By combining an animation festival with a professional computer graphics and special effects conference, Stuttgart has established itself as an annual destination for all aspects of animation. Now in its twenty-fourth year, the conference FMX brings together professionals, commercial operations, practitioners, and educators of special effects and animation creation for four days of multifaceted sessions and demonstrations. Operating as an adjacent event, the public-oriented Internationales Trickfilm Festival Stuttgart ’19 (ITFS, also known as the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film) screens over one thousand animated films, from blockbusters to short films from student competitions. These films are screened at multiple venues throughout the city. In recent years, the festival has expanded to include animated games and virtual reality, and there are a number of ancillary events that move the festival beyond entertainment and competition to take a culturally critical or theoretical approach to the medium [Image 1].
The underlying theme for ITFS this year was “Europe.” This theme was particularly appropriate in light of the inescapable media coverage of the Brexit quagmire, an overt statewide emphasis on the democratic process in the run-up to the European elections on May 26, and continuous financial support for the festival from the European Union since 1994. The city of Stuttgart and the festival organizers, Dieter Krauß and Ulrich Wegenast, expressed the belief that creativity and animated film are closely linked to the ideal of a “peaceful, creative, and open Europe.”1
To this end, the Ministry of Justice and European Affairs in Baden-Württemberg sponsored an animation competition on the topic of Europe. The pre-announced winner of the film competition “Animation for Europe” was Shadi Adib, for. her animated film Ode (2019). Originally from Iran and now living in Germany, Adib brought an outsider’s political, albeit idealistic, eye to the topic of a European political union. Her short film is sweetly political in every aspect; from its choice of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (1824) as a sound-motif, to the flag-like colors of the raincoats of the animated characters of fishermen. In this animation, the fishermen overcome their individually ineffective attempts at fishing by choosing to work together and therefore graphically tie together the European countries. In an interview, Adib said she does not want to make her art political but, in this good-natured parable, she has done just that.2 Fishing rights are one of the contentious issues debated in the Brexit negotiations, so the choice to depict fishermen who choose to work together is an idealistic form of political parable [Image 2].
Other events at ITFS included a track of short films spotlighting work from Poland, Portugal, and Great Britain. The track “Bye Bye Brexit,” curated by filmmaker Chris Shepherd, was designed to be an antidote to the confused British parliamentary discourse in the run-up to the (then) March 29, 2019, Brexit departure date. Particularly relevant was Shepherd’s own film Brexicuted (2018), which animated the words from a selection of British people who chose to vote to leave Europe. The character design made ample use of 1950’s British stereotypes. This satirical animation was designed by the artist Simon Spilsbury, and the splotched and messy textures underscored the messiness of the Brexit decision-making process.
Several of the venues and the activities of the animation festival were free to the public, with only the closed cinema events ticketed. Central to the festival is the large open-air LED screen in downtown Schlossplatz. This screen showcased family-oriented shorts and music videos during the day and a mainstream feature film every night. Other free events included video shorts curated by Berlin artist Robert Seidel titled “Phantom Horizons” at the Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart—an architectural delight in its own right. The international selection of films was an offshoot of Seidel’s ongoing Berlin film program.
Another free venue included all the activities at the Gameszone in the Kunstgebäude. The Gameszone included commercial, educational, and scientific games alongside a selection of computer games designed by students from German universities. It was refreshing to see so much space given to student work at such a major venue. This was partly to be expected, as about 40 percent of the festival is supported through state, national, and European-level funding, and 60 percent is from commercial entities. This public funding supports the creation of free events and emphasizes developing emergent talent. A crowd-pleaser at the student game zone was the participatory installation 6 Hats by students in the postgraduate course Interactive Media at the Filmakademie Baden Württemberg. This game required six participants to wear electronic hats and work together to solve problems and decide whether to include or exclude players [Image 3].
The festival included two game jams where participants were given a limited time-frame of thirty-four hours to create games on the themes of “music” and “Europe.” For the “music” game jam, Patrick Wachowiak, from the game creation company Chasing Carrots, brought together about twenty creatives who worked in teams to create a music-themed game. Director of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra Markus Korselt, along with violinists Luca Bognar and Klaus von Niswandt, were on hand at the start of the event to play music, answer questions, and provide inspiration. The final results were shown on the open-air screen on the last day of the festival [Image 4].
There were several subsidiary tracks of talks hosted at the Kunstgebaude venue on topics as diverse as digital interactivity in museums and games in political education. The track “Tremble Before the Might of Science” was curated by Stephan Schwingeler. This track brought together scientists who use games in citizen science and for data-gathering and experimentation. Carlos Mauricio Castaño Díaz, a psychologist at Aaarhus University, described how video games are now an established scientific method for collecting data and problem-solving. One of the first games that used the mechanics of game-play for scientific methods was the 2008 online game Foldit, co-developed by Seth Cooper, who is now at the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University. As Cooper explained in his conference talk, his interest lies in developing play-mechanics that can be used to solve scientific problems. An accompanying exhibition room included playable computer games that described science or enabled data gathering that contributes to scientific research.
Likewise, one track of animated films screened at the festival was dedicated to work that uses animation to express science. The impetus for this track stemmed from an idea by Dorothea Kaufmann from the Institute for Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Heidelberg. Collaborating with André Eckhardt, who is curator of animated film at DOK Leipzig, “She Blinded Me With Science” was a smartly curated track of six days of animated science films. The selected films included historical films from the silent-film era; instructional films intended for the classroom; and films designed to combine aesthetics with sound, such as computer animations inspired by biological growth, cell separation, or biological decay. It was quite an experience watching a sequence of animated films on cells that oscillated from the thuddingly didactic 1975 educational film Cell-Division: Mitosis and Meiosis by McGraw Hill to the disconcertingly culture-shifting film Dolly Animation (1998) by Thomas Bayrle (which mixed religion with the scientific) to the Dadaist representation of science in the music video Devo: Mongoloid (1978) by Bruce Conner. The final day of the scientific animation track showcased the sixty-three-minute film Das Blumenwunder (1926). This film is an animation gem of the silent film era, but oddly had its beginnings in stop-motion footage originally intended to promote fertilizer use. Between 1922 and 1925 the company BASF used time-lapse photography to make the growth of plants visible. This footage was initially intended to promote their fertilizer. However, the director Max Reichman transformed the advertising material by interspersing the time-lapse footage with allegorical dance acts performed by the Berlin State Opera’s dance ensemble. These emotionally charged dance acts personified the plant life cycle, crafting scenes that represented the life rhythm of plants. The film premiered in 1926 in Berlin to great acclaim and is rightly considered a wonder today.
Another smartly curated ancillary conference was Immersion/Popculture/Distraction ITFS, organized by Claudia Schwarz of MusicTech Germany. She brought together an eclectic group of artists and technologists who discussed the levels of intimacy that can be developed between celebrities and their fans through virtual reality and augmented reality tools. In this respect, Byrke Lou gave a particularly visionary talk about her view of the future of AR and VR within the fan base of musicians and celebrities.
Alongside the public-oriented festival, FMX is a professional forum that is considered Europe’s largest and most influential conference for visual effects, games, and immersive media. Attracting about four thousand attendees, participants and presenters included technical special effects specialists, industry leaders, developers, educators, and students. Presenters gave behind-the-scenes insights into the work of animators, sound designers, and visual effects specialists on many of the major movies, commercials, and games launched in the past year. The organizers this year aimed to bridge the gap between technology and art. To this end, there was a focused track of talks on the role of storytelling in animation and game design. But overall the conference is predominantly a technical and industry conference. One particular focus this year was on how developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning are having an impact on media creation.
The number of women on stage presenting their technical achievements was somewhat lacking, although early in the week, virtual reality director and producer Jenn Duong shared her forthright view of the industry. In 2015, Duong founded the initiative Women in VR/AR to share channels and resources among women and minorities in the industry. The Women in Animation panel also discussed the challenges that arise when the industry does not include enough women. This panel, curated and moderated by Kim Adams (co-founder of Adventure Lab), discussed the impact of marginalizing the female perspective in the entertainment industry. Women in Animation has a pledge to reach 50/50 male/female participation in the industry by 2025. Brexit also made its appearance at the FMX conference with Neil Hatton from the UK Screen Alliance giving his forecast of the potential impact of Brexit on the UK’s film and animation industry. Issues that still need clarity and resolution involve post-Brexit film and animation broadcast rights, as well as the cost and availability of visas for recruited talent [Image 5].
Taken together, the combined FMX conference and the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film made a synergetic platform of events, presentations, entertainment, and happenings within the fields of animation and special effects. For the cultural theorist, there were pockets of interest, but these tended to be found in the events surrounding the main festival, such as the science and animation series. Overall, the diversity of events and opportunities at FMX and ITFS make Stuttgart a worthy destination for anyone interested in meeting industry leaders, researchers, and creatives involved in animation, gaming, and special effects, as well as the opportunity to see so many world-class animated films in well-curated screenings.