Feature image: 1923 aka Heaven (Max Hattler, 2010)
Max Hattler is a German-born animator-filmmaker who has been steadily producing works for well over a decade. On his recent visit to Australia for a showcase of his work at the 2015 Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF), I caught up with Hattler and eleven of his most dynamic works. We chatted about how he chooses his imagery and the strategies he employs in animating and structuring his abstract sequences.
Hattler works with a wide variety of styles and animation techniques, including 2D, 3D and stop-motion. Regardless of his approach, generally his films are unmistakably abstract. When asked why he chooses to work primarily with abstraction, Hattler replies:
I was never that interested in telling stories, but in shaping an environment that can take you somewhere else. You can do that naturally with music, without anyone asking ‘why is it abstract?’ But with imagery, if it’s not figurative then it’s abstract… And then people start questioning it. With music, abstraction is kind of the default. In a way, abstraction has always been a default for me. (1)
Hattler is also a composer, and therefore his films place strong emphasis on the audio tracks. In fact, one of the things that Hattler finds most compelling about animation is that it effectively “combines sound and image into one medium, giving each component equal strength. It is a very intricate and intimate way of sculpting time both visually and in sound.”
This seems to be a commonly held interpretation of the structural basis of abstract animation. For example, New Zealand born artist and animator Len Lye (1901–1980) suggested that abstract animation was essentially about “composing motion” in a similar manner to the way a musician composes notes and chords. (2) Likewise, experimental animator Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) had his work described as “musographics,” or simply “eye-music,” as he attempted to directly synchronise imagery with music. (3) Since most viewers were already comfortable with the abstract nature of music, Fischinger believed that if he could seamlessly synchronise his images to music, the viewer would readily accept his abstract visuals. (4)
Of course, the definition of abstraction can be interpreted quite broadly, spanning the purely nonrepresentational (shapes and colour) to the semi-figurative. Such a spectrum becomes increasingly expansive when we consider the addition of movement. As animation theorist Paul Wells notes, “Abstract films are more concerned with rhythm and movement in their own right, as opposed to the rhythm and movement of a particular character.” (5)
I believe that it is also essential to consider how the movement of animation can, in and of itself, add a separate layer of abstractness to the animated film. This is because animated movement is nearly always imposed by an external source – usually the hand of the animator or from motion capture data. Because of this, we can not only think of the imagery as being abstract, but can separately consider movement to be abstract and non-representational as well. For example, a human figure could be depicted very abstractly (made from simple shapes or dots), but still be made to walk and move in a very realistic and human-like manner. On the other hand, a human figure could be depicted photo-realistically, but made to move in a very non-representational or abstract manner – spinning like a top, quivering like a bowl of jelly, or simply floating across the screen. Animators who work with abstraction have the opportunity to consider and manipulate both movement and imagery in unique and collaborative ways. (6)
Structures in Abstract Animation
Though many of Hattler’s films appear planned and meticulously composed, he describes his working practice as quite intuitive. Sometimes his works begin with simply “an aesthetic inquiry or an interest in certain shapes and colours, and then things build and grow from these initial starting points, and in a sense develop their own logic.” He continues:
With Shift (2012), I wanted to create ‘otherworldly’ movements, which would help locate it in a different dimension. I tried to animate accordingly, but when playing back some of the animation, it felt too real, too rooted within lived experience, known causality. On a whim, I reversed the footage, and suddenly it worked! Now the movements were lighter and less predictable, and started to make much more sense within themselves, within the idiosyncratic logic of the work itself. This then started to inform the further kinetic development of the piece.
Even if the chosen forms are representational (such as a 3D representation of a plastic toy soldier, or a stop-motion object) Hattler will animate these based primarily upon their form, shape and colour rather than what they are. That is, the movement that he applies to them is not necessarily based upon the content of the form but on other more abstract concerns.
Like many abstract animators, Hattler employs various strategies that not only create visually interesting sequences, but also ultimately shift the viewer’s attention away from the original context and identity of a single form and towards a purely abstract viewing experience.
One common technique is to make the visual forms appear fundamentally unstable – to make them continually change their appearance – either through metamorphosis, optical flickering, or shattering or amalgamating the forms. For example, in his stop-motion piece Shift, the images (even though identifiable as real objects) continually change appearance and shape. This kind of developmental movement shifts the emphasis away from particular forms or recognisable characters and instead highlights the dynamic and visually compelling movement of abstract imagery.
Repetition and patterned movement are further means by which Hattler creates intriguing visual designs and diverts the viewer away from the single form, towards a cohesive and choreographed visual display. Thus, in Spin Hattler begins with a focus on a few plastic toy soldiers. However, as they are subsequently duplicated, they lose their individual identity and become complex patterns of repetitive imagery and movement – no longer representing their singular identity, but a much larger collective.
His films Sync and Spin also involve cyclical loops as part of their visual structure. These films pay homage to such rotating pre-cinematic animation devices as the phenakistoscope and the zoetrope. Spin contains a number of sequences that feature marching and rotating army men. Because of their movement and the accompanying flickering strobe light effects, it brings to mind contemporary 3D zoetrope installations that utilise strobing lights to make arrays of real-world sculpted figures appear to move as they spin. Hattler notes that in Spin, “Zoetropes actually came in through looking at Busby Berkeley – through his musical choreographies and visual compositions. But also working with animation, it seems like an obvious thing to tap into.”
In Sync, Hattler overtly explores these cyclical devices:
Sync is about time, the universe and how everything is linked since the first moment of the big bang. The zoetrope is like the core component that the work rests on. With it you have different movements, different speeds but they are actually all linked into the same rotation of that one spinning disc.
Sync is a mesmerising film that takes the viewer on a nine-minute journey – the imagery changes and evolves slowly yet substantially in an ever-evolving rotational cycle. Because Sync exhibits continuous motion and development of abstract forms it appears at once relentless, hypnotic, and ultimately immersive. This contemplative film gives the viewer the opportunity to consider compound meanings of the imagery and its multiple interpretations.
In 2010, Hattler created two linked pieces, 1923 aka Heaven and 1925 aka Hell that also use the loop as a fundamental component. He made these films as part of a workshop at the Animation Workshop in Denmark, with the help of about a dozen students. The works are based on the French outsider artist, Augustin Lesage (1876–1954) who produced intricately patterned paintings of mythical architectural spaces. Hattler reinterpreted Lesage’s paintings into an animated 3D architectural space and the films are essentially a journey through these. One piece mirrors another piece, and left and right mirror each other.
As Hattler suggests, these are on the one hand incredibly complex architectural spaces, yet on the other hand they are ultimately composed of very simple components. Hattler effectively uses repetitions of very simple forms and cyclical movements of those forms to create a seemingly infinite space – and a seemingly limitless space for contemplation.
Meaning in Abstract Animation
Avant-garde animator Walter Ruttmann (1887–1941) believed that the strength of abstract animation was that it could translate the real world into generalised arcs of movement and transformations, rather than getting bogged down with the depiction of intricate details. (7) This ultimately allows for a much broader consideration of the world. Similarly, Hattler seems to revel in taking elements from the real world and then transforming and decontextualizing those elements in the realm of animated abstraction.
Abstract animation has the potential to open a kind of meditative or reflective space that takes you out of the world. Then, by feeding some representational elements back into the work, hints of meaning can be embedded. So there is this fluctuation between abstraction and everyday experiences, which can make you think or reflect upon parts of the everyday in a different light. To me, abstract animation becomes interesting when it opens up a space that not only takes you somewhere else, but also renegotiates the here and now in some way.
The ongoing wars of the past few decades, for example, have been the subject of at least two of Hattler’s films. Collision (2005) utilises elements of national flags and other icons for its visual design. Through the continual build up of forms and frenetic motion it unmistakably evokes references to wars, conflict and a general clash of cultures. These animated graphics are underpinned by an audio track that also seems to reference the machinery and explosions of warfare.
Collision uses American quilts and Islamic patterns, and the colours of the American and British flags, and [flags] from Islamic countries, and combines them into an abstract reflective space. I wanted Collision to have a very pop aesthetic, which would lull the audience into a false sense of security. But then as the story unfolds you realise that it is actually more than eye-candy and transmits a deeper, thought provoking message.
When asked how this meaning is communicated, Hattler continues:
Although this might not be immediately noticeable, Collision is actually structured in a very conventional narrative way. The viewer is introduced to one camp, then to the other. Something happens, and then something else happens on the other side. These events accelerate and exacerbate each other, and lead to a confrontation in which the elements blows up and mix together in either a cultural carnival or carnage, depending on how you look at it.
However, because of their generally abstract nature, Hattler admits that he does not have complete control over how his films might be interpreted. “I think that when watching Collision for the first time you might miss a lot of that meaning, or at least up to a certain point.”
Similarly, his film Spin (2010) also thematically explores the concept of armed conflict, but in this case, he wanted to focus more on the idea of the machinery of war and to look at the possible connections between Hollywood-style entertainment and the much publicised media coverage of the Iraq war.
Here I wanted to look at war in more general terms. And this idea of being ‘wowed’ by the impact of the image is quite a powerful one. ‘Shock and awe’ was a big theme during the Iraq war. Hollywood also does that – ‘shock and awe.’ I began looking at the overlaps between dance troupes and military troops. And then replicating the human form so many times that it becomes a pattern and the forms become, you know, replaceable fodder. Nice to look at and completely throwaway. And this idea of toy soldiers – disposable toys that symbolise violence – that kids grow up with.
In conveying this meaning of disposability (cannon fodder), Hattler also engages in the broader strategy of transforming a single figure (in this case a soldier) into a larger pattern of abstract design. Such a strategy effectively strips the individual form of meaning and significance, transforming it into abstraction.
Currently there seems to be a growing trend of what could be classified as abstract stop-motion animation in which the animator utilises real-world objects of basic shapes and colours (such as wooden blocks, or squares of coloured paper) to create abstract non-representational sequences. When asked about his thoughts on abstract stop-motion, Hattler states:
For me the relation between stop-motion and abstraction is an interesting one because it is, on the one hand, abstracted and removed from the everyday, but then on the other hand it is stop-motion – it still has that connection to the real world.
Three of his abstract stop-motion animations were screened in the MIAF showcase: AANAATT (2008), Shift (2012) and Model Starship (2012). Of these, Shift is arguably the most abstract, in that its imagery is detached from any recognisable real-world context.
Shift is shot under a rostrum camera against a black background so it is removed completely from the everyday. But still the objects are real objects – sometimes you recognise certain parts, which I like, but other times you don’t really know what it is you are looking at. The soundtrack attempts to make the objects feel a lot bigger than they are. The idea was to try and create something that is otherworldly or feels like it is in a different dimension and has its own set of rules and physics. And the sound also helps to dissociate it from the actual size of the objects.
On his choice of stop-motion objects, Hattler explains:
At the time I was looking around for objects that I could use. I found a friend who had an amazing collection of little bits of mechanical spare parts and building materials. It was exactly what I was looking for.
The objects used in Shift are also incorporated into AANAATT, but in this instance, Hattler sought to privilege the real world much more overtly.
AANAATT takes place on a mirrored table that is flipped upside down in my old living room. It has this connection with the real world, and you can see clouds moving in the background and the sunlight changing and interacting with these abstract shapes.
However, even though the viewer is aware that they are looking at a photographically real scene, the orientation of the space is actually quite confusing. The use of mirrored surfaces and windows both opens up and complicates the sense of location and space, effectively edging the real world imagery further towards abstraction. His related film, Model Starship (2012), also uses an interior space and mirrored table-top, but instead of mechanical parts it was made exclusively from high-end beauty products, including fake eyelashes, lipstick and makeup containers. Hattler further complicates the identity of these everyday objects by making them move as if they were sophisticated flying machines or ‘starships’.
The recent All Rot (2015) also privileges the real world, but in this case the emphasis in purely on the textures and surfaces of the environment. According to Hattler,
[All Rot involves] documenting the real world as a moving canvas. It is based solely on the reanimation of photographs of the tracks of a decaying mini golf course. The basic shapes, textures and colours are predefined by what is physically present in the site, and how that is photographically captured.
The imagery from this abandoned miniature golf course ultimately highlights the wear, decay and general patina of the disused space. The close-ups of textures, which vacillate frenetically, invariably present the viewer with an abstract visual experience, yet at the same time one is very aware of its real-world origins.
As this brief survey of Hattler’s work implies, his films are visual kaleidoscopes of forms persistent in their development, transformation and choreography of movement. Even Hattler’s more contemplative works such as Sync (2010) never cease in their progressing movement and development of abstract patterns. Though he might use real world elements or occasional representational figures, he successfully reverts such imagery to its abstract fundamentals, either by simplifying it, applying abstract movement, or radically decontextualizing the forms. Though his abstract animations may not provide the viewer with overt narratives, they are often imbued with some definitive meaning, which at the very least provides an immersive alternative space that encourages a multifaceted and a contemplative viewing experience of persistent abstraction.
MIAF 2015 Screening Program of Max Hattler Works:
- 1923 aka Heaven, 2’00 (2010)
- Shift, 3’00 (2012)
- Sync, 9’00 (2010)
- AANAATT, 4’45 (2008)
- Collision, 2’30 (2005)
- Drift, 3’33 (2007)
- Spin, 3’55 (2010)
- Model Starship, 0’45 (2012)
- X, 6’00 (2012)
- All Rot, 4’00 (2015)
- 1925 aka Hell, 2’00 (2010)
- All Max Hattler quotes are from: Dan Torre, Interview with Max Hattler (Melbourne, 21 June 2015).
- Len Lye, Figures of Motion (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1984), p. 31.
- William Moritz, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger (London: John Libbey, 2004), p. 42.
- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 30.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- For more on these concepts see Dan Torre, “Cognitive Animation Theory: A Process-Based Reading of Animation and Human Cognition,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9.1 (2014): pp. 47–64.
- Michael Cowan, Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity: Avant-Garde – Advertising – Modernity (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014), p. 48.