“I am interested in how the materiality of an image can support itsCatherine Anyango Grünewald, Live, Moments Ago (The Death of Mike Brown) (n.d)
meaning, the tearing or disintegration of paper and marks alluding to
the criminal and emotional disruption of public space. The police
violence in America is happening almost too fast to comprehend and
almost certainly too fast to document. In a series that started with the
death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, I have been documenting the last
image in the victims of police shootings lives. In this film the drawn
footage is worked and reworked until the figures merge with the
landscape and the paper is destroyed. There is a sense of burning,
referencing lynching and also foreshadowing the subsequent riots.”
This section looks at work which attempts to follow the footsteps of the Lumière Brothers in using animation to observe and respond to the world through both the showing of actuality within animation and the presentation of the underlying process of
It looks at artists and experimental animators who have focused on the quality of animation existing in time and place. Artists concerned with making animation that is self-aware, exploring ways in which an audience’s perception of time can be manipulated and ways in which animation can relate and respond directly to the context in which it is made. In most cases, the purpose of these animation artists has been to establish an ethical dimension to the making of animation beyond entertainment and spectacle.
“When we look at something and see the particular shape of it we are
only looking at it’s after-life. It’s real life is in the movement by which it
got to be that shape.”
Len Lye, Figures of Motion: Selected Writings (1985) OUP Australia and New Zealand
This project focuses on animation artists who use the process of animation not
as a means of exposition, but as a means of discovery. Qualities of time,
material, light and place can be explored through the making of the animation.
The resulting animation thereby becomes a document of the process and the
viewer is presented with a revelatory record of its own becoming.
In the above quote Len Lye points out that if all things are indeed foregrounded
by and composed of movement and change, then all things contain clues and
traces of this movement. An animator is well placed to observe these clues and
traces at close hand because such small repetitions and granular variations are
required for animated movement to succeed. An animator, or at the very least a
stop-frame animator, is a specialist in the close reading of incremental change.
An important and recurring characteristic of the animation process is that it can
take an unbalanced amount of time to create, compared to the length of time
taken to view it. There are different kinds of time at work in all moving image.
There is ‘narrative time’ (the amount of time that is spanned within the story or
piece), there is ‘discourse’ or ‘viewing time’ (the amount of time it takes to
experience a story through reading or watching it unfold) and there is
‘production time’ (the time it took to produce the piece).
The latter, ‘production time’ is hidden from the audience in most animations,
however there are various ways in which the production time can become a core
element of the animation itself: changes in light, wear and tear, energy,
accumulation or even the animator herself being visible. There is an extensive range of inventive techniques that artist animators have devised in order to draw
an audience’s attention to production time. These inventive techniques are often
appropriated by advertisers, stripped for parts and put to commercial use in
advertising campaigns and promotional videos (a carnivorous aspect of visual
culture that we will look at in more detail in Part 4 of this course).
When included in the frame of an animation, natural light highlights the
difference between production time and viewing time. This is most often seen
through the flicker in time-lapse video. Unlike time-lapse video, animation is not
constrained by strictly set intervals of time between shots. The duration between
each shot can be manipulated so that time can be seen to slow down or speed
up. Using basic principles of animation, shadows can be made to hesitate or
race, reflections made to boil or linger.
A brief historical background: labour and the ‘process document’
In the early 1900s, with the acceleration of the factory system and the
establishment of the production-line in manufacturing, a system known as
‘Taylorism’ arose, espousing principles of ‘scientific management’ to guide more
efficient work practices.
Key proponents of this system were photographers, Lillian and Frank Gilbreth.
The Gilbreths invented a technique that they claimed could measure the
efficiency of a labourer and manifest this visually as an image. They merged
time-lapse photography with industrial psychology in a quest to eradicate
wasteful or unnecessary human movements within the factory. By connecting
small lamps to the body parts of workers, they measured each worker’s
movements through the use of long exposure photography whilst they worked.
These long exposures, with their illuminated lines tracing out gestures, were then
compared to that of other workers in an attempt to identify what they called
‘paths of least waste’. The findings of this quasi-science were then presented to
the factory owner, often in the form of a wire sculpture inspired by the
photographs to indicate the ways in which the worker’s every move could be
better controlled. There is no indication that the work of the Gilbreths had any
bearing on the efficiency of the factories they were commissioned to study,
however they did unwittingly make clear a key development behind the
industrial factory system, namely the dehumanising aspect of this kind of work.
In the photographs the human beings are literally erased and only the residue of
their act of labour remains.
Visible Animators: Material Accumulation, Erosion and Trace
Animation is generally a hidden and anonymous art. Great care is normally taken
to avoid distracting from the continuity of the movement. In stop-frame, shots
including the shadow of the animator are deleted and re-shot. In Claymation the
animator’s thumbprints are smoothed over, in cel animation any idiosyncrasies
and smudges are discarded and re-drawn. Behind the software-driven
commercial animation lie vast rooms lined with animators at their computer
When the audience notices the presence of the animator through, for example,
the tactile fact of a drawing on paper, this is a distancing effect, much like
noticing the strings of a puppet. It highlights the craft of the animator, not unlike
the use of ‘gesture’ in painting. Furthermore, the viewer is made aware of the
animator through production time; the build-up of layers of a substance or
through the life and durability of the material itself.
Animator William Kentridge animates with charcoal on paper, leaving traces of
each drawing behind as the movement progresses. These traces lend a depth to
the image as well as the time of the animation. They also serve a narrative
purpose. Kentridge’s early animations were copied from early Soviet films, placed
in the Apartheid, South African context. Apartheid was a system predicated on
the exploitation of black South African labour in the interests of white South
African society. Kentridge uses his animation to express his feelings of guilt for
being a white male with inherited wealth and status as well as his personal
fantasies of acceptance and forgiveness. The layered shadows of previous
drawings that haunt his animations are ghostly reminders of the time that each
drawing took to make. Animation here serves as a kind of penance.
Catherine Anyango-Grünewald, uses a similar technique to Kentridge. She draws
repeatedly on the same sheet of paper, but instead of using the residue of a
material, she focuses on the durability of the surface that she is drawing on. The
disintegration of paper beneath her aggressive drawings expresses her personal
frustration and anger at police brutality and echoes the imbalance of power of
Both Anyango-Grünewald and Kentridge make use of an animation technique
known as ‘rotoscoping’. This is the process of frame-by-frame tracing of recorded
movements of actual humans or events. The technique was developed in 1915
by animator Max Fleisher who used this technique as a way to create a
seemingly more ‘realistic’ (or photorealistic) style of movement. As noted already,
Disney Studios used this technique and developed other ways of enhancing
‘realism’ in animation through the mimicry of live action. This trend for animation
studios to rely on observation and the frame by frame redrawing of live action
film was part of a tendency and push away from abstraction and the creative
possibilities of animation.
Rotoscoping is frequently used by animators, either by projecting a video played
back frame by frame onto a surface or by tracing over a back-projected screen.
There are many make-shift ways in which this can be done using your laptop
screen and tracing paper or a tablet and a glass table, for example.
There are many pitfalls to the technique of rotoscoping. The diligent tracing of
existing ‘real world’ movements does not allow for the true potential of
animation – its inventive and creative ability to ‘squash and stretch’ forms,
anticipate movement and distort reality, exaggerating its vitality. The ability to
imagine new possible visual and temporal worlds can be very much inhibited by
the use of rotoscoping. In many cases, the use of rotoscoping is not a considered
choice and as a viewer one feels the need to ask, ‘why not use the original
footage?’. A further difficulty arising from the use of rotoscopy is the effect it can
have on the use of line. ‘Real world’ actors and objects do not have an outline
and the mistake in translation is common with those not well versed in the
practice of drawing. The result is often of a piece of animation that is clearly
traced in a way that detracts from the original footage, rather than adding to it,
with the use of lines that are either too flaccid or too stiff.
There are several ways in which filmed or live media can be used as a reference
point for the creation of digital animated movement: motion capture,
interpolated rotoscoping, mattes and frame by frame rotoscoping.
This technique makes use of live actors. The signals of their movement is
interpreted by a computer – a technique that was discussed in Part 2 of this unit.
The use of mattes in video compositing is similar to the approach of motion
capture except that it uses two dimensional sources rather than three
dimensional live action as is source. ‘Compositing’ is the digital process of
bringing two or more image sequences together in the same time period (much
like digital collage or layering). A matte (sometimes called a ‘mask’) is what tells
the computer which parts of the image sequence to include or leave out, in much
the same way as a stencil or cut out shape would work in analogue
By tracing an object, the artist creates a silhouette (called a matte) that can be
used to extract that object’s shape from a scene for use on a different
background. Green screen technology has made this process of layering subjects
in scenes easier but digital rotoscoping still plays a large role in the production of
visual effects and animation. Rotoscoping in the digital domain is often aided by
motion tracking and onion skinning software. Rotoscoping is often used in the
preparation of ‘garbage mattes’ for other ‘matte-pulling’ processes. (You’ll
explore the basic use of mattes in the exercise below).
One classic use of traditional rotoscoping was in the original Star War movies,
where it was used to create the glowing light saber effect, by creating a matte
based on sticks held by the actors. To achieve this, effects technicians traced a
line over each frame with the prop (stick), then enlarged each line and added the
This technique is the digital equivalent to the pose-to-pose approach that you
explored in Part 2 of this unit. The animator sets a particular style, line weight
and colour. They then link key drawings to anchor points in the source footage.
The computer then ‘interpolates’ all the in-between movements according to the
action on screen. The first software to do this, ‘Rotoshop Software’, was
developed by computer scientist Bob Sabiston in the 90’s which he used to make
his film “ Snack and Drink ”. Subsequently this software was used by director
Richard Linklater for the production of his feature films Waking Life (2001) and
Scanner Darkly (2006).
Digital Frame By Frame Rotoscoping
This technique has much the same effect as interpolated rotoscoping, but
requires a lot more work as the in-betweens are made by hand, rather than
worked out (interpolated) using computer software. Lizzie Hobbes’ animation,
Finding My Way is a creative example of this technique. Each frame of the video
footage was painted over, one by one. This technique can be achieved by
working directly within a software programme such as Adobe Animate or After
Effects or done by hand, as is the case with Hobbes’ animation, where every
frame was printed out and manipulated before being rescanned and played in
It is a source of fierce academic debate whether terms such as ‘animated’ and
‘documentary’ can be joined together in any meaningful way. The word
animation refers to ‘highly mediated and manipulated imagery’ and the word
documentary suggests a ‘story based on facts’. In the unit Fact and Fiction the
proposition was made that the boundaries between narrative film and
documentary film are somewhat blurred. In that unit we explored questions
including ‘what, or whose, reality is being referred to, or constructed in a
documentary?’. It seems misguided, therefore to believe that documentary
somehow ‘captures’ reality. Perhaps, if documentaries are understood as
offering analyses of reality, ones that are often highly personalized and
constructed, then the seeming contradiction between ‘animated’ and
‘documentary’ is not as obvious as it first appears.
In making any kind of moving image, place is important in how locations and
chosen and depicted, and through this, ideas of places can be constructed. This
concern has been taken up by so called ‘landscape animators’, a growing trend of
large-scale animation that is set in the landscape, cityscape or within the built
environment, inspired by landscape artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Christo
and Robert Smithson. These artists normally work with found objects to create
site-specific animations, influenced by the location and the natural materials
found on the site. The large-scale nature of this work entails the inclusion of the
duality of animation and environmental time.
The word indexical refers to the existential bond between copy and reality. It is
the phenomenon of a sign pointing to (or indexing) some object in the context in
which it occurs. It has been defined in terms of the camera producing a
“footprint” of the ‘profilmic event’ (reality). Whatever is placed before the camera
is recorded and through a chemical process of registering light produces the
The question that plagues the animated documentary debate is: how far can this
indexicality be pushed? For example, Broomberg and Chanarin’s animated video
Bureaucracy of Angels (2017), seen earlier in this unit, is narrated by the hydraulic
jaws of the digger that was used to destroy migrant boats that had arrived in
Porto Pozallo, Sicily carrying refugees from North Africa.
The artists filmed the rescue missions by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station
(MOAS) foundation off the coast of Libya as well as the destruction of the boats
left to decay once the migrant journeys have been made, in a vast shipping
graveyard in Porto Pozallo. The film is narrated by the hydraulic jaws of the
digger charged with the job of destroying these boats, tearing them apart into
their constituent parts of timber and metal, a process that took forty days to
complete. The digger appears in the narrow corridors of the boat yard, on the
open sea and in the midst of a rescue operation off the coast of Libya, as a
Cantastoria or ‘singing storyteller’, recounting the Sicilian ballad Terra ca nun
senti. The song speaks of the fear and pain associated with immigration to and
from Europe’s most southerly territory over the last 150 years. The commission
was shown within King’s Cross St. Pancras station in a location close to the exit of
the Eurostar, a passageway between the UK and greater Europe, embedding the
work within the station and enabling it to be shown to a transient audience.
In order for the film to be powerful, it seems important that the digital
reconstruction of the digger is meticulously accurate and that the boat yard and
rescue operation in the film uses documentary footage rather than constructed
on a film set. The ‘footprint’ of the camera or digital image becomes more
complicated and seems to gain more power as it plays with our knowing disbelief
(that the jaws of a digger can sing) and our belief in the reality of the scene
(rendered visually seamless using 3D animation software, lighting and editing).