Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design
Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design

What I like in animation

Date : Tuesday 12 November, 2013
Still from Jan Komasa’s Suicide Room (2011), image from Studio Filmowe Kadr (fair use)

I have recently finished working on an animated trailer for my Milla in the Misty Woods book, which, though only 1.22min long, turned out to be a vast amount of work. And that’s despite the fact that I’ve been working with a digital form of animation which means I didn’t have to hand-draw 12 drawings (as you do with traditional animation) or, with stop-motion animation, take 12 or 24 photographs for each single frame (the distinction between 12 and 24 comes from the fact that moving characters are often shot “on twos”, i.e. one drawing is shown for every two frames of film so there are only 12 drawings per second in a 24 frame-per-second film).

What I am practising is computer-assisted animation (not to be confused with computer-generated animation which is 3D – like Toy Story or Shrek) which means that I import my hand drawings into software (Adobe After Effects) and place them into different key frames to create an outline of the most important movements. I then make decisions about what I want to happen in between and how, including movements, transitions, effects etc. and I set up routes, commands and timings for that (which, admittedly, is quite laborious). But the wonderful thing is that After Effects fills in all the “in-between frames”, a process colloquially referred to as “tweening”, which cuts down the time scale that traditional animation would normally take, and at the same time preserves the hand-drawn quality which I like so much. As much as I appreciate CGI achievements, I have no desire to learn Maya or Max. I enjoy watching the work of various SFX masters though, and an example of a lesser-known film where I find the computer-generated animation particularly clever, is a Polish film by Jan Komasa, Suicide Room (2011). It is a story about a fragile teenage boy who is bullied at school and retreats to a virtual world of morbid avatars and screen-names.

There is also a brilliant science-fiction short animated movie, Cathedral, by Tomasz Bagiński, based on a short story by Jacek Dukaj under the same title. The film portrays a man visiting a medieval-like mystical building with live human faces embedded in its structure. In 2003 the film received an Oscar nomination in the category “Best Animated Short Film”.

There are so many different types of animation that I wouldn’t dare attempt to present a comprehensive list. Instead, I would like to give a few examples of styles and artists I find most interesting and inspiring.

According to the Wikipedia, the last major feature film to use traditional ink and paint (as opposed to “digital ink and paint,” where the animators’ drawings are scanned into a computer, then processed and coloured by software) was considered to be Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997). However, the Studio returned to the technique in 2008 for Ponyo and their later films. I can’t recommend Studio Ghibli’s productions highly enough; their exquisite imagination, complex plots and characters, and lack of tedious happy endings make Disney films look terribly dull and one-dimensional.

Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki is mostly hand-drawn, but also incorporates some use of computer animation during five minutes of footage throughout the film which was used to support the traditional cel animation and help with the flow and blending. Most of the film is colored with traditional paint, though a further 10 minutes uses digital paint. It is a gripping story about a conflict between the supernatural guardians of a forest, supported by San who had been raised by wolves, and a community of people in the Iron Town, led by a charismatic woman Eboshi, who consume its resources. I really love the pace of the movie, and the two strong female characters.

Still from Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997)
Still from Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997)

I recently re-read one of my favourite books from childhood, A Little Princess (1904), by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Afterwards I decided to search for its animated television adaptation which I simply adored as a child. I watched it with such a passion that most of my childhood drawings were of princesses in splendid dresses as a consequence. Now thanks to the power of internet one is able to trace back a lot of films that were once upon a time taped onto a VHS and later erased, lost or forgotten. The Little Princess Sara (1985) is a Japanese series produced by Nippon Animation and Aniplex, which is considered, quite rightly, the best adaptation of the book and an example of very fine traditional animation. The anime had 46 episodes and it originally premièred in 1985 across Japan, but later aired in networks worldwide. It was even dubbed and translated in English under the title of Princess Sarah. It is a story about a pretty girl born into a rich British family that currently lives in India, who starts attending an all-girl’s seminary selection boarding school in London. She is initially treated like a little princess but soon her sweet school life turns to tragedy when she learns of her father’s death and the family’s bankruptcy. However, Sara tries to endure her hard luck and escapes from her misery through fantasies, consoled by her doll Emily.

Still from Princess Sarah (1985)
Still from Princess Sarah (1985)

In terms of stop-motion animation, the first thing that comes to my mind, are animated cartoons and stop motion puppet animations by a Polish animation studio founded in 1947, called Se-ma-for (an acronym of Studio Małych Form Filmowych – Studio of Small Film Forms). They were the people behind the unforgettable Moomins series, based on the Tove Jansson’s books, which were produced between 1977–1982 for Polish, Austrian and German television. I love the dark, magical and spooky tone of this animation, which I don’t think you get in the later Japanese version. In 26th episode from the first series, The Lady of the Cold, a little squirrel gets bewitched by staring into the icy eyes of the Lady which freezes him to death. Moomin Troll and Little My carry it to the snow horse and the two “gallop across the ice to their own frozen world.”

Another great example of puppet stop-motion animation is Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride film (2005) set in a fictional Victorian era village in Europe. It is a story of a youg man Victor who is accidentally spirited away to the Land of the Dead and wed to a mysterious Corpse Bride, while his real bride, Victoria, is waiting for him in the land of the living. It is a deliciously dark and beautiful tale, and the fact that it was created with models gives it incredible textures that could not be achieved by CGI.

When speaking of stop-motion animation, it is impossible not to mention Jan Svankmajer, a Czech surrealist artist and an absolute master of clay. I adore his full-length films such as Alice, Lunacy, Conspirators of Pleasure and Little Otik, as well as the many incredible short films he did (which I’m lucky to have on a double DVD). Dimensions of Dialogue, presented below, depicts three forms of communication. First we have Factual Discussion where three heads (made up of fruit, kitchen utensils and writing implements respectively) are endlessly devouring and regurgitating each other. In the second one, Passionate Discourse, two clay figures get romantically intertwined, and finally in Exhaustive Discussion we watch how two animated heads engage in a strange version of the old scissors-paper-stone game.

My current project (which I began last year) is an animated video to Colin Z. Robertson’s cover of Fly on the Windscreen by Depeche Mode. This is a 5-minute track which means four times more work than with the Milla trailer. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a mild aversion towards typical music videos which feature the musicans play, often on stage. I believe that a video, since it is visual, should be facilitating the storytelling, building the atmosphere and should add something special, as opposed to merely duplicating the action of music making. There are a few video makers whose approach I really value, and they are Michel Gondry with his playfulness and cardboard props, Anton Corbijn with beautiful black-and-white shots and a sense of the absurd, and Mark Romanek, whose phenomenal Francis Bacon and Joel Peter Witkin-inspired imagery in Nine Inch Nail’s Closer video makes it my favourite video. Other than a well directed film, preferably with a high dose of surrealism, I love animated music videos. And again — I really like animators who can approach music video-making with originality. Below are a few.

The first one is an American artist Martha Colburn who has created her own stop-motion animation style, using collage and found footage. Her work is a vibrant mixture of philosophical, historical, poetic and technical ideas. A great example of her unique work is a video for Serj Tankian’s song Lie Lie Lie. In an interview for the Dazed & Confused magazine in 2009 she said:

The technique of stop-action is close to being an aesthetic phenomenon the same way music is. It’s like when you listen in real-time to music, and grasp emotions and ideas or identify with the rhythm. It can be powerful.

Below are images of Martha’s studio, showing the creative process of animating (they come from her website). There is also a very interesting short documentary, Martha Colburn Cuts the Boring Parts Out, where she talks about film editing.

Another interesting video is an animation created by French animator Jean-Luc Chansey to Eyen, a track by Plaid, who are a British electronic duo comprised of Andy Turner and Ed Handley. Apparently, the artist used pictures drawn by his 5-year-old daughter to create this beautiful visual story accompanying this enchanting tune.

Another interesting take on animated music video is Caffeine, written and directed by Danae Diaz and Patricia Luna, for a track by a German band, Brandt Brauer Frick. These charming axonometric drawings of the architecture remind me of the technical drawing classes I attended during my MA at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.

And finally a very powerful video for Tool’s song Sober, made in 1993 and directed by Fred Stuhr. It was filmed using stop-motion animation, with the characters’ models designed by Adam Jones, the band’s guitarist, who is also an accomplished animator, makeup artist and set designer (he worked on major films such as Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 + 5 among others). It was the first of Tool’s videos to be made in stop motion, and the first in a long line of videos that purposefully do not feature any of Tool’s band members. I personally find the humanoid figure in this rather bleak surrounding very moving.

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