Animators Belong to the Ages
Editor’s Note: The following is an updated essay by Oscar®-winning animation director Gene Deitch, originally written as a keynote address for the Da Vinci Days art, science and technology festival in Oregon.
I was amazed that I was invited as keynote speaker at an event with such a lofty title as “da Vinci Days.” I suspect it’s because they found out that I’m left-handed. Otherwise, they didn’t give me enough time to grow a long gray beard, and I’m sure I could do that.
However, I have invented stuff. My most famous invention is the hollow chopstick – the first basic improvement in chopstick design in 3,000 years, allowing one to slurp up wonton soup with the same implements that grasp chicken Kung Pao. OK, so you’ve never heard of this astounding invention, but hey, Leonardo’s helicopter never got off the ground either.
My keynote theme, “Motion, Music, Magic,” is something I do have some opinions about.
Motion, first of all: I am someone who never sits still. I drove my mother crazy, because I could never sit quietly. I had to constantly fidget and move. To this day, I always have to be doing something, going somewhere. Motion is what I am constantly in.
Secondly, there is Music. I know all about music. I cannot sing in tune. I cannot play any musical instrument. I cannot read musical notation. I cannot dance. But “I got rhythm.” I am an annoyingly constant hand drummer…even if I have no drum handy. In spite of these obvious bedevilments, my whole life has been bound up in music. In my film work, I’ve had a hand in the creation of hundreds of musical scores. I constantly have music and melodies in my head. But when I try to sing them to my film composers, they tell me, “Gene, there are no such notes!” But musicians to me are magicians. They magically seem to get the idea, or stubbornly come up with a better one. And that brings me to Thirdly:
Thirdly, I have always been fascinated with Magic, and from a very early age I seemed to grasp what magic really is. My close friend and colleague, actor Allen Swift, is also a magician, and he put the principle into simple language: “In magic,” he informed me,” the moment of Action, and the moment of Effect are always different.” Magic is an entertainment based on deception.
I suppose it were my inclinations in motion, music and magic that led me to be a film animator, and, I suppose, what led me to da Vinci Days.
Motion, Music, and Magic are three pillars of show business, (following closely in importance just behind Money, Maliciousness, and Madness.) These same elements operate even in the once obscure corner of show business that we occupy: movie cartoons.
Movie cartoons are now big business – very big business. That aspect of it however, I have managed to avoid. I’ve had some flings at it, but what I’ve been mainly doing is still relatively obscure Little Business. After dabbling at the Big Time, luck and fate guided me into a different direction. I’ve spent the largest part of my career adapting children’s picture books as short animated films. My main fans are underpaid grade school teachers and librarians.
It happens that my line of work, making animated films, is all about motion. After all, it is part of an art & craft formally known as Motion Pictures, “Movies.” If you press the Pause button while viewing a movie, it is no longer a movie. A movie must be in motion or it’s just a still image.
Ordinary objects have three dimensions: length, width and height. But movies - and music - exist in a fourth dimension, the dimension of Time. If a musical instrument, an orchestra, an audio recording, an iPod, or whatever may be producing music – suddenly stops – the music vanishes! One might even extend this thought to a book. A book is just a wad of paper sitting on a shelf, until the actual time it is being read. While a book is being read, the pages turned, it too can be said to be in motion. When you stop reading it, it reverts to just being a dead wad of paper. If our hearts stop, or we cease to breathe, we are dead. Life is Motion, and a good motion picture comes the closest of any art to the representation of life in motion.
So when I am thinking about a movie as I am making it, I am thinking about motion. I’m not just thinking about a series of still images. I must think about how individual scenes flow together; one scene picking up the baton from a previous scene, and passing it on to the next, and always thinking about the final scene. In continuous motion, I’m heading for the final scene.
Thinking about the dimension of time requires a special mental adjustment. A popular phrase we often hear these days is about this or that “point in time.” The fact is, there is no such thing as a “point in time.” No matter what we are doing or not doing, time is always in motion. The only physical thing I can think of, as an analogy of time, is a river or brook.
If we stand on a bridge and look down at a river, it flows past us. If we come back the next day, or even a few moments later, that river may still have the same name, but it is in fact an entirely different river – all new water! If we jump into the river, we may flow with it, but in the case of time, it is always flowing past us. So there is no such thing as “now.” We cannot grasp at “now.” “Now” is constantly becoming “Then.”