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Oct

9

Prefiguring Animation Action at the MIT Media Lab

By Pell Osborn

PEM Lightbox SetUp 9:2010When MotionArt designers presented a LineStorm Animation seminar at the MIT Media Lab recently, the Media Lab students, accustomed to their rarified, cutting-edge, high tech environment, set aside their apps, bells and whistles. They took a moment to examine, with the simplest materials, how animation actually works on our perceptions. With engaging, hand-drawn exercises, they rekindled the thrill of discovery in the basics of animation. What’s more, they discovered, anew, that one of animation’s great strengths is its ability to visualize — clearly — abstract concepts.

The structure of our work-in-progress, “A Certain Grandeur, animated” was the inspiring quotation from Aristotle, “The search for truth is in one way hard and in another way easy, for it is evident that no one can master it fully or miss it wholly. But each adds a little to our knowledge of nature, and from all the facts assembled, there arises a certain grandeur.”

Using only pens, paper and lightboxes (with which to register their artwork), participants worked in teams to illustrate Aristotle’s dictum, phrase by phrase. For each team, the most important step was to prefigure how much one could actually accomplish, given the limited time and space constraints of the seminar. Professional animators call this prefiguring the visualization or “layout” of a scene — how the scene will actually appear. Animators organize their layouts with storyboards, visual cues to help them decide just what to animate, where it’s going and what it’s showing. Prefiguring animation action is one of the most exhilarating parts of any animation project, when one tries to keep all the pieces in line to work through what could easily become, according to the designers of the videogame “Bioshock Infinite,”…a harrowing technical endeavor…” in the control of time and space.

As a engaging example of project-based learning, LineStorm has few peers. Participants experience all three stages of an animation project, whatever the scale, from a humble flipbook to a full-length Pixar feature. Stage one is the wide-open, blue-sky stage, when one imagines the range of possibilities a sequence might occupy. Stage two involves the actual production of the artwork, cranking it out so that (in the case of LineStorm) it streams at the rate of ten images for every second of screen time. Stage three hurdles the timelines, deadlines and pipelines to reach the finish line of a project. Of course, “A Certain Grandeur, animated” remarkable though it is, isn’t finished. If there was ever a case of the journey being more important than the destination, “A Certain Grandeur, animated” is it.

Just by considering the vast number of ways to visualize each of Aristotle’s abstract phrases, Media Lab participants learned a profound truth known to more than a few esteemed teachers: that thinking about how to express an abstract idea is the first compelling step toward representing that idea. When you have a moment, please watch “A Certain Grandeur, animated:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzOIqZrs5Bs  Many thanks to Taya Leary, seminar host, and to the LineStorm Media Lab students for their focus and great humor.