The Philosophical Stone of Animation

by Piotr Dumala

Piotr Dumala. © Danilo Giannini.

First of all I would like to say what made me write the present text and explain why I chose this particular title. A stone is a symbol of existence, coherence and accord with oneself. Seemingly changeless and inanimate, it nonetheless contains -- symbolically -- the deepest creative power. It is an abode of the gods and has prophetic qualities. For the alchemists the philosophical stone represents a union of opposites. According to Jung, alchemists did not look for a deity in matter but "produced" the deity through the process of transmutation.

I would hate to ascribe exaggerated significance to what the making of an animated film essentially means to me. However, the first impression from twenty five years ago, when the cat that I had just drawn came alive, as well as many thoughts that keep coming to me during my solitary work under a camera, make me feel more and more strongly that I am dealing with something close to magic. That "something" consists in discovering or rather producing existence, motion, life; in extracting motion from between the grains of immobility, since motion is but an illusion, a conjecture produced by our mind through the medium of the eye. When I saw the cat built from dozens of motionless pictures run across the screen, cower before a boy who was offering it a bowl of milk and finally run away, leaving the youngster disappointed, I felt the joy of a scientist whose experiment has worked. At that time I called it, "The first twitch of the hand of Frankenstein's monster." A miracle had happened, one form of energy was transformed into another, immobility gave rise to the motion of figures endowed with the qualities of sentient beings.

The comparison with alchemy has dawned on me just recently, while I was busy getting prepared for my next film, inspired by the life of John Dee, a sixteenth century magician and scientist. All at once I saw my work as an activity akin to alchemy in more ways than one.

Sitting with a camera in my basement and drawing the last scenes of Crime and Punishment I suddenly wrote on the backside of the screenplay: "Animation is alchemy. For if we admit that the world is revealed to us through motion and change (even Buddhist texts say that change is the essence of existence, that nothing is permanent), it is the animator who finds his way to the mysterious machinery from which all motion results; it is the animator who employs that machinery to his own ends (...). The real world enters the realm of change and is transformed therein. Using motionless pictures in lieu of elementary particles the animator builds the kind of motion that has never happened in reality but is now revealed to us on the screen due to a visual illusion. In a live-action movie the camera registers real motion, 'fishing out' of its continuous flow the necessary number of phases. In an animated film it is the other way round: the author builds motion from individual, motionless images and it is only the viewer who provides the impression of continuity. The emotions and feelings present in such an animated picture, as well as the extreme condensation of time that occurs, make it very intense; although the viewer may find that intensity exhausting, it helps the author put a lot of substance into a surprisingly short projection. Of course, I am only concerned with films in which the author takes himself, his subject and the viewer very seriously. Commercials or movies of little artistic value, made as an entertainment for children or adults, can be likened to stands in a market where charlatans traffic in their cheap wares."

Alchemy began to develop in the third and fourth centuries as a symbolic process in which the obtaining of gold was tantamount to a transformation of the secular into the spiritual. Gold symbolised enlightenment and salvation. The alchemical process can be summarised as follows: analyse that which you are, perform the dissolution, do not be discouraged by the enormity of your toil and when you finally obtain the power, use it to carry out the union. Incidentally, what I find quite striking is an analogy between this principle of alchemy and a tendency that has become quite widespread nowadays, but had always been vital to humans, namely, the desire to discover in oneself the deepest religiousness and to attain enlightenment -- this being effected by various techniques of meditation -- or to free oneself from neuroses and become psychologically integrated in the course of a long, difficult and painful process of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis.

I have to admit that I am quite surprised and even embarrassed, seeing where my reflections on the modest profession of an animator have led me. However, the work to which I have devoted thousands of hours is not merely something that I do for a living, so I feel strongly moved to comprehend its deepest essence and mystical dimension.

Having compared the making of an animated film to the process of an alchemical transformation, I now notice another similarity between the two.

When we create motion and in this way tell a story, we can show a particular unreal situation and by the same token directly present a vision taken from imagination, employ a language which is normally used by our thoughts and dreams, make the impossible physically visible and thus -- possible. We allude here to the language of symbols, metaphors, fairy tales. We make childish dreams come true, those dreams where objects (or toys) come alive, changing their shape and identity before our very eyes, the laws of nature are transgressed and magical events take place.


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