This Magnificent Masterclass! Emma De Swaef at Anifilm Festival 2024 (GoCritic! Review)

Emma De Swaef at Anifilm Festival 2024

Heather Bradshaw reports from Emma De Swaef's (This Magnificent Cake) masterclass during Anifilm Festival, part of our GoCritic! review.

Emma De Swaef, the Belgian stop-motion animator and model-making expert, recounts animating the Yeti puppet from her first short film 'Oh Willy…' with child-like glee, mimicking the wind blowing through the creature’s shaggy mane, like someone telling a bedtime story to their kid. “It feels like it adds to the effect,” she says, “but it was really just a solution to a problem.”

There is something about De Swaef’s description of her filmmaking process that reveals an intrinsic resourcefulness in her approach. Many innovative details in her animation methods are, to her, an accident, or indeed a problem-solving action. The crowd at her masterclass in a packed Kino Varšava in Liberec, at this year’s Anifilm Festival, were treated to a refreshing perspective of the work on display, which thanks to her modesty implied that they were all capable of this too. However, De Swaef’s ornate and thoughtful characters are a testament to the notion that she is, in fact, a natural at her craft.

This Magnificent Cake!

The festival welcomed the internationally recognized animator to its Shorts and Student Film competitions jury, and the masterclass on the penultimate day of the festival proved to be a hit with the audiences. One half of a filmmaking duo with husband Marc James Roels, De Swaef is the creator of such stop-motion delights as 'Oh Willy…',  'This Magnificent Cake!' and segment 1 of the Netflix anthology series 'The House', all of which she presented in intricate, technical detail in her masterclass session.

Passion and emotional honesty

Before De Swaef even begins to speak, the crowd gathers around her desk at the front of the room to catch a closer glimpse of the doll-like armature on display. A pristine model of Mabel (voiced by Mia Goth) from 'The House' clutches her tiny woolen sister patiently in front of the filmmaker - a perfect example of her specialized abilities in wool, felt, and textile animation. Understandably, the audience is already intrigued by De Swaef’s talents as a filmmaker, with the event itself described by Anifilm Programme Director Pavel Horáček in his introduction as “a festival highlight.”

The House puppets (and Emma De Swaef) at Anifilm Festival 2024

What is immediately obvious about De Swaef is her innate humility. “Those of you who have other plans feel free to go out, I know [This Magnificent Cake!] is a long film, I won’t be angry at you!” she says, though when the time comes after her talk, merely a handful of audience members take her up on the pardon. It is clear that the same passion the filmmaking duo pours into their craft, the audience has for their filmmaking. Likewise, De Swaef’s distinct decorum ultimately informs this degree of care in her filmmaking, in the creation of emotionally honest and personal animation.

 A documentary perspective

During her account of how 'Oh Willy…' was made, we are told that De Swaef and Roels often approach their filmmaking from a documentary perspective, having studied the form during their time at university. The screen displays an image of a happy, nudist couple behind her, which she analyses with great consideration.

“I love the beauty of this idea of people not being shy, being free, being open with each other and living in their natural state,” De Swaef says, as she explains the pair’s use of image references for inspiration in many of their works.

She goes on to suggest that “stop-motion is the ideal way to make a film about this [nudity], because, with the felt, it will add a layer of softness and poetry that will make it less awkward to watch.” Thus, Willy is born. We discover both De Swaef’s graduate film and her first documentary film were also about the same protagonist, showing the time she takes with her characters in get to know them. In this way, we see the couple’s methods in characterization as a well-thought-out, investigative process, which helps the audience comprehend their impeccable precision as storytellers.

Creative integrity

It is equally evident that the (literal) softness of De Swaef and Roels’ work often uncovers harder truths, for example in their mid-length animation film 'This Magnificent Cake!', which depicts the atrocities of Belgium’s colonial history. After recalling a time when they turned down a job at Disney due to ethical differences, De Swaef discusses the production of 'This Magnificent Cake!' with a similar moral compass. “We didn’t want to make it super left or right and we didn’t want a white savior character,” she says, going on to state the importance of “finding someone to voice the [Congolese] character who could speak the language. A lot of people said you could use any African language, and no one will know the difference, but it was very important to me to find someone [who could].” In this declaration, the couple’s creative integrity is clearer than ever, which carried through into the screening of the film after De Swaef’s masterclass, making for a more informed and enjoyable viewing experience.

Related: This Magnificent Cake! Review 

Though animation is a craft that hinges on detail, it is rare to see this precision of care flow through from the very being of its creators. It was such a joy to witness the filmmaker discussing her work, but there is something more to be said for seeing 'Oh Willy…' and 'This Magnificent Cake!' on a big screen, with the soft titters and horrified cries of the Anifilm Festival audience a welcome accompaniment to these masterful works. Though De Swaef sustains her humble tone for the full 50 minutes, there is no doubt that both her and Roels’ abilities as innovative animators are made so much more gratifying by their obvious love of the work that they do.

(all festival photos (c) Anifilm)

contributed by: Heather Bradshaw

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