Animation at the Beginning of the 21st Century

by Stanislav Ulver (The original article was published in Czech in "Film a doba" 2-3/2010. Translated by Dagma Steinova)

The concept of LIAA (Lucerne International Animation Academy), the four-day event, which Otto Alder organized last December in cooperation with Lucerne School of Art and Design, is essentially very open. This will strike everybody, who looks up on the internet The discussions at this event were stimulated by the talks of well-known animators such as Juri Norstein, Quay Brothers, Priit Pärn, Jerzy Kucia or Gil Alkabetz, by such theoreticians and historians as Suzanne Buchan, Jayne Pilling or Marcin Gizycki and, needless to say, by their dialogue. The captivating clash of theory and practice concerned not only dramaturgy, Alder's chief interest, but also aesthetics and technical aspects of contemporary animation. In the vicinity of the maxicinema, where the symposium was held, could be seen several exhibitions – the very first one devoted to the work of the best-known Swiss animation artist Georges Schwizgebel.

Let us try to start a dialogue on the given topic, often linked to such concepts as “the metaphysics of the digital era” or such statements as “today animation is present everywhere“. More specifically let us try to find answers to several questions, which in one way or another concern what has been said. Actually, they are simply meant to stimulate our thoughts.

1) What do you personally think of animation today – at the beginning of the 21st century?
2) Could you specify your own work?
3) What do you say to computer technology?
4) Are there e.g. some trends in video art that could be seen as positive?
5) Is ethic still a part of aesthetics?1/

I expected just some bright ideas about contemporary trends in animation films (a topic we, naturally, broached), but several film-makers replied in great detail, their answers covering the entire “enquiry“; this was the case of Jonas Raeber, Gil Alkabetz, Priit Pärn and Madi Piler.

Jonas Raeber, director and producer of the local company SWAMP, with many international contacts, is known as the author of such films as GRÜEZI, CREDO or the series W.O.W., which in addition to animation have a significant sound component – i.e. spoken monologues and exaggeration.

1) Animation continues to be a movie technique that uses the same tricks to cheat the human brain as it did 100 years ago. It also continues to be a technique used in audiovisual productions, which are on the verge of the newest technology. The oldest moving image: animation. The latest blockbuster: animation.

2) For me animation is my personal art, in which I have chosen to express myself. My films focus on a political and social content, they are often satirical and almost never for children. However, to keep my studio running we develop a broad variety of content, always bearing in mind that we believe film-making to be a civic craft.

3) They are of tremendous help. Computers also make it much easier for beginners to put their creations on the market. I don't use any 3D-animation software myself. I am eagerly looking forward to the day “they“ will at last produce the photo-realistic films everybody seems to go for, when the computer as a tool will be rid of technological boredom and will, once more, be used in abstract films and in an experimental manner.

4) As I do not follow video art very much, I can hardly judge its qualities. In general, whenever I see a video or a so-called video still, my eyes begin to hurt because of the lousy quality of the image. But there exist examples of wonderful and dazzling video art, e.g. the work of the Swiss artist Peter Aerschmann and, of course, of Pipilotti Rist.

5) As an artist I have to work according to ethical rules. So much crap is produced out there. I want to be proud of what I have achieved and, naturally, it has to be aesthetically well done. Nobody should suffer.

Gil Alkabetz has been presented on several occasions in Film a doba (cf. also; moreover, his 1991 SWAM stimulated the production group of Jonas Raeber.2/ Alkabetz made more than ten other films – the last one, analysed in Film a doba 3-4/2000, DER DA VINCI TIME CODE was made last year.

1) There is, of course, a big change in the status of animation. There are two sides to it. On the one hand, animation is now a part of almost every film or design production. Printed art is being gradually replaced by digital art, which is expected to contain movement. Film productions integrate animation quite naturally and, in consequence, film plots are much more free and open to imagination.

On the other hand, animation begins to suffer from a more general problem of the media, which is likely to get much worse: the dominance of the Internet dramatically affects the economy of film and animation productions. Because of the cheap and immediate technology art, film and animation are affected by inflation. There are platforms like youtube, which while being democratic do not yield any profits.

Thus it may paradoxically happen that the production of short pure animation films will return to its past status: an art for festivals. The main production of short animation films will be the domain of students, their show-case. In all probability even series for children will no longer be profitable, since it would seem that even the DVD market will in time disappear.

Short personal animation films will once more be for animation lovers, mainly supported by cultural funds, while they still exist. As a technique and form of expression animation will be everywhere, but it will no longer be as specific and special for the public as in the past.

2) I am very open in my attitude to animation. When I look for an idea or concept I feel more like a journalist looking for a scoop. When I have an idea, which might provide an interesting experience for me, I want to put it into effect. But I actually do not have a clear vision of the films I should like to make. I keep it as a surprise, also and mainly for myself.

3) Computer technology is hardly an issue any more – there is no way today to produce a film without it. By now it has become a natural way of thinking. All we have to consider in all our productions is how to get as close as possible to our visual vision. And that always takes into account the endless possibilities offered by the computer.

4) Are there some trends in video art that could be considered positive? Once more, this question in fact hardly exists any longer. It is like asking whether Google is positive or not... It is now a part of our life and it offers endless possibilities. There is one good thing I can say about it - is that it makes making animation films far more a matter of intuition and that it is accessible. Eventually, it will be as intuitive as writing. What really matters is the talent of the author, his ability to arouse interest – and that is, as it has always been, the most difficult task.

5) Is ethic still a part of aesthetics? For me – very much so. I still believe that a good film, work of art etc., is about human truth. In that respect nothing has changed in art since its very beginning. Technology is very important, but human existence has not really been much affected by it; as long as we have the mysterious and mighty world of dreams, we shall also have the world of the arts with its intransigent aesthetic and ethical demands.

Priit Pärn, indubitably the most significant Estonian artist in animation films, is highly critical of the reality of the computer world, although both he and his wife Olga use computers. However, the roots of his films should be sought somewhere in the past, as is apparent in his film 1895, an original and ironic comment on the birth of the cinema.

1) I think that the trends in animation in the past 5 or 10 years have not been too good for short independent animation films.

Let me explain. Short live-action films are chiefly the work of film students or former film students – i.e. by beginners. With their films they want to demonstrate how good they are. Should they be recognized as good young film-makers, they might be given a chance to make a feature-length film. That is their goal.

For a long time short films were the classical format for animation. The short films were the final result, not a step on the road to feature-length films. I feel that the rules of live-action films are steadily invading the world of (European) animation. To be successful you have to be young and have behind you a powerful production system.

Animators from small countries – no matter whether young or not – are less and less able to participate in what is called the Big Game. Such organizations as Cartoon or the European Film Academy are very influential in European animation. In addition to their visible side these organizations have, so I believe, an invisible, obscure side.

Just read the rules of the Game called Cartoon d'Or – everything seems clear. But how come that a 4-minute student film MOUSE'S TALE was the BEST EUROPEAN ANIMATED FILM in 2008? How do you explain that of the 10 short films nominated for the European Film Academy Short Film Award 2009 there was only one animated film – SWIMMING LESSON by Danny de Vent from Belgium. The film was nominated by the festival in Gent (Belgium). Has anybody heard about this film's big success at other European festivals? How come that a film from a second-rate festival was sent straight away to the final competition?

I know this is not the place for such questions. So no more questions.

2) The last four years were rather intensive – with my wife Olga we made three films: I FEEL A LIFELONG BULLET..., LIFE WITHOUT GABRIELLA FERRI and DIVERS IN THE RAIN. In all one hour and ten minutes.

I FEEL A LIFELONG BULLET... was the first film I made without a classical animation drawing studio. I drew directly under the camera, charcoal on glass. It was a great experience and I hope to come back to this technique.

3) In LIFE WITHOUT GABRIELLA FERRI and DIVERS IN THE RAIN we used all the possibilities provided by the computer that we needed. Obviously, to create such visual images, would be impossible without a new technology – especially in GABRIELLA. And I cannot envisage post-production without computers.

4) Possibly some trends in video art could be seen as positive, but so far all the videos I have seen bored me.

Madi Piller is from Peru, but since 1998 she has been living in Toronto, where she is involved in the production of short experimenal films. Some of these films she makes herself. She is also president of TAIS (Toronto Animated Image Society). In Canadian animation she likes best Craig Welch. And, very important for the Czechs, among the three best film artists she includes Jan Švankmajer. As an example of her own work we could mention BRAVE BULL.

1) In the twenty-first century animation is diversifying. I can look at animation from different angles and envisage different applications, making it possible for the most diverse audiences to appreciate animation in its many nes manifestations.

Gone is the time when animation was most frequently described as meaning cartoons and kid staff or when animation served but one purpose – to demonstrate in a didactic manner the qualities of commercial products and services. At that time animation as appreciated only by viewers who watched animation in their living room thanks to a film projector or at a matinée in a movie theatre or somewhat later viewers could look at animation on “the box” with rabbit ears. That was the official, “visible” animation, another independent experimental form of animation was making its way from underground.

Last but not least, at the intersection with technological research. Animation artists developed exponential possibilities of weaving their art into our life. By no animation has crossed the frontier of laboratories and is flourishing all around us. Some form of animation is present in all aspects of everyday life.

2) Coming from a film-making background I incorporate some form of animation or another in my practice - being open-minded about using analogue and digital tools.

I genuinely believe in the intersection of art and technology.
I don't want to find out that I have erased a legacy of wisdom, while I can build on the knowledge of the past and look forward to new experimentation and to new discoveries.

3) Since the moment the Graphical User Interface first made is entry into society, computers have assumed control over humankind. We cannot live without them. Time cannot be turned back. We are in constant evolution, while research/creation/adaptation are opening the potential of humankind.

4-5) At first I asked myself – Have ethics always been a part of aesthetics? If that is the case then ethics go hand in hand with aesthetics – nowadays it would seem that what binds them is antagonism and intersection. Ethics and aesthetics are branching out to various subcultures in different societies. The social order has become very segmented and we cannot speak about only one type of relationship between ethics an aesthetics.

Science, technology and markets breed new ways of media consumption and these in turn affect behaviour of a given society and this brings forth new emotional values. Performances, fringe films, installations and video art are reviving the question of ethics in the aesthetics of art.

At LIAA Georges Schwizgebel showed some of his films in order to demonstrate the function of the screenplay. In his view LE SUJET DU TABLEAU is a film,which is based on its script, but the way it was made does not require a logical interpretation. This is, however, not true of the films L'ANNÉE DU DAIM or L'HOMME SANS OMBRE. 78 TOURS, LA COURSE À L'ABÎME and JEU are, just like the first of the films listed here, visually conceived in such a manner that the screenplay could quite naturally be further developed. In our “inquiry“ Schwizgebel provided only three very short answers.

I like, above all, short films, which use, whatever their technique, as a means of expression only movement, images and music... As far as I am concerned, I use primarily drawings. Perhaps I could call my work “animated painting“... Computer technology provides for a given concept great flexibility and endless possibilities. In my view, however, most synthetic images are, from a visual point of view, not really interesting. I should add that so far I not yet fully familiar with this new technology...

Quay Brothers provided only two answers – however, thanks to their concept and form they are perfect. Given the answers they have provided let us mention their film IN ABSENTIA. Moreover, both brothers began their statements with the word apropos, which always related to the given question. The first question was about their personal attitude to animation – the second one concerned computers. Apropos, the answers are short, but interesting.

Apropos our personal view: Animation will always be achieved no matter what conditions might surround it. One can always survive with only a pencil and a piece of paper. This appeals to us enormously as a disaster scenario.

Apropos the computer: We're not against it in principle. There are some astonishingly beautiful things being done and simultaneously there's a lot of nonsense also being perpetrated. However we're always on the side of the “individualist“. There is for sure the accepted norm and its more recently a host of feature length animation films and they are all clearly overwhelming and seductive and tantalizing and we recognise that instantly. However it's not where our sensibility lays. Somehow our hearts will always remain with those realms perpetrated by a Priit Pärn or an Igor Kovalyov even if they resort to some digital hyperbole. They have an “organic rawness“ that challenges us in the way that digital leaves us remote because it is created by a thousand different hands. With Igor and Priit and of course Jan (Švankmajer – editor's note) you know you're getting something quite close to the bone. This cannot be achieved by a thousand different hands on a mouse. But then to their credit you get something that will also gently abolish these gentlemen.

Finally, let us see how Otto Alder looks at these problems. He is primarily known as the curator of many world festivals; e.g. in Leipzig it was Otto Alder who imposed the participation of animated films, while in Switzerland he co-founded the festival Fantoche. He is also known as the author of many films (cf., especially documentaries, about animation and well-known animators.

Due to digitalization and the thrust of the “new”media (their globalization) the production of animation is exploding, almost like outer space. The result, as in other fields, is an enormously growing demand for new animation. The so-called information revolution is devouring its children. Everybody is set to provide new work and, if possible, do well out of it. Such feverish production only results in ever more superficial content. Ethical questions, e.g. about the production of computer games and the film industry, are being neglected, often totally disregarded in production – the only criterion are sales figures. Reflection and discourse are overlooked and this also limits a scientific interest in animation. (This is why I wanted to have LIAA as a place for reflection free of all economic pressures. This was far from easy – it is very hard to obtain finances for scientific research that does not promise any economic gains.) Economy simply controls the production of animated films. Ethical issues are no longer a part of aesthetics. Profits dominate our lives, consumption rules not only over fine arts, but also over animation. It is very likely that in the not too distant future animation as an art will no longer exist.

The same development is apparent in festivals too. There are hundreds of them but they all look exactly the same – their function is limited to letting premises, marketing etc.

Animation as an art will become very esoteric. Animation will only serve as entertainment, exploiting elements of surprise. It will gradually lose its social function – and as with the other arts only only the mainstream will remain.

1) This last question was inspired by a film-maker, who spent his childhood in Switzerland, later lived in Paris and was one of the founders of the French new wave. In 1978 he returned to Switzerland. Yes, of course, we have in mind Jean-Luc Godard.

2) In this case SWAMP stands for Switzerland Weeniest Animated Motion Pictures.