by Bjorn Gabriels
Some thirty years after The Fly, which won him an Academy Award for short animation in 1981, Hungarian animator Ferenc Rofusz has a new short, Ticket. It tells the life story of a man from birth to grave, entirely told from his personal perspective. Rofusz stresses that Ticket is his first non-political film. And that means a lot, coming from a man who in the eighties confronted the communist regime with his politically charged animations.
The Ticket – trailer
Ticket continues along the lines of The Fly’s imagery. It’s as if the main character flies through his own life. But to this motion Rofusz has added a temporal component: the sweeping ‘camera movements’ associatively connect different stages in life. The main character makes his first steps holding the hands of his parents, then swiftly gains control over his own movement (playing basketball, driving a car). As he grows older, he becomes more stagnant, slower-paced. He sits down on a sofa while his son grows up before his eyes, and later on moves around with a walking aid. Yet, the sweeping associations of images continue, although there’s a shift from actually experiencing towards reminiscing.
The very mobile and intimate ‘first person’ perspective through background animation is a trademark of Rofusz’s work. This is apparent in The Fly (1981), which starts out as a playful journey, before turning into a life-threatening chase. An anonymous force hunts the main character, kills it and displays its body as a trophy. Rofusz had an alternative ending in mind in which the assailant slips and falls. The fly would then turn to look at its attacker and see a man dressed in communist garments, before flying out of the house, towards freedom. This version didn’t pass the studio’s heads, but that didn’t stop Rofusz from drawing politically charged animations.
Rofusz won an Oscar for The Fly, but was not allowed to attend the award ceremony himself. Instead, Istvan Dosai, at the time the head of government agency Hungarofilm, travelled to Los Angeles to do the honors. Much to the surprise of presenters Alan Arkin and Margot Kidder, who were announcing that the Academy would accept the Oscar on behalf of Rofusz, Dosai came to the stage and gave a brief acceptance speech: ‘It’s not me; I’m so sorry. He got the invitation too late. And I thank in his name. And just one word: Even the short film can be great.’ Audience and Academy officials were left bewildered, not knowing who had picked up the statuette. Later, Rofusz did receive his Oscar.
His Gravity (1984) illustrates the legend behind Newton’s law while focusing on self-determination and the frustration of being stuck in life. The apple can only fall so far from the tree as the laws (of nature) permit, but this doesn’t mean he has to keep hanging around on the same branch for his entire life. This act of freedom, however, comes with a risk.
Deadlock (1985) is a mixture of live-action images and animation. Rofusz once again pens down the final moments of life. This time the main character is brought in front of a firing squad. Just before he is gunned down (again by an invisible force), the eyes of the convict glide down to his shoes and the fly that joins him there in his final moments. On this occasion the flies survives. The film was banned in communist Hungary and would be Rofusz‘s last film for Pannonia, the Hungarian national animation film studio.
Rofusz left Hungary in 1984, at first working in West Germany and later in Canada. Despite the international recognition he received for his animations, he had trouble financing new projects. In the early nineties, he set up his own company and used his animation skills to make commercials and music videos, e.g. for the song ‘Seven’ by the Sub Pop band Sunny Day Real Estate. Rofusz doesn’t regret this line of work, as these assignments ‘presented huge chances and I also could use different styles and exciting new technical possibilities’.
Sunny Day Real Estate
In 2003, Rofusz presented his first short fiction in nearly two decades, Ceasefire. It grasps back to his engaged animations of the eighties as it shows the tragedy of a young boy in a war zone, where any glimmer of hope is shattered. Two years later he followed with Dog’s Life (2005), a comedy of reversal. Both films are longer than his earlier three-minute shorts.
On the occasion of his new animation short, Ferenc Rofusz talks about what Ticket means for him.
One usually receives/purchases a ticket to attend some special event. Do you see life as a chain of special events one is granted access to?
Yes, this ticket is for the special events in the life of individuals. The film follows a man’s life – any man’s life – from birth to death from his own point of view, through ‘the camera’ – his own eyes. It demonstrates the eternal cycle of life, thus attempting to answer that eternal question: What is life? Our life is a continued course of experiences and actions that constitute our existence.
Your earlier animations – such as The Fly, Deadlock and Gravity – often dealt with the final stages of life. Was it important for you to broaden the perspective in your new work?
In Ticket, I show life in its full course. From the moment of birth we are getting closer and closer to our death. That is why death is a major topic in philosophy.
Do you believe religion, spirituality or philosophy can provide an answer to these big questions?
All these depend on the individual! Our slogan for Ticket is ‘the meaning of Life is a Life with a meaning!’ The film is meant to be an alarm. Its message is to wake up and do something with your life. The German philosopher Nietzsche once said: ‘Our choices and actions determine who we are… who we become is our responsibility.’
Your first person perspective allows you to create whirling animations that avoid stagnant backgrounds in which the characters move around. How did you come to this ‘reversed’ approach and why does it fascinate you?
I hadn’t seen background animation from anybody in any animated film before, so I found it fascinating to use the so-called ‘the eye is the camera’ approach. And, by the way, I haven’t seen it since The Fly either.
Pace and movement seem to be important aspects of your films. Where does this interest come from?
These movements and the pacing are produced by life itself, I’ve just followed it.
In Ticket, a relatively long, static point-of-view shows the main character leafing through a photo album, with what are clearly pictures of you in it. He is also seen drawing. Would you say Ticket is your most autobiographically inspired work so far?
Yes, the photo album contains the pictures of my own family, but this is not evident and doesn’t have any significance for the viewers.
Your point of view approach mixes a personal standpoint with an Everyman’s perspective. In Ticket we never see who the main character is, while we live through events that most of us can relate to. Was it important for you to have this ‘universal’ perspective?
The film shows a stereotyped existence. It is not designed to portray the life of an extraordinary person, it shows life in its linear, ordinary course, hence the popular slogans fit here: ‘What is the meaning of life? Whatever you want it to be’ and ‘Your life is your message to the world. Make sure it is inspiring!’
You’ve learned the tricks of the animation trade by working for Pannonia, the Hungarian national animation film studio, during the communist era. How do you look back on these formative years, in politically turbulent times?
The ‘political situation’ did not interfere with the professional learning process, training and preparation at all. As for what concerns the final products, like in the case of The Fly, I had to submit the project four times and questions were repeatedly asked as to ‘who the fly is and who is chasing it?’
You won an Academy Award in 1981 with The Fly. At the time, you were not allowed to collect the award yourself, although you did receive the statuette later on. Did this international recognition (also with your later films) nevertheless open doors for you?
Of course, even today 30 years later I can call and when I do the doors are open for me. But this doesn’t mean the financing for my project is automatic.
Your style of animation is an intense working process. Nowadays the internet bursts with animation in all forms and shapes. How do you look at these developments and where do you see your (future) projects in the line of this?
I’ve always seen them as positive developments. I’ve even incorporated some of them in Ticket. But I do not see the possibility that I will conform totally to that. I leave that for the young, new generation of animators.