Biography

FROM THE PATHÉ BABY TO THE AGE OF REASON

 

(photo: The house in Ostend where Raoul Servais was born) May 10th 1940, Second World War. On that day, the Wehrmacht launched its divisions to attack Belgium. The city of Ostend is bombed. In that turmoil, a twelve year old boy learns about bombs, exodus, horror and death. Little Raoul will, in 24 hours, lose his childhood innocence, to become the adult Raoul Servais.

Raoul Servais was born in Ostend (Belgium) on May 1st 1928. His parents ran a chinaware and cristalstore on the ground floor of a large building, a former 18th century hotel, at which, people said, Napoleon Bonaparte stopped over before visiting his fortifications. It has vast cellars and even a secret passage. For little Raoul it’s a place full of fantasies.

Father Servais is somewhat an eccentric, with an inclination to science and technical inventions rather than to selling chinaware. On Sunday afternoons he shows 9.5 mm films for little Raoul on their Baby Pathé projector. Charly Chaplin, Charles Vanel and Felix the Cat: a short film, a feature and … an animated film.

At that time, the Interbellum, thousands of Spanish Republicans arrive in Belgium, to join the Jews and all those chased by the ‘hideous beast’ of fascism. Raoul arrives at the “French” section of his school. He is one of the three Flemish pupils of his class, where various idioms are practised, but where the (Flemish) teacher only speaks French. Spending his time with Basque refugees, German and Austrian Jews, Italians, sons of British diplomats and even an Australian, Raoul explores the world without leaving his hometown. “These encounters with young foreigners have greatly widened my scope. Thanks to them, among other things, I have never felt the temptation to adhere to any kind of nationalist ethics.”

Chinaware and bombings obviously do not match. His parents lose all their possessions in the bombardments on Ostend, and father Servais is forced to go begging and making loans to avoid being arrested.

Secondary school is not really Raoul’s cup of tea. The Ostend college does not appreciate his far too exclusive predilection for the arts. His aversion from mathematics is severely punished by his teacher – with Nazi-sympathies by the way.

The Liberation is an intense moment for the sixteen-year-old, who had grown afraid of being sent into forced labour in Germany. Servais takes a job as assistant decorator at the ‘Innovation’ in Ghent, an important department store chain. He draws and his work is appreciated. He is offered double salary if he would stay but he declines. What he wants is a thorough education and a diploma.

 

FROM THE CIGAR-BOX TO THE PAILLARD BOLEX

 

(photo: Raoul Servais showing a cell of “Ghost Story”) Servais enters the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent – decorative arts section. For the first time he experiences a school environment in which he feels comfortable, especially thanks to the presence of Albert Vermeiren, a young teacher who is not much older than he is. “I told him about my project: an animated film. My decision was made”. Although he is not very familiar with the techniques of animation, he begins a studio with six of his fellow students, rents a greenhouse – a very cheap one – writes a script and has his mates do the in-betweening. To pay for the rent, he tries to save some money from his parents’ instalments, while they work their fingers to the bone to pay for his study – this is still a time of rationing.

(photo: Raoul Servais’ first camera, made of a cigar-box) He tries to deduce what he considers to be the necessary stages of an animation film. The drawings pile up, but one essential piece of equipment is still missing: a camera.

Confronted with such determination and seeing the young man sink into poverty to the extent that he no longer has anything to eat, his teacher offers him accomodations and proposes to knock together a camera! A while later, the work is done: with a cigar-box. That is how “Spokenhistorie” (“Ghost Story”) is made. He is badly disappointed with the image quality, but the animation virus has lodged itself and will continue to spread its infection.

At the decorative arts section, it looks as if Raoul Servais bursts out: posters, sketches for wall paintings, stained glass, designs for tapestry – he does it all. Upon graduating, he meets Maurice Boel, an encounter that will deeply affect him. Boel was an Ostend painter who had moved from expressionism into abstract painting. Marc Eemans would later characterise Boel’s work as “savagely painted as if in a state of trance, or dictated by the powerful rhythms of a tumultuous North Sea”. This may sound odd for someone of Servais’ temperament, but the influence is of an entirely different nature. Together, they give a new start to the “Ciné-Club d’Ostende”, a true institution founded before the war by documentary filmmaker Henri Storck and surrealist painter Felix Labisse. Dedicated to the arts, Boel initiates Servais in quality cinema.

(photo: 1952 – during the shooting of “The Sand Glass”) He performs his military duties in Ghent and uses the occasion to visit Albert Vermeiren one afternoon every week. With his former teacher, he tries puppet animation but to no effect. Still, it is a fact: private Servais uses the little liberty the military service allows him to do animation, which clearly continues to haunt him. Once demobilised he decides, without telling his parents, to try his luck in Great Britain where the Rank Studios have acquired a decent reputation in animation. Badly informed, however, he arrives too late: the studio has just closed down. After various small time jobs such as dishwasher, docker, warehouse clerk and even auxiliary soldier in the British Army, Servais returns home, penniless: “I knew nothing about animation. I wanted to know more but the studios cautiously watched over what it considered to be trade secrets”. Servais is, however, not easily discouraged. Pretending to write an article, he goes to Paris, to the Gémeaux Studio (founded by Paul Grimault, who had already left following a dispute over “La Bergère et le Ramoneur”). He returns deeply disappointed: “The animators themselves do not have access to the camera department. There was a strict separation between the departments, in order to prevent anyone from getting an overall notion of a production!”

(photo: Raoul Servais, left, and René Magritte, 3rd on the right) Trying to reshape his dream, Servais launches himself in amateur cinema, live action shooting, remembering his father’s amateur filming. By 1952, he shoots an 8 mm documentary about his friend Maurice Boel. Next he tries an experimental film: “Parallèles”, a silent film about the similarities between the parallel lines he sees around him, such as telegraph wires and railways. With “De Zandloper” (The Sand Glass) he films people who in Ostend much like anywhere else along the North Sea shores, stroll on the beach, nose to the ground, in search of objects.

There is no sound in these films – apart from the Boel documentary. For the latter, Servais records his own voice on disk, giving the film only an approximately synchronous sound.

From the experience gathered in these films, Servais keeps on dreaming of real film making. For him, passing from an amateur into something more professional is primarily stepping from one format to another: from 8 to 16 mm. The camera remains the magical object he watches time and again in the show window of an Ostend shop: a Paillard Bolex, costing 25.000 Belgian Francs. As newlywed, he decides to economise to be able to get hold of this object of his desire: “The day I had saved enough money, I went in … what a sensation!” Servais, however, immediately adds: “I had the camera all right, but no animation stand!”

The cinema which fascinates Servais so much does not really reach out for him. Fortunately other preoccupations distract him from his animation fantasies. In 1953 he works during several weeks with a man who was at that point not yet the “monstre sacré” of 20th century painting, but who has already acquired some international renown. René Magritte (1898-1967) is commissioned by Gustave Nellens, proprietor of the Knokke Casino to make panoramic frescos in the “Salle du Lustre”. This “Salle du Lustre” is famous for its monumental lustre, one of the largest in Europe. Under the supervision of Raymond Art, chief decorator of a casino that supports the arts (Nellens is a collector of paintings) and with two other decorators and as many assistants, Servais is commissioned in June 1953 to transfer the eight oil paintings made by “le maître” one month before, which repeat some of the themes Magritte had developed since 1926, to the walls of the circular hall. It is the “Domaine Enchanté”, subtitled “Panorama Surréaliste”. Magritte, always dressed in a three-piece suit, holds himself in high esteem. He has his assistants call him “maître”, much to Servais’ astonishment. As youngest member of the team, Servais manages to overcome his shyness and dares to make some suggestions of a technical nature and regarding colour to Magritte. The “maître” takes it very badly and Servais is sent away for having neglected a refusal from Magritte. He will be reintegrated by order of Nellens. This rather troubled relation between the master of Belgian surrealism and a young wall painter who knows what he wants has never prevented the latter from being profoundly influenced by Magritte’s universe. He claims to have been fascinated at the time by a reproduction of the “Modèle Rouge”, a canvas depicting two “feet” which are also shoes, placed in front of a palisade. Throughout Magritte’s work he discovers surrealism and its ambiguity, for which he will develop a constant admiration, even though his own sensibility will always oscillate between magic realism and expressionism.

Married and father of two children, Servais seeks to earn a more regular living. He gets commissions thanks to his political commitment: first for the Young Socialists, then for the Labour Party. He draws a “History of the Belgian Workers Party” (predecessor of the Belgian Labour Party), for the “Vooruit” newspaper in Ghent and for “Le Peuple” (Flemish and French speaking dailies of the labour movement) as well as for “Germinal” (French speaking weekly of the ‘Parti Socialiste Belge’). He mainly draws illustrations, ‘cartoons’, narrative comic pieces which we hesitate to call ‘comic strips’. Servais would resolutely move away from these:“I was not particularly interested in comic strips”.

 

FIRST STEPS IN REAL CINEMA

1960 will be a decisive year in Servais’ career. After multiple trades, he is appointed teacher of decorative arts at the Ghent Academy of Fine Arts. Servais will now be available for the big plan: making an animation film, which he had been working on since 1957.

In one of his drawers, the obstinate Ostender holds a script that he is dying to turn into a film: “The False Note”. But he soon realises that the present level of his knowledge and the technical capacities at his disposal are far too limited for such an ambitious project, especially as it would require the application of something that he has not yet mastered at all: sound. Servais must have found it difficult to renounce to his script – temporarily – but the idea does not abandon him and in spite of everything, he finds pleasure in the adaptation of an ancient Flemish song : “Het loze vissertje” (The Cunning Little Fisherman). This subject is interesting in the existence of a “finished soundtrack”, which will serve as a pattern for the production of “Havenlichten” (Harbour Lights). Recorded at the Ostend Conservatory, the musical part is re-recorded on perfo tape. But Servais has no editing table. No harm done: Servais hires a 16mm projector and starts identifying each note on the film, repeating the operation just as often as is required. He then transfers the results of his ‘detection’ on paper, thus reinventing the “exposure sheet” (the basis of the American cartoon, probably developed at the end of the twenties by Disney for his “Silly Symphonies”). “This film has been my real school”. It will take Servais three years to finish “Harbour Lights”, calling on his friend Jean Decock, a sound maniac, as well as on friends, pupils, his wife, while he does all the animation and the backgrounds.

(photo: scetches for “Harbor Lights”) The film tells about the misadventures of a little clumsy lantern, laughing stock of the ‘real’, large lanterns, and how it wins everybody’s respect by coming to the rescue of a defect lighthouse. Servais reveals a natural awareness of what animation can do that live action image cannot, the heroes of the film being a lantern, a lighthouse and above all… the light, used as a narrative and dramatic element.

With “Harbour Lights” he opens a lineage of metaphorical films, all of which give away they have been long thought over, a hundred times begun all over again before taking final shape. To bring his ideas to life he deliberately turns to the plastic arts. Result: references to contemporary art are abundant throughout the entire film (Mirò, Tanguy, Klee and Léger have all passed in review).

The film was finished in time for the Antwerp National Film Festival. To Servais’ own amazement, he receives the First Prize for animation. Admittedly there are not many films in the running: Servais remembers that Ray Goossens and some other ‘professionals’ were in competition, but the jury’s argument, giving priority to the originality of his graphic style, made him happier than the prize itself.

With the nice amount of money won in Antwerp, Servais can think bigger. He makes a choice that will not remain without consequences: he who was once so eager on getting that Paillard Bolex from the Ostend shop, has now decided to make his next film on 35 mm, the cinema format! It may sound funny nowadays, but it certainly took a lot of guts – or ignorance maybe – for a little provincial teacher, self-taught weekend animation filmmaker, born in a country where film making was a rare trade and from which all ‘majors’ ran off to Paris, to make such decision. Servais contacts a Brussels based cinematographer, Jean Rens, who sells him a 1928 Debrie, which his friend Seynaeve will adapt for frame by frame cinematography.

 

THE FIRST LIVE ACTION SIDESTEP

(photo: “November Diversion”) Having launched himself apparently in the world of animation, Servais nevertheless always never gave up to do live action shooting. Made during the making of “Harbour Lights” and “The False Note”, “November Diversion”, finished November 1962, is, as he puts it, a weekend film, made with Jean Decock and a couple of friends in a car cemetery. The lead player, Werner Edebau, was only available during the weekend. Shooting takes place when the weather allows it. “November Diversion” reveals some of Servais’ preoccupations, in a less refined form as this film is made in live action, without any trickery. “It was fun, because we could see the result of our work much faster.” In a dreamlike manner the film depicts the pilgrimage of a man in the car cemetery where he has left his car. He meets a beautiful young blonde at the wheel of a sports car, but she turns out to be a mirage and she changes into a grim mask.

The entire film looks like an initiation in which the main character goes under in a kind of desolation, parable of ageing, and that ends with the apparition of a young girl (played by Joelle, Servais’ own daughter), at the wheel of a pedal car: the cycle of life is never far off in somewhat naive existential meditations like this one. Apart from the obvious symbolism that reminds of student films (the license number of the car is STYX 758!) and the concessions to a certain trendy modernism (the rapid succession of shots, the continuous use of reflected images and the slightly ‘free’ jazz music), the film displays a talent for sober and effective narrative, making the film enjoyable, in spite of its wild oats. Certain images announce characteristics that Servais develops so successfully in his first animation films, in which the entire focus is on one single character, which in its futility is confronted with a world that is plagued by question marks.

During the same period Servais also makes “The Season of the Sirens”, a live action 16 mm black and white film which was never finished and of which all material is, unfortunately, lost. Its theme announces “Sirène”, but also, and perhaps especially, “Operation X-70”. The film’s basic theme once more reflects a patient yet obstinate Servais, who keeps several projects going, sometimes during long periods, before they are actually executed.

 

FILMS (biographical approach, see filmography for more info and a video clip)

 

HARBOUR LIGHTS (1960)

see chapter: First steps in real cinema

 

NOVEMBER DIVERSION (1963)

see chapter: The first live action sidestep

 

THE FALSE NOTE (1963)

“The False Note” will take two years in the making. It is shown at the Antwerp Film Festival and wins the Grand Prix. With this film, Servais takes a decisive step into professional film making: the prize he won for “Harbour Lights” enabled him to buy the Debrie and to move into 35 mm film making. For the first time, he gets a commission in the craft he loves: Jos Van Liempt contacts him to make the animated credits for the teleplay “De drie klaphoeden” (The Three Crush-Hats) for Belgian – Flemish speaking – Television. At the same time, he gathers a little crew and, above all, he makes a truly synchronised film, including sound, music and voice-off. With “The False Note”, he launches a lineage of little characters: anti-heroes, little people excluded from society, power, the world.

In this film, the subject is a street musician who operates a music box. On the whole, the graphic style is relatively conventional, as compared to the highly stylised backgrounds, which are covered with quotations and collages. We feel that the celluloid technique, not yet entirely mastered, does not satisfy Servais: from now on, he will give the impression that he wants to try out other experiments which all tend to intertwine the drawn image with the real world. The latter takes shape in a banknote, illuminated advertising billboards, press clippings, raw material backgrounds and, for the first time, a direct borrowing from photography: a wooden horse in a merry-go-round.

The humour, which is definitely present, has to convey a transparent message: in opposing the little man’s music box to the borrowings from the real world (the jukebox, the dollar, the “atomix girl”-billboard), Servais criticises the society of consumption and its exclusively material values, rather than drawing an opposition between “ancient” and “modern”. We are five years ahead of May 1968.

Awarded in Antwerp, the film was praised by the critics, including writer Maria Rosseels, who headed her review in “De Standaard”: The Right False Note.

 

CHROMOPHOBIA (1965)

A little while later, Servais receives a convocation from the film department of the National Education Ministry, to come with his two films. After the screening, Paul Louyet, head of service, is so enthusiastic that he asks him on the spot to make a short animation. In reply to Servais’ inquiry as to what the film would have to be about, Louyet promptly replies: You have ‘carte blanche’. Servais, surprised by this unexpected commission, insists and Louyet tells him “Just do as you wish, as long as it is a film of creation, not of commission”. With a budget of 500.000 Belgian Francs, Servais leaves the offices at the Quai du Commerce with his head in the clouds.

Thus begins the making of “Chromophobia”, in a euphoria that is palpable throughout the film. The issue is quite simple: an army of small, all identical, angular characters, enters upon a struggle against anything that bears colours, blaming a world that is Servais’ world, which is an allegory of a civil society, made of stylised Flemish cities, wooden horse schools, Jack Puddings and little girls carrying balloons. A little character that somehow reminds us of the character of Thyl Ulenspiegel, the joyful rebel of the Flemish popular legend, will stop the horrible mechanism. Whereas the army of chromophobes is proclaimed the winner, the system that is established will start faltering, because the colours will quietly take back their rights in an apotheosis of flowers (announcing the psychedelic era). George Dunning’s “Yellow Submarine” (made nearly four years later) and more recently Georges Lacroix’ and Renato’s “Insektors” series, to name but two, owe a lot to “Chromophobia”. At first sight, the argument of “Chromophobia” could pass today for an x-th confession of pacifist convictions, as animation film makers have gone on confessing ever since – given the fact that animation film makers are rarely militarists. But this interpretation would ignore two elements. The first, by far the most important, is connected to Servais’ biography, to his perception of Nazi occupation during adolescence. The second element, more anecdotal, nevertheless deserves to be underlined: “Chromophobia” is one of the first animation films that deal with war in a sublime and adult way, and that presents a way to integrate the after-effects of the Second World War. Comparing the film to “Wrill listens to the BBC”, a patriotic animation by Albert Fromenteau shown in Belgium during the Liberation, or to “Springman and the SS” (Pérák a SS) by Jiri Trnka (1946) – who, as Servais admits, has influenced him – we get an idea of the evolution he has gone through. The sixties are rolling. Today, the world of “Chromophobia” has passed into the “public domain”, like Magritte’s skies and bowler hats that have become public since forty years, today looking like a worn-out cliché.

In the framework of Servais’ work, “Chromophobia” is his most legible film. After this one, he will feel free from the weight he had burdened himself with, from now on giving way to poetry and a much less demonstrative inspiration, retreating into shadowy, less distinct areas, moving into rather personal reflections about the medium itself: animation, which fascinates him to the highest possible degree.

This time, the audience and the critics make no mistake: the film, immediately recognised for its innovative value, collects a dozen prizes at festivals, among which the prestigious “Primo Premio” at the 1966 Venice International Film Festival.

Servais, who had been intelligent and modest enough to wait until he had made “Chromophobia” before sending his films to international competitions, now found himself in the front scene of international animation in less than no time.

 

SIRENE (1968)

After “Chromophobia”‘s narrative lead with drums beating, “Sirène” looks like a much less linear, more meandering, atmospheric and poetic film, even if the context to which it refers has links with society and its defects. We are in a port, a sad port where a sailing vessel is rotting away. Ostend and its cranes, its training ship “Mercator”, perpetually at the quay, is undoubtedly the starting point of the film. Starting point only because here, the world looks as if it has been emptied of its inhabitants. The only notable presence, a little fisherman, brings back nothing but fish-skeletons in his baskets, and the entire city, with its cranes and its mooring cables, appears like a pile of nets and fish bones, carcass of a declining industrial universe. On the bow of the sailing ship, a whistling cabin boy – one of those gentle artists with whom Servais adorns his films. He charms a siren – or rather, her reflection. Her silhouette appears through a strange reflecting undulation, like a television wave, skeleton of an image. In a somewhat Hitchcock-like metaphor, the three-master hoists her sails at the apparition of the siren… The sails will disappear when the dinosaur cranes grab her and throw her on to the quay…

“Sirène” marks a step in Servais’ method of working. Whereas “Chromophobia” was virtually entirely animated by him, and even though he will remain master on board for the script of all his short films, he now surrounds himself with collaborators. Norbert Deseyn makes both graphically and pictorially beautiful backgrounds. Part of the animation is entrusted to Willy Verschelde. The latter is also requested to design the siren, as Servais confesses having had a lot of trouble with this character: “I never managed to design the siren. It was too Disney-like, and I wanted to avoid all mannerism, every possible goody-goodiness.” The difference in style is visible in the other characters : those designed by Verschelde are more gentle, rounder, whereas Servais’ characters are more angular, which intensifies their pathetic aspect.

Servais says this film was a ‘challenge’ for him : it was the result of a desire to make something different. It confused the Belgian critics and received less prizes than “Chromophobia”, still, however, gathering seven international prizes.

Yet, in many respects this film goes a lot further than the previous. “Sirène” will open doors in Asia and the States – especially in Iran, where he enjoys a success that he himself calls colossal. He will be received by Empress Farah Dibah, who even asks him to create a school for animation in Iran, an offer he declines. Still, he will take Nourredine Zarrinkhelk to the Ghent Academy as a student. Beyond the anecdote, Iran’s enthusiasm is interesting, as it witnesses Servais’ first films’ capacity to appeal to non-European cultures. Their imagery and absence of idiom give them a universal appeal.

 

GOLDFRAME (1969)

For his next short film, Servais temporarily leaves his “silent” universe, to introduce dialogue as a vital element. It is also the first film which can be said to be explicit about its target. Whereas his previous films could still be considered as “children’s” films, “Goldframe” is definitely a film for an adult audience.

It all begins with the sound of a telephone ringing. A conversation takes place between Jason Goldframe, Hollywood mogul, hidden behind his desk, and a man called Ted, whom we’ll never actually see. Goldframe wants him to finish his film – the first to be made in 270 mm! – “by the first of …”, failing to be more precise. The tone is set: mister Goldframe is someone who likes to give orders and who wants to be obeyed. Then the conversation continues – always between Goldframe and a character that remains unseen. This time it is Jenkins, a devoted assistant who will be the invisible witness of Goldframe’s becoming mad. Because that is what it is all about: in his hunger for power, Goldframe never stops repeating he wants to be the first. He stands up and goes to a studio, full of projectors and spotlights. There, against a large screen-wall, he performs a staggering pantomime, multiplied by the shadows quietly provided by the projectors. Goldframe wants to be the first in everything, including a race against his own shadow. A game he will definitely loose… Behind the apparently trivial character of this massive captain of industry, egocentric and rather disjointed, appears one of Servais’ most ambitious works. It is the most cinematographical in the sense that it comes close to live action film. For the first time in his career, Servais describes a real personality, as opposed to the archetypal and symbolic characters of his previous films. That he turns to dialogue is, indeed, significant in this change.

It is his shortest film, shot, as Servais confesses, in black and white because he could not afford colour – an explanation typical for the sincerity and modesty of a filmmaker which calls for more. At each stage of his career, Servais is, like so many others, forced to make choices dictated by material conditions. It usually works out well, by turning necessity into a virtue. It is his capacity to react like this that explains a good part of his artistic success.

The film was made in a couple of months, in a fit of creativity, with the assistance of an excellent animator, Willy Verschelde, and sculptor Paul Van Gysegem for the backgrounds.

Even though the film received worldwide appreciation, and though it won some important prizes (it was selected for Cannes), it also provoked some quite unexpected reactions: “I had chosen the name ‘Goldframe’ because of ‘Goldfinger’. I did not see a caricature of any particular individual in it, but some suspected me of anti-semitism. In Los Angeles, I was told the film was badly received for that reason.” This was not the first time that Servais found himself confronted with abusive and partisan interpretations. At the time of “Chromophobia”, some thought they saw the denunciation of stalinist dictatorship; others saw fascism, each allying Servais with his own ideology.

 

TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK (1970)

Language will be a central element in yet another short film, made two years later and eloquently called “To Speak Or Not To Speak”. The entire film is about a “F.A.Q.” (Frequently Asked Question) – the kind of question the media shower upon us, willy-nilly, every day (“What is your opinion on the actual political situation?”). To a question that is part of the “language of the tube” follows an emblematic reply: the one who replies is embarrassed. He is one of those little men that Servais so dearly cherishes (he lends his own voice to the character!) – in this case, an average ‘man of the street’, a lambda-civilian, loosely knit and patched up, reduced to one slim pen stroke. To the question, he stammers, hesitates and initially seems to make efforts to give a sensible answer, but he changes his mind and ends up delivering an avalanche of delirious replies, leading to one of these masterful climaxes of which Servais holds the secret. “I wanted to make something about the manipulation of the individual that exists in a world of money and aggressive capitalism as much as in a fascist, militarist world, where people are prepared for warfare.” A character producing coloured balloons: that disturbs and then pleases. We use it, we merchandise it. A certain moralism, typical in “The False Note”, comes to the surface again, revealing that Servais is still concerned with ethical questions: what is the role of the artist in society? Which attitude should he adopt when confronted with totalitarianism and with “silent majorities”? At the same time it should be underlined that these “committed” intentions do not prevent “To Speak Or Not To Speak” from being one of he funniest films Servais has ever made. Its repetitive humour is certainly effective, even though a certain fatigue can be felt in the last part. Graphically, the film is deliberately sober: the characters are defined a black line, the background is austere – in black and white – and leaves colour to the contents of the text balloons, especially when these show psychedelic distortions. This economy of colour is not of the same nature of “Goldframe”. It results from the attitude adopted in “Chromophobia”, in which colour was thought of as an actor and as a meaningful component determined by the script, rather than as an ontological element of the cartoon.

 

OPERATION X-70 (1971)

Early in the seventies, the US intensified their offensive against North-Vietnam. Hanoi is bombed heavily. These “air strikes” shock American and European public opinion deeply, memories of World War II still being very much alive. The Vietnam War, the first media war, is seen through shocking images in television news broadcasts, but also in pictures taken by international press agencies. The press talks about defoliation and the use, by the Americans, of nerve gas.

Servais did not need to see more to begin a film of which the title sounds like a code name of a military operation: “Operation X-70”. This time, the film clinically describes the accidental invasion of a country – the “Nebelux”, which looks surprisingly much like Belgium. A powerful nation tests a new combat gas, which neither kills nor wounds or suffocates, but which causes the victims to become lethargic and mystical. X-70 gas bombs are erroneously dropped on the Nebelux and cause a mutation among the population of this charming little country. A special force is sent out to verify the actual effects of this accidental bombing on western subjects on the spot.

Seduced by the etchings of Marc Ampe, one of his former pupils, he asks the latter to design the characters and backgrounds of his film. Ampe does the principal scenes of the film without sketches, straight on the zinc plate. The backgrounds are, therefore, monochrome etchings, water tinted – giving the backgrounds a granular presence, playing with shades of grey in a way no animation film had ever done before. The characters are animated in the same vein: sketched and gouached on celluloid in a conventional fashion, but reworked with grease pencil to secure osmosis. Everything bathes in a grey-green, highly referential, atmosphere: the characters stiffened by horror remind of press photos of the Vietnam war. Others evoke the work of Francis Bacon, Goya’s “Disasters of War” or the victims of the Vesuvius eruption on Pompei, dug up in the sixties in expressive positions, but stiffened by lava. With very little animation, the film shatters what is left of the image we have of a conventional animation film. The theme is resolutely adult, the tone is “cold, documentary”, the off-screen voice is “surgical” – everything enforces the impression that there is a world of difference between “Operation X-70” and that other anti-militarist film that was one of the basics of Servais’ work, “Chromophobia”.

A-typical and so little ‘animated’, “Operation X-70” was a culminating point in Servais’ career: the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and the First Prize at the Zagreb International Animation Film Festival.

 

PEGASUS (1973)

In the ‘polders’, a typical landscape for the Belgian coast, Servais buys a dilapidated farmhouse, which he will turn into a country house. There he meets a neighbour, a poor farmer who really lives like in old times: “While so many others got rich from black-marketeering during the war, this old man, who was also a patriot, had only one treasure: his horse. He walked it in the evening, like you walk your dog. He had no tractor and lived in an archaic farm.” In the same period, Servais also visits the Disney studios which, at that time, only produce live action films. The studios were nearly empty. Servais remembers having walked through immense halls with only an elderly lady sitting at a desk in the back. In his family, there was also a shoeing smith who has had to give up the trade. Servais is over forty when he ascertains, somewhat disappointedly: “All these people have lost their reason for living.” This will be the catalyst for “Pegasus”, the story of an old shoeing smith who is entirely surpassed by technology, and who revolts in his own way, absurd and unreal, by making metallic horses. These large static idols in riveted steel plate gradually invade the screen.

To make “Pegasus”, Servais turns back to one of his old passions: expressionism. He considers, quite logically, that a visual form close to the aesthetics of Flemish expressionism would be perfectly adequate for his subject. He consequently asks Norbert Deseyn to draw up backgrounds for “Pegasus”. Deseyn will perform the job masterfully, rendering the red and yellow colours of the countryside in harvest time. This very pictorial material of the backgrounds causes the printing of the characters, superimposed in several layers of acrylic gouache on the celluloid, to be extremely fastidious. It reaches the limit of sophistication feasible for a modest budget production.

“Pegasus” was less appreciated than its predecessors. It precedes a turning point in Servais’ career, as it is his last “animated cartoon”.

Looking back on the short films we have seen so far, we realise that in a little more than 13 years, Servais has made nine short films, each of them entirely different in style and technique, sometimes in opposition, integrating the universe of other artists, usually painters who are friends. This inspired a critic at the time to the following statement: “We could say that each film by Servais is not only anti-Disney, but also anti-Servais in his refusal to repeat himself.”

 

HALEWYN’S SONG (1976)

With “To Speak of Not To Speak”, production conditions change. Raoul Servais and Robert Vrielynck create ‘Pen Films’, that will be the Flemish Culture Ministry’s privileged partner for the production of Servais’ films. “To Speak Or Not To Speak” is, technically speaking, made under entirely professional conditions. Pen Films will operate as executive producer and recording studio for all of Servais’ films until “Harpya”.

For the Belgian company Luna Films and the Italian Corona Cinematografica, Servais accepts to make a 13-minute episode of a European series based on tales and legends of the Old Continent. This commissioned work, which should not be considered in the same way as his short films, will take two years of his energy. It gives him the opportunity to apply a technique other than the cartoon: cut out paper on magnetic board.

The story, which is a weakened version of what it had become through oral traditions, was meant to be integrated in an ambitious television project. Thanks to the use of stained glass aesthetics and materials that have a metallic look for the armours, the film reveals an interesting characteristic: Servais is not inclined to give up creativity simply because this film was a low budget commission for television.

 

HARPYA (1979)

Six long years will pass between “Pegasus” and “Harpya”. Whereas the making of Servais’ short films so far took place in a sustained rhythm, the making of this new work appears to have taken a particularly long time. There are multiple reasons for that. Servais, who has founded an animation section at the Ghent Academy, is forced to assume an increasing amount of responsibilities. Furthermore, he has accepted to teach courses at the “Institut Supérieur de la Cambre” in Brussels and his work as a teacher is doubled by the administrative and legal obligations. It is a euphemism to say that Servais did not feel comfortable with this.

On the other hand, the success of his films has put him into the position of being cultural ambassador for Belgium and Flanders. He is often invited for juries, conferences and meetings and begins to become a public figure. Servais speaks three languages : Dutch, French and English. That makes him a popular spokesman both in Flanders als the neighbouring countries. He rarely refuses invitations because he likes to defend the animation cinema that needs support, and he does it all around the world. This is the other side of Servais: amiable and refined diplomat, always available for contacts and meetings.

“Pegasus”, which was only partly a success, is a point of no return. In any case, Servais feels like abandoning drawn animation, as he seems to have made the tour of it. He feels attracted by other things: not live action, not the photograph, not animation in the strict sense, but all three at the same time.

When “Harpya” is finally shown on screen, most of those who had known Servais are shocked. A salutary shock, as it delivers him the Palme d’Or in Cannes. No more nice poetic stories, no more transparent parables that clearly reveal a message: “Harpya” is a “punch in the face”. Two characters run into each other : a Belle Epoque middle-class man, wearing moustache, straw hat and striped suit; and a chimera, a harpy that steals the bread from his mouth before eating him partly and turning him into a creature without legs. Where is she, the sweet “Sirène”…

Throughout this “thriller”, with its merciless rhythm, spiced with wry humour, only now and then mitigated by details including a fries stand (“friture”) and other typical Belgian phenomena, we get the feeling that Servais is, unconsciously, settling some accounts, particularly with the female sex. He defends himself, however: “I love women a lot. I do not, however, like dominating women as I dislike dominating people altogether.” To confirm that this film marks the end of his intention to practise social criticism, he puts forward the theme of authority, domination, which can be found in all his films, and of which “Harpya” is the most extreme manifestation.

For the first time, we have the impression that Servais gives his phantasms free play, and for that, he invents an entirely personal technique and style: shoot the characters and print them on cellophane sheets that are coloured on the back side, marked and placed, and can be filmed on backgrounds. To do this, he contacts Agfa Gevaert, explaining to them what will become an entirely new process, registered as “Servaisgraphy”. The most interesting asset of the invention is the relatively simple way live action shots can be integrated into animated backgrounds.

At this point, Servais is already working on his next film, for which he wants to use his “Servaisgraphy”.

 

TAXANDRIA (1994)

After “Harpya”, another project was haunting his imagination. We know he worked with Magritte and we know how he admires surrealism in general. But the painter who for a long time had fascinated him most (and who lived next door in Sint-Idesbald) was Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). His oneiric ghost towns populated by pale naked women, absent-minded scholars and vacant men, all dressed up, the abandoned train stations and trains without destination – all attracted Servais’ attention. He sets off to try out some shots inspired by Delvaux’ paintings in “Servaisgraphy” and is rather pleased with the result. Servais talks it over with the eighty-year-old painter, who accepts the idea to see his universe become part of an animation film. Servais writes a first draft of the plot, which is definitely meant to become a full-length feature film rather than a short film. Supported by a writing and pre-production grant of the Flemish Community, he goes in search of a producer, because the project turns out to be long and complex – and therefore expensive. The time Servais made a “Goldframe” on his own account has long gone. Since 1983, a heavy storyboard tells the story of a land called “Taxandria” (the name actually exists: it is the name of a province of Gaulish Belgium). Taxandria is, of course, an imaginary country, much like “The Nebelux” in “Operation X-70”, one of these anti-utopias that are timeless in literature.

A totalitarian regime has forbidden time: time watches have been confiscated, photo cameras are illegal as they freeze a point in time. A typical Servais theme: a power is oppressed by a constraint that denies what is best in the individual, and therefore has to be twisted in various ways, to establish an entirely artificial world, that has rules that may question some of the rules of our world at this side of the mirror.

As there are no feature animation producers in Belgium (the most recent film at the time, “La Flûte à Six Schtroumpfs” is of an entirely different nature), Servais contacts a live action feature film producer who has the reputation of being interested in unusual projects: Pierre Drouot and his company Iblis Films. Drouot seems to like the idea of Servais making a full-length animation, but he is less happy with Delvaux’ involvement. “I must admit,” says Servais, “that I also had the feeling that using his paintings might be a handicap. His entire work operates on eye-level. There is no downward or upward perspective. All is very ‘horizontal’ and Delvaux’ iconography proved insufficient. It was necessary to ‘reinvent’ Delvaux.” The production of “Taxandria” soon took another direction. It would be the first of a long series of corrections and sometimes fundamental changes of mind. Dany Geys, one of Drouot’s partners, launches the idea to associate Servais’ universe with that of a maker of comic strips who has made a remarkable breakthrough, François Schuiten. Benoît Peeters, scriptwriter and longtime friend, suggests that Schuiten’s work consists of imaginary places, utopian cities, described into architectural detail. “I immediately understood that he had the sensibility that I wanted for this project. He became my closest collaborator and he was often my only ally in the battles we had to fight.” There was a lot of rewriting, revision and countless interventions.

Time goes by and the digital era has begun. “Servaisgraphy” threatens to become obsolete. It was finally only to be used for the fabric of the backgrounds and no longer for the incrustation. The film’s traditional approach and the fact that it no longer holds pace with technological changes displeases the partners, who want to make it a live action film with special effects. At the same time, the project grows bigger and bigger, becoming the battle horse for a Frankfurt-based company that wants to use “Taxandria” as a demo for its own technique of incrustation. Technical setbacks multiply and at the end of the line, after more than 15 years of development and cost, the money is gone. Production is closed.

An ultimate rewriting finally integrates a series of live action scenes: a scriptwriter is commissioned to write passages made to measure with the sequences that were already made. The final film disappoints. The critics’ reaction to the first public screening at the Ghent Film Festival, with a print which is no final cut yet, is very moderate: “Taxandria is a sick great film, devoured by its contradictions, torn between artistry and commerce.”

As a result of having heard so much about it, the expectations of Servais’ admirers were undoubtedly not met with. “It is not an animation film”, Servais said, as if he wanted to paraphrase Magritte, a diplomatic way of saying that it is not a Servais film at all. The box office results are poor. Yet, the film enjoys an amount of success at festivals specialised in fantastic cinema. In Porto and Rome, “Taxandria” even wins awards.

 

NOCTURNAL BUTTERFLIES (1998)

It marks the return of “Servaisgraphy” and will become its first real application. The use of this technique gives a touch that is sensibly different from the digital incrustation technique – which justifies it. We have watched it over and over again. Servais is not the kind of man who abandons an idea when he really likes it. He goes back to the world of Paul Delvaux. Rendering some of Delvaux’ paintings scrupulously on the screen, he moulds them to match his own purposes, and we feel pretty close to “Harpya”. There’s the same oppressive atmosphere, a world in which the difficult relations between the characters are sealed with the label of incommunicability. But a more subtle fear seems to have replaced the exacerbated tensions of “Harpya”. “Night Butterflies” proceeds from an odd feeling of irresolute waiting and is, in that respect, a pertinent tribute to Delvaux’ work.

In this sense, painter-filmmaker Raoul Servais never seems to have been closer to the final aim he has always wanted to achieve without proclaiming it: “…between the plastic arts and animation film, we could have created more interesting passage ways. And these passage ways have never or nearly never been utilised… (…) I ventured into this unknown zone, this ‘no man’s land’ between live cinema and painting, where there are things to discover…”

After “Nachtvlinders”, which won the Grand Prix and the International Critics’ Prize at the Annecy Festival in 1998, a page seems to have been turned. The ancient complicity with Delvaux has finally been established and the viability of Servaisgraphy seems less linked to an illusory comparison with modern technology.

 

ATRAKSION (2001)

Attracted to experimenting, Servais succeeds again in not repeating himself. This film is made in black and white. Not by lack of money this time, but as a purposeful backlash from “Nocturnal Butterflies”’ colour symphony. Servais found inspiration in the black and white striped uniforms from prison inmates (prisoners of what? human society? themselves?), chained on hands and feet, working their way through the most desperate of film backgrounds towards an illusion of light somewhere in the distance. The film is a parable in which Servais pronounces his hopes for a better future, but at the same time points out that human society will have to provide it for itself.

Again Servais said that this film is not an animation film, and rightfully so, since there is no animation technique involved. The film is a very convincing combination of live action and graphically conceived backgrounds, for which Servais for the very first time has made use of computer processors. With this film Servais has accepted the technology of the digital era, but at the same time has turned it into an instrument he is applying in a very personal way.

‘Atraksion’ was awarded the Special Prize at the Valladolid Festival and a Special mention at the UIP competiton of the European Film Academy in Ghent.

 

WINTER DAYS (2003)

For a collective animated feature film, made by 35 world-famous animation directors, Servais made a 50″ sequence, based on a 17th century Japanese poem of Master Matsuo Basho, each director starting from a few verses only. This collective work was imaginated and supervised by Kihachiro Kawamoto. “Winter Days” (Fuyo no hi) presents 40 minutes of animation and is completed by a ‘making of’-documentary (68 minutes), including interviews with some of the directors concerned by this original project. The sequence worked out by Raoul Servais shows a hermit offering shelter to a heron, as a remembrance of a woman he dreamed of.

 

BIOGRAPHICAL FACTS

– Raoul Servais (°Ostend, 1st of May 1928) studied applied arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent.-

– Freshly graduated he worked as René Magritte’s assistant to carry out his series of wall paintings “Le Domaine Enchanté” in the Casino of Knokke

– In 1963 Raoul Servais founds the Animation Film Department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, the first school in its kind on the European continent.

– In 1973 Raoul Servais enters the Royal Academy for Arts and Sciences of Belgium. Currently he is honorary Member.

– In 1985 Servais decorates the entire ‘Houba-Brugmann’ subway station in Brussels.

– From 1985 to 1994 Raoul Servais was President of ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d’Animation). Since 2010 he is honorary President of ASIFA.

– Raoul Servais is co-founder of the Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (VAF,the fund of the Flanders government that supports audiovisuel production), has been vice-president of the Henri Storck Foundation and still is vice-president of the foundation that carries his name.

In 2008 Raoul Servais was made Doctor Honoris Causa of the Ghent University. Hij is laureate of the Van Acker Prize (Bruges, 1975). In 2002 he received the quinquennial cultural prize of the province West Flanders. The Flemisch Parliament granted him in 2010 a golden honorific medal (gouden erepenning). Earlier he has been ‘cultural ambassador of Flanders’.

– Raoul Servais obtained the Espiga de Oro (golden ear) for his entire cinematographic career in Valladolid, the special jury prize for his work (the Hans Christian Andersen prize) in 1975 at the fairy tale film festival of Odense (Denmark), the Norman McLaren Heritage Prize of the Canadian National Film Board, the Dragon of Dragons Lifetime Achievement Award of the Cracow Film Festival (Poland), the career prize at the international animation festival of Hiroshima (2010) and in 2015 the Cristal Pegasus for his entire work at the animation film festival of Poznan (Poland).

– Raoul Servais received more than fifty prizes and awards, a.o. the San-Marco Lion for the best animation film in Venice (1966 – Chromophobia), the Grand Prize of the Jury in Cannes (1971 – Operation X-70), the Golden Palm in Cannes (1979 – Harpya), the Grand Prix of the animation film festival of Annecy and the international film critics prize (1988 – Nocturnal Butterflies), apart from important prizes at numerous other festivals in Belgium and abroad: Bilbao, Teheran, Montreal, Leipzig, Moskou, Chicago, Philadelphia, Sydney, Oberhausen, Zagreb, Porto, Rome, Valladolid.

– Servais-homages and retrospectives of his work took place in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris, in Saint-Etienne, Annecy, Valladolid, Madrid, Valencia, Siena, Bursa, Istanbul, Ankara, Sousse (Tunesia), Meknes (Morocco), Montreal, Vancouver, the Museum of Modern Art and the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, and in Chicago. Moreover in the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank – Hollywood, Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hong Kong, Taishung (Taiwan), Jeonju (South Korea), Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo Sint-Petersburg and Poznan.
– Exhibitions of his graphic designs and art work were held in Osaka, Annecy, Montreal, Paris, Laon, Roubaix, Valladolid, São Paulo, Ghent, Ostend, Middelkerke, Bredene,…

(photo: Raoul Servais and Henri Storck, at the left, film pioneer and also born in Ostend.)

 

SERVAIS AND ANIMATION FILM TEACHING

Because Raoul Servais himself did not receive any film training and as an autodidact spent long years on unraveling the secrets of animation film, he wanted to be animation film education available for the new generations.
In the early sixties, Servais founded the first official aninmation school of the European continent at het Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent.
For eight years he also lectured at the École nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre (ENSAV) in Brussels. Two years long he was in charge of the animation film training at the Centre Tertiaire de Formation in Valenciennes (France).
Servais was invited as guest teacher at the film faculty of Columbia College of Art in Chicago and at Calarts (California Institute of the Arts) – Los Angeles.
In order to raise interest for animation film already at a very young age, he set up – with the support of Jacques Dubrulle and the input of Christel Degros’ and Isabelle Cracco’s educational skills – the workshop Waf! within the association Fund Raoul Servais.

 

with special thanks to Philippe Moins