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A few weeks ago a colleague and I were invited to present a program of Australian animation to an audience of non-english speaking animation lecturers. The selection of the program was a challenge not because of the language problems in the presentation itself, we had a translator, but in the choice of films to screen. It suddenly dawned on us just how much Australian animation relies on dialogue for its delivery, which raised some very interesting questions. If animation is the universal language of visual ideas then why do so many animators lean towards narrative and dialogue driven delivery styles - and just what’s up with abstract animation anyway?
Header images: Kinetics 2 (2003) Annemarie Szeleczky, Two Space (1979) Larry Cuba, Motion Painting No 1 (1947) Oskar Fischinger, Pas de Deux (1968) Norman McLaren, Yellow Red Blue (1925) Wassily Kandinsky
Original publication: Desktop Magazine May 2009
Republished with permission
Standing on the waters edge at the beach on a warm spring day with the sand gently being sucked from under your bare toes drives some people crazy, they cant stand it, but for most of us its one of life’s little pleasures. It’s difficult to explain what that feeling is. Something that takes you to another place, or just the pleasure of nowhere. For those in the know, watching abstract animation can be another one of life’s unexplainable pleasures. The audience is drawn in to the visual feast and experiences the film, just like that water sucking under foot moment, it can make you squirm, make you warm, make you happy, or make you sad.

What is Abstract Animation

Animation is a visual technique that creates the illusion of motion, and abstract animation is the conceptualisation of pulling the inner meaning out. It is often referred to as “moving art” and has a long history alongside the abstract visual art movement with painters like Wassily Kandinsky, as noted by Pamela Taylor-Turner, a Professor of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, in her paper on abstract animation. Kandinsky was an extremely influential artist and writer, who wrote in his autobiography ‘Reminiscences’ (1911) about a turning point in his art where he recognised art as an entity that does not have to represent nature. His solution was in the realisation that nature and art were two separate but equally powerful entities. This insight freed him to greater appreciation and experience of both, as he describes, “… everything shows me its face, its innermost being, its secret soul, which is more often silent than heard. Thus every still and moving point (=line) became equally alive and revealed its soul to me”

Taylor-Turner explains in her paper, “the term “abstract” does not necessarily exclude representational imagery as it implies that its images are pulled or abstracted from recognisable forms, often leaving little to no reference to the original subject. There are also the designations of non-objective or absolute or concrete animation, which does NOT include references to recognised forms but instead employs imagery completely liberated from icon and symbol, and utilises instead form, light, colour, movement and time. In practice, the line between the categories of abstract and non-objective is blurred, and is not critical in this context as most artists do not have as their objective to fit a described genre, but rather to follow a drive, an impulse, or to follow a line of visual, and sometimes mystical, exploration.”

The language of abstract animation

Abstract animation differs from narrative style not only in its visual presentation and forms but also in the language it uses to convey its intent. Narrative styles are based on storytelling techniques. They use character and structure to guide the audience through the development of the story to a final conclusion or outcome. The grammar of abstract animation does not follow this construct at all. It may have a beginning, middle and an end but they do not necessarily follow towards an outcome. The audience can sometimes “see” characters and changes in the forms of the film but these are not necessarily constructed by the filmmaker but by the audience themselves in their interpretation. The feeling can be akin to watching the clouds and discovering faces and forms in the fluffy cumulus.

The rhythm and flow of abstract work is often compared to a musical score. Music can be considered the most abstract of arts, with each composition having its own structure, melody, and rhythm – its own arrangement of notes. The music has meaning and form to the listener and can evoke strong emotions, which often trigger memories or constructs of a moment in the listener’s life. Taylor-Turner explains “This analogy has been useful for abstract animators, as pure forms – points, lines, planes – can, like notes, chords and scales, be arranged in time and space, free from the limitations of representing objects which already exist. A visual form may grow and evolve, accelerate then soften to a subtle lingering form, and perhaps change to its ultimate state of being, and then fade away. Time itself is often suspended, reducing the need for cuts or other space/time transitional devices.”

Larry Cuba, a renowned computer animator and artist, observes, that unlike a movie, which has a story and an ending, people often play their favourite music over and over. The same is true of abstract animation. He points out, “… once you know how it ends and that’s not a mystery anymore, you’re not thinking about the end .. you’re not thinking about how long it is and you’re not thinking about where’s this going to go .. you’re experiencing it moment to moment like you would music.”

Where does abstract work fit in the Australian animation scene

I had to go a long way back in the programs of the Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF) before coming across a screening of an abstract film made by an Australian. The most recent was Annemarie Szeleczky’s film ‘Kinetics 2’ (2004) which screened in 2005. Annemarie was a recognised sculptor, painter and art teacher before her quest to morph her images into motion became a driving passion and she returned to study at VCA Film and TV school to study animation. However, the course was narrative based so it required her to tell stories with her drawings. It was not until her Master’s study at RMIT in 2000-2003 that Annemarie began to experiment with abstraction and her films ‘Collage Kinetics’ (2003) and ‘Kinetics 2’ were realised.

Many Australian animators that I asked told a similar story of their animation studies being driven towards a narrative style or avoiding abstract creativity at all. Stephanie Brotchie, part of the DIY-ART group who brought us the films ‘Fraught’ (2006) and ‘Supermarket Musical Massacre…’ (2008) feels this lean towards narrative structure runs deep in our culture “…. Australia’s history lies in story telling. Yarns, stories, folk-lore, gossip and heresy are a big part of Australian culture, and I think this is evident in the kind of films that we produce.”

Funding for abstract animation

Malcolm Turner, the Executive Director of MIAF, also feels that our funding bodies and structures are somewhat limiting on our abstract animators. “Greenlighting many short animated films is not always within the control of a lot of animators. There is a lot of what I would call "unstated power" involved in this early stage of the project. The two obvious groups who sit above many animators at this stage of the process are funders and teachers. In many cases they are relying on written submissions, scripts and treatments. All of these assessment methods drastically favour the narrative over non narrative and it is easy to see a situation where an animator will simply choose the path of least resistance in trying to get a project through this process. I would argue that even a storyboard favours narrative animation.”

Brotchie agrees “In terms of funding for non-narrative content, the problem lies in the funding applications, which necessarily rely on language. If a film is abstract or non-dialogue dependent, then most likely it is quite tricky to communicate the film’s underlying mood, style and intention through language, particularly the sterile, truncated language necessitated by the application process.“

The problem with creating abstract animation

Another barrier to the teaching and funding of abstract animation are the very techniques used in its creation. One of the most fascinating aspects to animation at all is the many and varied techniques which can and do get used to bring the vision to screen, and if you have seen even a single program of animated shorts you will probably have been exposed to everything from sand on glass, plasticine, claymation, puppets and pinscreen creation to 2D and 3D hand drawn and computer generated images.

Narrative animation stems its creation in character development, which then leans these films towards techniques that build the character forms – whether they be drawn, computer constructed or physically built. Abstract animation does not have a central physical form in the terms of character and so the techniques employed to bring the artists imagination to life are quite different to the narration styles. Where do students learn these differing techniques? It is quite difficult and expensive for an animation school to be able to provide hands on training in each of the various tools in both abstract and narrative style and so one is usually favoured over the other. Which means that just like the pioneers of abstract animation the students and animators of today are often required to also be the pioneers of their own individual techniques.

Oskar Fischinger, who first started animating in the early 1920’s, like the visual music artists and the ensuing abstract animators, had to create many of the technologies he needed to give form to his vision. This spirit of exploration, and research led to the techniques of painting on glass, as in Motion Painting No. 1 (1947) and devices he used for controlling objects, such as the circles and other geometric forms in Composition in Blue (1935). He also developed a wax slicing machine, which he used to create sequential images by revealing patterns and forms embedded in blocks of wax, through the methodical slicing.

Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Harry Smith, all formative abstract animators, painted directly on clear leader, in lieu of exposing film in the camera. They each finessed this difficult technique to create rhythmic, colourful, and wildly energetic films. Painting on, and scratching on, exposing the film with objects blocking areas of the film (like rayographs or photograms) – were some of the many means utilised to make a projected moving image that captured the spirit and intent of the artist.

These techniques are by no means easy to master. They take great insight, practice and experimentation. Many are based on multiple mathematical computations which need to be hand manipulated and modelled. McLaren et al were great masters indeed to have developed these techniques in the first place. Our struggling Australian animation students are now mostly left to experiment with these techniques on their own or undertake postgraduate study to focus on individual styles. It certainly highlights why it is not surprising that we don’t see many of them make it to the festival screen.

Abstract animation didn’t stop when computers came along

The significant and precedent setting film, Pas de Deux (1968), by Norman McLaren, inspired Cuba’s approach of creating forms that were the results of structure and movement. Another aspect of this inspiration, which unmistakably connected it to his implementation of the computer, was that the imagery of Pas de Deux was clearly mathematically defined. There were the sequence of images, the line of movement that they created, the number of frames (24 per second), the slowing down of the film and the amount of delay needed to create the visual effect – all of this had to be worked out. For Cuba, whose interest was leaning to computer generated and choreographed movement, this was significant, as he describes as follows: “So there was this connection between visual movement across the screen and some actual increment of time, which the other copies were shifted out of phase in time. And by adjusting these parameters you got different effects. So McLaren was actually playing with numbers, and in one of his interviews about this he said, “It’s all about numbers”. It was that numerical relationship, which was phasing and the connection between that and the visual effect, which got me interested in this mathematical, algorithmic approach. That was one early inspiration”

Ying Tan is another visionary animator using the contemporary meta-tool of the computer, although instead of algorithms she is making use of the sophisticated software available to create worlds invoked by imagination and contemplation.

Her most recent work, Like a Swarm of Angry Bees, screened in the Siggraph 2002 Electronic theatre, and demonstrates a wonderful ability to conjure up meaning using non-representational form. Her primary interests, as seen in her other earlier films as well, are “poet sonic/visual synchronisation, and aesthetic expression of 3D graphics differ from realism approach”. Like her other films, her medium is the computer, but her work is not about technology – it is about being aware.

The problem of screening abstract animation

For the uninitiated, or the viewer who has little to no encounter with abstract animation, these moving images can be initially disconcerting and hard to understand. I have had many discussions with fellow audience members following a screening which started along the lines of “what did that mean”, “it was pretty, but I have no idea what it was about”, and even more likely “what were they pictures of ?”

Taylor-Turner explains “Being drawn solely from the imagination, absolute animation can be, for many, the most demanding to view. However, these works can also be spectacular, inspiring, and even transcendental. Any impediment stems from the audience’s expectations, formed largely through the expectation of narrative commercial animation. The viewer expects to see a story .. this can be problematic in that they have been conditioned in that situation to read the meaning of the work as a story-based sequence.”

Malcolm Turner, as Director of MIAF, but also as an audience member at many international animation festivals finds “My own experience is that most audiences will more or less universally absorb almost every genre of animated film, except abstract works. In other words, the people who like their films serious, surly and dark will sit through the frivilous, happy and bright. They seem to be able to happily critique and assess films they may not necessarily enjoy. But an abstract film can close an audience down very quickly. It's an icy chill that no programmer (and undoubtedly, no filmmaker) enjoys the brush of. Often festivals, my own included, will curate programs specifically for these non-narrative films. While this helps dramatically with hooking up an appreciative audience with a larger amount of work, it also probably contributes to creating a screening culture in which this work is more isolated in some ways.”

Teaching an audience about abstract animation

If you are not already an abstract animation aficionado how do you become one? Everyone who knows and appreciates these films seems to love the fact that they do, but where to begin. Going along to festivals and watching some is surely a great first step, but as both Pamela and Malcolm have cautioned it can still be daunting. Some festivals run short master classes to help the uninitiated become familiar with at least the first steps of abstract appreciation. MIAF has certainly had classes to this effect in the past and probably will provide more in the future.

‘McLaren’s Negatives’ (2006), by Marie-Josee Saint Pierre, an animated documentary about the life and work of the abstract pioneer Norman McLaren, was selected as the opening film for both the Melbourne and London International Animation Festivals in 2006. They used the accessible and documentary nature of “McLaren’s Negatives” to pave the way for some other abstract and ‘direct-to-film’ style titles later in the same program, hoping in the process that the audience would appreciate these films in a more informed, connected way.

“It was too good an opportunity to pass up”, says Malcolm Turner, a co-director and programmer of both festivals. “Some times people just see dancing shapes and flashing colours when they watch these kinds of films. But showing McLaren’s Negatives first gave them a chance to see behind all of that in a way that no amount of earnest introductions of worthy program notes ever could. The perfect opening film really.”

Festivals all over the world are seizing upon the opportunity provided by McLaren’s Negatives, and other films which showcase the work of these abstract pioneers to ‘reconnect’ their audiences with the earlier films, as well as the elemental properties of animation that McLaren, Lye, Smith and Cuba have all found ways to present on the big screen.

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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