19-24 June 2007
The selection at this year’s Melbourne International Animation Festival was, as usual, testament to animation’s extraordinary stylistic range. What unites works under the banner of “animation” is the frame-by-frame manipulation of still images over time to create the illusion of motion. What makes them diverse is the variety of forms such manipulation can take.
I have spoken with animators who expressed frustration because they felt they were recognised firstly as “technicians”, rather than, for instance, directors, filmmakers or storytellers – when the latter roles were more important to them. On the flipside, I’ve met others who feel more comfortable with the technical or visual aspects of the medium and don’t consider themselves storytellers. It is perhaps because technique is, ultimately, what defines animation – and there are so many variations in technique available – that this is so often emphasised. But the range and richness in other areas such as narrative form, use of the picture plane, colour, genre, and style cannot be overlooked.
Making the Intangible Visible
The selection at MIAF provided examples of the myriad ways in which the medium can approach narrative – or form over time more generally. Where some works told stories built upon traditional foundations of cinematic narrative such as characters, settings, events, and cause and effect, others departed from this.
One highlight among the “story-driven” works at MIAF was Topless and Bottomless (Demi Noiry, France), about a man who arrives at the office one day to find a co-worker stark naked at the desk opposite – but none of his colleagues appear to notice. Noiry uses the look of a newspaper comic strip and a simple narrative structure to set up a comic situation involving a character at odds with his environment, develops it for its comedic potential and pays it off with a gentle twist. The joy of this work was in its understated absurdity, something to which animation seems particularly well suited.
Even when portraying the “real”, animation presents us with a visually stylised vision of it. Endless possible uses of colour, light, line and so on can provide dramatically different experiences of what might be otherwise similar subjects or stories. 58 (Kristian Andrews, UK) and Moments of I Don’t Know (Meghana Bisineer, UK) were two films from the UK about small moments and the everyday. 58 focuses on the details of a bus ride, its stops and starts, the passengers as they sway in their seats and the motion of a discarded plastic water bottle as it rolls on the floor. The action portrayed would be boring presented on video – it is the stylisation of the image, the use of negative space and the morphing flow from shot to shot, moment to moment, that lifts it beyond this to a kind of rhythmic visual reflection upon transit. Moments of I Don’t Know is similar in many ways, exploring the halting conversation of a couple uncertain of their future, and lingering on the pauses and silences in their conversation. These “moments of I don’t know” are mirrored visually, the couple’s silence absorbed into the sight of a flock of birds wheeling overheard or the road whizzing past during a silent car-ride. Both films seem to explore internal experience as reflected in external details.
Visualising things unspoken also characterised the lovely Eye of the Cyclone (Julien Bisard, France), a 2D animation focused on a child playing in the gutter outside his parents’ flat. While his mother does the housework, his father disappears to the bar downstairs. Without using dialogue, Eye of the Cyclone depicts the actual situation but also makes visual the tensions simmering beneath its surface. The cyclone of the title buffets the flat, the street and makes objects twist and morph as the mother’s anger rises. The temptress who arrives at the bar is accompanied by flickering flames. This ability to use visual metaphor or analogy is one of the strengths of animated storytelling.
MIAF also presented many examples of animated “experiments with form” – exploring formal qualities of the medium, or environments that operate according to a unique logic. Some are still character-based narratives but use their characters to explore the possibilities presented by abstracted worlds with their own laws of physics. In Weiss (Florian Glorig, Germany), a 3D work, a character moves through a stark white space where objects and boundaries are only revealed as the character’s shadow falls across them. The film explores the character’s dependence on light and shadow to find his way – and what happens when this goes wrong. It is an excellent example of this kind of formal experiment and, as the MIAF program points out, seems like it could only be achieved in animation. Recto Verso (Gabriel Jacquel, France) also explores a black and white world, this time a flat picture plane of fluid black and white areas, in which reside cartoonish versions of “god” and the “devil”. The devil is black on white, god white on black, meaning they can never enter each other’s space but can do battle by manipulating the areas of black and white on the screen.
Other films took formal experimentation a step further away from narrative. Jeu (Georges Schwizgebel, Switzerland), a stand-out painted animation, presents a series of scenes – people playing ball in a park, at an art gallery and in the audience of an orchestra recital – that it fragments, tiles and shifts one into another against an orchestral score. Its painted style is reminiscent of de Chirico but with a dazzling, pattern-based visual trickery more akin to Escher, with the added element of time. Jeu provokes the sensation of watching a painting move. It seems less concerned with cinematic time and space than with how tessellated images can be manipulated using rhythm and motion to create further patterns through time.
In general, the use of the picture plane, portrayal of space and ideas of continuity stood out as a major area of contrast between works at MIAF, in particular with regard to how traditionally “cinematic” their storytelling was. The “continuity” style that dominates live action film, with its language of shots and transitions, provides us with an “edited” version of time and space that nonetheless feels continuous and “real”. This style was something that films at the festival adhered to or departed from in degrees.
Films such as 58 and Moments of I Don’t Know at times replaced the standard cuts of cinematic editing with “morph” transitions connecting us from object to object, moment to moment, creating a more fluid feel. Eye of the Cyclone used shifting scale and perspective to create moments of instability, flux and tension. The endearingly abrupt Yarn, Good Light is Essential (Reca Gacs, UK) focused largely on a single line, in this case the line of yarn from a woman’s knitting, which became the line that constructed many of the other moments in this brief tale.
La Gallina Ciega (Blind Man’s Bluff, Isabel Herguera, Spain) was particularly interesting for its use of the picture plane. A blind man and his guide-dog traverse a flattened, map-like urban environment, in which aerial and frontal perspectives are mixed. The scale of things is constantly in flux – the screen space they occupy seems determined by how much sound they make. In this way, the film attempts to visualise the world as it may appear to a blind person. And in a world where spaces and objects are “created” by sound, the blind central character is able to devise a novel solution to rescue his dog when they become separated.
Films such as this push visualisation and editing away from the photorealistic or cinematic, inviting the viewer to think more about the painted surface than photographic depth. Occupying an odd position in relation to them are films such as the festival winner, My Love (Aleksandr Petrov, Russia) and Dreams and Desires: Family Ties (Joanna Quinn, UK) – that combine notions of “realism” and the cinematic with virtuoso examples of the drawn and painted image. My Love’s astonishing animated oil paintings combine a realist treatment of light and perspective in painting with cinematic continuity. It draws attention to technique through the sheer labour involved in its execution but also absorbs the viewer in its story. Dreams and Desires seems somehow hyper-real, revelling in caricature, its rather sordid characters all too recognisable. Quinn offers an interesting play on cinematic language, inviting the viewer to believe that her elaborate hand-drawn style is in fact home-video footage shot by its central character at a wedding.
Technique Given Context
MIAF did highlight animation technique in several sessions, including digital and hand-painted panoramas. The session titled A History of CG Animation – The View from SIGGRAPH stood out not so much for the works screened but for the context it provided for them. SIGGRAPH’s (1) 2006 director, John Finnegan, presented a selection of works from the event’s thirty-year archive and talked about their place in CG history. Finnegan rather wryly acknowledged that many of the works looked unremarkable by today’s standards – but nonetheless represented pioneering examples of techniques that are now commonplace. An excerpt from The Last Starfighter (Digital Productions, USA, 1984), for instance, shows a battle between spaceships, one of the first sequences of its kind to use computer-generated objects in place of physical models. I found myself wondering at what point it started making more economic sense to do this – certainly, it seems there was a crossover period where the use of models must have been not only cheaper but also more convincing on-screen. What is interesting about this and much of the early development of CG is the “visionary” nature of its evolution – it seemed driven as much by what would be possible in the future as by what was possible at the time.
Some of the SIGGRAPH works entertained as dated curiosities of both early CG and 1980s design. Others seem to have weathered the intervening decades a little better. The difference made by a convincing story or concept was very apparent. For example, Technological Threat’s (USA, 1988) story (by Bill and Sue Kroyer) of a workplace populated by cartoon foxes threatened with obsolescence upon the arrival of a new robot workforce carries a nice irony, given the film’s own role in technological exploration. It seamlessly combines traditional cel animation with the CG robots. There was no shortage of robots in early CG – according to Finnegan, this was because convincing human character animation had not yet been mastered. Tin Toy (Pixar, USA, 1988) is one of the first examples of CG human character animation, portraying a rather spooky baby that pursues the hapless toy of the title. As with all of Pixar’s shorts, its raison d’être was to push an area of the technology further, but doing so in the context of an engaging story.
The SIGGRAPH session worked as an interesting counterpoint to the examples of current CG animation offered in the rest of the festival. It appears, for example, that the line between “scientist” and “artist” was somewhat finer in the creation of early digital animation than it is today. The mind boggles when looking at some of this work to think that it was created by programmer/artists using numbers and equations only. Often the teams creating early CG works were also responsible for developing the digital tools for making them with. While this remains true in some cases (Pixar being a notable example), it has become exponentially easier for any animator/ artist/ filmmaker to create a polished CG work using existing software, whether or not they have a background in programming or software engineering. Now, a highly accomplished 3D animation such as La Marche des sans nom (Nicolas Laverdure, Jean Constantial and Lucas Vigroux, France), a surreal fantasy in which a masked, dancing stranger leads hapless soldiers to their deaths on an infinite battlefield, can be created by a team of only three students at French institution Supinfocom. (2)
It was also interesting to observe the current growing trend for rendering/shading 3D works to mimic the look of other artforms – ranging from wood-cuts to early silent cel animation (Story Ville, M. Nove-Josserand, P. Kraft, F. Mounie, France). Beyond this, there seems a general embracing of wider possibilities in colour, lighting and texture in a medium that has traditionally been pre-occupied with the pursuit of a “life-like” realness. The “life-like” use of the medium did nonetheless also reap rewards this year – for example in Carlitopolis (Luis Nieto, France), a humorous integration of CG with video where a hapless mouse is subjected to a series of scientific experiments.
The position in the program of the wonderful Polish Masters screenings, like the SIGGRAPH screening, allowed us to see some stylistic forebears to the current crop of works. In contrast to SIGGRAPH, these were works created without the use of computers, making their technical accomplishments impressive for a different reason. Tango (Zbigniew Rybczynski, 1980) played with time and space in a way that brings to mind the more recent more videos of Michel Gondry, showing repeated cycles of activity by multiple characters entering and exiting the same room. Schody (The Stairs, Stefan Schabenbeck, 1968), in the vein of works like Weiss, showed a character lost in a world of nothing but staircases. Apel (The Appeal, Ryszard Czekala, 1970) and Fotel (The Armchair, Daniel Szczechura, 1963) also used visual metaphor for the purposes of political allegory. Indeed, the Polish works showed a level of political engagement less often present in the recent animation on show. These treasures were a highlight of the festival.
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This year’s MIAF program once again demonstrated animation’s diversity as a medium for the filmmaker, storyteller, artist or technician. We saw “classic narrative”, formal experimentation and animation’s strengths in presenting the absurd, stylised visions of “the real” and visual metaphor. The formal qualities of continuity and the picture plane stood out as areas of contrast and experimentation and highlighted the medium’s interesting relationship with cinema. Some works, while using the conventions of cinema, nonetheless drew attention to the alternative techniques they used. Technique is what enables the range of expression possible in animation and MIAF’s historical programs in particular provided context for festival-goers to understand the development of the medium. In general, however, the most interesting works were not only strong examples of technique but made convincing use of all elements of their form.
Melbourne International Animation Festival website: http://www.miaf.net
- SIGGRAPH is an annual US festival and conference on creative digital work.
- I do not mean to disregard the significant skill, work, artistry and commitment of time that is still required for the creation of high quality CG work – only to point out that the technology and access to it has come a long way.