The Infinite Animator, Remastered: iotaCenter and The Adam K. Beckett Project
Besides a wealth of finished short films made at CalArts, the Beckett collection includes footage and related clips from his last, unfinished film, Life in the Atom. Restored in 2009 by Mark Toscano and the Academy Film Archive, Life in the Atom, like Sausage City, calls attention to the space of the animated frame by showing the surrounding Oxberry stand (still existent at CalArts to this day) the film was shot on. The surviving footage shows more of a focus on the detailed, figurative image than his completed works, as well as a denser, more saturated spotting of color. There are recurring themes here, like the sexual imagery and cycles in Flesh Flows, but there is a decided sophistication to the rendering and timing. It is a testament to the tragedy of losing Beckett that we will never know what direction he may have been heading in next.
In many of the shorts, Beckett’s focus is on rhythm, and on new configurations of repetitive movement and morphing shapes. There is a real sense of play, and of direction, in pieces that would otherwise appear to be exercises. Largely, what immediately moves Beckett apart from his contemporaries is his utilization, and ability to push, the technology available. In his work, Beckett displays an easy mastery of the optical printer, used to create multi-layered effects that, at the time, were a far cry beyond what was capable using a single or multi-plane downshooting rig. For those unfamiliar with the technique, an optical printer is a device that links one, or several, film projectors to a movie camera, allowing for the re-photographing, layering, and alteration of film. Its best-known use has historically been in movie special effects, but it has been a boon to the experimental animation and fine art film worlds since the first was constructed in the 1920s. Beckett’s experiments with the optical printer are a continuation of a legacy that includes filmmakers as varied as Oskar Fischinger, Norman McClaren and Harry Smith. What would today be considered an easy trick thanks to the Adobe Suite is, in the context of the 1970s, an example of an experimental spirit meeting technical wizardry. As we see in Beckett’s case, this understanding of the optical printer’s range of uses straddles both the art and VFX fields.
Shortly after graduating from CalArts, Beckett went to work at Industrial Light & Magic. His previous experiments with the optical printer, particularly the so-called Knotte Grosse Experiments, and his tinkering with the roto camera setup at Lucasfilm paid off, as Beckett was put on visual effects development for a new science fiction film called Star Wars. Archival footage from 1976-77 taken at ILM shows Beckett, Mike Ross, Pete Kuran, and others pouring over what to this casual observer seem to be frames from the Death Star explosion that caps the film’s climax. The crew isn’t all work, as the soundless Super8 shows, but full of guitar-playing breaks, parking lot antics, and an office party. Beckett appears in-frame quite a bit, seeming reserved but social, well-liked, and always up for a laugh.
Beckett’s clear professional accomplishments alone would merit remembrance. As a graduate from the same program as Beckett, where his name is still known, it strikes me that just as remarkable as his technical expertise is the experimental spirit his work exemplifies. In the variety and in the impressive production of his work, Beckett shows a feverish, irrepressible desire to create, to push himself, and to grow. His characteristic willingness to prompt his own artistic evolution is as important an example to current animators as the technical content of his pieces.