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Animation: Slow to Bear Fruit

By Pell Osborn

W.C. Fields/Don+Lana/Build a Better Dayton! Buy What Dayton Builds!

Beyond the business of making money, animation is an art form that’s expensive, time-intensive and frustratingly slow to bear fruit. The history of animation details the relentless application of technology to speed up the process of creating imagery, whether it’s hand-drawn or computer-generated imagery. What animator doesn’t dream of freedom from the medium’s time constraints? As Jeff Scher observes, “Animators create time,” and as Richard Williams notes, animation is “…the most expensive medium that takes the longest time…”       see Piano-Forte: Fluid, Hand-made, Low-tech Animation

What animator doesn’t ask, constantly, “Is it possible to work in this medium through smaller art, and still achieve big motion and impact?” … or words to that effect?

It’s my career-long reflection: “Is there an approach to animation in which the effort to explore and experiment doesn’t overcome the artist?”  In other words, is there a way to engage in animating that’s closer, say, to en plein air watercolor painting than to a typical six-week grind to build a ten-second TV spot, or a six-month sojourn to animate a personal, independent response to Ravel’s “Bolero?”

Approaches like pixillation, stop-motion, scratching-on-film come to mind. They’re relative quickies compared to the hand-drawn stuff, or the CGI dreamscapes many of us fantasize about.

On February 3, 2010, the Boston Globe published a refreshing review of the exhibit Frame by Frame: Animated at Harvard.

It was refreshing because the reviewer, Mark Feeney, got so right a big part of the conundrum we animators face: we have the tools to do the most wondrous stuff, but we have to make a living. And of course most of us make a living illustrating the in-your-face, absurd humor of TV shows (essentially radio shows) and other repetitive stuff. That’s one part of the conundrum.

The second part is the Time-It-Takes-To-Make-It part, which never goes away.  The second part means we animators frequently chew over everything obsessively before we commit to a project, because each new idea can translate to weeks and weeks of additional work.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I got my professional start as a student in Eric Martin’s “Beginning Animation” class at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center in 1974-75. For thirty-plus years after that, I’ve done commercial animation work, but I never forgot the lively experimental scene in the basement of Carpenter Center, where a gaggle of bright people massaged, stretched and warped the limits of  “projected imagery that’s designed frame-by-frame,” our working definition of animation.

Nowadays, my work with the LineStorm Digital FlipBook, a curriculum I teach in schools and colleges, is informed by the lively, exploratory nature of those animation classes at Carpenter Center. Happily, my LineStormers delight in stretching the medium! It’s a lot more fun to build time together.

As Hope Springs Eternally, so I return endlessly to square one: that animation, first and foremost, is an art form, not a commercial enterprise; and that animation is far too important and wondrous an art form to fester in the hands of TV producers bent on augmenting their immediate bottom line.

So while we experiment with animation as visual music, kinetic design, and movement through space, we’re endlessly contriving new ways to reduce the inherently cumbersome process of building motion frame-by-frame. But, as we battle to simplify the process, let’s remember to protect and promote the elemental basis of animation — the moving art medium — itself; namely, the movement and the art, no matter how long it takes.

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