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Animating with Live Action Footage

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by Lee Price
November 13, 2012 8:30 AM
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Animating with Live Action Footage

This is the final entry in a series of six essays based on the list of “250 Great Animated Short Films,” recently published here at Press Play.  These six essays are celebrating the inspiration behind some of these films; a complementary series of 20 essays on my cultural history blog, 21 Essays, focuses on common themes.

First, a memory which has been seared into my brain:  It’s 1973 and my cousin and I are alone in the house, obsessively playing and replaying the last minute of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” backwards on a cheap plastic portable turntable. And I’m getting seriously creeped out.

“I Am the Walrus” is weird enough played forward, with that strange background voice muttering “Bury me . . . bury my body” behind the chanting chorus.  But we were on a mission to uncover further secrets. With my index finger, I revolved the record backward on the turntable, attempting to maintain an even speed. Strange sounds issued from the speaker and we eagerly bent forward to decipher any cryptic clues that might emerge, searching for revelation though the noise and murk.

Play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, bounce the needle, scrape it against the groove. This was Dada-esque work—an accidental premonition of the hip-hop sampling to come, or today’s mashups. But we weren’t in this for light entertainment. We were descending into darkness in a search for truth—and descents into that kind of darkness are memorably scary.

The Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky makes films that revive that decades-old feeling of dread in me.  In 1998, Tscherkassky took a strip of film from the Lumieres’ 1895 L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat into his darkroom to create L’Arrivee.  The following year, he took a strip of footage from Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1981) and created Outer Space.  Tscherkassky treats these films the way I once treated that Beatles album—he uses every darkroom technique at his disposal to plumb their depths.  I like to think that he’s scratching the same itch that drove our obsession with “I Am the Walrus.” His unsettling transformations suggest there may be another primal level of meaning behind film images… and that intimates the possibility of further primal levels of meaning behind all life experiences.  If we could only dare to peer a little deeper into the darkness, the meaning of it all might become clearer.

In his CinemaScope Trilogy (comprising the three shorts L’Arrivée, Outer Space, and Dream Work), Tscherkassky takes strips of found film and photo-chemically pushes their images to their limits… and then a bit further. At first, images appear relatively ordinary and familiar, but then they shift into a dream logic that may unexpectedly repeat or dissolve an action, sometimes overlaying image upon image and spraying them with strobe-like effects. In both Outer Space and Dream Work (2003), the processing reaches heights so extreme that it triggers on-screen cinematic freakouts, in which the films themselves tear loose from their sprockets and the images melt on the screen.

Each of the movies in Tscherkassky’s CinemaScope Trilogy is—in part—a film about film. In Dream Work, we even glimpse the filmmaker’s hands as he arranges the images.  This approach uncomfortably reveals a level of sadistic manipulation present in many standard Hollywood images, even as it ups the ante.  As Press Play editor Kevin B. Lee once commented, there’s not much difference between the aggression shown toward Daffy Duck in Chuck Jones’ classic Duck Amuck (1953) and the claustrophobic menace that envelopes Barbara Hershey’s character in Outer Space.

While Tscherkassky’s films create strange new contexts for conventional movie images, his fellow Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich has located his radical film experiments within classically-shaped narratives.  In assembling our list of 250 great animated short films, our panel selected Widrich’s rip-roaring Fast Film for inclusion. In just 14 minutes, Widrich folds, spinkles, and mutilates approximately 400 classic film clips, sending them careening through a generic Hollywood plot at warp speed. In this breathless context, traditional Hollywood filmmaking is simultaneously celebrated and revealed as banal. And, curiously, a new delirious beauty emerges from the cacophony.  It’s a film for move buffs to treasure.

Admittedly, I opened the door to including Tscherkassky’s and Widrich’s films when I ruled early in our selection process that Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952) and Pas de deux (1968) were eligible. Widely recognized as one of the great innovative geniuses of 20th century animation, Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren (1914-1987) forever muddied the waters that separated classic animation from live action film.  After mastering traditional animation in the 1930s and 1940s, McLaren began experimenting with hybrid forms that combined live action with animation and extreme photographic effects including variable speed photography, stop-frame techniques, negative images, and multiple exposures. A consummate artist, he used these techniques to create an astounding range of work, from the savage political satire of Neighbours to the hallucinatory beauty of his short ballet films.

McLaren is represented by three films on our list:  the fully-animated Begone Dull Care (1949) and the hybrids Neighbours and Pas de deux. Created for the National Film Board of Canada (one of the world’s great producers of animated short films), Pas de deux takes the techniques that McLaren used to disturbing effect in Neighbours and employs them instead to explore beauty in motion. Ballet dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren perform a classic pas de deux captured on live action film, with their movements then transformed into something close to abstraction through McLaren’s lyric multiple exposures and stop-frame techniques. The result is a remarkable visual essay on human movement, exquisitely choreographed and vibrantly sensual.

Pas de deux by Norman McLaren, National Film Board of Canada

In creating our list of 250 great animated short films, our definition of animation was stretched near the breaking point by consideration of films like Dream Work, Fast Film, and Pas de deux.  I’m proud that they’re on the list, even as I admit a lingering doubt that the Tscherkassky and McLaren films legitimately qualify.  But even if the latter two films fall outside some definitions of classic animation, they surely reside on an exciting borderline frontier between animation and live action.  I tend to like the borderlines.  No one plays it safe on the frontiers.

Lee Price is the Director of Development at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (Philadelphia, PA). In addition, he writes a popular fundraising column for Public Libraries, writes a tourism/history blog called "Tour America's Treasures," and recently concluded two limited-duration blogs, "June and Art" and "Preserving a Family Collection."

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