Robert Breer commented on one of his creative goals, by stating “I think even in painting the clue to what I do has something to do with ambiguity and controlling ambiguity and making it dramatic […] to get ambiguity as an expressive feature of the thing” (Breer quoted in Cote, 1962: 17). In Fuji, Breer negotiates the thresholds between representation and abstraction, object consistency and inconsistency, and a visual space which is both explicitly flat while simultaneously creating the illusion of depth.
Sensitive to the stillness and materiality of the cinematic frame, Breer’s work implicitly acknowledges that the individual frame is two different things at once – both an image in and of itself, and part of a series of pictures. He stated in an interview, “All my art ideas have to do with material I was using… I wanted to examine it more closely, and bring it into the open, to expose it” (Breer, 1956: 8). Similarly, Sitney comments that “the weight of his interests as an artist lies in the creation and breakdown of illusions.” (Sitney, 1979: 301) In the process of revealing how the illusion of cinematic motion operates, he also examines the process of human perception – how the illusion of motion is created, how it can be undermined and how it can be re-established again.
Fuji serves as an exemplary instance in which Breer’s ethic can be seen in practise. Made in 1974, Guy Curtis sees Breer’s output from the 1970s onwards as his mature work, a synthesis of the expressive ideas that had come before (Curtis, 1983: 17). In part, Fuji examines how far our perceptual threshold can be stretched to experience disparate images as consistent, representational and in motion. It features a range of Robert Breer’s aesthetic concerns – he negotiates the thresholds between representation and abstraction, object consistency and inconsistency, and a visual space which is both explicitly flat but simultaneously creates the illusion of depth.
The film splits into a series of subsections, and each one is concerned with different aspects of visual experience: motion parallax, distance, abstraction and figuration. At one moment the sonic rhythm slows, and then it picks up speed again. Live action footage operates as material for rotoscoping. Like his other films, there is a clarity to each individual frame, but perceptual ambiguity arises in Breer’s use of the passage from one frame to the next, where illusions of depth and motion become uncertain.
The structure of Breer’s Fuji bears a closer semblance to that of a musical composition rather than a narrative-dramatic film. That’s to say that a ‘motific’ development takes place, using a fairly limited range of short sequences as visual motifs and finding variations in how each one can be recreated differently through rotoscoping, and how they might be intercut with other visual motifs.
At the beginning, we are introduced to three visual motifs: a face by the window of the train, a man running across the screen, and a rapid frame-by-frame alternation between two cylinders. Each sequence is separated by black leader tape.
After the three visual motifs are introduced and there is a final brief roll of black leader, we see the same image of the man running across the screen, rotoscoped (see below). Each picture in the rotoscoped sequence lasts 8 frames, breaking visual continuity and the impression of a smooth passage of time. The trundling, continuous rhythm of the train provides sonic continuity, creating tension between the aural continuity and the visual irregularities.
The first three images below visually register as the same man, and the following two are increasingly abstracted. We continue to perceive the final highly abstracted image as a man, even though if seen in isolation we would not identify it as a human figure.
After the sequence of the rotoscoped running man, two new motifs are introduced. This time, we are only shown the rotoscoped images and not the original live action source material. Three distant human figures approach, and this alternates with an abstracted impression of a passing tunnel casting a shadow. Each image lasts for two frames as they alternate between the visual motifs. The colouring of the approaching human figures are inconsistent, but the shapes are similar enough that we assume them to be the same figures.
Next, the human figures, the tunnel and a train ticket inspector rapidly alternate, creating a 3-way visual fusion. The inspector is subsequently isolated from his surroundings in the second freeze frame from the right, pictured below. Each image lasts either 2 or 3 frames.
By 55 seconds, we have been introduced to most of the motifs and the visual techniques that Breer employs in the 8:30min film: fluctuating picture-to-frame ratios, rapid visual alternations, and variations of the same short sequences through re-interpretation with the rotoscope.
Variations between the existing motifs are intercut until 1min55, when a new motif is introduced – Mt Fuji. In this sequence, the visual similarities between the forms of the mountain and fence are close (implying that it is a single, consistent snow-capped mountain), but the colouring is inconsistent. Here, Breer provides the spectator with a perceptual ambiguity in which two seemingly incompatible interpretations work in tandem. The object of the mountain remains consistent, but the colouring assigns the sequence a visual rhythm comparable to that of a ‘flicker film’, where the 24fps frame rate visually registers. Where does the eye and its interpreting mind focus its attentions? On the consistent shape of Mt Fuji, or the inconsistent use of colour and its formal impact on the frame? Viewers may be more likely to focus their attentions on the consistent aspects of the frame, and defer the inconsistent aspects to the periphery of their attentions. Both elements are apparent.
It is also here where Breer exploits the use of motion parallax, creating visual depth by making the fence move laterally at a greater speed, while the distant mountain moves more slowly.
Creating another perceptual ambiguity, birds are introduced into the film at 5:10mins and alternate frame-by-frame with Mt Fuji. It is clear by looking at the freeze frames below that they are drawn separately, but on playback the images alternate so rapidly that they may appear to be in the same space, or superimposed. This might be interpreted as a playful reference to the thaumatrope – commonly, this optical toy would feature a bird on one side of the disc, and a cage on the other. When the disc was spun, the bird would appear to be inside the cage.
David Curtis comments on the perceptual ambiguity in his summary of Fuji, stating “The classic outline of Mount Fuji, filmed by Breer from a train, then rotoscoped, becomes involved in an extended speculation on the boundaries between representation and abstraction. Is it a mountain, or just another of Breer’s geometric obsessions?” (Curtis, 1983: 19) At 7:10mins for example, forms isolate themselves and detach from their original place and move in their own direction. In this instance, the snow cap on Mt. Fuji becomes an autonomous triangular shape that moves independently.
Breer’s film, then is a rich exercise in the breakdown and re-establishing of visual illusions one can create in animated film. The perception of consistent objects is destabilized by fluctuating picture-to-frame rates, inconsistent colouring, visual figuration and abstraction, and visual depth.
The films that Breer produced may be characterised as continually playing at the edge of depth illusions and cinema’s actual flatness, and between stasis and motion. Still images begin to move, and then become isolated images again. The depth/ flatness threshold functions in a similar way – when the illusion of depth seems to establish itself, a flat shape enters the frame and moves across a flat screen. The rest of Breer’s oeuvre, particularly within his mature period, rewards similarly close scrutiny to that I have given Fuji in this short essay.
Breer, R (1956) ‘Letter’ In Film Culture Cooper Square Press
Cote, Guy “Interview with Robert Breer” Film Culture, no. 27 (Winter 62-63)
Curtis, D (1983) Robert Breer Cambridge Marketing Limited
Sitney, P (1979) Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943 – 1978, Oxford University Press
Paul Taberham completed his PhD in Film Studies at Kent University in 2013, and began working as a senior lecturer at the Arts University Bournemouth in 2014. He has published in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, Animation Journal, and The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory. He is also the co-editor of Cognitive Media Theory (Routledge, 2014).