Humor Always Slips In – Interview with Fokion Xenos

The works of Fokion Xenos are not unknown to the audience of Primanima, two of his animations were also in competition in the children's program in previous years and he was one of our jury members and lecturer in 2022. His work Heatwave won the award for the most popular international children's film in 2019, which was shown with great success at more than 70 festivals. He began his studies in Athens, then studied at the NFTS in London, and currently works in both countries. As an animation filmmaker he is interested in playful and bold stories that focus on visual wit and emotional honesty.

You studied both in Athens and in London, you live and work with one foot here, one foot there. How should we imagine this?  I guess there are fewer financing opportunities in Greece.

Athens and London are definitely two very different places to make animation films. The time when I was living between these cities has really changed since the pandemic and I find myself spending most of my time in Athens. Even though I have great collaborations and business with the U.K. I have been getting more Greek projects than U.K. projects. Even though the animation scene is small in Greece and financing is always an issue I feel there is big strength in this compact community. London may be more lush and financially straightforward but it is also very competitive. This creates an environment that makes unique risky ideas harder to materialize. Athens on the other hand is very chaotic in terms of financing but people are very open into new ideas and ways of filmmaking; taking risks and experimenting makes more sense to people so a lot of trust is built between people in these productions. The ideal for me is to coproduce as it combines both worlds that I truly love.

Is there any difference between your work made in Greece and in Great Britain? Or are you trying to combine the two traditions? In your animation made at the NFTS, you also evoke your childhood in Greece.

As mentioned above there is a huge difference in terms of production and financing. However, even if this sometimes creates creative challenges; I find myself working in a similar way in terms of vision and the contents of my work. When I am directing I have a very personal way of approaching stories as I try making my own even if I have not written them. I find animation filmmaking a very transformative process and I love losing myself into the various techniques, especially stop motion. It allows me the opportunity to recognize myself into the little things and my goal is to express these small realizations to a broader audience.

You enjoy working with plasticine, what is the reason for this, why do you like this technique? What is the biggest challenge in claymation? Is it difficult to create something with a modern feel to it?

Claymation is the first contact point I had with stop motion. I really enjoy the freedom it provides as I find it similar to drawing in 3D space. 

Still image from the animation Heatwave

Whatever asset you might need you create with ease; making the process very creative and also spontaneous. In my work so far I tried using claymation in my own way combining it with cutout techniques and VFX updating the look and feel of the traditional claymation. Either way I wouldn’t call myself an expert stop motion animator as I mostly enjoy the medium as an element to my work rather than a fully developed skill. The biggest challenge for me though is related to production time as sometimes this creative freedom can be hard to schedule and predict.

Humor plays an important role in your animations, do you also think that making funny films is always more difficult? Nevertheless, why do you like to try to evoke these emotions in your films?

I find it very difficult not to use humor in my films to be honest.

Even when I try to create  more cool and serious subjects, humor always slips in in various forms. I think that it is because I enjoy the expressive side of animation so much when I am making it; I subconsciously include it in the work.

Making something move gives me a sense of wonder that I think is related to physical humor. I never start a script or project thinking of it as a comedy though. I believe comedy is one of the hardest forms of filmmaking so my kind of humor is more physical and acting based rather than situational. I find movement and good timing the most satisfying things about filmmaking so I try to communicate this personal fascination to the audience through my work.

Knowing myself I can sense humor is gonna be there; my goal isn’t to make people laugh but to make them relate and engage with the films.

You made a lot of music videos, illustrations, film TITLES and VFX. What is that you most enjoy in the applied arts? How much freedom do you have in these projects?

Before directing animation I have studied graphic design as a BA so I do enjoy working with a brief. Problem solving visually and conceptually can be immensely entertaining for me; so I find commissioned work wonderful especially if I have creative freedom. For example, currently I am working as an episode director for a stop motion anthology series. The experience of working on scripts and concepts that others have in mind is quite a satisfying puzzle to work on. In addition, commercial work usually provides financial benefits and more straightforward production schedules which is great for everyday life. I will never stop trying to make my own films as I am always curious to self reflect through the process. Despite that, it is always fun to collaborate and be part of someone else’s work.

Who inspires you, whose work do you consider important? Sometimes it seems that Greek animation doesn't get enough attention from the international animation community, why do you think that is?

My biggest inspiration are other short film animation directors of the past and present. I find something very appealing in the short format that really suits animation. There is room for experimentation and wonderful personality that usually lacks in features or series. I have great respect for this international community and I consider myself part of it. It is important for me always to join festivals to be surprised by the amazing work and meet filmmakers from around the globe. 

Award Ceremony at the 10th edition of Primanima

Greece has a small but fiery community that has been growing steadily. Even though the state support has been non-existent before more and more Greek animation films are being developed and people notice. We have a long way to go but I think the international community is recording Greek animation both through festivals and co-productions.

What do you think are the most important aspects in an animation made for children?

I think that children are the hardest audience to please as their reactions are visceral and raw. The most important aspect for me is engagement through character work. Children nowadays are bombarded with content and especially animation. In young ages the visuals do not really matter much. Kids don’t yet have the experience of what looks good or bad so they get hooked on the storytelling and instinctual reactions. Having said that characters are most relatable when they are truthful and well defined.

I am always surprised by kids' capability to understand emotions and complex films with great characters.

What aspects will you take into account during the jurying?

I am really thrilled to be seeing all the new films!  I am looking for great characters, smart concepts and unique deliveries. I am sure the official selection is full of exciting animation films to encounter.

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