Animation – at least animation that strives to utilise the unique properties of animation – has its own metabolism.
Metabolism is “the whole sum of reactions that occur throughout the body within each cell and that provide the body with energy. This energy gets used for vital processes and the synthesis of new organic material.” So says the National Library of Medicine, a kind of Smithsonian of American medical research and documentation. “Every living organism uses its environment to survive by taking nutrients and substances that act as building blocks for movement, growth, development, and reproduction.”
From here it goes on to discuss such arcane concepts as alanine aminotransferase, ketogenesis and G6PDH Deficiency; none of which sound good – nor relevant.
Animation’s innate aura of metabolism is as supremely and critically distinct from the medical definition of metabolism as it is from the conceptual application of it as applied to live action filmmaking. This false – or at least misleading – similarity between animation and live-action filmmaking is a constant refrain in many of our discussions about how to define the kind of work we select and screen here at LIAF.
In a world where most people’s experience of ‘consuming’ animation is completely filled with a diet that shares a similar cell structure to live-action films (just with more sugar), the bigger, more abstracted explanation about what empowers the work created at the more challenging end of the animation spectrum can be surprisingly hard to communicate. But in many ways doing this is one of LIAF’s most important roles and we never tire of trying to make the point and win some converts over to the wild side.
Live-action films more or less generate their own momentum. Sure, every film is creating its own world (sometimes quite bizarre, even ‘unreal’ worlds) but once defined it is extremely difficult for the film to deviate from the ‘reality’ of the rules and pulses of that particular world. That is the mindset that that avenue of filmmaking is centred around and it is the mindset and expectation that its audience rolls up with. Deviate from those constructed norms and the reviews will likely not be good.
Animation, on the other hand, can (and should) credibly rock around pulling its momentum (its very metabolism) from the sinews and often competing fibres of wider ‘body animate’. These various and varied primal rhythms create an equally varied collection of permission paths for the animator to propel their film forward. More ‘orthodox’ considerations of character behaviour, scene-setting and narrative arc can comfortably be swapped out for or morphed into more ‘developmental’ (even ‘experimental’) expression. Sure, the film might include a storm but we all know what storms look like; an animator at the top of their game might decide to use their art to convey what a storm feels like. The impetus for doing this could be as much to do with pure rendition of an unusual – even unique – mastery of a particular technique as to do with any actual pictures of storm clouds.
Similarly animators are allowed – even encouraged – to constantly second-guess the inner consciousness of their characters and veer their film off down previously un-signposted pathways that are suddenly lit, wrought and defined by ideas and motivations that often cannot be given life in prose or dialogue.
In so many ways – when you think about it – this is exactly how the best parts of our minds most naturally and actually work. Sure, when we’re driving home we mostly focus on the task in a fairly linear, straightforward and straight ahead way. When we’re cooking dinner we usually more-or-less follow the recipe even if we improvise an ingredient or two or maybe skip a step. But – really – when we’re alone with our thoughts and unshackling our minds so that they might run free our thoughts actually jump all over the place, jumping from lily pad to underneath the mad hatter’s hat to behind the wheel of a racing car, often quicker and smoother than words can convey the action. Similarly, our emotional reaction[s] to any one or cluster of these unrandom series of actions can be as multitudinous and boundless as they are diverse.
This way of thinking is our most natural method for constructing ideas, interrogating our daily experiences and evaluating the tsunami of input we are subjected to in our every waking minute. One word, one picture, one action placed before us usually gets chewed a hundred different ways at once and in most cases the links between those competing reactions are uniquely ours and a product of the life we’ve lived and the millions of little experiences we’ve had.
This year’s Playing With Emotion programme opens with a couple of stunning examples of exactly this kind of extended, imaginative narrative herding. If there was ever a time we wanted our minds to wander to better things and distract us from the reality of our situation I think most of us can agree it’s when we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair. Swiss animator Claudia Gentinetta zeroes in on this constructed muddle of thoughts, images and distractions exquisitely in his film Think Something Nice.
The soothing words and calm, mild mannered, reassuring tone of the dentist’s voice can only take us so far down the road of distraction when the dental action gets underway. Obliterating – or at least mitigating – what is actually going on literally right under our noses can only be accomplished by a couple of things: either drugs or some very heavy duty mind-induced distraction. The soft rolling, ever moving horizon Gentinetta paints for us is spookily connected to the highly complex yet deceptively simple panorama of images our minds self-generate when we let them, need them or drop our defences sufficiently to allow them in. Waltzing along a meandering line on the floor, the alternate mindscape so brilliantly depicted here by Gentinetta oscillates between a McLaren infused abstraction and a cartoonish fantasy escape into the idyll of a fishing trip. Everybody’s escape path in this situation will have its own wallpaper but this is Gentinetta’s and in Think Something Nice he depicts it with a deft, artwork mix of simplicity, complexity and stripped down honesty.
Stripped down honesty might well be a phrase many would apply to the films of French animator Ines Sedan. LIAF regulars will be well aware of her films and her focus on material that depicts the poorly lit end of the corridor in which the inevitable outcomes of dysfunctional male/female interactions play out at their worst. Perhaps paradoxically most of Sedan’s earlier and most challenging works have somehow delivered their grim messages with a darkened, aching beauty that only serves to amplify the vulnerability of the character who is on the wrong end of the narrative.
Love Me True, Sedan’s latest film continues her life’s work (so far at least) charting this terrain but in this film she has turned the lights on and pivoted to a brighter, more uncompromising colour palette and design style guide. Once mustered, Sedan hurls these tangential aspects of her film at the mixed emotions and motivations of her character who sometimes struggles to act in her own best interests, wrestling all the time with conflicting motivations and often boiling emotions that, in turn, repower the momentum of Love Me True. It is the loudest, boldest, brightest and most energetic of Sedan’s films: too soon to say if it represents a shift in style but at the very least we are seeing one of the most impressive and thoughtful animators in the world stepping into a brighter light.
The often sulphurous goo that bubbles up in the cracks of the terrain that divide the sexes is the fuel for A Crab In The Pool by Canadian animating duo Alexandra Myotte and Jean-Sébastien Hamel. It is a plasma made up of the energies emitted by combatants of gender miscommunications, sometimes helping us visualise an inner emotional reaction suffered – or being expressed – by one of the an/protagonists and sometimes providing a cue for the animator to dissolve from one place to another. In this, the animators have produced an outstanding example of how imaginative imagery can be harnessed as the very engine – the very metabolism – of a jagged, unpredictable narrative trajectory showcasing the outer and the inner simultaneously; complimentarily and independently as the need arises.
Proof that the concept of utilising the metabolism of a known entity can be retuned through the power of animated visuality to explore something that is all powerful but, none-the-less, cannot be seen by the unanimated eye is powerfully rendered in Bog by Irish animators Éabha Bortolozzo and Jack Kirwan. The ‘concept’ of an Irish bog is one that can be immediately grasped, even by someone who has never seen one. Instinctively we know what it feels like, we understand its latent ability to capture, hold and slow our every movement to a slog; a slog nobody would volunteer to undertake. Bortolozzo and Kirwan hijack these latent meanings but at the same time cleverly subvert that by applying a surprising beauty to much of what they create and choose to show. It draws in the eye and engages the mind but without letting us climb out of the metaphorical ‘bog’ for relief from the message that sits at the centre of their film. In doing so, they have created a wonderful example of substance and style working in a kind of opposing unity.
The potential for the unique properties of animation to be used to bring to life and illuminate the innermost feelings of a person who is summoning every fibre of their being to rise above a violent, violating injustice is brilliantly given force in Rising Above by Natalie Durchankova. Every person reacts to attack in different ways, the ingredients of the responses often coming from the unique mix of their own life’s experience up until that point. But while those reactions have implications and outcomes that can literally be shown, the process of actually making those decisions and feeling their weights and values is an utterly invisible one made up of whatever electrical alchemy our body produces to make them so. But here Durchankova has translated those purely emotional pulses into a sensitive but intensely visual moving tableau; sometimes subtle and encouraging our own imagination to step up and fill in the gaps, sometimes nearly overwhelmingly singularly narrative leaving no space (or need) for interpretation.
Mining the innerverse of her subjects and turning that emotional ore into highly demonstrative, highly readable expression is more or less Flóra Anna Buda’s modus operandi. A rapidly rising star who first came to prominence through her student work at Hungary’s MOME school, her latest film 27 is an astonishing, visually balletic and eye-warming painterly interrogation of the grey zone in our life which straddles the period we seek separation and independence from the family we started life with. The emotional politics of this transition – be it long, be it swift, be it erratic and unpredictable…. or otherwise – is part of life’s rich tapestry. It is a highly personal, supremely individualistic experience and one that typically leaves very little in the way of a visible paper trail despite often being one that changes the fibre and spiritual inner metabolism of all involved.
In 27 she has brought her stylish and chic surrealist instincts to the fore, bringing to the screen so much of the otherwise invisible inner tumult that this process sparks. Sometimes we are left with no other role than voyeur on a life being lived in a kind of suspended animation (no pun intended), apparently caught between two poles neither of which are the desired destination for the character nor even especially waypoints on the journey even as they define boundaries she has little need for but knows she cannot readily cross until she has a more commanding toehold on her own unique place closer to the horizon that looms beyond her view.
27 is a film that perfectly, compellingly speaks to the overall theme of this programme and demonstrates in the best way possible the capacity for a skilled and creative animator to use their skills, their imagination and their artform to give a kind of visual voice to the invisible but potent forces that pulse through us all and make each of us us.
animation has always played and looks set to continue with.
by Malcolm Turner
Playing with Emotion screens at The Garden Cinema and online Sat 25 Nov find out more