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The Fabric of Animation: Everything is Animated

By Pell Osborn

I learned recently that Terah Maher — designer, animator, teacher and a distant colleague — would speak on “the structural systems inherent in animation…” Disappointed to miss the lecture. But her topic is critical: it spotlights how many metaphors and similes exist to help us appreciate the complexities of creating animation. “Animating is like weaving a tapestry.” “Animating is like wallpapering a house with postage stamps.” “It’s like building a building over and over and over again.” “It’s like eating a mountain with a teaspoon.” “It’s like an elephant being pregnant for nine months and giving birth to a pea.”

The difficulty of making an animation project and the importance of its subject matter are odd partners. Along with all the things that animation does — it brings into existence things that don’t exist, it distorts time and space, it selects a viewer’s path with the highest degree of accuracy possible, it caricatures and skews reality — let us remember its power to make us to look harder and deeper at things. Peter Schejldahl, the New Yorker art critic, observes (in a piece about the Ghent Altarpiece, Nov. 29, 2010, pp. 46-47), “We know now, from brain science, that seeing is not a direct register of what meets our eyes but a fast mental construction that squares sensations with memory and desire: what we believe and wish reality to be.” Animators take advantage of “what we believe and wish reality to be,” as we parse, tighten, abbreviate, and wrangle elements into a scope that’s possible to produce and (one hopes) possible to share. Pooling radiance of motion, compelling and appealing imagery, ideas drawn as irresistible shapes  — all are crowning achievements in the art of animation. And because our brains can absorb and process only so much input at any given time, perhaps it’s the brain itself that’s the ultimate animator — parsing, choosing, modifying, bending and skewing reality for its own needs, for its own psychic survival. In this sense, the brain animates everything and gives context to everything, as it tries to make sense of what it perceives. Terah Maher’s “structural systems inherent in animation” may concern the timelines, pipelines and deadlines involved in producing animation, the arc-of-story form a narrative takes, the Opening/The Body/The Closing of the project’s anatomy. But it’s our brains that are the final conduits and receptors of what animation presents to us. And in this sense, everything’s animated!

Gendji rug, 19th century

detail from Ghent Altarpiece, 15th century

16th century tapestry, Gardner Museum, Boston

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