Animation Unlimited

Before heading off to the Palm Springs film festival, I thought I’d post a collection of links I’ve amassed inspired by a book I recently received: Animation Unlimited: Innovative Short Films Since 1940. It’s a large, glossy paperback published in the UK in 2003 that features short write-ups on 50 animators, over 500 color stills, and–best of all–a two-hour, region 2 DVD sampler containing 29 of the works (in part or in whole) that the authors cite.

I’m still exploring it, and so far I’ve been favoring non-digital work over digital entries (co-writer Liz Farber is a managing partner of a digital production company, and the book contains a lot of contemporary CGI work). But here are a few favorites of which I’ve found corresponding web videos of decent quality:

Night on Bald Mountain (1933)

Alexander Alexeieff and his wife Claire Parker were pioneers of pinscreen animation (you might recall their iconic prologue for Orson Welles’ The Trial). The pinscreen is a large white board with thousands of tiny black pins that one can push in and out to varying degrees, causing the camera at a distance to record shades of grey. Alexeieff and Parker used rollers and objects to virtually “sculpt” imprints frame by frame, and you can see a wonderful NFB documentary on their process–as well as their films–on an excellent French DVD. My favorite of their films (also cited by the authors) is The Nose (1963), based on Gogol’s short story, but Night on Bald Mountain is a classic work as well. I hope to do a longer write-up on their work sometime soon.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981)

The authors pick Mothlight (1963) to represent the work of Stan Brakhage, but this film–included on the Criterion DVD–(in his own words) “is related to Mothlight” and “is a collage composed entirely of montane zone vegetation; as the title suggests, it is an homage to (but also argument with) Hieronymous Bosch.” And indeed, the beautiful flurry of greenery–gradually lightening and then fading–is virtually Edenic.

Sunstone (1979)

Abstract Expressionist painter Ed Emshwiller made this animation, one of the first computer-generated films, using a Guggenheim fellowship. The book quotes CalArt’s Michael Scroggins: “This was all accomplished at a time before there were any commercially viable 3D computer hardware and software systems. Jim Clark did not found Silicone Graphics until 1983 and the first digital video graphics system capable of 3D perspectives projection was not released until 1981.” Instead, the film makes copious use of early digital painting. Despite the crude technology, the results are amazingly subtle.

Synchromy (1971)

Aside from its windowboxing issue, the Norman McLaren DVD box set was a highlight of 2006; this film was generated not by a computer, but by filming striped cards and using that for the film’s optical soundtrack as well as its visuals, producing a chromatic scale of six octaves. The fewer and wider the stripes, the lower and louder the note, respectively. In an age before digital animation, this must’ve blown people’s mind–and it still does.

Yuri Norstein: Winter Days (2003)

I’ve written about Norstein before, and while the book appropriately cites his 1978 Tale of Tales as his masterpiece (which can be seen on the third volume of the Masters of Russian Animation DVD series or in three parts here, here, and here on YouTube), this short piece was his recent entry for the Japanese compilation film, Winter Days (2003). It showcases his beautifully textured style, comprised of delicate cutouts filmed on panes of glass.

The Man with the Beautiful Eyes (1999)

This unsettling story of a group of kids with a fascination for an enigmatic man might appeal more to fans of Charles Bukowski’s poetry, but Jonathan Hodgson’s animation is unquestionably remarkable. Playfully evoking children’s drawings through a fluid juxtaposition of texts and images, the film offers a personal memoir that is equally nostalgic and haunting. With its mixture of fanciful, “amateurish” drawing and sober themes, I wonder if it wasn’t an influence on John Canemaker’s recently acclaimed The Moon and the Son?

Father and Daughter (2000)

I was entranced by the lyrical minimalism of this film before suddenly remembering that we had posted an interview with its director, Michael Dudok de Wit, at a couple years ago. At the first Rencontre avec Robert Bresson in September 2004, the Dutch animator won the grand prize for this film, presented by Bresson’s widow. (Apparently, Bresson, who died in 1999, was a fan of Dudok de Wit’s 1994 film, The Monk and the Fish.) Like Bresson’s own work, the animation’s simplicity of setting and visual description belies its depth of feeling.

The book also highlights films by artists whose works have recently been released on DVD, including the famed Oskar Fischinger (more on him later) and Jiri Trnka, as well as contemporary animator Paul Bush, whose clip was taken from his 1998 scratch film The Albatross, and it looks positively stunning.

Any other books on the subject anyone would recommend? (I’ve been eyeing Chris Robinson’s Unsung Heroes of Animation as well.)

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