GoCritic! Interview: Nancy Denney-Phelps • Animation journalist and historian
"I like to give positive press to good films"
- GoCritic! interviews a critic - an omnipresent figure in the world of animation, and one of the first journalists to focus on this specific niche form
There’s no missing this redhead at animation festivals: Nancy Denney-Phelps is an omnipresent figure in the animation world and has been for many years. So long, in fact, that she forgets the exact year she fell for animation. As one of the first journalists in the animation industry, she is mostly known for her writings in CARTOON and ANIMATOON, as well as on her regular Sprockets blog for AWN (Animation World Network). But she also curates film programs, produces music for animation and organises the popular Annecy Picnic with her husband, film score composer Nik Denney-Phelps. With her affinity for sharing pictures on Facebook of beers at airports, reflecting her busy festival schedule, it’s astonishing that she still writes everything down on paper before typing it up. All the more reason, then, to catch up with her at the 29th World Festival of Animated Film - Animafest Zagreb to ask about her views on animation journalism and the issues she thinks the animation industry should tackle next, as well as unearthing the name of the filmmaker who first blew her away.
GoCritic!: You’re an integral part of the international festival crowd, and you’ve been around for quite some time now. So, what came first: journalism or animation?
Nancy Denney-Phelps: Definitely animation. I think I’ve loved animation since I first opened my eyes. And I also always loved to write. When I started out there was a real lack of people writing about animation. I write about European and Asian animation and a lot of the people who write want to concentrate on the Hollywood stuff, so I felt that this was my little niche. Actually, I have a degree in political science, but once I discovered how dirty it was, I didn’t want to go there.
Do you remember the first film you saw, your first animation epiphany?
It was the work of Ladislas Starevich, and I went “Wow, this is not Walt Disney”. I became fascinated with the process and I wanted to know how this man did it. And, of course, the minute I started reading, I wanted to know even more.
What I’ve noticed about your writing is that you’re not trying to give an objective report of festivals or films. It’s personal and interspersed with mentions of people you met.
Yes! What I like to do - I mean, I talk about the films because I’m at a film festival - but what I like to try to do is give people an impression of what they’d be doing and who they’d be meeting if they were there with me, exploring something new.
Was that a conscious decision you made?
No, I guess it’s just my writing style. Generally, if I don’t like a film, I don’t write about it. Why should I be giving publicity to something I don’t like? There have been some exceptions, like if something wins the Oscar, sometimes I have to talk about it. But generally, I like to give positive press to good films and maybe things people haven’t thought about watching but should see.
Since you started out, there’s been quite a lot of animation journalism popping up – Cartoon Brew, Zippyframes for example. What’s different about what you do?
Yes, and I appreciate what they do, even though it’s very different from what I do. I think I try to give more of a personal perspective, and I don’t feel that that there’s anyone else doing that really, or if there are, I haven’t come across them. I try to make my writing accessible to non-academics, and what’s really important is lots and lots of photos, not just stills from movies, but of things going on at festivals.
But you don’t only write about animation, you’re also involved in other sections of the festivals.
Yes, for example, I’m the pitching coach at Animarkt in Lodz. I don’t know how that came about but I’m a great networker and I’m really good at connecting people. Someone will be telling me that they need something, and I’ll say “Oh, I know who you need to talk to”. I really enjoy doing that.
What would you tell people who’re thinking about going into animation journalism, like our GoCritic! crowd?
Find a good editor and just start writing. My approach to writing is to first find the opening sentence. Sometimes that takes a bit of time, but once I have that sentence, I know the direction I’m going to go in. Oh, and find your own style. Don’t write what others think you should write.
You’re very familiar with the animation world. Which kind of current debates and issues still need to be addressed in your opinion?
Women in animation is a big topic. I think women play a really important part in short, independent animation, but when you get into the studio system, that’s where the equality problem exists, especially if you want to have children. But how do you get to a situation of 50/50? I don’t have any easy answers, but the more dialogue we have in safe spaces, the better. Also, if a woman is treated unfairly, others should show solidarity and go on strike. Why not? I mean sitting and talking is great, but it won’t really change things.
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