21 Chapters
Medium 9781864620009

Norman McLaren and Jules Engel: Post-modernists

Edited by Jayne Pilling John Libbey Publishing ePub

 

Of all the great names in animation, Norman McLaren has, paradoxically, suffered most from a kind of critical neglect. Everyone acknowledges his genius, but few discuss it. Numerous books and articles chronicle his life and describe his works, usually stressing the inventiveness of his filmic techniques, but rarely do they analyse his aesthetic qualities and achievements.1

Most texts oriented toward animation as a Fine Art – such as the catalogue for the massive Film as Film exhibition that toured Germany and England from 1977 until 1979 – ignore McLaren entirely while including Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger, Harry Smith, James Whitney and other animators who are McLaren’s peers.2 Aside from Terence Dobson’s splendid paper delivered at the 1989 Society for Animation Studies conference in Los Angeles, which gave a close textual reading of McLaren’s film Synchromy in comparison with Oskar Fischinger’s Radio Dynamics, the only other serious critical analysis of McLaren’s aesthetics comparatively is David Curtis’s article ‘Locating Norman McLaren’.3 Curtis might have written the article in response to the Film As Film exhibition, which excluded McLaren and of which Curtis was the British co-ordinator. Curtis dares to speak the doubts that perhaps plague other serious critics, which they feel awkward about articulating.

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Medium 9781864620009

Clay animation comes out of the inkwell

Edited by Jayne Pilling John Libbey Publishing ePub

 

Clay animated films were produced in the United States as early as 1908 when Edison Manufacturing released a trick film entitled The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream. In 1916, clay animation became something of a fad, as an East Coast artist named Helena Smith Dayton and a West Coast animator named Willie Hopkins produced clay animated films on a wide range of subjects. Hopkins in particular was quite prolific, producing over 50 clay animated segments for the weekly Universal Screen Magazine. But by the 1920s, cartoon animation using either cels or the slash system was firmly established as the dominant mode of animation production. Increasingly, three-dimensional forms such as clay were driven into relative obscurity as the cel method became preferred for studio cartoon production.

Nevertheless, in 1921, clay animation appeared in a film called Modeling, an Out of the Inkwell film from the newly formed Fleischer Brothers studio. Modeling is one of the few known shorts using clay that was released during the 1920s. Modeling included animated clay in eight shots, a novel integration of the technique into an existing cartoon series and one of the rare uses of clay animation in a theatrical short from the 1920s. A closer examination of this Fleischer film is thus significant for two reasons. First, it illustrates how the clay technique ‘fits’ in the Fleischers’ Inkwell series. Second, it reveals a number of traits of the Inkwell format itself. In particular, Modeling shows how the studio maintained an element of novelty in the series by integrating different animation techniques to visualise Ko-Ko the Clown’s fight for corporeal existence, the unvarying central conflict of the series. This broader look at the Inkwell format will show that it embraced a duality of conformity and surprise, of static format and novel technique, of conventional cartoon action set in cartoon space and unconventional animation set in live action studio space. Indeed, even the central star of the series created humour by incorporating within his established ‘star’ persona the regular comic routines of a clown and an antagonistic tendency to leave his cartoon world, disrupting the conventions of film narrative and film space. These dualities became central to the audience’s enjoyment. On the one hand, viewers are comfortable with familiar characters in a familiar format, while on the other, they came to expect from the Fleischer studio the innovative use of animation techniques to visualise Ko-Ko’s on-going subversion of filmic conventions.1 Before turning to a specific examination of Fleischers’ films, an overview of the changes occurring in the emerging animation industry will show what broader impact the slash and cel techniques was having on three-dimensional forms of animation like clay.

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Medium 9781864620009

The thief of Buena Vista

Edited by Jayne Pilling John Libbey Publishing ePub

 

We begin with a true story, but one so dense with stories within its stories, so layered with conflicting versions of the truth, that it seems to have garnered the narrational generative capacities of myth. It would take a modern Sheherezade far more than a thousand-and-one nights to unravel the complex skein of fact and fiction that surrounds the ur-narrative of the Gulf War of 1990. But that is not the purpose of this essay: here we are concerned with tracing how that vast story-cycle of fact is entangled with another story, the fictional film Aladdin, which is itself enmeshed in a dense mesh of true stories and tall tales, a whole discourse of ideas about the Middle East and about ‘Otherness’.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, relations between Islamic states in the Middle East were fraught with political tensions. Meanwhile, in a land called Buena Vista, far to the West, some artists constructed a film set in a Middle East that looked very different from the one people saw on the news. The land they painted was filled with magic and fantasy, while the other was filled with strife and anger. This paper concerns what enabled two such contradictory visions of the Middle East to manifest themselves.

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Towards a post-modern animated discourse

Edited by Jayne Pilling John Libbey Publishing ePub

 

Mikhail Bakhtin complained that the wit of Voltaire and the Enlightenment era lacked the full-bodied comedy of the Medieval marketplace. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin celebrated the universal, ambivalent and grotesque ‘carnival comedy’ of the sixteenth century.1 Enlightenment laughter is primarily mocking and satiric, subverting the folly of the hierarchy in its feasts of fools, asses and administrators. Medieval comedy, however, affirmed, renewed and revitalised the old, bringing forth new birth, life, hope and laughter. It simultaneously took apart and put together the Body of Humanity and the Christian Church. By means of deconstruction and then reconstruction, carnival laughter simultaneously derided and delighted in the social and cultural apparatus of its era.

Medieval laughter reduced the mysteries of social and religious existence by playing with their forms without denying them. The highest form stood with the lowest; the vulgar gave the pre-eminent meaning; the clown sat on the throne. Nonsense ruled sense’s domain; and humour was intertwined with the humility and humanity of all those who came from the dust (or humus, the root of humanity, humility and humour) and would return unto it.

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The Quay brothers’ The Epic of Gilgamesh and the ‘metaphysics of obscenity’

Edited by Jayne Pilling John Libbey Publishing ePub

 

The puppet animators Stephen and Timothy Quay, with producer Keith Griffiths, form the Atelier Koninck. Their first film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979), a single-puppet film and Ein Brudermord, a two-puppet film based on Kafka, were both heavily atmospheric. The Atelier then made a paper-puppet satire on Stravinsky and a film about the Flemish playwright De Ghelderode. Then followed three art documentaries, for which the Quays made puppet-animated inserts, on Punch and Judy, Janacek and Jan Svankmajer. Songs of the Chief of the Officers of Hunar Louse or This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) (called Gilgamesh for short), a film in which a moronic toddler traps a flying man/insect with a woman-table, changed the direction of their films by fusing puppetry to sexual psychopathology.

© Atelier Koninck

Brothers Stephen Quay (left) and Timothy Quay (right), puppet animators who, with producer Keith Griffiths, created their version of The Epic of Gilgamesh (1985)

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