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Experimental vs. Narrative Films: Do You Have to Choose?

Educators Amy Kravitz, Roger Noake and Rolf Bhler offer points of view regarding the student dilemma of choosing a direction for thesis films.

Download a Quicktime movie from Ara Peterson's abstract student film, 12 Ball. © Ara Peterson. 900 Kb Download a Quicktime movie from Christy Karacas' Space Wars. © 1997 Christy Karacas. 1 Mb

It often seems to students that in their final year of school they must choose between making a traditional, mainstream film in order to obtain a job, or a more experimental film through which they can speak in their own voice for perhaps a final time. Is there a middle ground? Which direction should they choose?

We asked a select group of educators to share their thoughts and advice on this dilemma that faces students. Amy Kravitz, Associate Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design (U.S.), Roger Noake of the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (U.K.) and Rolf Bächler from the Schools of Applied Art in both Zurich and Lucerne took up the challenge and responded. To illustrate the two sides of the issue, we are showcasing two recent student films from RISD.

1997 RISD graduate Ara Peterson created 12 Ball, a very compelling abstract film by animating black and white paint on a simple three-dimensional object. © 1997 Ara Peterson.

Amy Kravitz, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

"Should students create a mainstream film in order to get a job or should students create a film in their own voice? The answer to the question is simple. Students should do good work. Good work will receive recognition when it is screened.

"What is good work? Good work asks an original question and reaches an understanding of that question. It might answer the question. It might not. Let your aesthetic and intellectual interests guide you. If you are deeply engaged with traditional animation, study and practice those forms whole heartedly. If you are deeply engaged with experimental animation, experiment whole heartedly. Give your work content, whatever its form.

"Good work also means giving a film what the film needs; not what the filmmaker needs, not what the industry needs, not what an art museum needs. If you are proceeding according to formulae (it doesn't matter whose) you have stopped thinking, listening, and being visually aware.

"Now, the question I have just addressed leads to another question: Are animators trained or educated? That one is better left for another time."

Roger Noake, The Surrey Institute of Art and Design "The problem with how to pitch final projects for students, mainstream or personal, is complex in the U.K. The studio system tends to focus on commercials or series but there is a strong and successful sector which is based on Channel 4, BBC2 and Arts Council commissions. As broadcasting changes and the importance of ratings increases, the pressure is on these traditionally independent funders to look towards more mainstream animation. The dilemma is that without a tradition of "mainstream independent" broadcasting and with an unpredictable feature animation production industry, there is something of a hole in the talent pool, especially so in new technology.

"However," the middle ground is very viable. Because of the long tradition in arts schools of independent production and of 'the art film,' the majority of students will want to produce their own work. Many try to achieve a compromise with concepts which demonstrate their talent for animation appropriate to getting a job and allows them a personal approach. This very rarely works. Another way is to encourage a team approach with the roles of animator, director, etc. taken by individual students. This recognizes both the individual talent and the important factor of teamwork. The highly experimental animator usually does not have a problem and can often find employment at least as fast as those taking the traditional route if they are good.

"In the end, it is our job, the instructors, to help students make the choice by giving them as much information about the world of animation and about their own ability to take this very important decision."

Rolf Bächler, Schools of Applied Art: Zurich and Lucerne

"What exactly is the so-called dichotomy `mainstream' vs. `work of one's own'? Does the latter stand for self-determined, automatically gratifying, fulfilling art? The former for non-self-determined, therefore unsatisfactory and by constraint, frustrating slave work? Are the two categorically irreconcilable?

"Thinking of people like Borge Ring, I'm not so sure. Borge Ring is one of the foremost animators in Europe. He has been in the business since the '50s, worked on practically every European cartoon feature of the `70s and '80s and has trained generations of recognized and forthcoming artists all over the continent. In all of this time, he has made `only' two personal films: Oh My Darling (1978) and Anna & Bella (1984). Both have decidedly `mainstream' appeal but are at the same time highly personal, with a strong author's voice. Both were also highly successful, acclaimed by general audiences as well as by animation buffs. The films won an Academy Award nomination (1978) and an Academy Award (1985) besides a plethora of other distinctions. When asked why he never made more personal films, Borge Ring answered that he found so much satisfaction and gratification in his work as a `hired hand,' he never felt there was `a lack to compensate.'

"Gratification in one's work is not reserved to any one way. So ask your heart: What kind of career do you see for yourself? Then, just go for it."

Heather Kenyon is Editor in Chief of Animation World Magazine.

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