Together with Picha, Raoul Servais is one of the most notable Belgian animators in the world, though Servais has gained more acclaim and awards. He was born in Ostend in 1928, hence his nickname "The Wizard of Ostend". His father was an amateur film director who frequently showed pictures by Charlie Chaplin, Charles Vanel and cartoons of Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's 'Felix the Cat' in his local film theater. This inspired Servais to become an animator. After World War II he studied decorative arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. Together with some fellow students he founded his own amateur animation studio, but by lack of available information, they had to learn the craft entirely by self study. His debut, 'Spokenhistorie' was filmed with a camera made out of a cigar box. When he finally purchased a "professional" camera in the 1950s, it was a model made in 1928, his birth year! Hungry for more reliable information and equipment, Servais went so far to disguise himself as a journalist and visit both Ray Goossens' animation studio in Antwerp and the Gémeaux Studios in Paris, that was founded by Paul Grimault. While his ploy managed to fool everyone, he still wasn't allowed access inside the actual animators' department.
Instead, Servais turned to live-action documentaries and experimental shorts for a while. He was also active as an illustrator and co-transponed designs by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte on the walls of a circular room in the casino of Knokke. Despite having an argument with the maestro about technical aspects of the decoration, Servais still regarded Magritte as one of his graphic influences, along with that other Belgian surrealist icon, Paul Delvaux.
Servais was also briefly active in comics. As a member of the Belgian Socialist Party he published comics in their magazines Vooruit, Le Peuple and Germinal. One of his gag series was 'Pol en Piet' (1953) in the magazine Vriendschap. It centered around an identical twin. However he soon turned his back on the medium, feeling comics weren't really his thing. 'Pol en Piet' was therefore continued for a short while by Jean de Cocq.
In 1960 he became an art teacher at his former school, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. Three years later, he founded the university's first course in animation. This was not only a scoop for Belgian universities, but also the first school of its kind on the European Continent. Later he would also teach at the Institut Supérieur de la Cambre in Brussels.
Still from 'To Speak or not to Speak'
His job allowed him to hone his technical skills and raise money to make his own cartoons. His debut film 'Havenlichten' ('Harbor Lights', 1960) was somewhat clumsy in certain fields, but showed enough promise to win First Prize at the National Festival of Belgian Film in Antwerp. Servais invested the prize money in his next animated film, 'De Valse Noot' ('The False Note', 1963), which won the "Best Animated Film" award at the Benelux Film Festival in 's Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. 'Chromophobia' (1966), winner of the Primo Premio at the International Filmfestival of Venice, was his international breakthrough. The work made a strong stance against war and tyranny, a theme that would run through his next cartoons as well, such as 'Sirene' (1968), 'To Speak or Not to Speak' (1970) and 'Operation X-70' (1971), the latter receiving the Prix Spécial du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and the First Prize at the International Film Festival of Animation in Zagreb.
'Sirene' was an unexpected succcess in Iran and Servais was invited by empress Farah Diba with the request to create an animation school in Teheran, an offer he politely refused. From 'Goldframe' (1969) on, which won the Special Jury Prize at the International Film Festival of Sydney, Servais regularly surprised his audience by drastically changing his graphic style and animation techniques. One can often hardly tell it's made by the same director. The animated cartoon 'To Speak or Not To Speak' (1970) was notable for featuring characters talking in speech balloons on screen, showing his debt to the comics medium. Two of Servais' former animators who'd also have an active comics career were Gilbert Declercq and Willy Verschelde.
His most famous work is the short 'Harpya' (1979), crowned with the Palme d'Or for "Best Short" at the Festival of Cannes. 'Harpya' follows a man who is plagued by a terrifying harpy. A horror movie to some, a black comedy to others, it effortlessly became a cult picture. It was Servais' first live-action film, yet still used animated backdrops put in front of live-action cut-outs. Servais dubbed this technique "Servaisgraphy" and used it again in his next two films until CGI technology made the process out-dated. In 1995 he directed his first feature film, 'Taxandria' (1995), slightly based on François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters' comic strip 'Les Cités Obscures'. Schuiten was also the film's art director. Despite lukewarm reviews the picture did win the Grand Award at the International Festival of the Fantastic Film in both Rome as well as Porto, Portugal.
'Nachtvlinders' ('Night Butterflies', 1998) was a homage to the work of the then recently deceased Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux and received the Prize of International Film Criticism in Annecy, France. 'Atraksion' (2001) marked Servais' first experiments with digital media, featuring a group of chained prisoners trying to seek freedom by climbing to a huge light in the sky. It won the Special Jury Prize at the International Festival in Valladolid, the Grand Prize for Best Short and the Silver Méliès for Best European Fantastic Film in Porto. After a contribution to the anthology film 'Fuyo no hi' ('Winter Days', 2003) by Kihachiro Kawamoto, Servais directed 'Tank' (2015), an animated short set during the Battle of the Somme during World War I, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of that event. The picture won the Espiga de Plata at the International Film Festival of Valladolid.
Raoul Servais by Bob De Moor
While Servais is remembered first and foremost as an animator he has refrained from making pure animated films since 1973. Still, his later live-action films keep making use of hand-designed graphics, sets, backgrounds and special effects. In 1973, Servais became a member of the Royal Academy of Science and Arts. Between 1985 and 1994 he was head of the International Association of Film Animators and co-founder of Het Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds. These activites and his duties as a teacher have slowed down his production over the years. In 2005 he ended at the 108th place in the Flemish version of "De Grootste Belg" ("The Greatest Belgian") election. In 2016 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Animation Film Festival of Zagreb.
Still from 'Harpya' (1979)