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‘Elizabeth Sees’

How we often see the bigger picture.

What do animators know about perception and the creative process that the rest of us – I mean scientists – are only beginning to discover?  I carry this question with me to every cognitive and social science conference at which I present, most recently the ISCAR Conference in Quebec City. This particular conference’s premise is that social and cultural influence on cognition has had a profound impact in education, the workplace, and human-computer interaction.

After delivering my paper, I felt I’d earned the complimentary drink at the pre-dinner gala, and introduced myself to the first person I saw at the only free table around. She said, “My name is Barbara.” Something inside me snapped to attention with the realization she was Barbara Rogoff, the eminent psychologist and social constructivist who was a keynote speaker at the conference. Halfway into my gushing - including a tribute to her influencing my research - she asked me what I do. “I’m researching cognition in the animation process. I think animators are on to something that scientists in the lab frequently miss.”

Instead of this shutting down the conversation, Prof. Rogoff grinned, and nodded to the woman by her side. “This is Valerie, my daughter.  She’s an animator.”

Valerie Magarian is a painter, metalworker, animator, and an educator at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. She moved from NY to Toronto in 2012, and landed in Kitchener, Ontario in 2015. Valerie is proof that dancing between crafts and perspectives may be less distracting than commonly thought.

I joked, “Wow, you must have a hard time deciding how to answer airport officials when they ask you, ‘What do you do?’“

Valerie explained to me, “I always drew and did watercolors – we all did, even my mother. (Laughs). But then I wanted to experiment with scale, and that’s why I went to painting. I wanted to explore the idea that ‘small’ is best seen in something that’s big. I found myself working with these large paintings in a way I couldn’t with drawings. I realized I was really moving my entire body…I was always interested in having my main thing and my other thing on the side. When I was drawing, my other thing was metal work. I like the way having these two interests worked off each other, helping me think in analogies, investigating the way two different things are similar, finding the commonality…and animation is great because I have different media built in to bounce off of, like music, visuals, storytelling, or even having to write a script and do storyboards for grant proposals. They all help me focus on different aspects of doing an animation, and how these things have to come together.”

Valerie nodded eagerly when I suggested that animators know much about cognitive processes, including visual perception…and then she told me the story about her latest animation, a short narrative about her aunt called Elizabeth Sees

An intense discussion that began in Quebec City continued in Montreal.  Valerie spoke about her animation, her aesthetic take on animation storytelling, and how her art is ultimately about perception.

“My early drawings were influenced by my summers in Utah,” she told me. “My parents had a cabin high on a mountain looking down on fields of brush. I was struck by the vastness of flatness that was visible only from being high above. The smallness of the brush was only visible because I was far away.”

This notion that things appear in scale only in comparison to something else, or that an object is distinguished in tone or color by contrasting it with another object, is an essential part of Valerie’s works, as well as a quality of perception.  In essence, we have to see what is and what is not almost simultaneously. But, in the short, Elizabeth cannot see the whole for its parts; she must piece it together gradually.

“Elizabeth is blind but has pinhole vision, so basically she can only see the smallest of pieces of a scene,” Valerie continued. “If she were looking at us, as a scene right now, she would only see the smallest of specks. If she was seeing your eye, it would only be the iris or pupil.  Yes, the animation is a character portrait, but also about that process of seeing small -- being unable to see big. I guess the animation is still about scale even if I’m not working on a big surface like in painting.  It’s about seeing small, and how Elizabeth manages to piece together, bit by bit, to come up with the big picture. She’ll never be able to see the big picture but she can visualize it. With commitment she can pull it together.”

In response, I noted, “Animation can’t give all the information simultaneously, so animation becomes a metaphor for what Elizabeth is doing optically. And this becomes a metaphor for how we see anyway, because we can only see what we are focused on, either consciously or not. We all make inferences about the bigger picture. Elizabeth does this perceptually, because of her field of vision, but that’s also the way we all see, more or less.  We all have a limited field of vision.”

She agreed. “Yes, in animation, you might animate a character in layers, like you’ll have an arm, you have a head, and Elizabeth will only see individual layers.  Elizabeth often draws, so I have these scenes in the animation of her sketchbooks that I then bring to life. And I show her using a camera to help her record what she cannot see of a larger scene. The camera itself shrinks everything down to a smaller size.  So yes, I think she’s an intriguing subject but it’s also about something profound; it’s about the piece-by-piece nature of art making and about vision itself.  So, it’s not really a choice between the story vs. style, but more on how they can be different things and still work together. That’s why I like narration, rather than all dialogue; it allows the images to be highlighted. I’m also more intrigued by how bits of movement or gestures come together to portray this or that action rather than conclusively defining a specific action.”

Then, I asked her about the use of Abby Posner’s music. She replied, “I think I’d like to start with Abby’s music on my next animation. I like the way narrative storytelling makes for stronger visuals.  Some of my favorite animations, like The Danish Poet (Torril Kove) or The Street (Carolyn Leaf), are narrated. When you have narration tell the story, you can let the visuals do something bizarre and different. So, the reason I’d like music to carry my next animation is because I want a spoken voice that sounds more playful with lyrics. Sometimes straight narration that’s too consistent can seem more academic and scholarly. I really don’t want it to sound like a lecture. Abby’s music was so playful. If I could say the same things in lyrics rather than narration, I could imagine narration more like a folk music piece than spoken word.”

Most of human experience is a record of integrating bits and pieces of data from the different senses, and of individual features of perception. “Seeing” is a process of light hitting neurons, activating other neurons in short and long-term memory that meshes light with meaning, impacting impacts what is seen next. Normally, we are unaware of the journey to consciousness of things seen – a destination that kicks in at 300 milliseconds. But animators frequently break down perceptual integration frame-by-frame, maybe not at milliseconds, but still slower than conscious thought.

I saw the final cut of Elizabeth Sees on my 15-inch laptop. I understand Valerie’s “big picture” but I can’t wait to see it large in a theatre.

Valarie’s films and artwork can be seen on her website, www.valmagarian.comElizabeth Sees animation was made possible by grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council. It will be premiering at DOC LA October 19-22.