Research 1.1: Observing ‘Boil’

‘Boil’ is the term used to describe an animated effect in which the outlines or surface of an otherwise still character or object are made to wiggle or quiver in drawn animation. Even when an object, character or scene is at rest it is not still or motionless, it ‘boils’.This is often achieved by the looping together of several tracings of the same image (usually between 3 to 8 drawings). Boiling movement – in combination with unlooped variation in drawings as figures move – is used to sustain the illusion of movement in the animation overall and provide the impression of life or liveliness.

In traditional animation (like Winsor McKay’s Gertie below) boiling is almost inevitable because of the nature of the analogue drawing and/or filming process. In old film there has been some degradation in the film chemicals that make us aware that this is an ‘old’ film, evoking a sense of nostalgia. In drawings there are always variations in thickness, tone and colour of drawn lines and colouring in some media. These variations can be emphasised or exaggerated eg in the textboards and specific parts of the dinosaur drawings below to direct the eye.

In contemporary animation like Peter Millard and John Hodgson where technology gives greater control over production and editing there is often very conscious use of boil to direct the eye in ways that reinforce the narrative, and for emotional effect. Sometimes this is ‘boil’ in the sense if looped animation, other times it is variation in drawings as frames are drawn and/or painted. It is often quite difficult to separate the effects of the two or make out what is due to drawing, and what is achieved through processing with filters in digital software. Often there is a combination of all three types of flickering in an animation.

The eye would be drawn to very still objects if everything else is moving. So in Millard even the blank background at the beginning boils to maintain interest and give a sense of anticipation. Probably the only true looped boil. The apparent boiling in the thin pencil drawing of the face is probably not always looped. But the effect of the continuous small variations as it moves across the screen makes us try to constantly see and interpret emotions in every slight variation in shape and size of outline, eyes and mouth. But as there are several sources of movement happening we cant quite grasp it, emphasising the feeling of powerlessness and transcience in the title.

In ‘Dogs’ Hodgson varies the type and extent of boil significantly in his expressive drawing to create feelings of nervous anticipation, energy or chaotic movement and lack of control. But for moving objects central to the narrative, boiling in outlines is reduced with more subtle variations in colour shading and crosshatching to create atmosphere without detracting from our understanding nuances of narrative and expression.

Questions about boil:

  • What ‘boil’ technique is used? Why do the lines move and what elements, if any are allowed to be still?
  • Does the pace of the boil emanate throughout?
  • What emotional or narrative purpose does the use of boiling serve? Does it make for a more lifelike effect or is the boil deployed humorously?

Peter Millard, Since the Better (2015)

This animation starts with a blank screen that shimmers with slight variations in white/cream while a shrill cild/female/robot/alien? distorted voice sings a vaguely familiar melody. This creates tension and anticipation waiting for something to happen. Then the voice suddenly changes to the more familiar deep male opera voice as the childlike simple pencil drawing of a man’s face moves slowly at the same speed and horizontal position across the screen. This drawing ‘boils’ with slight apparently random changes in the drawing as a whole – size and shape of the face circle, eyes and pupils and length of the line of the mouth. This creates a real poignancy of sameness, thinness of the line and blank expression in contrast to the heavy emotion of the ‘we will overcome’ vincera aria that also references the masculinity and tribalism of football matches as well as the operatic strength itself.
The title ‘since the better’ then adds a layer of loss and past ‘glory’.

Jonathan Hodgson, Dogs (1981)

In this animation all elements are on the same layer and constantly in motion but at different paces of boil. The drawings seem to pulsate with the anticipatory and upbeat music. There is a constant shimmering/flickering of expressive crayon lines based on variations of the thickness, tone and colour of the drawn lines and crosshatched shading. Occasionally the figures are quite and the lines quiet. Other times the figures are still but the lines vibrate energetically to show anticipation. Sometimes the figures move and there is less pulsation on the lines to throw attention on the narrative. Sometimes cthe colour shapes pulsate and shift more than the lines, sometimes figures, shapes and lines all move energetically and dissolve into chaos.

Winsor McCay, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

This is a silent movie with narrative textboards. The beginning is black and white video where dust, scratches and irregularities in tone of the film frame produces a constant flickering boil. This continues on the textboards that are also shaken and moved out of register to continue the feeling of movement. All this reinforces the knowledge we are looking at old film. These effects continue on the drawn dinosaur animation. In the drawing itself there are variations in the amount of boil on different elements eg leaves on the tree and the sea lines move more than the outline of the dinosaur. The dinosaur itself moves but the outlines are very carefully drawn over each other. On the seaserpent the neck outline is still but the crest moves. The eye is drawn to places of greatest movement ie generally the moving figures of the dinosaur and animals. But the boil just preserves the sensation of the whole frame being in movement together.