ‘Under the Skin’ (2008); or finally Cinemagination, the company of the twin authors Samuel and Frederic Guillaume with friend Benoit Dreyer, producers of the most prestigious – and expensive – effort of Swiss animation ever, the puppet-animated feature ‘Max & Co’ (audience award in Annecy 2007), as well as the two puppet films by Claude Barras shown at LIAF this year – may the force be with them.

Instrumental for this new development though are the schools which offer vocational training on BA level (the first MA courses are about to start next autumn): the Design & Art branch of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences & Art, which relaunched its dwindling animation department to before unknown heights only a few years ago – no less than half of the films in the Swiss retrospective, plus one in another LIAF programme, are from actual students or recent graduates –, and the private art school Ceruleum in Lausanne, whose first 3-year course reaches its term this year. What remains to be seen is whether diversity persists in the course of events – let’s hope for the best.

Rolf Baechler, 2008
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