Animation: Magic and Matter

Animation: Magic and Matter
A symposium presented by the Centre for Humanities & the Department of Media & Culture Studies (Utrecht University) with the Holland Animation Film Festival on 27th March 2012

Welcome & Introduction: The Matter of Animation

The event started with a welcome from Gerben Schermer of the Holland Animation Film Festival, which starts tomorrow. The themes of this year’s festival are animation and games / games and animation as well as a focus on China. He described the festival as having a friendly atmosphere with talks and masterclasses where filmmakers and audience can meet together.

Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Utrecht University, who organised the symposium, then described how it had evolved from Paul Ward’s fellowship at the festival and was part of a series of screenings, events and workshops. This included a hands-on animation workshop in conjunction with NIAF, the Netherlands Institute of Animated Film, in which participants got their hands dirty and engaged with real materials, such as modelling clay, cardboard and sand. This haptic engagement led her to consider that there are two forces at work: matter – the materials used to make the animation – and magic – the result of the animation. She argued that because we believe in the image the technology enchants us. She is particularly interested in how the matter – the materials used to make the animation – has an impact of the narrative. Finally, since Lev Manovich declared animation to be a form that is everywhere rather than a genre in the margins, it is perhaps this sheer, overwhelming ubiquity that renders the subject invisible in the academic and political eye. Despite this, animation is very present and will be considered in more depth during the day’s symposium

‘It’s a Kind of Magic’ Early Cinema, Trick Effects &Animation
Frank Kessler, Utrecht University

Frank Kessler is a Professor of Media History and an expert in early cinema. In his presentation he focussed on a notion of magic as an act that is performed on stage and utilises tricks and sometimes elaborate technologies that are the product of sophisticated craft and technologies. These tricks may be adopted by charlatans who pretend to have magic powers. Kessler discussed the example of a stage magician whose trained eye allowed him to understand the artifice behind the illusion and debunk Uri Geller’s alleged ability to bend spoons with the power of his mind.

Here’s a You Tube clip of James Randi debunking Uri Geller.

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In contemporary films, for example Harry Potter, acts of magic are the backbone of the story and also the effect of magic is depicted through the use of media technologies and CGI. This is nothing new. The link between magic effects and trick technology goes back to the beginning of cinema. Georges Meliés wrote some of the background to his techniques in a contemporary photography journal and claimed to have accidentally discovered his ‘substitution splice’ technique after his camera jammed and he spliced the resulting film together. Thanks to this simple trick he made his first films in which he was making something happen on screen that did not really happen in front of the camera. Historically as new media technologies appear they are thought to be ‘magic’ by spectators who do not understand them yet. This was the case with magic lanterns  and late 19th century spirit photographs. So is technology only magic when we don’t understand the trick? Christian Metz has written an article on tricks vs trick effects in which he posits three types of tricks in films:

1. visible tricks – there is obvious manipulation of the image going on,

2. imperceptible tricks – tricks we don’t know or understand how they have been used, such as the use of stunt men or CGI doubles that we didn’t notice. These are tricks we are not supposed to see, because if we notice them we think of them as badly done,

3. invisible tricks, we sense a trick, but we don’t know how its done.

Kessler then presented two films from Catalan filmmaker, Segundo de Chomón, a contemporary and indeed competitor of Georges Meliés. Although not the first person to have used stop motion – this appears to have been Arthur Melbourne Cooper – Chomón developed stop motion techniques to a more sophisticated level than Meliés. Haunted House (1908):

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These films are like a catalogue of tricks available at the time and would have been very surprising and innovative for contemporary spectators. Haunted House (1908) includes object animation, double exposure, superimposition and movable scenery. Invisible, supernatural forces appear to be making objects move of their own accord. In Electric Hotel (1908) it is the modern technology of electricity that is shown as the mysterious force that makes objects move of their own volition. The films use trick effects to create a kind of magic, but at same time the film is using tricks to present the magic. Magic is happening within the medium and by the medium which helps it to profile itself in a particular way. Electric Hotel (1908):

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Animation as Atavistic Magic
Paul Ward, Arts University College Bournemouth

HAFF Fellow, Paul Ward, is president of the Society for Animation Studies. His research topics include practice / theory relationships and animated documentary.

Ward started by introducing a notion of animation as atavistic magic and proposed to examine the ontological ground between the real and the animated that is occupied by animated documentaries. His understanding of magic is predicated on Bill Nichol’s work on historical re-enactment and the fantasmical.

The term atavism literally derives from a remote ancestor or forefather and Ward showed photos of his own great, great, great, grandfathers to reinforce the point. In evolutionary science, the term is used for a physical trait that reruns in the modern day, a throwback feature that magically reappears after a period of of evolutionary obsolesce or a discontinued evolutionary feature that lies dormant – for example whales have remnants in their pelvic bones that prove they had legs, the coccyx bone in humans indicates where our tails used to be, wings are still seen in flightless birds such as ostriches. An atavism can be used as a cultural term for behaviours or beliefs that had died out, but have now returned – for example violence or degeneracy. Horror films can be seen as atavistic as they connect to past primeval fears –  a sense of the ‘then’ returning to the ‘now’. Dana Seitler argues that modernity is atavistic – modernity sought to be new and break with the past, but that break necessitated the past’s return. The past has returned through the popularity of re-enactment culture – dressing in period costume and restaging wars, a surge of interest in family trees, old photo albums, looking in old graveyards.

Animated documentary could be considered as fantasmic reenactment. This form of documentary is re-enacted rather than captured in the moment it happened. A use of animation in documentary seems to run counter to the sober discourse of documentary indexicality. Bill Nichols refers to documentary as the discourse of sobriety. However, at the core of documentary practice lies a dilemma – the footage is a re-enactment of previous events, but if filmmakers pass off reenacted footage as actual footage where is the truth in the image? Reconstructed material raises all kind of philosophical problems. Documentary is a throwback, an atavism, a ‘then’ in the ‘now’. History does not repeat itself. The re-enactment is not real. It didn’t actually happen like that, but is fantasmic, a fictionalised repetition of something that has already occurred. The  viewer experiences an uncanny repetition of something that had already happened. Consider the film Ryan.

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Nichols idea of the fantasmic has recently been applied to the animated film, Ryan, in which Landreth, the animator, himself interviews influential animator Ryan Larkin. Although based on a real recording of an interview, this event is re-enacted and does not take a realistic form. The character has part of his head missing. Jo Sheehan’s the ten mark (2010), a stop motion puppet animation about British serial killer John Christie,  takes the form of a series of dark, creepy vignettes in Christie house with the main character partially concealed in the shadows. This animated film grapples with documentary propositions as it is based on factual research – court records, newspaper articles, police photographs. The film obsessively wells on banal day-to-day moments from Christie’s domestic life rather than on the detail of his crimes. The title refers to Christies desire to murder ten people. In the slow, ominous atmosphere you don’t see anything directly. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction relies on a degree of suspension of disbelief. The figure of the puppet conjures up the ontology of the real world as opposed to the ontology of animation. There is a stark disjuncture between the authenticity of the painstakingly constructed sets that could be easily mistaken for actual rooms and the puppet character lingering in the shadows who appears as obviously a puppet. The film plays with the impossibility of re-capturing something that has already occurred. Christie was a real historic character, but the film is a clear reenactment using puppets.

Ward concluded with a use of Gendler’s neologism ‘alief’ as a term that can be used to differentiate modes of disbelief. Gendler uses the term for a feeling that is at odds with rational knowledge – for example I know this bridge is safe, but I feel that it might not be. Gendler explores this in detail and considers alief as a primitive response to how things seem. In psychology experiments, participants were offered drinks that were sugar water, but came from a bottle with a skull on it. People know something to be the case, but act as if it isn’t because of superstitious or primitive ideas. We can’t simply say people are mistaken – or that people can’t suspend their belief. Alief is a process at work when we see animated characters. We know they aren’t really real – we believe they are animation – we alief that they are real.

Ward has written more on this subject in the Animation Interdisciplinary Journal: Animating with Facts: The Performative Process of Documentary Animation in the ten mark (2010)

Sleight of the Hand Made
Birgitta Hosea, University of the Arts London

Birgitta Hosea is an artist and practitioner / theoretician based at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Her research interests include animation as performance, drawing and expanded animation.

Sleight of hand is a term that magicians use to refer to skilful deception. In this paper, I looked at the skilful deception that lies behind the creation of artificial, moving characters that were made by hand and never truly lived. Rather than talk about animation in terms of its relationship to film, I used the figure of the ‘constructed actor’ to trace a link between the earliest performances and contemporary character animation. I argued that ‘constructed actors’ have a long history of portraying worlds of the imagination – morality, metaphysics, philosophy. I presented examples of constructed actors that were both pre-photographic and post-cinematic in order to argue for animation as a concept rather than asa subset of film practice.

The ‘constructed actor’ is a term taken from  Eileen Rosenthal’s book on the history of puppetry. She uses it to describe both puppets and performers who extend their bodies with masks and body coverings. I showed examples from shamanic and ritual practices, including wayong shadow puppetry. Although sometimes performed for tourists, this form of puppetry originally took place in temples in honour of the gods.

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I then connecting the idea of Dionysian ecstasy in ancient Greek theatre from Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Origins of Tragedy with Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of the plasmatic in Disney cartoons as a visual representation of the ecstatic. In order to examine the idea that ‘constructed actors’ could investigate philosophical ideas, I presented my own project Dog Betty in which I dressed up as a cartoon character in order to actually inhabit Judith Butler’s concept of performativity – the  idea that we all perform our identity.

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After introducing the figure of the ‘constructed actor’, I then moved on to to look at the figure of the stage magician.  Rather than extend their own body to become magical, like the masked shaman or constructed actor, the stage magician makes it appear as if they have the power to make the magic happen. I presented illusions from Robertson’s magic lantern slides on smoke in the Phantasmagorie to stage magic from David Devant at London’s Egyptian Hall. I was influenced by David Devant’s ‘Mascot Moth’ trick to create an improvised Exorcism using manipulated video to conjure up the spirits of my collaborator Maureen Baas.

The tradition of stage illusions with appearing and disappearing ladies is a clear inspiration behind Georges Meliés film The Living Playing Cards (1905 ). In this film still objects are transformed into living images through double exposure and superimposed dissolves. In this film Meliés is shown in the role of the stage magician and appears to orchestrate the illusion. Illusions with glass and mirrors, such as Peppers Ghost allowed superimpositions to occur on stage. Decapitations were performed with the aid of hidden compartments and masked off body parts. These techniques can also be seen in Meliés film The Man with the Rubber Head (1901).

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The Musion Eyeliner 3D Holographic Projection system creates the illusion of actual three dimensional presence on stage through a high tech version of Victorian stage technology. I have been lucky enough to be one of a several artists commissioned to create experimental work for the Musion holographic projection system. White Lines was conceived of as a three dimensional sculpture. Lines spin in space until they begin to form a giant head which fills the whole stage space, inspired by the Meliés film The Man with the Rubber Head. The piece was created from a video of my actions when drawing lines on myself and was hand touched and manipulated int e computer. When shown in the Musion system it looks completely three-dimensional, however due to the way in which the system works with the naked eye it is almost impossible to document photographically. The concept behind this piece was to investigate the performative nature of the act of animation: to animate myself into existence by drawing with light. So after creating the initial holographic projection as a moving sculpture, I performed live within it in 2010 as part of the Holographic Serendipity show at Kinetica Art Fair and Shunt, a large undergound performance venue in the Victorian brick tunnels beneath London Bridge station. During the performances, I painted myself black and drew white lines on myself within the holographic projection.

The earliest examples of cartoon or drawn animation are derived from live performance: the ‘lightning sketch’ stage act and its extension of the satirical cartoon into a live event. During this act performers would create drawings, often political caricatures, in front of a live audience. The lightning sketch act appears to have originated in England between 1870-80. PDC, the Performance Drawing Collective formerly known as Drawn Together, creates live performance drawings in a contemporary version of the lightning sketch. I consider our performances to be live animations in which a layered moving drawing emerges over time. Drawn in graphite, white light and sound, the work incorporates the media of traditional drawn animation and is recorded in sequential photographs and video documentation.

Like the magician, the lightning sketch artist was a performer who created highly skilful feats in front of a live audience. In the USA, Winsor McCay developed the lightning sketch act into a form of character animation that we would recognise today.In the surviving film of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) the animated sequences were created first for his stage act. In the film version hat survives, the process of making animation is presented as being a seemingly impossible feat, produced by the animator in response to a bet. In both the stage act and the surviving film of Gertie the Dinosaur, McCay incorporates physical interaction between himself and the cartoon dinosaur. In the film’s finale, McCay walks offstage and returns on the screen as a cartoon version of himself. He brandishes a whip like a lion tamer and then cautiously steps into Gertie’s mouth. She lifts him onto her back and carries him off screen.

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McCay is an example of a showman animator who is clearly marked as the author and performer of animation. In his work, animator and animated occupy the same live stage space. In his films, the magic trick of animation is clearly revealed as a process, an incredible and almost impossible feat. As Donald Crafton points out in his book Before Mickey, along with the other early pioneers of animation – Georges Méliès, Tom Merry – Winsor McCay wore formal evening attire, the costume of the stage magician. His form of animation was an extension of the illusion of stage magic and his own presence was an important part of the act.

Crafton points out that as animation developed as a process, the magician / showman /author of animation became displaced by the animated character. The character itself becomes the focus of attention and is shown as if autonomously performing. The magic trick behind the illusion of animation has become invisible. In his book on stop motion, contemporary puppet animator, Barry J C Purves compares the magician’s act of diversion, which distracts the spectator from how the trick is done, to the act of animation:

For animators, that moment of distraction is there twenty-five frames a second… It’s a black frame that does not register with the audience, and allows the animator, acting as both magician and glamorous assistant, to step in and tinker with the puppets, rearranging everything before stepping out again, as if nothing had happened. The audience hasn’t seen us, but they see the trick. The puppet appears to have moved. 

The trick that has been done is to bestow the illusion of a life force, a spark of élan vital that marks the differentiation between living being and lifeless matter.

I have argued that animation inherits both the traditions of mask and puppet theatre and the illusion of magically manipulated objects. Using the figure of the constructed actor, I have demonstrated a historical lineage connecting the ecstatic rituals at the origins of theatre, in which the boundaries of the human body are transgressed, the stage magician who appears to create magic that the human body is not capable of, the showman animator who performs animation and the contemporary animator who wants the trick to be invisible. As opposed to saying that the animator is a magician, I would like to use the idea of the constructed actor to propose three types of relations between the animator and the character that they have constructed. On one level, like the masked shaman, the constructed actor merges with its human creator to embody a magical character. At a second level, performer – the stage magician or the early stage animators like Windsor McCay – appears to have the power to make the magic character happen. At the third level, such as in conventional, contemporary character animation, the magic trick is hidden and the animated character – the constructed actor – appears to have an independent existence, although this illusion is actually created through the use of reproductive media such as magic lantern, paper, film or computer code.

Taking a Performance Studies approach to animation and examining the relationship between animator and character enables an unpacking of animation as concept rather than as a subset of film. Examining pre-cinematic instances of animation can lead to a conceptualisation of post-cinematic animation. As Alan Cholodenko has written, animation is much more than a technical process, it raises profound questions about what it is to be alive. Rather than an indexical practice grounded in corporeal flesh and material reality, animation has the potential to engage with the ‘extra-mundane’ – with worlds of the imagination, with metaphysics, ethics and philosophy.

Origins of Dutch Animation
Mette Peters, Netherlands Institute of Animation Film

Mette Peters is a film historian based at NIAF. Inspired by Donald Crafton’s book Before Mickey, she decided to look for more examples of early European animation with a specific focus on Holland from 1919 – 1940. Crafton argues that after World War I, Europe was exhausted and depleted of resources and, as a result, unable to compete with the surge of commercial animation flooding the market from the USA. Although European animation had been innovative before this point, animation now survived in pockets – mainly in commercials and public information films. Peters wanted to investigate this further and to see if it applied to Holland. As there are no published lists available, she has been doing extensive archival research including institutional and private collections. The files of the government’s censorship board were particularly useful. So far she has collected 167 film tiles, although 60 of the films are mentioned in catalogue form or articles or censorship forms without a surviving film print. These include 18 live-action films with animated sequences – titles or interludes or animated explanatory diagrams, 25 films made by foreign filmmakers but commissioned by Dutch companies and 64 shorts. George Debels (1890-1973) was the most productive filmmaker in the 1919-1937 period. George Pal (1908-1980) made 21 animated shorts in the five years he lived in Holland.

Here’s a George Pal film from slightly after his period in Holland. Although the quality of the You Tube video is not good, you can clearly see how his time in Holland influenced him.

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Peters is not just interested in finding and collecting original films. She is also interested in documenting the changes in working practices, techniques and the introduction of synchronised sound and colour during this period. As part of her research she wants to look for the traces of making / doing in the work and searches for any information she can get on the making of the films – manuals about how the animation is made, contemporary articles or interviews with filmmakers, letters – to find evidence of the tools, working processes and art materials that were used. She examines materials from pre-production as well as production art work and is fascinated to uncover the choices made during the making process and whether the material processes influence the outcome as much as editing choices made in the post-production phase.

Kinetic Sculpture & Live Animation
Artist’s Programme with Gregory Barsamian

Gregory Barsamian is a sculptor who makes kinetic, sequential sculptures in the form of giant zoetropes. Barsamian initially studied philosophy, but had been tinkering with machines for years and this drew him towards art college metal shops. His early work investigated different forms of craft – metal work, glass blowing – but he began to become interested in adding the element of time into his work to give it additional complexity. For Barsamian sculpture is animation. He argues that you need to walk around a sculpture in order to perceive its three dimensional nature and position in space. As you do this you are building up an animation in your head. Spatial perception is linked to movement. He began to experiment with zoetrope-type constructions, although at the beginning he didn’t know what zoetropes were. For Barsamian, his moving, time based sculptures are a way to address his interest in perception. He is inspired by the workings of the brain and the enormous amount of sensual information that we perceive and do not consciously process or rationalise. Rather than creating one single sculpture, his works are in flux, continually metamorphosing.

In Lather, hands compulsively wash and drip lather onto heads at ground level.

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You can see more of Barsamian’s work on his well illustrated website: http://www.gregorybarsamian.com.

You can read an interview with him in the Animation Interdisciplinary Journal: Extracinematic Animation: Gregory Barsamian in Conversation with Suzanne Buchan

Disclaimer – these notes were written quite quickly and are my own personal summary of what I heard. Apologies to any of the speakers if I misinterpreted anything they said!

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3 Comments

  1. ann-sophie
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    thank you so much, Birgitta! what a great and extremely quick job! hope to see you again soon and hope you enjoyed speelklok & pierement

  2. ian
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I’m enjoying reading your blog! Do you happen to have a reference for the Eileen Rosenthal’s history of puppets book you mention, where you sourced the term ‘constructed actors’? Thanks! Ian Grant, University of West London

    • Posted November 6, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Thanks Ian!
      Eileen Blumenthal, Puppetry and Puppets: An illustrated world survey (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005)

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