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What are all those paint men digging?: 'Foreign Bodies'

Every Monday or so, Chris Robinson asks an animator how they made a particular film. This week: Nicolas Brault's Foreign Bodies (2013)

'Foreign Bodies' by Nicolas Brault

So, how'd you make it?

The animation technique used for Foreign Bodies is a hybrid between object animation and frame-by-frame light painting. The peculiarity in this technique is the light source emanates from a video playing on an iPad.

The videos consist of a sequence of images of the human body (cryosection) taken from the Visible Human Project®, obtained from the US National Library of Medicine, for which I obtained usage rights in 2013. To better understand the nature of these images, you have to visualize a frozen human body cut into fine slices, millimeter per millimeter, and then digitized. This is called cryosection in medicine. Although this procedure may seem strange and ethically questionable, in the 1990s the technique allowed the creation of the most accurate map of the inside of the human body.

The light painting technique used in Foreign Bodies exposes each of the photograms, which scroll at 24 fps. This is unlike "traditional" light painting where a single light source is used such as a bulb or a flashlight. For example, if the video scrolls the cryosections of a body from the shoulder to the fingers, the path I make in space with my iPad in front of the camera condenses this sequence of images into one whole, while restoring the three-dimensionality of an arm in space. I like to say that this is a homemade 3D image, created without specialized software. I generated the movement of my animations by repeating this procedure a few hundred times, while modifying my path for each photo.

The first light painting experiments were carried out in 1882 by Étienne-Jules Marey through his research on chronophotography. Subsequently, several artists such as Man Ray and Picasso used the technique. To my knowledge, this project is the first animation project using light painting with video as a light source.

Why this technique?

After the production of my animated short The Circus, where I openly and candidly portray my mother's death, I felt like I was exorcising a demon, which I think was present in almost all my movies. A cycle of creation was coming to an end and my desire for achievement in the field of cinema became less important.

After a few unsuccessful funding attempts at the NFB, it finally clicked for me in the calm and contemplation of the Fontevraud Abbey in France where I stayed for a writers in residence program. There I wrote a narrative script based on short stories dealing with the imaginary dimension of the body, which I was not satisfied with. It was at the end of my residency that I put everything aside and began to question the way I had been writing my films.

The French director Pierre-Luc Grandjon suggested that I read Oliver Sacks’ book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat". The book describes the case histories of his patients who had bizarre pathologies due to various brain conditions. I then immersed myself in medical images related to the brain, which led me to the Visible Human Project®. I discovered a pool of visual artists who had worked with these images. I focused on Project 12:31 highlighting the ethical problems related to the acquisition of the two bodies from which the cryogenic images were generated. I remember being fascinated by the work of photographer Frank Schott, who created a series of long exposure photos of a ghostly body escaping from his prison environment. 

These ectoplasmic images led me to imagine a frame-by-frame animation in video light painting. This challenge was an opening towards a new cycle of creation that focused more on the evocative power of images than on narration.

How long did it take?

For me, the main challenge is to hold onto a fertile idea that is also visually well defined. Once I find a way to fund the film production, the project is usually completed within a year. 

More specifically, I spent one month writing in residence at the Fontevraud Abbey; five months shooting the film in my little Montreal apartment; one month at the artist's center La Bande-Vidéo in Quebec City; and one month on music and sound, working in collaboration with Olivier Calvert and body percussionists Karine Pion and Jean-Philippe Loignon. Post-production took an additional month, for a grand total of 9 months of work.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

In order to answer this question correctly, I must not lose sight of the fact that this was my first experience with independent production. This project also took several forms: installation, live performance and short film, which were a real challenge. In spite of everything, the most challenging part was filming frame-by-frame in complete darkness.

I shot each frame for approximately 10 seconds. This is a long time, which can cause for the motion errors. In order to make slight modifications to each of the paths, which I traced with my iPad in complete darkness, I had to develop a system of physical references to guide my movements. The easiest way was to drag the video on a table. While holding the iPad, I slid my hands gently on the edge of the table carefully passing over the top of markers, which indicated rotations or movements. I could hold my concentration for these sessions for a maximum of 5 hours per day.

Was it worth it?

Absolutely! Foreign Bodies received a warm welcome in festivals and won some awards including the Best Animation Short "Off-Limits" prize at Annecy in 2014. For me, it was the beginning of a cycle of experimental self-produced films. Out of this, Squame was born, which was also created using an unusual technique. I expect my next project to be launched in 2018. I feel I’ve reinvented my myself and my craft, and it has produced some unexpected results that I’m proud to show.

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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.