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Notes from the Underground Part One — Animation: Prozac or Kyosaku?

Jean Detheux begins a series of articles that will explore animation as (commercial) entertainment and animation as an art form. In this first installment Jean discusses how we should approach "the real" as the unknown, and not take it for granted.

Having recently seen Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie) in its original French version, with subtitles in English, I was very curious to see what a trailer made for English-speaking North Americans would look, sound and "feel" like.

I found the North American English trailer on the Apple site, downloaded it, and was immediately appalled as soon as it began playing on my Mac! "Oh no, there they go again!" was my first immediate reaction.

The original French trailer is here.The Apple site trailer is here.

As I was beginning to collect material for a series of articles on "animation as (commercial) entertainment & animation as an art form," it was immediately obvious to me that this recent murdering of Amélie had something to contribute to my chosen topic. So when I said: "Oh no, there they go again!" I meant some things I will want to come back to and explore in this series of six articles, articles presented at the rate of one every second month.

A word or two about where I am coming from: I have been a painter for almost forty years, and only fairly recently came to animation when forced to drop natural media and embark on a working journey strictly confined to digital tools (due to sudden severe allergies to paint and other fumes). Animation, in the habitual sense, never was, nor is, much of a concern for me, but animation as the introduction of the element of "time" (and music) in the painting process is now a fascination, growing bigger every day.

Not being married to story telling and character animation, in fact being often bored by it (with great remarkable exceptions, examples of which will be given later), I have looked at traditional animation with very little admiration and interest. (Read the following discussion between a Canadian animator, Stephen X. Arthur, and I.)

It seems to me as if most of the traditional narrative animation is endlessly repeating itself. With minor variations, the form seems to have been set a long time ago (Disney?) and is not ready to be changed, at least not for as long as the control of what is acceptable (and supported) remains in the usual hands.

In fact, there even seems to exist more than "just" pressure from the top down to remain within and surrender to the usual form. There is also a lot of self-imposed pressure on the part of the animators themselves.

Taking part in a panel discussion (teachers' symposium) at the last SAFO, I caught myself saying that "most people seem to want to do exactly the same work the major studios are doing, only with less money."

I still stand by that remark, and I think it points to something very basic that is behind the poor state of animation -- especially as an art form -- today.

Why do I posit that "habitual animation" today is far from being Art?

Let's look at a few things: for many centuries, our best artists ("best" as in Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velasquez, Chardin, Corot, Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Marquet, Braque, Morandi, Giacometti, de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, Guston, Rothko and many more) have worked very hard trying to get (and show) glimpses of "the real" as it can be experienced prior to the setting in of the filtering effects of societal norms and models.

In other words, artists have tried very hard to connect with what they saw before knowing what it was they were looking at, and in trying to do so, they had to work very hard against the established ways of seeing and rendering "the real."

Yet, the very thing those artists had (have) to work hard to free themselves of is at the core of what art schools have been (and still are) teaching!

Let's look at figure drawing for a start, especially figure drawing as taught in the art schools that cater to the needs of the animation departments, the needs of the animation industry (though I doubt there are any significant differences between the animation and "regular" fine arts departments in this respect).

For Rembrandt, Giacometti and scores of other artists who, like them, were concerned with "the real," looking at a figure with brush in hand would inevitably initiate a confrontation with the (an) unknown.

The more they looked, the more they painted, the less they "knew."

Yet, far from being a failure, this experience of an inevitably-and-constantly-increasing unknown was indeed a success, and very much the point of their submitting willingly to an often painful experience.

Camus said it best when he claimed that "the failure shall be the measure of success."

So, from an "Art" point of view, figure drawing could/should be a privileged entry point into this experience of "the real," into one's own "unknown."

It may be so in schools of the caliber of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture (it definitely was when I worked there; remarkable artists were teaching in that school, working with equally remarkable students), but it most certainly is not the case in most of the figure drawing classes that are taught elsewhere, tailored to serve character animation today or not.

The last thing "we" want in that field are any traces of doubt and ambiguity. The figure is to be considered a known entity and the students have to be proficient in the established ways of manipulating and rendering it.

The figure has to remain within the boundaries established by habitual clichés. One is not allowed to "fail" when trying to capture the appearance of the figure, therefore one is forced to cater to the innuendoes and expectations of the societal models (see below: "A head? A head? Everybody knows what a head looks like!").

Face it, if what I say is true, figure drawing as taught most everywhere is a training in conformism, quite far from being the access to personal vision many may think they are getting into!

Surely, there's got to be more to it than that?

detheux02.jpg"Everybody knows what a head looks like!" All original artwork. © Jean Detheux. detheux03.jpg"Everybody knows what a head looks like!"detheux04.jpg"Everybody knows what a head looks like!"

In the late Thirties, Alberto Giacometti was a highly regarded member of André Breton's surrealist group. As he was having problems with the making of a head (a sculpture), he hired a model, a model he planned on keeping for about a week, a time he felt would be more than sufficient for him to master the head once again and go on with his own compositions.

However, the more he looked at the model, the more he worked on his sculptures and drawings, the more mysterious the whole thing became. "Nothing was like I imagined," he said.

At about the same time, Breton came to visit Giacometti's studio and was very annoyed at seeing him working once again "from the visible." When Alberto tried to explain to him why he was working again so diligently "from nature," Breton went into a fury, shouting: "A head? A head? Everybody knows what a head looks like!"

Giacometti's "Nothing was like I imagined," is a real key here, and I assert that the point of all Art (to which animation has a lot to contribute) is to give both the artist and the viewer(s) a glimpse of the difference between the world we take for granted (as we "imagine" and expect it to be), and the world as uniquely experienced by each one of us bereft of those expectations.

"Art is what makes me see" is possibly one of the most meaningful things ever said about that.

detheux05.jpg"Nothing was like I imagined."

detheux06.jpg"Nothing was like I imagined."

detheux07.jpg"Nothing was like I imagined."

It seems to me that to most animators, animation students, animation teachers and animation professionals alike, a head is (supposed to be) a known entity, and "the eye works just like a camera and we all see the same thing!" (This is actually a direct quote from a former director of a relatively well-known Canadian art school. I have heard very much the same things uttered in U.S. art schools.)

This taking "the real" for granted is a rampant disease in art schools as a whole, not just in the departments that cater to the animation industry.

Come to think of it, it is a rampant disease in our society as well!

Who would dare today to go into an art school and say point-blank: "Can you please help me, I just want to try to paint things as I really see them?"

I can hear the laughter all over the school grounds if someone were to be so "naive."

Yet, this was the avowed aim of Giacometti's work, of his life. I am convinced he shared that exploration of the visible with his "spiritual grandfather" Cézanne (he actually said so himself) and with so many other artists we admire so much today (but possibly for the wrong reasons).

We admire them because we wrongly think they have invented/manufactured a style, while all they have done (actually much harder than the mere fabrication of "style") is to connect with -- and make visible -- their preverbal perception, their courageous connection with "the real," made visible through their hard work, to themselves, and to us.

detheux08.jpg"Things are not what they appear to be, nor are they otherwise."

detheux09.jpg"Things are not what they appear to be, nor are they otherwise."

detheux10.jpg"Things are not what they appear to be, nor are they otherwise."

"The mature Cézanne had no designs on the field of vision except to uncover the designs he saw in it. It is this suspension of will power that gives him admission to the undifferentiated world which precedes knowledge, to Eden as it was before Adam conferred separating names on each form of vegetal and mineral growth." (Yale Review, Spring 1980, by Ronald Hayman)

Connecting with our own unknown seems to be so ever present in the better artwork, yet it is almost totally absent in animation today, absent even though it could be a source of a much-needed renewal in a field where repetitiveness has become endemic: "Part of the reason the animation industry is in trouble is that people [audiences] are just being given the same old things all the time." (Steve Brown from Greg Singer's AWN article "Dream Is Destiny: Waking Life.")

Or read these words from Chris Robinson's article on Pierre Hébert: "Animation, and specifically independent or 'auteur' animation, which is often the feeding ground for any and all new trends in commercial animation, is at a dead end. Stylistic and narrative innovations certainly continue, but all within the same abiding walls; walls that have been pushed as far as they will bend."

These walls are indeed what we will be looking at in the next articles, I can already say that "going back to the visible" as Giacometti did is to me a necessary step if we are to see through/beyond them.

"I want to paint things as I really see them" can trigger laughter, or it can trigger something much worse, even more insidious, more dangerous: the student who wants to paint what he sees will then be told how things look and even how to draw "them" accordingly.

And most people will not see the difference. Hell, they won't even suspect there is a difference, a difference so huge, it is the proverbial one between heaven and hell!

There seem to be two major options here: either one believes "the real" is a known, quantifiable and finite entity and it then is common to render it according to societal models ("photo-realism"), or, as is more often the case with "artists," to "improve upon its assumed-to-be-known appearance by manufacturing a style." ("What can I do with/to that?" which inevitably leads to "manufactured styles.")

Or, one can acknowledge the elusiveness of "the real" and, attempting to connect with it without editing out that elusiveness ("to cater to the appearing as it appears," as Husserl would have it), to uncover an inherent style which is as personal to oneself as is the color of one's eyes.

This inherent style is the intrinsic "flavor" of one's continuous and inevitable failure to succeed at capturing reality.

"What is it?" or better yet, "Who am I?"

Art is too often misused in order to put a Band-Aid on the gaping hole we so tenaciously try not to see (but is it Art then?), yet Art can (needs) be that which we do when we try to look honestly at that hole, without any distraction, in order "to cater to the appearing as it appears."

It is to me very important to realize that all that we do is conditioned by our basic world view (Weltanschauung), and that for most of us, our world view is almost totally constituted and maintained by our reliance on our societal models.

Animation (like any visual art) is highly dependent on the world view of its creators, and if they do not see that "the real" is indeed a mystery, they will therefore, intentionally or not, continue to spread the gospel of the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

A "good" example of that is this amazing faith in 3D animation, this completely naive belief that it best approaches "the real as we know it." ("The eye works like a camera and we all see the same thing.")

Despite the fact that our primary connection with "the real" is first and foremost subjective, we surrender that to the false gods of "objectivity" and marvel at the "success" of anal-retentive renderings of monkeys "one hair at a time."

I posit that it is high time we try to change the way we deal with the (our) visible and see (!) if we can, finally, introduce/allow in our work more of what our better painters and philosophers have been telling us for a very long time already: "Things are not what they appear to be, nor are they otherwise!"

As far as creating images is concerned, it looks to me as if most animators today are still buying the official "vision" of the 19th Century Salon painters, "The eye works just like a camera, and we all see the same thing."

Surely, there's got to be more to "it" than that!?

Animation (Art): Prozac, or Kyosaku?

We'll continue to look at this in more detail in a couple of months, trying to see what I meant when I said, upon witnessing the murder of Amélie Poulain: "Oh no, there they go again!"

(A Kyosaku is a small flat stick used in Zen meditation to help practitioners deepen their practice. By hitting the meditator on a certain spot on the shoulders, it can reinvigorate, re-center the sitter, and often be a great source of renewed motivation and energy. And Prozac? I guess it could be considered to be, along with TV, commercial animation, sex, booze and dope, an important part of the cement of our "civilization.")

Jean Detheux is an artist who, after several decades of dedicated work with natural media, had to switch to digital art due to sudden severe allergies to paint fumes. He is now working on ways to create digital 2D animations that are a continuation of his natural media work. He has been teaching art in Canada and the U.S., and has works in many public and private galleries.

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