Feb 262010

Life has delayed this blog post, a response to my recent trip to Boston. Though the purpose of the trip was unrelated to animation and very related to my day job, I had the opportunity to: go to a Harvard animation exhibition; meet up with a friend who is a visiting artist at Harvard, and lead a small workshop for my friend’s Fundamentals of Animation class at Harvard. So all in all, a pretty great trip.

The exhibition was called ‘Frame by Frame: Animated at Harvard’, and ran a a very short two weeks.  Tucked away on the third floor of the Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center, the exhibition was divided into three themes: ‘Harvard Past’, ‘Harvard Present’ and ‘Harvard Future’.  ‘Harvard Past’ was the section most people came to see, myself included. It was a compilation of 8 shorts made at Harvard, by people who were students or instructors at the time.  Totalling 80 minutes it included Sand, or Peter and the Wolf by Caroline Leaf (1969), Flatland by Eric Martin (1965), and Clay, or The Origin of Species (1965) by Eli Noyes.

I watched the whole reel of films.  My favourite, of course, was Sand, or Peter and the Wolf, by Caroline Leaf.  I say ‘of course’ because I’ve admired Caroline Leaf’s works for years – she’s up there with Yuri Norstein as a big inspiration. And despite owning a copy of a BBC compilation of her works entitled Out on A Limb (desperately transferred from VHS to DVD for preservation purposes while at art school) I had, nonetheless, managed to avoid this one film of hers.   This was the first viewing.

For the uninitiated, Caroline Leaf is a pioneer of the modified base techniques of animation, using sand and paint specifically. She also worked with direct-on-film animation, scratching directly into the emulsion of film.  For sand, what she does is place some piles of fine sand onto a lightbox.  The camera is pointing downwards at it.  The sand, backlit, shows up as black, while the places devoid of sand are white. She shapes the sand, takes a picture, moves or alters the shape of the sand a little, takes another picture, etc.


This is a crazy interview with a guy who seems strangely sexist despite only saying a couple words to Caroline. But she gives a demonstration of her technique.

Sand, or Peter and the Wolf was a film she made as a student at Harvard in Derek Lamb‘s competitive animation class. It was much more abstract then her other well known sand piece, The Owl Who Married a Goose. There was little attempt to create a static environment around the figures.  The boy, the goose, the wolf were flitting from corner to corner of the blank screen.  A tree pops up and the wolf’s eyes appear as white dots, hunting the goose. Shapes morphed into each other playfully.  It was with some irony that I found out that Caroline Leaf had attended the opening of the exhibition a week previously and I had missed her.  My friend the visiting lecturer got to meet her, just a little bit after I met Yuri Norstein, which she was gutted to have missed.


Couldn’t find Peter and the Wolf for you, this is The Owl Who Married a Goose.

There was quite a cult animation happening at that time at Harvard.  The one paragraph summary on the back of the program explains: ‘Animation at Harvard was born in 1963, when Robert Gardner invited animators John and Faith Hubley to teach as part of the new film program at the newly-built Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.  They were the first in a long line of distinguished animators to teach and work at Harvard.  This exhibition seeks to shed light on one of Harvard’s best-kept secrets.’

But actually, some of the filmmakers represented in the ‘Harvard Past’ section were students at the time: Eli Noyes made Clay or the Origin of the Species (Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Subject) while a senior at Harvard in 1964. Flatland started out as an assignment from animator and instructor John Hubley to his class, which included Eric Martin, then a Junior Fellow, who ended up finishing the film in 1965. Frank Mouris was an undergrad at Harvard as an architectural sciences major, but returned to the school to help teach the animation class with Derek Lamb and later Eric Martin, and finish his Frank Film (which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject in 1974).  Suzan Pitt made Asparagus, a 20 minute surreal cut-out piece in 1979 as an instructor.  Steven Subotnik‘s film Glass Crow is the latest representation in the ‘Past’ section, finished in 2004 while teaching at Harvard. This one seemed to be animated using After Effects, but with hand-painted and then scanned artwork.  It wasn’t as out of place as you’d expect, the only on-traditional animation represented.  It still wasn’t my favourite, though.

‘Harvard Present’ was represented by student exercises peppered at the beginning of the show, and screens with reels of completed student shorts at which you could sit and put on headphones (the main projection of Harvard Past was right next door with sound).  One of the exercises was quite interesting, an animated life drawing: each student sketched a seated model from a slightly different perspective, the drawings were then photographed and played back at top speed: it looks like the model is turning in place, flickering in and out of different styles of charcoal.  A simple thing to do, really – most life drawing classes end up producing a series of drawings of a model from different perspectives around a circle anyway.  It’s a simple next step to photograph the drawings and play them back.

There were many student shorts: 23 shorts spread over 6 monitors, in lengths varying from 1min 20sec to 6mins 26secs.  I only had time to watch half of them and they were of varying quality, but mostly pretty solid.  It was nice to see that even though (I hear this from my source on the inside) animation is like the bastard child of the film department at Harvard (VES), the students were producing solid stuff (should I have expected more or less from Harvard?).

In the middle of that (smallish) room was a multi-layered animation stand on a podium containing some of the cut-outs used in one of the films.  It was a low podium, and a low stand, with only 3 or four layers of glass. The stand was built in such a way that if you pushed the glass panes a small bit, they would fall off their wooden struts, instead of being supported throughout, and unfortunately, while a big group of us was next door watching the main projection, *CRASH*.  woooops.  There were a lot of kids at the show, one of them had leaned forward, and one of the glass panes crashed into the one below.  Throughout the two hours I was there the glass crashed twice more.  Shame. I learned later that the stand had been repaired the night before after a similar incident.

All in all, I felt very lucky to catch this show.  Later in the week I felt even luckier when I was invited by my friend and animator Sarah Jane Lapp to give a small demonstration of my work at her Fundamentals of Animation class at Harvard, which happened to be the next day, and I happened to be available.  Keep in mind this was Boston in February, so I drugged through the white mass of falling snow to the Visual and Environmental Studies department in the Sever building on the Harvard campus.  The room really made me want to be a student again:  cupboards full of well organized art supplies: inks, glues, papers, brushes, scissors; tables covered in lightboxes and removable lightbulbs; a wall of computers and a pull down screen facing a projector; a smaller room with two animation stations: downshooters, cameras and computers.  None of this was brand new and glitzy looking – the room looked also like a well-used studio space, but it still made my mouth water.

The class arrived, only 5 students (it was a small class), and after a couple morning exercises my friend had planned, I screened for them my last film, A Moment’s Reverie, then gave a little demonstration at the table of how I plan and make the cut-outs for the films: drawing the template at the correct size, using that to trace the shape of the cut-outs, cutting those out of tissue and plastic.

We then moved into the little side room where my friend and her TA ran the students through a quick tutorial with Frame Thief (it was their first day of ‘real’ shooting) using sand animation to demonstrate.  I laid my cut-outs on the lightbox under the adjoining camera station and demonstrated animating the features on a cut-out with ink (see the little video in the ‘About Plain Face’ section of this site for a similar demonstration).

By the end of it the students were asking practical questions like ‘what would you do if you wanted to change the shape of the head?’ and ‘What frame rate would you shoot that at?’ so I think they were getting the picture.  I hope I showed them one way of doing things, though I did tell them that one of the greatest things about animation was that there were so MANY ways of doing it, by no means should they feel they have to do it like me or something else they’ve seen. They can find their own preferred way of doing it.

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