Form Animated

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Form Animated

Rose Bond introduces the work of the animators and filmmakers whose work is on view as part of Form Animated.

Form Animated

Rose Bond

How can you prove this table does not vanish or alter shape the minute your back is turned? – Paul Bush, Furniture Poetry1

Animation, in the hands of experimental filmmakers, is an imaginative medium. In the editorial forward to her book Spacetricks, Suzanne Buchan speaks to animated film and its “unlimited potential to visually represent events, forms and settings that have little or no relation to our experience of the ‘real’ world.”2 In their ‘expressive play’ with space and form Buchan suggests the aim of auteur animators: “They use innovative methods and highly original ideas to tell humorous, poetical and philosophical narratives of the human condition in spaces we cannot physically ‘be in’ but that we can emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically understand.”3

Form Animated, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, seeks to contribute toward a growing dialogue between artists, animation auteurs, crafts persons, curators and the media literate public. This series features six short animated films made between 1961 and 2007 in which form plays a significant if not central role: as archetypal representation, as central character, and/or as virtual conjuring. Beyond a simple pictorial replication of form, these works allow for an exploration that challenges our expectations of form as a fixed medium.

Form is generally thought of as one of those essential elements of being. According to the Oxford Dictionary, form is “the visible aspect of a thing, a shape or configuration as distinguished from colour.” In the Webster’s definition, form is “the structure, organization, or essential character of something, as opposed to its matter.” Venturing into the philosophical realm, Kant writes of form as “one of the formative modes of perception and cognition regarded as a subjective factor molding reality as a given sensation into systematic experience; especially as regards spatial and temporal order.”4 In other words, form is a method for us to identify and differentiate an object within the world.

What happens then when form, the immutable, meets animation, which, as some have suggested, is wholly concerned with the mutable?

Paul Wells sheds some light on this question in his book Understanding Animation.5 In it he broadens the dominant discourse on animation beyond the hyper-realist cel animated film personified by Disney and delineates the oppositions and relations between ‘orthodox’ and ‘experimental’ animation. In his chapter on “Narrative Strategies,” he identifies two devices that are intrinsic to animation and enable it as a medium “to create new modes of story-telling, often rejecting the plot with a beginning, middle, and an end, in favour of symbolic or metaphoric effects.”6 He defines metamorphosis in film as “the ability for an image to literally change into another completely different image, for example, through the evolution of the line, the shift in formations of clay, or the manipulations of objects or environments.” Perhaps most significant to consider with Form Animated is Well’s observation that “the fluid abstract stage” between fixed properties of form actually serves to forge new relationships, to recast our notions of narrative, and to destabilize our belief in certainties.

A second notion, relevant to this discussion, is Well’s identification of associative relations which are closely related to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s theories on montage or film editing. In brief, this strategy allows the filmmaker to relate seemingly unconnected images or events through the juxtaposition or conjunction of previously unconnected figures and forms. In experimental animation, this type of creative fusion “moves beyond the realms of standard representations of time and space privileging the psychological and emotional as the focusing agents in relating images”. 7

A preoccupation with form is hardly new to experimental filmmakers. In the aftermath of WWI, German-born Hans Richter and Swedish Viking Eggeling, both artists and film-makers, sought to ‘purify the material – form and color – in an effort to find a ‘universal language’ through the line of continuity – the transformation of one form to another on long scrolls. Eggeling expressed his thoughts on the important issue: “Every form occupies not only space but time. Being and becoming are one…what should be grasped and given form are things in flux”. 8

Form Animated brings together six animation auteurs, each with a distinct vision of how form plays over time. In putting together this show, I am reminded of the early sequential work of Hans Richter. In 1919 he wrote simply and succinctly about the source for his inspiration: “We felt the music of the orchestrated form.”9

2. Suzanne Buchan, Trickraum – Spacetricks (Zurich: Museum Fur Gestltung Zurich, 2005), 4–5.
3. Ibid., 4.
4. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Volume I, Encyclopedia Britannica (1966), 892
5. Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 35–67.
6. Ibid., 68.
7. Ibid., 93.
8. Ibid., 52.
9. Quoted from an essay by Hans Richter originally published in Magazine of Art, February 1952. Robert Russett and Cecille Starr, Experimental Animation – Origins of a New Art (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 50–54.

A conversation between Rose Bond and Namita Gupta Wiggers

Namita Gupta Wiggers in conversation with Form Animated Guest Curator Rose Bond.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

A conversation between Rose Bond and Namita Gupta Wiggers

Namita Gupta Wiggers: What are the tools of the animator, the “building blocks,” so to speak?

Rose Bond: Animation is a cinematic medium, and is made frame-by-frame. If I create everything that happens in every frame, my imagination is what limits me versus film where you pull the trigger on a camera and capture the real world. If we think of film as a record of activities, animation does that too, but really slowly and with animation, you create the world. And in an animated world, the preconditions of form and the rules of gravity and physics can be of no consequence.

[Canadian animator] Norman McLaren says that animation is not the art of drawings that move; it is the art of movements that are drawn. He talks about animation as what happens in the invisible interstices between frames. I find this intriguing. How much can I make happen between drawing from frame-to-frame that communicates the meaning of a flick of an eye, from dismissal to wonderment, based on the spaces between the frames?

I also draw a line between dialogue-driven versus movement drive animation. The Simpsons is a great example of dialogue driven animation. It doesn’t matter how Marge moves, your focus is on her voice and words. With movement animation, Norman McLaren’s Rhythmetic (1956) uses hand drawn numbers on a grid, like a multiplication table cheat sheet. He zooms in on 3, 9 and 11, where the 3 nudges the 9 and starts an argument. Using just numbers, McLaren uses pure movement to convey an idea or dialogue.

NW: The McLaren piece is personification – how can movement happen in a way that isn’t about personification?

RB: Another example is work by the [London-based, American-born animators] Brothers Quay. They have a film in which they create a subterranean world that is decaying and falling apart. There is a dirty floor and, as the dirt starts to move slowly, you realize there is a head of a screw rising up, slowing casting off dust. The animated film evokes movement through inanimate objects, through objects that should be inanimate, but don’t have to be in the world of animation. The Brothers are highly influenced by the Czech Surrealist Jan Svankmajer, who believes that objects hold stories, and that the object was there and saw all these things happen, and that he allows that object to begin to tell the story. In animation, the object can do that without following the laws of gravity or reality.

NW: You define yourself as an independent animator. Can you explain what that means?

RB: Things happen slowly with independent animation. If you are creating a film at 24 frames per second – that’s 24 drawings per second, making a film of several minutes needing 8000, even 14,000 drawings! With this scale of repetition, people turn to the glimpse of movement or cycles of repetition, putting things in that have meaning and give the chance to construct meaning.

With independent animation, there is the stamp of the individual – the auteur – where the hand of the person is visible. And you are constructing meaning and experience, where you can even think about how to control the breath of the audience in how you create each frame and link them.

With studio animation, the technique becomes the brand. Disney’s overriding focus is to tell a story, and to animate it in a way that lends itself to production. For example, the subtlety of a painting is left aside in the production process to become “grey tone #734” instead. Auteur animators tend to make shorter films that don’t typically use traditional cel media – or, if they do, they manipulate it to look different, like etchings or a painting coming to life.

With Will Vinton’s films, for example, the brand is the repeated use of a particular kind of plasticine, a way of creating armatures and joints, a temperature and way of lighting that creates continuity across films from feature length to commercials. Before Will Vinton and Bob Gardner, claymation was only used in film school to make a worm – nobody took it seriously as something people want to look at, much less pay money for or use to make a commercial.

At the Platform Festival there were a lot of pieces shown that refer back to pre-optical toys and devices, moving away from cinema. Gregory Barsamian’s No Never Alone was essentially a physical zoetrope, an 8-foot-wide sphere with ribs of metal that became an animated sculpture when under a strobe light. But Barsamian defines himself as a sculptor, not an animator.

NW: Defining himself that way raises questions of high art vs. low art. Where do you see animation in that dichotomy?

RB: Animation isn’t exactly black velvet painting anymore, but can include someone like South African artist William Kentridge, who recently showed work in PICA’s TBA festival. But he doesn’t define himself as an animator, either, and there are market issues involved here. Kentridge’s drawings sell for thousands in a gallery in Chelsea because of the art context.

Film historian David Bordwell talks about how animation is relegated to the low status world of children – consider Saturday morning cartoons, or classic fifties animated advertisements. Bordwell’s texts are a great example of a shift, from two pages on animation in the first edition to seven to full chapters today.

Betty Boop cels in the thirties were often washed and re-used – or thrown away. There was a class of people – the animatophiles – who dumpster-dived to rescue cells and advertised them for sale in pulp fan magazines. They were pretty much collecting what was considered trash. It makes me aware of a trash aesthetic that says “go ahead, use the n-word,” or where John Kricfalusi used the fifties commercial aesthetic, music and sound effects from the public domain and created Ren and Stimpy. In Portland, Hooliganship uses a strong trash aesthetic, taking early computer digital pixilated stuff and refashioning it.

NW: What you are talking about is, in part, a reclamation project, much like what is happening with feminism right now, too. There are some relationships here with the particular trash aesthetic you describe and punk and skater subcultures. So even if the “high culture” institutions are not paying attention, alternative subcultures have preserved animation, structure it and presented it…

RB: Pulp magazines in the fifties allowed people with similar interests to talk to each other. Nowadays you have the web, YouTube and places that are taking risks and showing this kind of work. The interesting thing about being hip is that its got to be on the fringe – if it goes mainstream, it’s not hip anymore!

Portland has always been a strong alternative animation community. In 1929, Lou Cook did a piece called Little Baker that is in the collection of the Oregon Historical Society. A lot of amazing work in the fifties came out of the folks at the University of Oregon – guys moving metal shavings and animating it, for example. Jim Blashfield says that you can do alternative stuff in Portland because no one thinks you are going to be famous anyway.

NW: Three things come to mind – class, collecting and context. How does class play a role here? Portland has been a working class city in many ways, and the type of subculture you are talking about is linked to a particular economic class.

RB: I hadn’t thought about it in that way. I grew up in Portland and made my first films in animation because I couldn’t afford a camera, much less the schooling to know what an “f-stop” was – but I could draw on a film leader, show it at a bar on animation night, and go to the animation collective meetings to meet other people doing this work. People told me to send the work to the Aspen Film Festival, it got in, and there I was at the Hotel Jerome with all these beautiful, thin rich people in fur coats!

There is a cultural capital that propels you from your lowly background. And a certain amount of that is appreciated in Portland, where cultural capital comes from doing something alternative. Appreciation for creativity that comes when you don’t have the money to buy the latest computer software, so you try different things, like animation on index cards.

NW: It’s a thriftiness we see in fashion, music, art, lifestyle here in Portland. But the class thing is linked, too, to where the objects reside in collections. You mentioned a history museum as a place to find animation films. There is a status in terms of what archive is housing objects and where people go to conduct research.

RB: The conservancy that is part of museum work hasn’t been applied to film. There is a sense that it is all on video now, so the film itself becomes garbage. Multnomah County Library’s collection has been dispersed. I know several people in town with basement collection, but it is the “high art” museums that have the funds to offer climate control and proper storage. In Montreal, Canada, the National Film Board requires you to wear gloves, their archive is climate controlled, and the works are catalogued so you can find them.

Accessibility is beginning to happen, but it takes more than web sites. The show that you are doing at Museum of Contemporary Craft is a start, like Pervasive Animation at the Tate Modern in London.

NW: And the way the Tate contextualizes animation is different from us. There is a need for different kinds of institutional lenses for considering a single object – the object here being the animated film and animation as a genre, or medium. One aspect of animation that we’ve talked about is how there is an object that remains with animation, whereas with cinema, the ephemerality of the action and moment is gone. The thing that remains with animation can be remanipulated and reconfigured.

RB: In films made with real objects, those things themselves hold an aura and are pieces in themselves to be explored in a museum context. I am thinking of Paul Harrod’s sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Will Vinton, Jim Blashfield’s sets from Bunnyheads – there could be an interest in seeing that work. Animators have remnants, things in boxes.

NW: So how is form dealt with in this series of films?

RB: What is common to the films selected is that the source material was real but abstract objects. I wanted to get as wide a range of representation as possible, not just films from the U.S. Working within the constraints of a limited budget, I selected films that showed some range in the way animation can deal with form. Form plays a major role here, where it is literally a character and a cup, or approaches an archetypal manifestation in another film. The films address form in the virtual world, “fessing up” to animation as virtual, where you can see the object as a glass, but it is really a flat piece of film or scanned lines on a screen and not the object at all. The film series is an homage to form, the importance of form, and the question of form.

October 02, 2007 – November 11, 2007

Curated by: Rose Bond

Form Animated seeks to contribute toward a growing dialogue between artists, animation auteurs, crafts persons, curators, and the media literate public. This show features six short animated films made between 1961 and 2007 in which form plays a significant if not central role: as archetypal representation, as central character, and/or as virtual conjuring. Beyond a simple pictorial replication of form, these works allow for an exploration that challenges our expectations of form as a fixed medium.

What happens, then when form, the immutable, meets animation, which, as some have suggested, is wholly concerned with the mutable?

Bunnyheads (2007)
Directed by Jim Blashfield. A dreamscape glimpse into the workings of archetypal industry featuring the sculptural forms of Christine Bourdette. Stop motion animation.

Furniture Poetry (1999)
Directed by Paul Bush. Household objects – plates, tables, chairs, and apples go through rigorous balletic paces. Stop motion animation.

Yours for the Taking (1984)
Directed by Karen Aqua. A vessel absorbs experiences and ultimately creates its own world – an amalgam of all it has encountered. Stop motion and drawn animation with ceramic artist, Jeanée Redmond.

Utopia Parkway (1997)
Directed by Joanna Priestley. An abstract and symbolic film about covert forces and mysterious containers – inspired by the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Stop motion, replacement and drawn animation.

Lines Horizontal (1961)
Directed by Norman McLaren. An abstract study in which lines etched on film move against a background of changing colour conjuring the perception of form. Direct animation.

Rain Tiles (1996)
Directed and animated by Rose Bond. A brief survey celebrating form through the morphing of objects from the collection, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Amiga composite animation with sound by Jamie