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Notes from the Underground Part Six — From Mary Ellen Bute to Pierre Hébert, Animation in a Different Key!

In this final installment of articles exploring animation as commercial entertainment and as an art form, Jean Detheux heralds a group of animators who listened to their own music and delivered it up on the animated screen.

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Mary Ellen Bute (left) and Pierre Hébert. Photo of Mary Ellen Bute courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

We're now coming to the end of my Notes from the Underground series, a journey that started well over one year ago.

Since I am not a writer (far from it!), this journey has been full of surprises, making me realize once again how much I would rather do, than write/talk about doing. (In passing, I must thank my dear friend and "proofreader par excellence," Sharon Bourke, for all her generous and so very competent help. She has managed to transform my words into something almost readable, quite an accomplishment!)

Trying to summarize what these articles were/are about, I come up with the following incomplete ideas: while being a fabulous medium, loaded with potential, animation, for the most part, leaves me totally unmoved, and hungry for more, for something "other."

It is as if artists, whether they be animators or not, have distanced themselves from their own experience and entered a realm where everything is fabricated, forced, puffed up.

So much work done today boils down to technical "tricks," or technological prowess. So few of the works we see in animation today stem from one's inner core, and seldom find/manifest (as in "make visible") one's "little music."

I think it was Ortega y Gasset who said that we were going toward the dehumanization of art. (While he presented that as a "plus," I think that what we are now witnessing is a definite "minus.")

There are, however, some remarkable exceptions in artists who give birth to works loaded with meaning, works that help me get up in the morning, eager to get to work. If this may seem fairly insignificant, I will say that if to work is sometimes difficult, to keep on working is even more difficult. Anything that can support the motivation and will to work and to live is a gift, and that is exactly how I receive those works that move me; I receive them with gratitude. If I can easily think off the top of my head about many artists, painters, writers and musicians whose works fit in that "gift category," I can name only a few animators who would belong to it.

Granted, this must, in part, come from my ignorance of all that animation is, but it nevertheless is based on seeing what is readily available in the animation world, through the Web, AWN and a few animation festivals. I am utterly convinced that animation, for the most part, has fallen into a trap that makes it a very minor genre, a form of smart puppeteering that is trapped in linear storytelling, reduced to using a very poor and cliché-laden visual language, and falling most often very short of its fabulous potential.

If storytelling is to be a fundamental of animation (why not after all?), why can't it be of the same caliber as that found in the film works of a Fellini, Kieslowski, Almodóvar, Mnouchkine, Jeunet, the Gilliam of Munchausen and Eliseo Subiela? (Just to name a few of my faves.)

I repeat here that I have no problem with storytelling per se, I greatly deplore this invasion by the dumb, unilevel, linear pabulum we see almost everywhere, including in animation festivals (can you say "Flash?").

However, there is more to the potential of animation than storytelling, there is this "making time visible" (or at least, "the experience thereof"), a far more demanding and meaningful task.

Having become almost exclusively a mere commercial product that serves escapist cravings, animation, with its domineering "entertainment" bias, is stuck in a "merchandising" rut, and, by the same token, has mostly been shaped into a "language" that caters to the lowest common denominator, even to propaganda (see the very intriguing article Animated Propaganda During the Cold War by Karl F. Cohen).

I suspect that animation is still very much, in its "populist" mode, a form of propaganda, a way by which false values are presented as norms with which to shape/constitute the perception of reality following societal models. In this sense, those who contribute, knowingly or not, to the deception, carry a heavy responsibility.

Mind you, those who swallow those false values also share in that responsibility.

Approaching the making of an animation piece via the usual planning route (concept, storyboarding, etc.) is a sure way of making it stay within the established norms, a sure way of preventing it from exploring all that remains to be explored, all that still needs to be made visible (possibly an infinite task).

I also think that it is the dominating reliance on storytelling that has made animation so easily become a sub-genre. If we look at art history, we can see that a break from storytelling was needed in order to push the form of painting beyond the illustration aspect that dominated much of pre-20th century work.

Like most painting prior to the late 19th century "revolution," animation too has become a form that is closed, and not just closed, it is now likely unable to grow, stifling any attempt at "pushing the envelope."

We are more and more bombarded with pronouncements about what animation "is," or "should be" and "cannot be," and by far, most of those declarations posit "story" as being the center of it all in animation. Not only that, but "knowing where one is heading, and how" seems to be a must, even if the better work one does always comes as a surprise, a "reward," a "gift," often experienced as a "mistake" at first! For the sake of very trite commercial priorities, we have allowed much of what animation has become to be limited to a manufacturing process, leading to a manufactured product.

The great, wide-open vistas that were confronting animators during the early days have almost vanished. The (dumb) "puppeteering" agenda has just about won the day. (Puppeteering can be other than "dumb" of course, as in, for example, the fabulous work of Ronnie Burkett).

The form of animation, its language, has been locked into a pale mimicking of "reality," a pale duplicate of "live cinema," and/or a complete flip into "toon-land." In any case, much of animation, as it is practiced today, is a form that avoids the sincere exploring of our experience as it is lived, as it gives itself to us.

However, there are some people who have been and are making animation in ways that escape/avoid this sick catering to commerce, "fun" and "cynicism," preferring instead to explore "meaning," "joy" and "poetry;" following their inner voice instead of speaking the language that others may expect them to speak. We will see some clips from such people, clips that barely do justice to the body of work for which those artistes are responsible, a series of clips that, I hope, will show glimpses of "animation in a different key."

What all the people I will talk about here have in common is this ability to play, to play "seriously," and to explore facets of the potential of animation that may not have immediate (if any) commercial value, and, in some cases, as in Pierre Hébert's work, consciously do not want to be "marketable."

I will start with the work of one animator who helped me enter in earnest animation, as I understand it today, Mary Ellen Bute. She's a genuine pioneer, someone who managed to create and explore a form of animation that, to me, is of the highest order, and yet who is barely known today. Few people know her name, even fewer have ever seen samples of her films. Mary Ellen Bute avoided the trap of linear storytelling and simplistic character animation; she went for something much greater, much more demanding, much more elusive.

In that, her research was very much in tune with what painters of her time were also trying to accomplish. I am absolutely convinced that what she started exploring still has a great deal to offer, a great deal begging to be made visible. There's a good article on her by William Moritz here on AWN called Seeing Sound, which is very much what her work was about.

The two 20-second clips I show here come from Mood Contrasts, a 1953 film which has moments of sheer visual poetry, already making visible much of what I hope more of us will be able to connect with. It is worth noting that as Mary Ellen Bute died in 1983, this is in fact the 20th anniversary of her departing (she was born in 1906).

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Mood_Contrasts clip 1 and clip 2 by Mary Ellen Bute. Courtesy of Cecile Starr.

When I first saw her work during a retrospective at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 1998, I had recently switched to digital tools from natural media (for health reasons), and was toying with the idea of starting to work in digital animation. That retrospective tipped the balance much more so than any other animated film I had seen till then. The works may seem a bit rough at times (due to the tools she was forced to use there were no personal computers in her day), but they contain the seeds (sometimes even more than that) of what I am convinced is "another animation," one that is to linear storytelling's character animation what, in painting, Cézanne, Giacometti and some of the abstract expressionists were to 19th century salon painting.

As a matter of fact, this comparison holds even more for me today, given the fact that "habitual animation" is the salon painting of our day, and that we are still very much in search of a form of animation that would be as relevant to us as were the many painting "movements" that liberated themselves from the limitations of salon painting and its underlying world view. I think that at the root of the control that "habitual animation" has on much of the current animation field lies a very severe confusion between art and entertainment. Art is (or at least can, or should, be) about the exploration, the unfolding, the "making visible" of all that we are. This is a search that accepts all that surfaces during the work, with no censoring, while "entertainment" is really a negation of, or a rest from, that search (the "Prozac" of my first article in this series).

I truly believe that animation has been turned into an overly specialized "skill," somewhat similar to trade groups complicating their otherwise fairly simple procedures in order to keep the market to themselves and the uninitiated out.

I am fortunate enough to have a gifted 5-year-old son, Georges, and together we have been exploring digital image and animation making. Here's one such animation we made together using 131 images he painted, all by himself, in Studio Artist. His sister, Yolande (14) made the music track.

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Georges 1 Image by Georges Detheux; Animation by Georges and Jean Detheux; Music by Yolande Detheux.

It is a privilege to work/play with a 5-year-old; he shows me time after time after time that "expression is not at the end of knowledge," that it is available right here and now, regardless of age, knowledge and experience.

I had a similar experience with a group of 13- and 14-year-old kids I am working/playing with in a "digital art" class ("art numérique") I teach at a local elementary school (Ecole J.-L. Couroux in Carleton Place, Ontario). These kids, with absolutely no prior art training, are often creating gorgeous work. (When we built the present Website, we were limited mostly to still images at that time, but now have better tools for animation, and will have examples of that online shortly.)

Time and time again, their work shows me the truth in the motto of Jason Belec's NOITAMINANIMATION: "It's not rocket science."

Indeed, animation is not rocket science (or at least need not be). Just like drawing and painting (and so much more), it can stem from some very basic needs and abilities "in" us. If we are given, if we take the time to simply "play," one hopes aimlessly, we are bound to connect with "something."

That "something" is most likely what "it" is all about, and I have been pointing to it all through these articles. Whether we value this or not is a matter of personal decision. It should be very obvious by now where I stand on this issue. I have been talking about "inherent animation" here for more than a year.

Children know how to "play" this way. That is how they manage to learn so much, often in spite of school and adults who are so eager to teach them "how to." (My best regards go to Maria Montessori and John Holts heritage.)

"Inherent animation" is to me a reality, though one that is constantly overlooked, even snuffed out, by the sickly need to conform and the power trip most animators are on these days.

A good friend, Sharon Katz, is an artist who, like me, comes to animation by way of painting and drawing. Sharon has two films doing the festival rounds, Happy Birthday Hanna and Angel's Foot Cake.

She's busy trying to find another way into storytelling in her animation, a way that will be more in tune with her experience as a painter. She is attempting to do something that I think is very complicated. In as much as she refuses to follow established paths, she's basically reinventing the wheel her way; something I wish more of us would do as well.

(In fact, Pierre Hébert posits that animation is actually reinventing the wheel of cinema with every frame.)

Here are a few samples of what Sharon has come up with so far:

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Crow (left) and Bird by Sharon Katz. © Sharon Katz

Now we take a brief look at a 10-second excerpt from Martine Chartrand's Black Soul.

With this beautiful animation, Martine won the Golden Bear award for best short film at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival. This is a fascinating animation, I have seen it many times, and each time I am deeply moved by its ending. I have asked friends to view it too, and we seem to agree on its being a very powerful piece indeed. Martine paints on glass, and this allows for some terrific images. As each image, or just about, becomes "raw material" from which the next image is made, there is a deep continuity that sustains the whole movie. This working method makes Martine a natural for "going digital" and using Studio Artist too. Black Soul is to me one of the best examples available today of storytelling in an intelligent, visually literate and painterly way.

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Black Soul by Martine Chartrand. © 2001 National Film Board of Canada.

The next artist I want to talk about is Travis Wall, a friend who works and studies in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Travis is studying architecture, while being pulled toward drawing, painting and animation.

He took a workshop at Quickdraw with Richard Reeves that confirmed his interest in animation.

The clip we will see here is an example of what a younger generation (I'm 56, he's 20-something) can put up with in terms of fragmentation. It seems to me that his generation can easily function in the fragmented space it has taken me decades of hard work to be barely able to sustain. Clearly, he grew up with music videos, and it shows.

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Under the Veil clip 1 and clip 2 by Travis Wall Image. © 2002 Travis Wall; Music: Kabul is Free Under the Veil by Muslimgauze, published by Yokomono Ltd, © Staalplaat.

Next, we will take a brief look at the work of Tien Yang. Tien is a graduate of the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, and is now head of feature animation at the Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore. He knows and teaches 3D animation, but he also has entered the wide-open world of "non-narrative" 2D animation.

Tien is a remarkable writer and actor, and what he could bring to "non-narrative" animation is precious. He is one of those very few who would be doing this type of work precisely because he personally has seen the dead-end into which traditional animation has fallen.

I honestly think that Tien is going to come up soon with really exceptional work in a medium that is still to be explored beyond the obvious, because, in essence, this medium remains, for the most part, to be invented.

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detheux13_arches_03.jpgArches clip 1 and clip 2 by Tien Yang. © Tien Yang. Music written and performed by Ng Tian Hui.

The next artist is Richard Reeves, a one-of-a-kind animator! Richard paints and scratches directly on film, creating both his images and sounds. He connects visually with "the real" through all sorts of doors, a simple fallen leaf may give him the spark needed to start his next piece. He's one of the best examples I know of someone who has found his/her "little music." Seeing him and his work make it at once clear that Richard has found his own voice. A rare bird!

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Zig Zag (left) and Linear Dreams by Richard Reeves. All Richard Reeves images © Richard Reeves.

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Sea Song (left) and 1:1 by Richard Reeves.

Next, we will look at Steven Woloshen.

Like Richard Reeves, Steven also works directly on film, and like Reeves, he works on 35mm stock. However, he does not "make" his own music, he finds a piece he likes and, through repetitive listening, really becomes "one" with it.

Steven is having a visceral love affair with music through animation, and his work shows it. Anybody who ever has swung his arms to the sound of a band, as if he were the conductor, will know where Steven's uplifting animation comes from (I am reminded of the conducting of Sergiu Celibidache when I experience Steven's work on the big screen).

To be able to see his work in glorious CinemaScope is indeed a real treat.

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Steven Woloshen's Ditty Dot Comma clip 1, clip 2 and clip 3 (left) and Bru Ha Ha clip 1 and clip 2. © 2001 and 2002 by Steven Woloshen.

When presenting the above examples of "animation in a different key," I have intentionally refrained from getting into detailed descriptions of both the artists, and their work. Each one of them would alone easily demand more than one such article to be presented, as they deserve. I do hope however that the tidbits we just have seen (several of those are available online for the very first time) will give readers a sense of what these people can make visible.

I hope these works and many more like them will be increasingly more visible at animation festivals and elsewhere. It seems to me we are definitely ready for a break from teenager tantrums and the likes.

Last, but not least, we will look at Pierre Hébert.

If it is hard to do justice to the previous artists in such a short space, it is absolutely impossible to do that with Pierre. His long list of films speaks for itself, though his more recent work is, as far as I am concerned, truly a pioneering venture.

Pierre has showed a remarkable film intelligence over the years. Much of his existing work already reaches beyond "animation" even if much of that was done while he still worked at the NFB (he was there for nearly 35 years).

Amongst other projects, Pierre now works with his musician partner Bob Ostertag. Together they have taken their Between Science and Garbage performance to many places around the world.

Pierre was kind enough to make a short excerpt available for this article, an excerpt from the recent European tour of Between Science and Garbage. This one comes from the show given at ICA in London on February 24, 2003.

His book, L'ange et l'automate (The Angel and the Automaton) is a must read not only for animators, but also for any artists and those who like/need to reflect on the nature of existence, of perception and art, of meaning. I am confident this book will soon be available in English as well (only French so far) and I heartily recommend it to all.

Pierre is a master in the real sense of the term, the likes of which I had only known personally when working in New York near artists like Bill De Kooning, Philip Guston and Mercedes Matter.

Pierre has developed a multi-layered approach to "animation" (this is, I believe, too narrow a term to describe his current work) that is very fragmented, and intentionally so. He demonstrates an uncanny ability to function efficiently within unresolved dilemmas, teaching by example how to carry on with the journey even (especially!) if the road has come to an end.

In his book, he comes back several times to the following sentence, "Faire son possible face à l'impossible" (to do one's best in front of the impossible). Readers may recall my referring, more than once, to Camus', "the failure shall be the measure of success," and to Giacometti's, "if the goal is out of reach, at least one can get closer."

This makes Pierre yet another Sysiphus, and I believe he shows that we can imagine Sysiphus happy, or at least being involved with his infinite task consciously and intentionally.

My first "Notes from the Underground" installment was titled Animation: Prozac, or Kyosaku? and there's no doubt in my mind that Pierre is not tracing/following the "Prozac path."

Intelligence was once defined as not how much one knows how to do, but rather how one can function when not knowing what to do.

In that sense, Pierre is a very intelligent man besides being also extremely "cultivated" (cultivé in French). He demonstrates by how he lives and works that "humanism" isn't dead yet!

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Between Science and Garbage. Image © Pierre Hébert and sound © Bob Ostertag.

Given that we started with Mary Ellen Bute, whose work, in one way or another, has made possible (not necessarily directly) what most of the people presented in this article have managed to unearth, I have asked each one of them to tell me what she represents to them. (Their remarks appear below.)

Georges Detheux: "Cool! Nice movie, with old music."

Martine Chartrand: "At first, I thought I did not know her. Then, seeing the clips you showed me, I thought wow, another woman animator, and a good one at that! I remembered seeing some of her films at OIAF in 1998. Very poetic work, I must see ALL her work! I first thought she was working on a computer, but soon I realized that it was "hand made." Wow, I must really get to see all her work and read the words about her."

Tien Yang: "You know, I am like a young punk in animation and art still very ignorant and knowing very little. Yes, I heard you mention to me Mary so many times, and it is only here that I finally catch a glimpse of her work. POETIC! Something unknown, unexposed, unrecognized, untaught among (most?) animation programs. The difference being (perhaps) between something connected to life against something born out of constructs (or institutionalized).

Oh, I forgot to mention that it reminds me SO much of Kieslowskis works. Especially Bleu.

Travis Wall: "I've watched Mary Ellen's work at a video at Quickdraw and it struck me how visually sophisticated it was; it had none of the animation themes I'm used to, it was more painterly I was watching a painting unfold in time. I really love her work, I wish I could pass her the compliment 'you make me want to start a new film when I see yours'."

Sharon Katz: "I'm watching Mood Contrasts and at this late stage in her work I see that she has fully broken with illustration, or cartoon imagery. I'm still in a debate with the figurative, so it's that dialogue and progress in Bute's art moving away from figurative references that intrigues me. She creates her most interesting work once she's free to play with the imagery. The truth is I was stunned when I saw the Mood Contrasts clip and I do think it is really exciting work. And you can quote me!"

Richard Reeves: "Yes, I know of Mary Ellen Bute's films, I was lucky to be able to see the retrospect of her work at Ottawa International Animation Festival several years ago. This was the best, to see the actual film prints on the big screen. Also, I have been able to see her work on video at the Quickdraw Animation Society. Mary Ellen Bute's work has been very inspirational, and I get a feeling that Mary Ellen Bute, as well as making discoveries, enjoyed the process of her animation."

Steven Woloshen: "In regards to Mary Ellen Bute, I have only seen Spook Sport (in Madrid) and I thought it was great. Beyond that, I am always on the lookout to see more of her stuff."

Pierre Hébert: "I 'know' Mary Ellen Bute's films, or rather some of them. I can't recall which ones I have seen, as that was about 30 years ago. That's why I place "know" between brackets. Her work belonged to my aesthetic frame of reference of that time but (unlike McLaren's and Len Lye's which I viewed regularly, and whom I knew personally), I have a rather imprecise recollection of her work as it is entwined with all that I was seeing at the time. Therefore, concerning Mary Ellen Bute, I think my education has to be redone."

What Mary Ellen Bute worked on, this connection between image and sound, is still a wide-open field, a vast horizon left to be explored. Music and animation share the same mystery in essence, they do not "exist!" They do not exist "in themselves," as they require a reading in time in order to come to life. In that sense, the viewer/listener is a fundamental "component" of the "life" of both animation and music, and this essential contribution the viewer/listener brings to the experience is far too often totally ignored by animators (and musicians).

I see two poles between which these artists work. At one extreme we could have a "literal" connection with the "sound" aspect of music, a human oscilloscope of sorts, while on the other, we would have work presented with music, but with no apparent direct connection to it. The possibilities between these two poles are endless, and their exploration fascinating.

Here are a few quotes from Essence of Life, a special feature that is on the Koyaanisqatsi DVD: "These films are meant to provoke, they are meant to offer an experience rather than an idea or information or a story about a knowable or a fictional subject" (Godfrey Reggio)

"It was like looking at the world for the first time" (Philip Glass)

"When you watch commercials on TV, you realize that the image and the music are stuck on top of each other, there's no room between them for you to move in, there's no place for us! Let's say there's a space between the image and the music, and when the spectator crosses that line, that's when he personalizes the experience, it becomes his." (Philip Glass)

"Music has a powerful ability to tell us what we are seeing." (Philip Glass)

In our time of militant dehumanization ("a face to face confrontation between the zombie and the fanatic," as Alain Finkielkraut described it), I feel grateful to those who, against many odds, still try to connect with their own experience, offering us glimpses of the universal in the particular.

The world is not merchandise, and neither is life.

In conclusion, I would like to send the interested readers back to themselves, to that which is the best we each can (and must?) contribute to the whole, one's own unique and irreplaceable "brand new point of view on the world."

Sure, it is a lot harder to do this than to enter a confrérie (a trade group). Finding and listening to one's own little music, nurturing it, can be very difficult in the midst of all the noise made by so many false prophets (the high priests of the "New World Order").

It may often seem pointless to do so, but, if "intrinsic worth" is important to oneself, is there really any other choice?

T. S. Eliot closes his fabulous Four Quartets with the following, I will definitely let him have the last (and first?) word:

  • We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.Through the unknown, remembered gateWhen the last of earth left to discoverIs that which was the beginning;At the source of the longest riverThe voice of the hidden waterfallAnd the children in the apple treeNot known, because not looked forBut heard, half-heard, in the stillnessBetween two waves of the sea.Quick now, here, now, always A condition of complete simplicity(Costing no less than everything)And all shall be well andAll manner of things shall be wellWhen the tongues of flames are in-foldedInto the crowned knot of fireAnd the fire and the rose are one.

Little Gidding V, Four Quartets (1943)

New 16mm prints of Mood Contrasts and other films by Mary Ellen Bute are available for rental or for sale from Cecile Starr: 70 La Salle St., #18D, New York, New York, 10027, 212.749.1250 or 35 Strong Street, Burlington, Vermont, 05401, 802.863.6904; E-mail: suzanne.boyajian@gte.net

To learn more about the artists and art mentioned in this article, please visit these sites: Ronnie Burkett: www.johnlambert.ca/ronnie/rb_main.html; Studio Artist: www.synthetik.com; the animation work of Ecole J.-L. Couroux: www.nondidjuti.net/Couroux2001-2002/couroux_1.html; John Holt: www.holtgws.com; Sharon Katz: www.sharonkatz.net; Travis Wall: members.shaw.ca/travis.wall; Tien Yang: www.nutsidea.net; Bob Ostertag: www.detritus.net/ostertag; Koyaanisqatsi: www.koyaanisqatsi.com

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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