70 years of Greek animation – A History of Persistence: “2016 will be a new beginning”

Greek animators have persevered 70 years through difficult times and little support to use the medium for creative and critical expression. The Greek animation industry now celebrates 70 years of animated highlights and looks ahead. International animation journalist Peter Schavemaker interviewed the key persons within the Greek animation industry.

Like most of the globe’s animation industries, newspaper cartoons and political strips heavily influenced Greek animation. But the political, social and economic situations Greece has experienced have added unique layers to animation projects produced in the country’s 70 years of animation history. Greece’s first animated film, Duce Narrates, by Stamatis Polenakis, an anti-fascist film about the Italian occupation of Greece, was produced in 1945. In retrospect, this short can be seen as a base for the way Greek animators have often used their projects for political statements and satire in short films. Greece does not have a tradition for producing feature films — only a few animated features have been made there. The first one was the 1979 release Corpus, by Thanassis Rentzis. The Dogs, produced in 2010 by Dinos Theodosiou, is the most recent one.

Important examples of Greece’s animated political statements — both of which are about the period between 1967 and 1974 when the junta occupied Greece — are the 1971 animated short Sssst, by Thodoros Maragos, and 12.410 and One Roses, produced in 2010 by Jordan Ananiadis. The latter is about the night of Nov. 17, 1973, when students rose up against the dictatorship of the colonels. “The junta attempted to prohibit Sssst from screening at festivals, but they did not succeed,” says Maragos. “I felt that my animation workmanship had just been justified.” Ananiadis has produced almost a dozen satirical shorts, with the most famous being his 1971 debut Zachos the Masochist (1979), The Circle (1981), The Hole (1983) and We Greeks from 1996. He says he respects Maragos’ work. “Thodoros was tip touching a line,” he says. Ananiadis himself was heavily criticized for using a cat as the main character in 12.410 and One Roses. “The situation with the junta was very sad, people were upset I used a funny animal like a cat,” he says. Animated shorts still are produced today to criticize the government and make fun of the country’s economic troubles, with the 2014 series VKtoons — available on YouTube — a prime example.

“Animated shorts still are produced today to criticize the Greek government and make fun of the country’s economic troubles”

Due to the weak economy in Greece, many animators have day jobs and do their projects on the side. This is nothing new — even pioneers of Greek animation had to work on TV commercials to fund their own animated shorts. Ananiadis, Maragos and Stratos Stasinos, who died in 2009, are considered the top three icons of Greek animation and they all worked solo. “Despite the people did not take animation seriously, we continue to make shorts,” says Ananiadis. “We were stubborn — making shorts felt like a duty.”
“Greek animators are also self-taught, because there are no animation schools in Greece,” says Maragos. To escape the difficult animation climate in Greece, many animators moved to the United States or United Kingdom. Nassos Vakalis is considered the most successful Greek animator abroad. He has worked on animated features at Warner Bros., Paramount, Dream- Works Animation, Illumination Entertainment and Rovio. In 2006, Vakalis became the first Greek animator to win an Emmy — for his storyboard work on Off Mikes, an animated adaption of the popular ESPN radio show. In 2001, Vakalis returned to Greece to try to develop a new animation industry. “But instead I found large bureaucracy and no interest at all in animation,” he says. “I regret I came back.” Despite his disappointment, Vakalis did produce, along with Panagiotis Rappas, Greece’s most successful animated production: a Christmas special titled The Little Mouse That Wanted to Touch a Star, which has racked up more than 1.4 million YouTube views. “By exception, ERT financed it with a $250,000 (300,000 euro) budget, but after a change of management there was no continuation on animation,” says Vakalis.

“A broadcast on ERT would be a recognition”

In September 2014, Vakalis made another short about his homeland, Dinner for Few, a critical view on the crisis, democracy and politicians. “A sad reminder of the situation in Greece,” he says. With more than 40 international animation awards it became one of the most acclaimed Greek animation projects ever. “A broadcast on ERT would be a recognition,” he says.

Little Government Support

All Greek animators interviewed for this article share a critical opinion of the Greek government and public broadcaster ERT. “The state never has shown any interest, or understanding for animation,” says Vakalis. Nikos Pilavios, former head of the children’s department at ERT and producer of the Sesame Street-style educational series Froutopia and The Storyteller, says: “Animation was not taken seriously. Money given by the government was not spent on animation or children’s programming.”
Animator Aristarchos Papadaniel, who grew up with Pilavios’ work, says there was little interest in the medium. “The public thought animation was a joke and childish.”

“The Greek animation industry has a bright future”

As such, Greek children have mostly grown up watching only foreign animation on TV. Inquiries to ERT reveal the broadcaster has no one responsible for children´s and animation programming. An exception to the dominance of foreign content is the 48-episode 2D animated series A Letter – A Story, made by Papadaniel and children’s book author Sophia Madouvalou in 2009. Funded by the Greek ministry of education, it was broadcast via ERT World with English subtitles for Greeks living abroad. Today, the series is successfully used in classrooms. In June 2015, Papadaniel produced his short The Rains of Castamere, which is inspired by the hit HBO series Game of Thrones and its theme song, “Ice on Fire.” “I have used iconic scenes from eight episodes of the series,” he says. The short earned Papadaniel worldwide acclaim, including video of the week at Awardeo. “For a long time it was a secret it was made by a Greek animator. Many people thought it was made by the Games of Thrones production team,” he says. Papadaniel says he strongly believes the Greek animation industry has a bright future. “Despite the current problems, young animators have a creative flow,” he says.

2016 will be a new beginning

Animator and producer Angelos Rouvas agrees: “2016 will be a new beginning. In October 2015 we organized business workshops in Athens with European animation professionals from France and the United Kingdom, seeking co-production and finance opportunities within the European Media Program. We also want to hook up more with Cartoon, work on a Greek animators clusters with ASIFA-Greece and seek more co-operation with Canada, France, Switzerland and Belgium. Despite the crisis, animation in Greece is still alive. We need to work on co-productions – within and outside Greece.” Rouvas was involved in many Greek animation projects, co-designed Pandora & Plato and co-produced The Little Mouse That Wanted To Touch The Star. He is the driving force behind GreekAnimation.com, which describes 70 years of Greek animation history in text and videos. “It took me six months to collect more than 1,000 movies, mainly because there are no serious animation archives in Greece,” he says. Since 2009, Greek animators also have used the Internet to promote their shorts.

On top of this list, with more than 2.4 million views on YouTube, is Mariza, produced by Constantine Krystallis, about a stubborn Zorba-dancing donkey and his owner, a fisherman.

Unlike his mentors’ work, Krystallis’ short is not a satire on Greece. “It is a funny tribute to the islands and the Greek people — without any social comments,” he says. “I wanted to make something Greek people could smile about.” In this difficult climate, animators are still making successful projects using such unorthodox techniques as keeping secret a production’s Greek origins. The first Greek animated series ever did just that and became a huge success: Pandora & Plato. Produced by Athens- based studio Artoon, it achieved ratings of 49 percent on the public channel ANT1 and later on commercial TV station STAR Channel, has more than 250 merchandise items and has sold 140,000 books in four months. Nikos Vergitsis and George Nikoloulias, founders of Artoon and creators of Pandora & Plato, say: “We have always sought a connection with European animation. With 20 percent European funding, Pandora & Plato was made partly outside Greece, but never broadcast outside the country.” And the studio is looking to build on that. “We are optimists,” say Vergitsis and Nikoloulias. After finding some Greek investors, and getting the Greek Film Centre onboard as co producers, Artoon currently is producing Magic Tears, the new feature film of Pandora & Plato. And that’s just a start. “Also we are working on a new Pandora & Plato TV series,” say Vergitsis and Nikoloulias.

Previous this article was published in Animation Magazine edition 257 (February 2016)

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Peter Schavemaker (1967) is een media-, popmuziek-, theater- en internationaal animatiejournalist, moderator en radiopresentator. Op 14 februari 2018 verscheen zijn 512-pagina tellende eerste boek 100 jaar Hilversum Mediastad. Hij schrijft/schreef voor ZippyFrames.com, Animation Magazine, Helsinki Times, Müürileth, Spreekbuis.nl, Dagblad De Gooi- en Eemlander, De Telegraaf, AD, VARA Gids, Radio2.nl, HUMO, Broadcast Magazine, Uitgeverij Nieuw Amsterdam, en verschillende regiokranten.