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The Animation Pimp: Scratch Fever

The Pimp defends experimental animation, especially cameraless/scratch animation.

Well I dont know where they come from But they sure do come I hope theyre comin for me And I dont know how they do it But they sure do it good I hope theyre doin it for free
Len Lye to friends near the end of a family function in New Zealand, 1925
Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Chris Robinson.

Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Chris Robinson.

Im not out to get Annecy. Things just happen this way. Opening night, Annecy 05, there was a special film that parodied experimental/abstract films. Purportedly made by Bill Plympton, the film poked fun at circles and squares films. Annecys Serge Bromberg was in on the gag too, introducing the film as a long lost document. The audience loved it. It was all in good fun. No harm done.

Later on in the festival during a meet the filmmakers session there was another moment of anti-abstract shenanigans. This time, Bromberg grilled Canadian Steven Woloshen about his cameraless pieces. Bromberg admitted that he just couldnt understand these films and that it seemed as though Woloshen was making the same film over and over again. Strange words from the creative director of the worlds largest animation festival, especially considering that Woloshen was a guest of Brombergs festival. But, hey, no problem. Serge was honest. He didnt take the film, his selection committee did.

Anyway, this isnt about Annecy. Annecy audiences have always been more hostile to experimental animation than other festival crowds. What interests me about these two incidents is that they reflect common responses to experimental animation (especially cameraless work) its all the same, just a bunch of dots and circles, narcissist wanks, I dont get it, etc.

Look Im not gonna fight to the death for non-narrative animation, because often it is cold and wanky, but so is a lot of narrative work. Still, I think the hostility toward these circle and dots films brings up some interesting issues.

First, cameraless/scratch animation is all said to look the same. It all looks like McLaren. Thats nonsense of course we can go on and on about the uniqueness of rhythm, textures, colors, tones.

The problem, it seems to me, is less with the filmmaker than with the viewer. People dont know how to react to these films. They think its a riddle, that theres a deep dark mystery to be uncovered. In some cases, sure, that is true but if you take a look at, for example, the work of Woloshen, Richard Reeves, or Theo Ushevs moving new film, Tower Ballihr, these are films about making you feel something. They convey the jumbled up emotions of their creators.

Woloshen is a guy I hold in high regard. He works for no studio. He gets no government funding. He works (or did) by day as a driver on Hollywood feature films. When hes not working, he makes films in his home. He has rolls of films in a closet. When he feels like making a film, he pulls out a roll and goes to it. The results are simple, passionate films bursting with energy. When I see Steves films, I feel good about life (no small miracle!). I can feel his happiness seeping through the frames.

He often uses familiar pieces of music (e.g., Take Five, Get Happy, and most recently, Hendrix Voodoo Chile) but he brings something special to the music. He makes them his own. (For those of you going to Ottawa this year, just wait till Woloshens image explodes alongside Hendrix opening riff on the screen at the beginning of competition 3. Its something special). Voodoo Chile, for example, uses the Hendrix song, Curse of Frankenstein Super 8 footages, and snippets from a cheesy melodrama to tell the story of the birth of Woloshens daughter (Voodoo Child). Its not a complicated film. Woloshen (like Reeves) isnt out to confuse and distant you, they simply want to evoke emotions. You dont need to seek out deep mysteries, you just need to shut up and let the images and music take you over.

Even the hardcore abstract stuff isnt all that different. They may provoke and anger you, but thats still a sensory reaction. Seems to me people gotta take it easy, stop over thinking, just feel these films. Woloshens films are really no different (on a base level) than classical narrative films like, say, Gopher Broke or Boundin. Woloshens films just want you feel good, happy, alive, while Gopher Broke wants you to laugh. Last time I checked laughter and good feelings were sensory emotions.

The big difference is that Woloshen and his posse are not making paint-by-numbers films. There are no laugh tracks. No obvious cues and familiar gags that Gopher Broke and its ilk rely too heavily upon to get your cheap at Wal-Mart prices. Curse of the Voodoo Child, Linear Dreams etc try to reach a deeper feeling of happiness. They want you to feel with all you are. Its an infinitely more satisfying (at least it should be) and individualized sensation than the Pavlovian tendencies of many linear narratives like Gopher Broke (a film we took for Ottawa this year just in case one of use is about to e-mail me a rant).

Kinda like the difference between a really good Italian dinner and eating at Wendys. Both will make you feel good while youre eating, but only one will really leave you full and satisfied.

Chris Robinson is little more than a man. In his spare time he cares for the elderly.

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A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.