"Fine Art Animation"
"...outsiders in the world of art,
as well as in the world of film."
"A beautifully animated art film can give the same absolute delight as the fluidity of movement, the grace, the perfect balance of great ballet dancers." -- Louise Beaudet, Cinematheque Quebecoise, Pegbar, 1987
"Animation's ability to instantly dissolve the representational into the abstract, to leap associatively with ease, and to render simultaneously a flood of images, perceptions, and perspectives, makes it an unparalleled form of cinema" -- Tom McSorely, Take One, Summer 1997
"The ability to deconstruct a movement and reassemble it in a new or convincing way is the animator's territory. Many artists have realized their visions using animation as a means to externalize their inner thoughts and unique points of view. Animation gives the viewer the opportunity to gaze at a frozen moment of thought and to experience another person's rhythms." -- Christine Panushka , USC, 1997
"Kinetic Art is the first new category of art since prehistory. It took until this century to discover the art that moves. Had we taken the aesthetic qualities of sound as much for granted as we have taken those of motion, we would not now have music. But now, in kinetic art and animation, we have begun to compose motion. We've all been conditioned to viewing film as an adjunct to drama and literature, as a medium for story-telling. These virtues are absolutely secondary to the kinetic fine-art end of motion composition." -- Len Lye, animator, kinetic sculptor, Figures of Motion, 1964
"Where do people go for alternative animation? I don't know, and I am concerned... Animation still isn't properly appreciated as an art in galleries and museums. If you mention it to curators, they do not seem to be truly interested." -- Adrienne Mancia, Curator of Film Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Animation World Magazine, 1997
"Live-action film is a subset of animated film." -- Ruth Hayes (paraphrased)
Fine Art Animation
by Cecile Starr, 1987
Reprinted from The Art of the Animated Image, edited by Charles Solomon, published by The American Film Institute
Fine art animation is the new name of an art that began early in this century, when Furturists, Dadaists and other modern artists were eyeing the motion picture as the medium that could add movement to their paintings and graphic designs. Not long after Winsor McCay made his first animated cartoon, based on his comic strip Little Nemo in 1911, Leopold Survage created sequences of abstract paintings (in Paris) which he called Colored Rhythms, and patented what he considered to be a new art form. Failing to persuade the Gaumont Company to film his work in their primitive new color system, Survage abandoned his invention and spent the rest of his long life as a Cubist painter.
Later, in postwar Berlin, while Max Fleischer was making his first Koko the Clown cartoons in the U.S., three abstract artists named Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling created their history-making films, Opus I, Rhytbm 21 and Diagonal Symphony respectively, thus crossing what Survage had called "the glistening bridge" from still to moving art. Eggeling died soon after his film was completed; Richter and Ruttmann worked in animation for only a few years, then abandoned it for live-action experimental and documentary films. "Pure cinema," as the first abstract animated films were sometimes called, won the respect of other artists but was still almost unknown to the general public.
Despite this unpromising start, major careers were established in the new art form in the 1920s and '30s by Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker in Europe, and by Mary Ellen Bute in the United States. They worked on 35mm film, usually sponsored by advertisers or government agencies, and generally they remained outsiders in the world of art, as well as in the world of film. Today there are hundreds of independent artist-animators in this country alone working in various graphic techniques, in direct animation and collage, in computer and video technologies. What they all have in common, and what distinguishes them from their colleagues in entertainment and advertising, is that they work on their own, or with a small team, rarely seeking or finding popular success. But they are stubborn, patient and inventive, and they know that art is indeed long.
University film schools and art colleges helped create today's large and productive generation of young animation artists, by offering opportunities to learn the manual skills and providing access to new, complex and costly equipment. They also opened the door to women for the first time in the history of American animation, which has led to refreshing new styles and subjects, often reflecting a decidedly feminine point of view. Recent films by female animators include Maureen Selwood's The Rug, selectively colored line drawings based on an Edna O'Brien short story about an Irish countrywoman's life of disappointments; Joanna Priestley's Voices, humorous self-portraits about fear and uneasiness; Amy Kravitz's River Lethe, near-abstract graphite drawings and rubbings on paper, evoking life beyond consciousness; and Karen Aqua's autobiographical catharsis, Vis-a-Vis.
Other distinctive animation films I've seen recently are Stan Brakhage's Garden of Earthly Delights, a collage of flowers and grasses placed between pieces of splicing tape, creating a visual parable of the struggle of plants to exist; Dwinell Grant's Dream Fantasies, abstract hand-painted animation with live-action photography of two female nudes, with an electronic score by the artist; Ed Emshwiller's Sunstone, a fantasy landscape that turns into three-dimensional abstractions through various film and video manipulations. Brakhage, Grant, Emshwiller all began working in animation decades ago and can be considered "old masters."
Films by relative newcomers include Robert Ascher's Cycle, frame-by-frame abstract hand-painting on film, with a vocal rendering of an Australian Aborigine myth; Flip Johnson's The Roar From Within, a personal, psychological horror film, painted on paper in dark watercolors; Steven Subotnick's Music Room, geometric computer-generated abstractions, completed as a student's first film; Reynold Weidenaar's Night Flame Ritual, live-camera images digitized and processed in a computer, on the dynamics of ritual.
These films, which run from two to twenty-three minutes long, touch upon literature, psychology, nature, anthropology, and, of course, painting and graphic arts. Each film reflects the unique vision and skills of a single artist, in concept and form, in style and substance. Together they represent the new art which the French poet Guilluame Apollinaire said, back in 1914, had to come. Now it is here, but yet to find a place for itself in the world of film or the world of art.
There are signs of increasing recognition for animation as a fine art in some recent and ongoing undertakings. The American Film Institute gives animation its own special category in the annual Maya Deren avant-garde film awards. The first two winners of the $5,000 bonuses were Sally Cruikshank and Robert Breer; and it is interesting to note that winners in other categories (Ed Emshwiller, Stan Brakhage) also use animation and related techniques in their films.
It is also encouraging that new technologies now offer direct access to the films of animation artists. Already work by Oskar Fischinger, Harry Smith, Norman McLaren, and John and Faith Hubley have been released on video-cassettes [now also Jan Svankmajer, Brothers Quay, Paul Glabicki, Larry Jordan, George Griffin, Jon McCormack, and Priit Parn]. Accessibility of this kind can only broaden the film tastes of the public, especially those segments that already respond strongly to the other arts.
With the decline of government grants to artist and art institutions, fine art animators have been seeking and finding recognition for their talents in commercial animation -- TV spot advertisements, feature film credits, music videos. Their work may help to change the image of popular animation, as well as help to open doors for their own personal animation as well. Animation may also win recognition through hybridization with other arts. Kathy Rose's animation-and-dance performances, Anita Thacher's sculpture-and-film installations, Suzan Pitt's animation decor for opera, help focus public attention on animation as art, rather than animation as entertainment or sales device.
Full recognition for fine art is coming, I am convinced, but it might come sooner if some of us helped it along. We might urge our museums and independent showcases to screen at least one appropriate short film with every feature. This policy would reward filmmakers of all kinds (including animators), expand film curators' outlooks, and introduce audiences to the riches of the many short film genres. Large corporations could be invited to finance short film projects and new creative means of presenting them in public places. Public television stations could be asked to honor the short films they show by calling them by some more respectful name than "fillers."
Festivals and other competitions could provide separate categories for fine art animation, and grants could be given for different kinds of programming of short films for television and film showcases. Film magazines could include regular picture-spread (frames and movie-strips) of animated films, the essence of which rarely can be described in words.
Sooner or later a major museum will present a retrospective exhibition of films and related drawings, paintings and sculpture by the great pioneers of fine art animation. (Such an exhibition was shown in Europe some years back, but not in the United States.) A comprehensive collection of fine art animation on l6mm film could be purchased for as little as $5,000 or $10,000. Museums could use such a collection to familiarize their patrons with a dazzling array of films that are fine art in themselves rather than show didactic (and frequently dull) films about painters and paintings. (One needn't interfere with the other, as they are entirely different in their functions.)
I can remember my first visits to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City some decades ago, when a small handful of people, gawking and perplexed, could be found staring at the Museum's handful of bewildering Picassos. In contrast, on a recent visit to that enlarged, jam-packed museum, I heard a loud voice call out excitedly to his companions: "Hey look, a whole room of Picassos!" It seems inevitable to me that some day, in elegant new hi-tech museum, someone will holler out in recognition and affection: "Hey look, a whole room of Fischingers!" -- or Len Lyes -- or any of the great artist-animators of our century. They are the undiscovered treasures of our time.
CECILE STARR (New York) has worked as a film critic, teacher, lecturer and promoter over a period of some five decades. With Robert Russett, she co-authored Experimental Animation: Origins of a New Art, the only such work devoted entirely to fine art animation (2nd Ed. 1989).
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Reprinted from The Technique of Film Animation (Focal Press)
By John Halas and Roger Manvell, 1959
Chapter 15: Experimental, Avant-Garde and Art Films
These films do not represent a defined field of production. They are made by professional, semi-professional and non-professional filmmakers for a variety of reasons, most of which originate in their enthusiasm for the medium itself and their desire to develop some technical or artistic aspect of it.
Norman McLaren, who has become over a period of years the best known originator of abstract or near-abstract animation, claims that his approach to each new film is experimental in the sense that he wants to explore some new technical invention of sound and image which will expand his own particular field of work still further. The nature of his films, therefore, grows out of their own individual techniques.
Other experimentalists may try to test particular powers of animation against some theme or subject about which they have strong feelings; Peter Folds' A Short Vision grew out of a brief poem accompanied by sketches on the subject of the ultimate extinction of life by a nuclear weapon.
While most forms of animation serve the particular ends of advertising and propaganda, story-telling and entertainment, and so begin with an idea or a need that originated outside the medium, experimental films normally germinate in the heart of the medium itself. The discoveries made by the experimentalists are therefore of constant use to the professional animator because they reveal both in their success and their failure what the medium is capable or incapable of accomplishing.
In a medium as free and as flexible as the drawn film, the field for experiment is endless, and it is through keeping alive this sense of experiment that animation could avoid some of the stereotyped repetitions of established forms of design and technique to which it is so often subject. Although it is obvious that a considerable degree of experiment is always possible in the course of normal commercial production, it is the "free" cinema (that is, film-making without commercial commitments) that allows those more extreme forms of work where failure or partial failure may be just as revealing as some successful new technical discovery. The professional animator should do everything he can to encourage the wilder shores of experiment in "off-beat", non-commercial animation, and should sponsor this work himself whenever he can.
It is one of the limitations of the medium that the total outcome of the work, its final artistic achievement, cannot be judged in advance of its actual realization -- certainly in no sense as finally as the theatrical vitality of a play can be judged from its script or a still picture from its advance sketches. Too many essential elements -- such as visual flow and continuity, the dynamic relationship of sound and vision -- only emerge when the full work has been done.
This is why an experimenter such as Len Lye who concentrates for a period on some detached aspect of animation (such as shock tactics in the use of color and sound, or the relation of opticals to the drawn film) gives an invaluable service to his colleagues. He demonstrated initial forms of animation which can be developed more fully by others, as was the case when Norman McLaren used the work of Len Lye as the starting point for his own more advanced and prolonged experiments. It should not be forgotten that the boldest work of both Len Lye and Norman McLaren has been used frequently for very utilitarian ends, such as putting across official propaganda slogans for war-bonds or for the postal service.
The experimenter usually becomes a specialist in some chosen aspect of animation into which he researches further than anyone else until his success encourages the experiments of others. This deliberately narrow application of technical or artistic research (or both together) may, of course, lead into some cul-de-sac of the medium and then atrophy.
Night on a Bare Mountain (a short film exploring the varying pictorial images made possible by the shadows cast from the pinscreen's mass of closely set, movable pin-heads lit from various angles) is probably a good example of a cul-de-sac in animation; the result was both unique and effective, but disproportionate to the immense labor involved in resetting the pins for each frame exposure.
On the other hand, the devoted work of the mathematical filmmakers, Robert A. Fairthorne and Brian Salt, in animating diagrams to demonstrate geometrical propositions and other mathematical problems and formulae helped to found a limited but very important branch of mathematical film-making capable of elucidating phenomena hitherto regarded as impossible to demonstrate because they remained mental concepts in the minds of trained mathematicians.
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