4: Digital Animation and Visual Culture (April 2021)

In this section I question the role of animation and my role as an image-maker within contemporary animation practice and visual culture more broadly. Contemporary animation is primarily digital, computer generated and increasingly a dominant form of global visual culture.

“…defeated the photographic and cinematographic image… (so that)
the era of reproduction seems to be over, more or less, and the era of
construction of new worlds…is already here.”

Harun Farocki, Tate Interview (2016)

All animations, digital or hand-made, include highly mediated and manipulated
imagery in the service of creating the illusion of movement. Special effects (SFX
or FX) is a special branch of this visual trickery that long predates the digital.
Mechanical and optical special effects have been used since the invention of
cinema itself with the use of props, scale models, multiple exposure and mattes.
However it is digital visual effects (VFX) and computer generated imagery (CGI)
that have come to dominate the field of special effects and make up a large part
of contemporary visual production: film, videos, games, advertising and the like.
You will not be expected to produce CGI or VFX for this unit, although you are
encouraged to try if this is within your capacity and interest. You will be expected
to develop insight into this field, its production, context and purpose. Asking why
things look the way they do will help you make informed choices about the
animation techniques you go on to use. In so doing, you will question the
difference between hand-made and digital animation and the rationale for each
of these approaches. You will be asked to consider the historical development of
visual techniques that have transformed moving image culture: compositing,
morphing, frame rates and resolution.

Lastly you will be encouraged to research the work of a selection of
contemporary fine artists who use their work to interrogate moving image
culture and digital technology. Some of these artists use mass media and visual
culture as their subject matter, others use commercially developed techniques to
further their formal investigations. Whatever their choice of approach, almost all
of these artists are driven by the sense that something is missing in
contemporary visual culture and that by filling the world with images we are
attempting to hide, erase or obscure something.

Motion Capture

In the 1880s, Etienne-Jules Marey attempted to record pure movement. He
invented a ‘geometric chronophotographic’ system to isolate graphic
representations of movement that were discrete from the original subject. In one
example (pictured above) he attached a multiple cross section of white sticks to
his subject’s back and photographed the subject walking. The subject was
dressed completely in black and placed before a black background. In the
resulting images the person would ‘disappear’ leaving only the denoting white
lines. These lines were then composited onto a single photographic plate, which
Marey took to represent ‘pure movement’.
Current motion- capture software and technology uses essentially the same
approach either magnetic or optically based. Both systems rely on placing points
on an actor or subject, then reading the motion by a series of sensors or
cameras. This technology was used in James Cameron’s animated feature film
Avatar (2009).

Other types of motion capture (mocap systems) ‘directly measure joint angles of
rods and potentiometers’ which provide a recording of movement abstracted
from the original form. A similar process referred to as video-based motion
capture, allows one to extract pure movement information from already existing
film or video footage. Motion capturing has found its way into everyday
appliances from video games systems to mobile devices. Each of these motion
capture systems represents a significant shift in the recording of ‘pure motion’
and an effective method by which to consider movement abstracted from form

Project 1: Tricks and Fakes

Digital and Analogue

Analogue (from the Greek ana-logos meaning “proportion” or “ratio”). The
continuous physical relationship between the original message and its
reproduction. Speech and writing are represented by print in a book; light
bounces off an object and is focused by a camera lens, changing the colours of
chemicals on film. These are one-to-one correspondences between a signal and
its translation into a physical medium.

Digital (from the Latin digitus -finger or toe) implies the medium of binary digits
(bits) that computers use to process information. Two states, ‘On’ and ‘Off’ are
represented by 0 and 1 to code all types of digital information. Digital is not a
continuous stream, as with analogue signals but a set of information.

So far, in this unit, you will have used digital technology such as computer
editing, compositing and digital photography, but you have done so with a
primarily analogue purpose. That is to say, with the purpose of preserving a
one-to-one relationship between what is photographed, scanned or drawn, and
what appears on screen. Most of the animation artists we have considered thus far have also used a purely analogue medium, or an analogue medium with
assistance from digital technology.

Allan Warburton argues that in mainstream media, as in art production,
analogue practice is often fetishized, with the traditional idea of craft being
amplified into spectacle. Tonya Jameson explains that:
“Creating something with our hands gives us a false sense of control
at a time when we have little”
And Fiona Hackney writes that the popularity of craft in media production
“may be read as a means of addressing the problems and anxieties
surrounding the acceleration of modern life (unemployment, the strain
of new work processes and their effects on physical and mental life)”

You should come to your own decision as to the relative meanings of digital and
hand-made animation, but it is clear that Drawn Animation, Claymation and
Stop-motion can no longer mean what they did in the days of Morph and Bertie
the Dinosaur . These old ways of making now stand in relation to the dominant,
digital forms of animating and must be defined, in part, by this relation.
“This is a file, which was unintentionally downloaded from my brain,
14355 days after my birth, around twenty minutes past four in the
afternoon, and was forgotten to delete.”
Alex Heim on 14355_16_23_05.rts (2015) Vimeo

Research 4.1 : Analogue and digital

The history of digital compositing

Compositing is a digital process where two or more image sequences are
combined in order to build a single scene out of multiple layers. A common
simple form of compositing is the addition of titles to a video. In order to create
layers of video, the editing software needs to be instructed as to which parts of
which images should be seen and which parts.

The history of visual trickery within cinema is as old as cinema itself. The very
first motion pictures were essentially, special effects themselves. The
Compositing Matte special effect was the first used by George Melies in his 1898
film Un Homme de Têtes. Multiple exposures were used to combine more than
one frame together: by blacking out part of the frame using blocks of painted
glass and placing these blocks where the heads would later be positioned and
re-filmed, he then rewound the film and this time painted a black matte on
everything else in the frame, exposing only the part of the frame that had initially
been kept unexposed by the squares of black glass. This resulting double
exposure allowed for two or more images to co-exist within a single frame (a
composite frame). This ‘in camera’ special matte effect was used in many popular
films that followed such as The Great Train Robbery (1903) amongst others.
Techniques for superimposing images onto a shot developed quickly in the early
1900s. Innovations such as the ‘glass shot’ were a form of ‘real world
compositing’. An augmented set was overlaid by painting scenery onto glass in
front of the camera (pictured below). This technique was later replaced by the
matte effect: glass in the frame was painted black so that detailed scenery could
be added later and superimposed over these black/non-exposed parts of the
film. The difficulty with this technique was that for the illusion to work, each shot
needed to be static and no action could pass the line of the painted silhouette.
This was the case until the ‘travelling matte’ was developed. First seen in F.W
Murnau’s film Sunrise (1927). The actors were shot against an entirely black
background and their silhouettes were then superimposed onto a scene. This
technique was later used to spectacular effect in the film The Invisible Man (1933).
The actor wore a black velvet suit and was filmed against a black background.
Later the same footage was exposed by filming the set and other characters to
create the effect of a partially ‘invisible man’.

Travel matte technology became a field of intense experimentation and
competition with the use of different lights and ways of separating or ‘keying’
subjects from their background for superimposition into a different scene. The
use of coloured lights to separate subjects from their background was first used
in the film King Kong (1933) and later in The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Once digital video started to replace celluloid, the separation of signals and
colours took on a mathematical approach– colours were interpreted and ‘keyed’
so that certain colour signals were interpreted by the computer to be
transparent. Television news programmes used this technique to display
weather graphics behind presenters. The technique became known as ‘green
screening’ due to the green coloured screen that was most commonly used as
the backdrop, however blue and other colours continue to be used as well.
Green is most often chosen over blue because it was a less common colour in
costumes, it can be used outdoors (against a blue sky) ,and because digital
cameras are by design more sensitive to green light. This technique, pictured
below, is the primary way in which live action and animation are combined in
cinema, advertising and gaming.

Research 4.2: Compositing

E4.1: Compositing I

E4.2 Compositing II

A brief history of Morphing

In Part One of this course unit you learned that the ability to visually ‘morph’
from one shape to another is unique to animation (metamorphosis and plasticity
being animation’s key strengths as a medium). Hand-drawn animations as early
as Emil Cohl’s 1908 Fantasmagoire explored fluid changes and elastic
transformations of shape and form. Following Cohl’s lead, animators have
subsequently explored the use of sand, clay and other physical media to twist,
transform and explore the abilities of animated metamorphosis. Early cinema
and live action film made use of make-up effects, cross dissolving and cutting (a
technique borrowed from replacement animation) in order to trick audiences
into believing that one thing was changing into another.
In the 90’s, computer graphic morphing was developed and although it looks
dated now, in its day it was a definitive graphic effect that defined the 90’s visual
style. Objects and subjects were transformed into each other through fluid,
surreal combinations cross-dissolved, warped images.This technique was
developed by animation artist Peter Foldes who used computer imaging to
transform line drawings into other line drawings. Foldes was the first to use
computer interpolation to transform images to shift, grow, or shrink as one
image became the next. Morphing was used in television commercials and films

such as Star Trek , Terminator 2 and Michael Jackson’s music video Black or White .
Morphing worked by finding the mid-way point between two shapes, for
example, a bird and gorilla. These distorted shapes (mid-way points) would then
be cross-dissolved. Cross dissolving involves the shifting of pixel colors of one
image to the corresponding pixels of the second image. In order for the morph
to be convincing, however, animators needed to make alterations to this dissolve
so that it took place between internal features of each creature or thing (an eye
morphing into the corresponding eye, for example, rather than merely into its
corresponding pixel on the plane). Computer generated imagery (CGI) has
further developed into seamless distortion and metamorphosis of forms using
much more highly developed computer processes. Now ubiquitous, this
seemingly effortless shape-shifting between animate and inanimate happens all
around us:
“…gravity disappears and laws of nature collapse, flesh and metal flow
like water.”
Norman Klein, ‘Animation & Animorphs ’ (2000)
Philosophers on morphing and the plasticity of early animation
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued the shape shifting of cartoon
animation, along with slapstick comedy films, had once offered genuine
resistance against rationalism and systems of control but these had been turned
into ‘ideological instruments of mass deception’. Mickey Mouse , Donald Duck and
Betty Boop represented, in their view, the:
“dystopian habituation of the masses to their oppression.”
Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)
Walter Benjamin and Film-maker Sergei Eisenstein saw the popular animation
industry as less of a ‘mass deception’ and more of a ‘sticking plaster’. Benjamin
wrote that he saw a ‘utopian potential’ in Mickey Mouse’s global appeal and
reach. In a draft of his famous 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction , Mickey Mouse appeared as a figure of ‘the collective dream’ that
navigated the audience to a shared ‘dream world’, in which they engaged in the
therapeutic act of ‘collective laughter’. This collective laughter provided by the
mass cultural product of Disney animation prompted ‘a therapeutic release of
unconscious energies’ and in so doing prevented the future ‘outbreak of mass
psychosis’.

Also, in his 1933 essay, Experience and Poverty , Benjamin argued that Disney’s
animation films offer a compensatory dream to those who were exhausted by
the new barbarism of modern industrial life. Mickey Mouse was an embodiment
of this compensatory dream to…
“…people who have grown weary of the endless complications of
everyday living,”
as well as the technologically generated experience of shock. With its
technologically enhanced optical effects cinema was particularly suited to
translate…
“…the individual perceptions of the psychotic or the dreamer’ into the
‘collective perception…’”
…that the audience shared through their collective viewing of films at the
theatre.
Film-maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein agreed with Benjamin. He argued that
Disney’s films were a revolt against:
“partitioning and legislating, against spiritual stagnation and greyness.”
But, like Benjamin, he saw this revolt to be:
“lyrical, a daydream. Fruitless and lacking consequences.”
For Eisenstein, Disney animation offered:
“an alternative world in which the social system of rigidity is fiercely
contested and temporarily suspended.”
He wrote that those who suffer under the Capitalist system of regimentation will
desire ‘ plasmaticness ’ – a desire that is actualized by the malleable and protean
quality of animated images on screen: animated figures that stretch, squash, and
metamorphose:
“Fish and birds have the stretch and shrink, mocking at their own
form.”

Research 4.2: Morphing: analogue and digital

The drive towards more reality: frame-rates revisited

“Frame rate is the engine behind the cinematic lie.”
Alice O’Connor
In the first part of this course you learned about frame rates for animation: the
amount of time each film frame remains on screen before being replaced by the
following image needs to be high enough to create the illusion of movement. The
human brain can perceive between 10 and 12 individual frames every second.
Anything faster than this makes our brains blend the frames together into an
illusion of movement. This is the basis of animation and is called the ‘Phi
Phenomenon’. The technology available today for cameras and playback allow
for very high frame rates and there has been a trend in recent films (3D, CGI) to
shoot and play back on frame rates much higher than those needed for the
illusion of movement and those used in conventional cinema.

History of frame rates
In the early days of cinema, silent film frame rates varied widely. Cameras and
projectors were often hand-cranked. Film strips were projected with a black
shutter between each frame and in order for this black flicker of the screen
(going dark every second frame) to be undetectable to audiences, each frame
was flashed more than once (effectively played back as twos or threes). Once
sound was introduced, a more stable frame rate was required and the
established rate became 24 frames per second (that is, each of the 12 frames
needed for the Phi Phenomenon displayed twice, on twos). This set frame rate
came to dominate the way all cinema and moving image looked, and still mostly
does.
When electronic frame rates came into being with television, problems with
flicker and bandwidth were resolved by ‘interlacing’ frames in a comb-like
fashion. Each frame would be refreshed at a rate set to the electrical alternating
current (AC) of the country. 25fps (PAL) for countries operating on 50 hz AC –
Africa, Europe, most of Asia and 30fps for countries operating on 60 hz AC (NTSC)

The Americas and Japan.
With the introduction of digital media there were less structural reasons to limit
what frame rates could be. Filmmakers have tried to push the ‘temporal
resolution’ to increase ‘realism’ and decrease motion blur. Tests done on high
frame rates such as 60fps were interpreted to produce stronger emotional
responses in test audiences and frames as high as 120 fps have been developed (4K) and used in video games and sports broadcasts. Peter Jackson’s CGI
animated and live action hybrid blockbuster The Hobbit (2012) was screened at
48 fps (frames per second), twice that of normal 24 fps speed. Jackson argued
that this high frame rate made for a clearer, more ‘real’ film.
It’s a moot point amongst audiences and critics what ‘more real’ means,
particularly in the context of CGI. Audience members of The Hobbit complained of
headaches and others complained that the ‘high realism’ of the film gave it the
look of a ‘made for TV movie’. It is arguable that the incursion of animated CGI
into almost every aspect of commercial narrative film and moving image is
beginning to deconstruct the nature of cinema; drawing cinema away from its
historically close relationship with literature and pulling it towards the world of
computer games both in visual content and structural make up. Most moving
image and cinema are still recorded for playback at 24 fps; a cadence that
remains for the time being, something that audiences are more comfortable
with.

Project 2:
Animation and Visual Culture

The drive of mass media culture towards greater fidelity, driven by technological
innovation over the past decade, has substantially altered our perception of the
world. Media content is produced faster and faster. Key figures or icons are
increasingly altered, transformed or even erased through digital manipulation.

Artists have generally approached this phenomenon in one of two ways: firstly,
by making use of the products of mass media, reusing and manipulating them
and secondly by using the tools of mass media to generate artwork. This project
is composed of a series of exercises and research tasks designed to introduce
you to several artists working with animation. It is a step-up in what it asks of you
in terms of working independently and directing your own research. Assignment
four asks you to draw on this research to develop your own animated video
essay. This is a chance to demonstrate your knowledge and ability both in
communicating using animated and video content as well as a chance to develop
your own particular visual and stylistic approach.

Fair Use, Copyright, Creative Commons and Public Domain

This project will require you to do research and to build your own catalogue of
source material that you can use to construct animated video essays. Increasing
numbers of artists work with found material, predominantly from the internet
but from other sources too (scans of books, photographs and film). When using
found imagery in your own work there are moral and legal issues to consider.
The two most important rules are:

  1. Credit your sources and never pass off someone’s work as if it is your own.
  2. Ask permission to use content where possible.
    It is essential to credit any sources that you use. This can be done in the end
    credits of your piece, but is preferably done as an overlay of text on the screen as
    the quoted video appears.

Allan Warburton’s two video lectures are a good example of this. They are also a
useful introduction to the context in which animation artists are working today:
● Alan Warburton, Spectacle, Speculation, Spam (2016) :
http://alanwarburton.co.uk/spectacle-speculation-spam/
● Alan Warburton, Goodbye Uncanny Valley (2017):
http://alanwarburton.co.uk/goodbye-uncanny-valley/
Another option is to use material freely but to restrict the viewership of your
work. As your purpose in this unit is purely educational you can make works
available online with password protection. Whenever in doubt, use a password
to restrict access to your work that includes sourced content so that only your
tutor and fellow students can view it. Vimeo has a guide on how to do this:
https://help.vimeo.com/hc/en-us/articles/224817847-Privacy-settings-overview
If you think about copyright as a series of restrictions, fair use is a set of
exceptions. Fair use is a fundamental part of the copyright bargain. Copyright
does not give owners unlimited control over their content. Fair use is a set of
factors and considerations that determine which things can be done without the
permission of the copyright holder. A search engine such as Google allows you to
search for images particularly labelled for non-commercial reuse with
modification. Remember to double-check the usage rights on any image or series
of images that you use.

Image quality

“The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution
substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image,
a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed
for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed,
reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other
channels of distribution.
Obviously, a high-resolution image looks more brilliant and impressive,
more mimetic and magic, more scary and seductive than a poor one. It
is more rich, so to speak.”
Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image (2009)

Compression

Compression or data compression is a digital process in which image or moving
image information is reduced to make file sizes more manageable. Compression
reduces file size by eliminating unused digital elements (lossless) or reducing less
important information (lossy), such as subtle tones. Too much lossy compression
can negatively affect image quality.

Absence and digital representation

“I don’t really know how to make work that doesn’t first deal with loss,
or speak of loss. Because I guess I felt that loss, or insufficiency, or
inability and failure and negation generally are the absolute bedrock of
making things. Which sounds perverse because obviously you are
generating something; you are creating something out of nothing. But
actually…Representation, I feel like it is defined by an absence.”
Ed Atkins, Ed Atkins interview: Something is Missing (2017) Louisiana Channel.
“ Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen is narrated by the failed CGI rendering
of a recently deceased actor, PHIL, and follows a group of digital
beings—render ghosts, spam bots, holograms—as they search for
meaning. Multiple storylines and materials collapse and converge to
raise questions about what it means to be materially conscious today
and the rights of the personal data we release.”
Cecile B Evans, Hyperlinks or it Didn’t Happen (2014) Vdrome.org.

Research 4.6: Something is missing

Erasure/Re-focus

“No detail is too subtle, no film too arthouse, to escape digital
tinkering… So, much of CGI is about what you are not seeing, rather
than what you are…legend has it that one poor animator on the movie
Babe spent months painstakingly removing every frame of the title
character’s anus.”
Anna Smith, Supermans Tache and Armie Hammers crotch, ‘Is movie CGI getting out of
hand? ’ (2017) The Guardian
Artist Paul Pfeiffer repurposes this ‘digital tinkering’ and puts the animated
technique of erasure to the purpose of refocusing the attention of his audience.
In The Long Count: Thrilla Manila (2000-2001), Pfeiffer used film images of
Muhammad Ali’s title fights against Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe
Frazier. He reduced the film frames to single photographs and then reassembled
them into new films by digitally removing the fighters from the scene so that only
audience and the boxing ring remained. What remains is ghostly, schematic
flitting about the ring; the boxers are not seen, just an uncanny shadow as if the
boxers have suddenly become invisible. What becomes visible when the fighters
are removed is another form of violence that is otherwise less evident: the faces
of the – mostly white – viewers who are watching the black boxers.
“As always in Paul Pfeiffer’s work, the erasure of the protagonists in
the Long Count leads directly to the traumatic backrooms of the
American Dream .”

Research 4.10: social media

E4.5: Emergent effects

Assignment 4:
Animated Video Essay