Cadaver of the Real by Joanna Bouldin

In Jonna Bouldin’s essay Cadaver of the Real (Animation Journal: 2004, Volume 12, p. 7-26) she observes and analyses the distance between animation and reality, and the influence of technologies such as the rotoscope on this relationship. She starts by looking at how theorists such as Bazin and Barthes have talked about photography

“It is important to note that Bazin and Barthes describe the photographic copy’s proximity to the original, and thus to the ‘real’, in sensuous and material terms, rather than purely visual or aesthetic terms. The visual accuracy and exact correspondence between referent and image is less important than the indexical nature of the representation. This Indexicality-the physical contact or material connection with the original-is what gives the image its powers, not its verisimilitude.”

This idea of the image’s “power” is really interesting. What does it mean for an image to have power? Power over what or whom? Here Bouldin describes it as an erotic power – the image’s proximity to reality is sensual – perhaps all the more so for lacking “visual accuracy”. Photography and films use this distancing from reality to create romantic or sensual atmospheres, blurring footage to avoid sharp outlines or close up focus.

But later, Bouldin explores a different form of images’ power:

In his preface, Taussig defines the mimetic faculty as “the nature that culture uses to create second nature, the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other.” […] Like a magical totem, amulet, or figurine, mimesis allows the copy to draw on the power of the original.”

Here the power of the mimetic image, is more fantastical, magical even. This reminded me of how  when I show people my animations (basic as they are) they will often bring up how magical it is that my drawings are moving (as if they didn’t watch images move in films,tv and youtube all day long.) But at the same time I kind of agree, it does feel magic when something comes to life under my fingers, even though I can see under the bonnet as it were and so know for sure that magic much less of a part than sweat and tears.

I also love what Taussig says about being able to “yield into and become Other” – this feels particularly pertinent of character animation, where in bringing a being into life you have to enter into that character – ask yourself the Stanislavski questions about who they are and what they want – move as the move, contort your face into their expressions. And when after you have put all these aspects of yourself into them and they begin to move independently it does feel a lot like magic.

Bouldin goes on to build a critique of mimesis in animation, particularly in regards to  Snow White and Betty Boop who are both rotoscoped off real life dancers. She writes the following about spectator’s reactions to Disney’s Snow White:

Viewers are not given the space or perspective to grasp that these ‘real’ characters are also constructs; they are discouraged from reading these bodies as effects of power, as the products of the patriarchal, white, middle-class, heteronormative prerogatives that guided Disney’s (re)construction of bodily reality. Just as unnatural or unlikely as the dwarves in the enchanted forest or as Cab Galloway’s spectral performance in Minnie the Moocher, Snow White and Prince Charming are also fantasies, simply of a more mundane nature-fantasies about the bodily performance of gender, race, class, and heterosexual romantic love.

Disney films, as a huge part of the last three generations’ childhood, play an important role in reinforcing “social norms”. How “real” is Disney’s version of “reality”? How much does it create the myth of objective neutral normality – ie white, heterosexual cisness?

Despite it’s sophisticated technology, Disney’s claim to the real erases so many of our lived experiences – even the most magical mimesis can only represent the experience of its makers.

Plasmaticness

 

One of the things I’ve always loved about cartoons is the transformation of objects as their context changes: in the south korean cartoon above the dinosaur reaches into the sky and grabs a rainbow, suddenly it is a skipping robe. In many warner brother car chases a piece of the scenery is used to repair a car engine. In adventure Time, Jake’s legs stretch to impossible proportions so they can see over an obstacle. We think we are looking at one thing, but then the angle changes and we realise it is something else altogether. This ability of objects and people to shift from one shape to another, depending on their context is defined by Paul Wells as  “Plasmaticness”:

‘Plasmaticness’ ‘… a rejection of once-and forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form.

This is unique to animation. Live action cannot recreate these impossible acts and in text the explanation of the change would take away some of it’s magic and surprise. Paul Wells goes on to  describe the comic potential of this technique:

Suddenly the human body could move in ways that it was both impossible to do in the ‘real world’ and impossible to represent in live action. This spectacle was inherently funnny because it illustrates the literal breakdown of social order as it is located in the physical environment. *

The comic potential of this is almost limitless, nothing is out of bounds. But if anything can become anything that’s more than just funny, it can be revolutionary. Judith Halberstam quotes Sergei Einstein talking about Disney in The Queer Art of Failure:

Disney’s film are a revolt against  partitioning and legislating, against spiritual stagnation and greyness. But the revolt is lyrical. The revolt is a daydream.” (1988:4) In this day-dream says Eisenstein, we are able to see the world differently through a series of absurd oppostions that shuffle the coordinates of reality just enough to deliver Americans from the standardized monotony of life under capitalism. **

So the ability to metamorphose, to change from man to woman, human to animal, rainbow to skipping rope – destroys the binary classifications of the social order – we are all made of this infinitely flexible stuff, that cannot be contained in a single form. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that animation for so long has been pidgeon holed into a medium for children. In a world where so much is censored in the name of “protecting the children” – animation is slipping in under the radar.  In “No Future” Edelman proclaims “fuck the social order and the child in whose name we are collectively terrorized”*** but what if the children are actually the ones who have access to what is really going on?

So can children’s cinema give us a way out from stultifying social norms? Halberstam argues that it does:

“Children’s animated features are replete with fantasies of otherness and difference, alternative embodiement, group affiliations, and eccentric desires […] Each film make explicit the connection between queerness and this joining of the personal and the political: mostrosity in Shrek, disability in Finding Nemo and species dysphoria in Babe become the figurations of the pernicious effects of exclusion, abjection and displacement in the name of family, home and nation” ****

It is a big claim, and is so tempting, I love these films, I want them to be the revolutionary pieces of cinema. But then these films are made by big corporates with shady histories: Disney was a fascist and has produced no end of sexist and racist material. Pixar is run almost entirely by straight white rich cis men, can we really rely on these companies to give us our revolutionary visions?

*Paul Wells, Understanding Animation, p.128

**Sergei Eisensteil quoted in Queer Art of Failure p.174

*** Queer art p.178

**** Queer art p.120

Girl’s Night Out and Girl’s Trip

 

 

When I watched Joanna Quinn’s Girl’s Night Out this week it really reminded me of the recent Universal Studio’s feature film Girl’s Trip – which I loved so much I went to see it twice in the cinema.

Both films are about a group of women friends, who, as an exception to their normal lives, are going ALL OUT.  Girl’s Night Out is a 6 minute animation that features a single night of partying, while Girl’s Trip is 2 hour feature film about a three day extravaganza of drinking, dancing and sex. However, both films beautifully capture the exhiliration these women feel as they let go of the rigid social norms that shape their lives. They leave behind husbands, children and responsibilities, swapping them for the joyful solidarity of female friendship. Unencumbered and encouraging each other they inhabit their own bodies and desires fully, whether this is removing a male stripper’s thong, wetting themselves on a zip wire above a busy New Orlean’s street, starting a bar brawl, or having sex with a man half their age. And it is the time constraint that enables this freedom: for one night, one weekend they are free. There is a sense that outside of this fabulous window their lives go on as normal, but the fact that they can escape it, even for the shortest of times, makes that fact more bearable.

In Black Looks, Bell Hooks describes how theorizing black experience is a difficult task, because, having been socialized by a white supremacist education system and a racist mass media, the language just isn’t there to do it. She states: “Without a way to name our pain, we are also without the words to articulate our pleasure.” I wonder if it could be argued that Girl’s Trip provides some of that language. The film is, among many other things, an exploration of black women’s pleasure – their pleasure in each other as friends, their sexual pleasure (as seen in this amazing scene with the grapefruit) and their pleasure in their work and accomplishments. For representation of any oppressed group to be successful – it must show not only the oppression of the individuals involved – but also their humanity. I think Girls Trip and Girl’s Night Out are both highly successful examples of this.

Things I want to learn from these films and use in my work:

  1. Capturing joy and freedom through movement, particularly dance
  2. Creating magical spaces in which social norms can be broken
  3. Giving voice and humanity to characters that are too often sidelined in traditional media ie women of colour and working class women

Choir Tour

 

I loved this film Sean showed us in class the other day. The character animation of the children was brilliant. They all move as one body with several heads, which are slightly out of time with each other which is a super effective in the impression of a rowdy group of children. Also the choir mistress’ red eyebrows are the best.

From metaphor to reality and back

Un Jour by Marie Paccou, starts off with a wide angle shot of the city, the lights going off and coming on again as day breaks. There is a lot of black and a mournful cello score comes in to underscore a dark mood.  As the camera pans we realise that we are seeing from the point of view of a woman, looking out of her window. She starts to speak: “One day a man entered my belly” – the camera pans around to focus on her face. This mise-en-scene: the darkness, the music, the early morning setting, leads us to assume, that she is speaking euphemistically about a sexual encounter. She herself is entirely passive in the account “I realized I would have to get used to him” she says. Alongside the mournful mood that has been established by the cello and setting, we assume that this was not a consensual or enjoyable encounter and our expectation is the story will be a dark one. However, as the camera pans down her body we see, to our surprise, that there is an actual physical man sticking out of her  – head and shoulders out the front – legs and feet out the back. This is a clear moment of humour, partly because of the absurdity of visual image, but also because our expectations that she was speaking metaphorically have been overturned: there is a literal man in her literal belly.

The encyclopedia of positive psycology defines humour as follows:

Humor is distinguished from other forms of play by the presence of elements that are perceived to be incongruous, odd, unusual, surprising, or out of the ordinary. Thus, as many theorists have noted, for humor to occur there needs to be a particular type of cognitive appraisal involving the perception of nonserious incongruity.

Koestler coined the term bisociation to refer to this cognitive process, in which a situation or idea is simultaneously perceived from the perspective of two self-consistent but normally unrelated and even contradictory schemas or frames of reference. *

Here the two “frames of reference” are the visual and the verbal: the words the character says told us one thing but the visual that accompanies them show another. The incongruity this creates is what makes the situation humourous.

But in the course of the film, Un Jour loops us back from absurdity to reality via the metaphor of the man in the belly.  As the film progresses, we see the woman take on the burden of carrying, clothing and feeding the uninvited man, who contributes only in the most minor ways.  This exposes the unrewarded burden of reproductive labour that disproportionately falls to women.  We see a more extreme version of women’s oppression under patriarchy in the neighbour who is forced to carry a shouting, drunk and violent man in her belly.

At the end of the film, the man leaves, leaving a literal hole in the woman’s belly: once again we are brought back from the metaphorical exploitation of women to the literal physical effects of having carried a man in your belly.

In Understanding Animation, Paul Wells describes metaphor as a narrative strategy:

Metaphors make the literal interpretation of images ambiguous and sometimes contradictory because they invite an engagement with the symbolic over and above the self evident. *

Thus metaphors can be used to create a parallel narrative, where the audience is ‘reading’ both the visual and the symbolic simultaneously. The interplay between these narratives allows the film to veer from the comic to the tragic within an extremely short amount of time, which makes it all the more effective at engaging its audience.

*Martin, R.A. (2009). Humor. In S.J. Lopez (Ed.), The encyclopedia of positive psychology. [Online]. Hoboken: Wiley. Available from: http://arts.idm.oclc.org/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fwileypospsych%2Fhumor%2F0%3FinstitutionId%3D105 [Accessed 26 October 2017].

*Paul Wells, (1998), Understanding Animation, Oxon: Routledge, p.84

 

Queer bouncy Larban theory balls

This week Steve got us started with bouncy balls – we tried rolling various balls down a slope and watching how the difference in weight and size affected the speed and bounciness of their fall:

Animation school: never a dull moment

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Then we tried animating it. I drew many many many circles; using my x-sheet and a surprising amount of maths to get the pacing and movement right so you could tell a ping pong bounce from a bowling ball one. It was oddly absorbing and before I knew it the day was over!

Tuesday we tried it in 3D. This was my first time ever using 3d animating software and it was a bit of a struggle. I really enjoyed being able to manouvre the scene to see it from different angles and I feel like this might be primarily what I use the software for in the future rather than animating with it. That said I did get very excited when I made a weird bendy gerkin thing:

3D animation is creepy…

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Wednesday we had a Laban movement workshop which was definitely the highlight of my week. I have known about Laban ever since I can remember because my grandmother, Rene Sakula, studied under him and he is her absolute hero. She has been a dancer all her life and after the Second World War she went to Belsen Concentration Camp as part of the relief effort and taught dance classes in the Rundhaus building that had once been the headquarters of the SS officers. She describes these classes in an interview for the Laban Guild (Autumn 1992 Vol. 11 No. 3):

“It was a palacial building and the groups I taught from the camps were able to overcome their feelings about the purpose for which the Rundhaus had been used by almost recreating themselves. Surprisingly they did not dwell on and explore their seemingly hopeless experiences of the past, but presented images of a more hopeful future. Some of them lived to fullfil their dreams, others did not.”

But this is by the by. Back in the movement workshop Lydia Baksh got us moving through games, in which we sometimes used each others bodies as puppets and sometimes moved in conversation with each other. She taught us about Laban’s “palette” of movement – how different types of motion create different feels, actions and characters.

 

The other fun thing I did this week was get deep into some queer theory in preparation for my presentation next week. One of the essays I read was Judith Halberstam’s Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation  from  The Queer Art of Failure. Halberstam examines a series of children’s animations from Chicken Run to Monsters Inc in order to answer the question: “how do revolutionary themes in animated film connect to queer notions of self?”

Halberstam first looks at representations of utopia in Chicken Run and Toy Story. In both these films, characters seek to eschew the capitalist industrial complex – represented by the battery chicken farm or the massive anonymous corporate toy store – and find a collaborative way of living in which diversity of character and ability is celebrated and where one can take pleasure in the control of one’s own labour. What Halberstam calls:

“Intricate stories of collective action, anticapitalist critique, group bonding, and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment and responsibility.”

Then the author moves on to looking at relationships between humans and non humans in these films. They show us how these relationships open us up to different ways of living and thus queers our perception. For example in Monsters Inc the bond between Sully and boo “is queer in its reorganisation  of family and affinity and in the way it interrupts disrupts more conventional romantic bonds in the film.”

Another moment of queerness comes in Robots – where a robot couple has a child delivered and proceeds to put it together from a box. Finally the father says “we did want a boy didn’t we?” and sticks on the phallus, emphasising the interchangeability of gender.

The labour of producing the baby is queer in that it is shared and improvised, of culture rather than nature, an act of construction rather than reproduction.

The beginning…

So I’ve made it through my first week at Central Saint Martins and my main feeling is: omg! art school is even more fun than I expected!

We started the week on Monday with talks from many people on subjects ranging from critical theory to library catalogues. Some of the things that got me excited were:

  • Sean talking about how we convey feeling through body language: we will learn to observe and create postures and movement that denote emotions such as sadness or happiness or anger.
  • Steve telling us that animators have to be sketchy and fast rather than perfectionists about their drawings – which as somewhat of a dasher offer suits me great!
  • Lilly talking about how “nothing is obvious” and “how cultural practices relate to wider systems of power”. I can’t wait to do more thinking and writing about issues of representation and power in animation. I want to deeply question my own practice: how what I make both reflects and shapes the world around me – and how to disrupt rather than entrench the oppressive systems of power that are part of the patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist, herteronomative society that we live in.

Towards the end of day one Steve set us all up with a light box, a pencil and some animation paper and said “GO! DRAW! MAKE SOMETHING MOVE!”  I felt pretty lost – having never done anything like this before. I started off drawing a person jumping, as they jump they lift their arms up in the air and the smile on their face gets bigger and bigger. When I put it on the line tester to see the drawings move, it made me laugh but it was very clunky and you couldn’t feel the weight of the person or how they were becoming airborne. So I tried again this time with a person rolling over in their sleep. This was easier because I have been practicing sleepy postures recently for a comic I am writing and I could envision how the different parts of the body would move in relation to one another. Here is the result:

I like the way the body moves, but feel like it looks a little too athletic for someone sleeping, I tried to slow it down by making each picture last more frames but that just made it jerky, I think next time I may need to do more drawings. All that said, I am quite fond of this sleepy babe as my first ever piece of drawn animation.

The other animation project we worked on this week was a shadow puppet film. Brief aside: The format of the workshop reminded me a of Ru Paul’s Drag Race which I have recently watching (Shout out to season 4!). At the beginning of the day the teachers gave us a bunch of materials and a brief and sent us on our way, we had to come up with a story, characters, make puppets and backgrounds, rehearse movements, rent and learn to use the video cameras, and film the whole thing before a 4pm screening. The manic-ness of this schedule meant there was no time for faffing or too much perfectionism. Things I learnt about making shadow puppets:

  1. They have to be BIG otherwise they don’t move nicely (or at all)
  2. Making joints both strong and move smoothly is HARD – I ended up using small pieces of wire twisted in on themselves.
  3. We struggled in our team to agree on sizing between the different characters and backgrounds.
  4. Unless the tracing paper is stuck directly to the glass – not just taped around the outside, you lose a lot of the definition so there is no point putting too much detail into the puppets
  5. Detailed backgrounds stuck to the glass however look banging.
  6. Even very simple sound adds a lot to the final film.

Watching everyone’s film at the end of the day was great, they were all very funny and laughing with the rest of the group was a nice way to relax and start to feel a little more comfortable with each other.

The final class of the week was life drawing. It was mostly three minute poses, so no time to get bored. I was rusty but just as I was warming up and starting to like what was coming out of my pencil, Vanessa came over and said “lovely lines but you’re making him flat” she drew a sphere a cube and a pyramid on a piece of paper and showed me how the body can be broken down into versions of these three shapes. At first when I tried this my drawings looked like boring computer graphics – you couldn’t even recognise the model anymore and I felt a little resentful. But I persevered, and began to see a real improvement in the accuracy of poses I was capturing – it was a kind of magical. Below you can see some of my drawings at the beginning of the class:

Vanessa’s sketch:

My drawings after Vanessa’s intervention: