In “The Transforming Image: the Roots of Animation in Metamorphosis and Motion”, Tom Gunning analyzes two optical devices, the “blow book” and the flipbook, to investigate the “eternally protean nature of the moving image” and the relationship between animation and live-action cinema. Because of advances in digital media technology, he suggests that “forging a new history and seeing how it redefines our sense of media theory becomes the paramount task of our generation, a process of both renewal and rediscovery.” (53)
Gunning’s essay led me to reflect on my own perspective of animation history and the different experiences I’ve had working with animation’s protean technologies. For decades, animators have experimented with all sorts of pre-cinema animation devices. Many, including myself, have produced flipbooks, praxinoscopes, zoetropes, and experimented with using strobes, prisms, faceted mirrors and other elements to make objects that create illusions of motion. The simple equation of strobe effect + sequential imagery + rotation = animation, invites artists to plug in any number of variables to create engaging animated objects. It facilitates DIY practices such as repurposing record turntables to make praxinoscopes or bicycle wheels to create zoetropes. With the flipbooks I produced from 1979 to 1990, I was always fascinated and delighted by the tension between the single image and its role in the whole sequence, and between knowing I was looking at still images but seeing an illusion of motion. The praxinoscope artwork I’ve made more recently provokes the same pleasurable tensions. The disks are beautiful mandala-like images, but the praxinoscope transforms them. In his description of how the blow book and flipbook work, Gunning suggests a similar vacillation between knowing and seeing.
Pelican Spatter Study movie, 2011
These devices, based on simple principles, mechanics and optics, are relatively stable. They may wear out, and may not be available commercially, but they can always be reconstructed. Until recently, film and tools for producing linear animation were just as stable. But some things have changed in the transition to producing digitally. For those who continue to create their artwork using analog media, only the means of shooting it has changed. Capturing images digitally has led to a lot of flexibility in post-production. But my recent experience creating a work almost exclusively using digital tools has led me to a few conclusions.
Around 1994 I started to explore animating digitally, working on a project that became a 14 minute, animated, essayistic video, On Our Way. Inspired by Emerson’s comparison of American and English landscapes I used digital tools to contrast urban and rural landscapes in Western Washington State. I experimented in Photoshop and After Effects, creating digital “cut-out” animation and sequences composed of drawn, scanned and heavily filtered images. I completed the piece in 2011. It took me from chemical photography to digital, through five full versions of After Effects, two increases in aspect ratio and about four generations of computers.
One reason that production took so long is that for most of it I was teaching full time. My exploratory approach also increased the production period; I began with a quote and some images and then collected more, developing multi-layered short sequences, playing with their order, discovering meaning in them and seeking keys to what attracted me to Emerson’s words. I also spent considerable time learning and applying the new bells and whistles that came with each software upgrade. This was the fun part. What was painful and scary were the mysterious changes in code that meant that I couldn’t open project files more than two versions older than the most recent upgrade, or that in order to use the newest version of the software I had to buy an entirely new system. Each upgrade demanded significant file management and, sometimes, reconstruction of whole sequences. Towards the end I tried to avoid new upgrades even though they offered increases in speed, because I did not have the time I would need to make sure that 50 plus GB of files survived the transition.
During this time I made some short works using digital tools with delightful results. But producing On Our Way led me to conclude that for animation made entirely digitally, the pace of software and hardware changes favor productions that take two years or less. This selects for short works, ones that are carefully pre-planned, limited in scope and/or supported by a crew of digital artists. Open-ended, longer form, independent exploration of a theme that takes several years to realize increases the time and energy one needs to put into file and computer system management. Doing this kind of animation in the context of constantly evolving technologies requires agility, constant attention and significant resources.
On Our Way, 2011
Gunning, Tom, “The Transforming Image: the Roots of Animation in Metamorphosis and Motion” in Pervasive Animation, Suzanne Buchan, ed., New York, Routledge, 2013, pp. 52-69
Ruth Hayes produces animation in film, analog and digital video and pre-cinema formats, exploring diverse topics using an essayistic approach. She created and published nineteen flipbooks that were featured in “Daumenkino: The Flipbook Show” at Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle in 2005. Reign of the Dog: A Re-Visionist History deconstructs the history of the conquest of the Americas and Wanda contrasts feline and feminine desire. Currently faculty at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, she teaches animation in a broadly interdisciplinary context. Ruth earned her MFA in Experimental Animation at California Institute of the Arts. See information about her flipbooks at www.randommotion.com, view her films at www.vimeo.com/ruthhayes, and read about her teaching activities at http://blogs.evergreen.edu/hayesr/