Monday, May 14, 2012

Why I'm Obsessed with Dance and Animation

*Note: This post is an assignment for my "Animation and the 'Body'" class with Maija Burnett. However, I hope you read and enjoy it regardless, because...well, just because!*

         Thought of You (2010) by animator and Brigham Young University professor Ryan Woodard is in essence a very simple animation: the background is a seamless span of beige, the film’s two characters are gesture drawings, and the concept is a story of unrequited love. But as Woodward states on his website’s homepage, “A graceful moving human form can communicate more emotion than any length of dialogue.” 

          It's the combination of dance and animation that makes this possible for his film. This isn't necessarily a new combination of mediums, and, as it turns out, it happens rather organically. At the bottom of it, dance and animation have a wealth of qualities in common, lending to each other unique understandings of movement and motion as humans perceive and produce it--understandings of basic human bodies and experiences. From an animator's perspective, observing dance helps understand what "moving human form" even means, and how that is present in the work we make.

          So let's watch a cool dance video.

          This is generally and universally cool, so I don't want to destroy it too much by trying to interpret his movements into written emotions. But the reaction to this is indubitable: watching the dancer move through space like that, watching his limbs wave through the air fluidly, see him defy the normal effects of gravity--you, as the viewer, feel it. In your own limbs, almost, that something beautiful is surging through another human being's limbs, and that you, too, are a human being with limbs, and that you, too, are, in some parallel universe, capable of such beauty.

          Too much of a stretch?

          We had a reading towards the beginning of the "Animation and 'the Body'" course about experience, written by R.D. Liang. He explain as well as could be done the confusing concept of personal experience. "I cannot avoid trying to understand your experience, because although I do not experience your experience, which is invisible to me...I experience you as experiencing." Basically, in this case, that when we watch a body dancing, we recognize that there is another living being in front of us having a certain experience, and we are watching it through our personal eyes, capturing the image through the filters of our previous experiences as human beings, and turning it into something that is ours and ours alone--something that is truly in our veins and only loosely related to a simple series of images at 24fps of a man dancing and having his own thoughts and feelings. And that man himself has that unique experience, as does Yo-Yo Ma, and so on...

          The point is that when we find our way back to animation, what we are doing is watching movement. Movement that is man-made, so to speak, so it is informed by none other than a human's experience of movement. It is, like the dance, created by a "body"--by the brain's visualizations and the pencil's executions. It is a staging of an emotion, a situation, even just shapes, for other humans to view in real time. And from that viewers see in animation a dance--a moving human, no matter how non-human a character might be, doing fundamentally human things--and the viewers feel it in themselves their own experience of the animation, and it is as real as possible.

          Now, I don't think animators are thinking about all of this when they make an animation, or at least not in so many words, but it's just fun to ponder, and to discover this whole genre of dance + animation projects, and what unique results they bring about. Here are a few of the varied examples:

          Boogie Doodle (1940), by Norman McLaren. A very early and abstract representation of "choreography" in animation. But as renowned choreographer Mark Morris says, "...a direct, symbiotic relationship of music and action. I call it dance." This is of the visual music style of early experimental animation, which aimed to represent music in, well, visual ways, particularly through animation since it, too, was a time-based medium. The animation in McLaren's film thus follows its own sort of dance, portraying the quick upbeat tempo and mood of the music through motion--motion that resembles steps and turns and partnering enough that the viewer can even begin to characterize the doodles, give them roles and stories. The movement is so basely human in its resemblance to dance that we are able to relate to the abstract animation as though it were character animation.

          Skeleton Dance (1929) from Disney's Silly Symphony collection. Quite literally a dance in animation, and one of the first popular examples of it. With combinations of steps—from a chorus line to a grapevine to pirouettes—as the skeletons move and revel, they celebrate their energetic afterlives with the most animated of expressions: dance. One can see hints of tap dancing, of the Charleston, of ballet technique…paired, of course, with the unrealistic exaggerated effect of rubber-hosing and squash-and-stretch. The liveliness of both the natural movements of dance and the enhanced movements of animation combine to form the end product: a film full of as much energy and life as the dead can have.

          John Canemaker (Oscar winner for Best Animated Short in 2006) wrote a great article about dance and animation here, and says the following about the above piece with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:

One particular favorite to study is Swing Time, the delightful 1936 Astaire/Rogers musical, and specifically the “Pick Yourself Up” number. The animation principle of Squash and Stretch is visible in the elongation and compression of the couple throughout the dance; "anticipation" is seen in the necessary preparatory movement that precedes Astaire lifting Rogers, while "follow-through," a secondary movement trailing a main action, is present in the way Roger’s skirt and hair and Astaire’s coat tails, follow and arrive late after primary body movements. I could go on, including the principle of Arcs (an organic as opposed to a mechanical trajectory); "easing" into and out of movements; exaggeration and staging for clarity and entertainment value; and "overlapping action," in which certain actions occur at different times. Astaire and Rogers use the principles to give an acting performance within the dance that drives the narrative.
          To summarize, dance is in animation and animation is in dance--but really it's that both share the common thread of movement as the medium of expression. Canemaker states, "Dancers and animators both carve out movements in time, rhythm, and space; we both utilize pure motion to tell stories, delineate characters, and communicate moods and emotions" (from his foreword in Mindy Aloff's book, Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation). And if you think about it, what more basic sign of life is there than movement? Even in an animator's perspective, when you hold on the same frame for too long in the middle of an animation, the magic goes a way for a second. Just how with Fantastic Mr. Fox they would mess with the puppets' fur between each take, to make sure nothing was too still, too puppet-like and lifeless.

          As much as I love animation, I still fantasize of another universe where I have the talent and stage presence to be a professional dancer. But I realize that my urge to dance is really just an extension on appreciation for movement. Animation is frustrating because it is the worst possible way to move, frame by frame by frame, the only feeling being the pain in your hand from holding a pencil too long. When a dancer moves, movement occurs, muscles work, lungs breathe, and in the most basic human of ways, life is happening because of these. The thing that's difficult to understand is that, in its own way, life happens in animation as well. Vicariously, perhaps, but it does, because it's human, too, and it will act, as Ryan Woodard had said, as a "graceful moving human form."

          And so tomorrow I'll be posting online my first year film from CalArts. It is something I've been mulling over for quite some time and finally did: a dance and animation film, combining live action and hand-drawn. It's not rotoscoped per se, but rather...the two coexist. Of course while I was planning to make this film I wasn't thinking about any of these theories in so many words, but I knew there was a lot of learning and wondering waiting for me with this project, and this blog post is a summed-up version of it all: How dance and animation can move together, how they can be so different and yet exist in the same universe within one short, how the dancer's movements can be highlighted by animation, and how the animation can be emphasized by the dancer...My goal was to make the two meet, not necessarily like Jerry the Mouse and Gene Kelly in this clip, but to unite the two into one being composed of these two components.

          When Kirsten Lepore visited class, she said of stop motion animation that the animator is an invisible presence throughout every shot, the force that moves the puppet. I've been trying to think of dance in the same way, to imagine an outside force that is causing each body part to move, and how it traces through the body--in which direction, at which speeds, with what motivation. Maybe it will make more sense with the actual film. But here are a few stills of the film, as my "artistic representations" of live action aka life itself.

As far as how successful I am with getting my message across and making the two mediums coexist whilst accentuating each other, that's up to you. And in the end, after all this philosophizing and quoting and studying physics and the body to understand what's going on subconsciously and metaphysically, whether it be dance or animation or film or music or painting or writing, we're all just here to enjoy it.

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