Animating Without a Narrative: On the Work of Adam Beckett and Lillian Schwartz

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by Scott Bussey
October 25, 2012 11:09 AM
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This is the fourth 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 Lee Price’s cultural history blog, 21 Essays, focuses on common themes.

Adam Beckett was an animator and visual effects artist who attended the California Institute of the Arts during the 1970s, where he learned from and studied alongside important members of the LA experimental animation scene. Lillian Schwartz is a pioneer in the field of computer art who worked out of Bell Labs during the 1970s, then going on to develop tools for computer-aided analysis of art, particularly finding inspiration in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. Each of these relatively unknown animators is represented by one work on the “250 Great Animated Short Films” list: Heavy-Light (1973) for Beckett and Pixillation (1970) for Schwartz.

The first time I saw an Adam Beckett film I was repulsed. What started as a structured sketch, in which quadrilaterals were progressively birthing more quadrilaterals, erupted into blobs of pastels and indiscreetly organic colors stretching and consuming each other in an orgy of what looked like sexy intestines. This was set to some of the most half-assed and unsystematic free jazz ululation I could imagine. It disgusted me at the second screening too; in my recreational pursuits, I was after a more refined sense of personal clarity than Sausage City could provide. This was indiscreet, self-indulgent, and haphazard.

Four years later, I see the films of Adam Beckett as fitting all of these descriptions, but importantly I also find them to be miraculous excursions into a world of sensations nearly separate from our own. As such, each completed work by him is in some ways a major one, unified by a general aesthetic and a keen attention to the minutiae of evolution. Whether he will be considered marginal by the standards of marginal filmmakers is somewhat up in the air. Beckett has a certain notoriety as a historical footnote: he headed the rotoscoping team for Star Wars and died tragically in a house fire at twenty-nine, leaving six completed works and two major unfinished films behind. His films were successfully restored in 2006, and in 2012 a DVD release by the iotaCenter made his films available to a wider audience.

In the end stage of selecting the films for the list mentioned above, each of the seven panelists was asked to fill in one of the remaining slots, so Heavy-Light sits on the “250 Great Animated Shorts” list entirely by my own choice. The film is an outlier among Beckett’s work in terms of surface level aesthetics, resembling an HR Giger spinal motif (a la the creatures from the Alien films) run amok in the world of early computer animation (though accomplished entirely through optical printing), but it is consistent in terms of technique. Beckett largely worked with short animation loops that he altered through advanced optical printing methods. Optical printing involves rephotographing images run directly from a projector to a camera; in this case the technique was used to apply special effects such as changing color, zooming in on a particularly area of the scene, etc. Heavy-Light takes this sort of experimentation to the extreme, being based on numerous optical extrapolations from only thirteen drawings. The result, when coupled with Barry Schrader’s score, is an intensely creepy series of abstract progressions based in novel imagery.

Beckett's work is deceptive: it suggests doodling, but it actually grew out of intense dedication. Anyone who claims chance plays a significant role in a Jackson Pollock painting is dead wrong, but how much more self-evident would this be if Pollack had been an animator dedicated to forming works with the illusion of motion? To draw and redraw the incrementally different images of an animated work takes intense labor and talent. Lillian Schwartz’s Pixillation presents an opportunity to discuss the process of animating without narrative more acutely. As with Heavy-Light the work is not meant to represent real objects, however the systematic nature of the creative process behind it is more readily transparent.

The role of a computer animator could be said to be that of an instructor showing a computer how to handle the material construction of an image. Pixillation juxtaposes painted images with computer-generated images, thus mixing the notion of an artist’s direct involvement with material and indirect rendering. Interestingly the painted images are captured in such a way that the effect is, from the perspective of the artist, seemingly more haphazard. Schwartz, rather than always filming a single image, allows the paint to flow at times, droplets intermingling in a predictable but naturally defined manner. This combination of traditional single-frame captures with jump cuts amounts to a unique effect. In contrast, every pixel of a computer-generated display must be chosen by an artist either manually or algorithmically.

The divide between the two animation techniques isn’t as simple as it might seem. Despite the vast textural difference between the painted and digital animations, they depict similar shapes, compositions and movements. The computer animation is meant to represent something, it just happens that that something is an abstract painting. And in turn the painted images attempt to represent the digitally generated images, forming an ouroboros of edited imagery, or a cycle that feeds into itself. The contrasts are equally exciting: Schwartz’s squares crudely etched into the paint are juxtaposed with the cold precision of the computer, while the free-flowing spontaneity of paint is mathematically reduced to a series of clashing polygons. The film is stunningly vibrant.

In Pixillation as in Heavy-Light, the novel nature of the imagery gives much of the pleasure. Both filmmakers worked with new and somewhat unfamiliar technology, yet in many ways the works were guided by the technology they were using. The strangeness and relative marginality of these filmmakers perhaps increases the understanding of the artistic process, whether the process is figurative or non-figurative, narrative or non-narrative, or even bounded by any rules at all.

Scott Bussey is a Pittsburgh resident and student at Duquesne University.

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