IMPERFECTION IN ANIMATION by Tom Gasek
For humans, one of the strongest elements of identification, both psychologically and physically, is imperfection
Animation is a filmmaking form with endless dimension. Here is a venue that allows a story teller to weave a tale in any direction that one's imagination will lead. Animators are storytellers that stretch our imaginations through stories, visuals and sound. The rules in the world of an animated film are defined, if done successfully, by the individual animated film and it exists as a world unto itself. As humans, we have a tendency to grab on to the real world of our own physical and psychological existence and animation can challenge that reality in a very healthy way. Animation allows us to expand our thinking and perception of the world. Yet, there needs to be some "hook" that allows us to easily make the leap into another dimension. That "hook" should be something that we, as viewers, relate to in a very primal way. This connection can come in the form of psychological and physiological identification.
When an audience "identifies" with a character in a story, then that audience is pulled into the tale. A heroic lead or an oppressed individual are examples of character roles that audiences can relate to. Often the more subtle and interesting an individual appears in a film, the more an audience will be fascinated by that character and the path that character role will pursue.
We like to see ourselves, through others, face conflict and resolution. We are interested in how others may find answers to problems that we may or may not understand and this can drive us deeper into a story. We recognize human conflict and needs, no matter what form or shape they take. We can impose our human psychology on animal stories, stories of Martians or any other abstract form a story may present.We have a need to find meaning in things that relate to our lives even when there is no apparent relationship. It is human nature. Successful storytelling allows us to find, or at least ponder, this meaning. All forms of animation have this ability. This is psychological identification. One of the strongest elements of identification, both psychologically and physically, is imperfection. We humans know our own limitations and lack of "perfection." As a species, we constantly try to overcome these shortcomings through learning and adaptation. This is the strength of the human race. Yet, despite our great strides in growth through technology, we will never reach a final goal or perfection. Our journey is the striving for an intangible end and that path has an amorphous quality.
Animation is wonderful because it stretches our reality. In the last ten years the world has seen a strong surge in animated films. There is a hunger for venues that expand our visual perceptions. Animation can satisfy that hunger. It was once stated that there are only 7 stories in the world which are told thousands of different ways. If this is true, then one can see why there is a need for visual variety. After all, we are very visual creatures and becoming more sophisticated in that realm everyday. On the physical side of identification, computer technology has made great strides in many ways. In animation, computers have allowed a certain freedom of movement, the ability to recreate a kind of reality and manipulate it, and duplication capabilities.
Traditional "2-D" animation can do the same things that the computer can, but in a less exacting and more stylized way. A teapot that is drawn by hand will never look quite as real as a computer generated model. The hand of the artist is almost always apparent in a drawing and the computer can go beyond the human touch. Computers can also be used to mimic the qualities of a hand generated image but both approaches still lack something that is subtle but removed from the true human physical experience.
Computer generated images and the movement associated with that animation form are slowly approaching a reality that we can grasp as images we understand from our physical world. This is most apparent in the use of "special effects" these days. Yet, the one thing that both styles of animation can't deliver is true physical, visual reality. These techniques transcend physical reality which feeds the imagination but loses an element of identification. There is no substitute for real physical existence but the closest form to-date comes through photography. Storytelling and stylization can distort any of these visual forms but photography, in a non-manipulated form, can produce the closest actualization of the physical reality that we know. Computer generated images are slowly inching closer to actual photographic reality but still lack something that is tangible and real.
Stop-motion or "model" animation, which includes clay animation, strikes a cord in the human psyche with strong physical identification. Here is a form of animation that has the ability of all other forms of animation. It can tell stories through character, conflict and resolve, and visual interest satisfying the audience's psychological identification needs. Yet it relies on photography to reveal physical reality. The added benefit is that there is something very fundamental about the physical reality of actual models, puppets, lighting and imperfection that we can identify and understand as humans. This imperfection is in fabrication and animated movement. Successful stop-motion films celebrate their imperfections. For example, there is a joy in seeing the fingerprints of the artist in a clay animated film. When computer animation incorporates the imperfections of movement and physical flaws that are inherent in model animation, then it can successfully touch its audience. This imperfection is what we are as human beings. We are made of infinite textures. We understand that there is no perfect symmetry in our lives. We all have "flaws" and we struggle to work with what we have as humans. Animation can take us away from these imperfections of our world. It can allow us to escape our reality and inspire us but we can never ultimately deny our human nature. This is the strength and advantage of physical stop-motion animation. Through new technology such as advance fabrication materials like silicone, "frame grabbers", digital cameras and composite layering , stop motion has the ability to strive for more perfect movement and fabrication but it can never ultimately deny its real physical qualities and limitations. It is very much like us as humans. We strive for higher goals and fantasy often reaching quite high but we are always working in this real and physical world.
Puppets have been around for thousands of years. Every major culture has a foot in puppet- storytelling from Eastern Europe, Japan, India, China and many more. There is a history and a lineage where stop-motion animation is the youngest offspring. The dimensional quality of puppets and models touch our cultural roots and elicits a magical quality that is rooted in our reality. It is a very strong form of animated storytelling that can have a "hook" not only in the psychological world but in the physical world. It is no wonder that there is a very strong movement, as there has been for years, for stop-motion animated programming for very young children. Kids, ages 2 through 5, are not jaded with intense visual sophistication but react on a much more primal level. They see the world as physical and real and model animation reflects their own perception. This delights toy-makers that produce the endless line of plastic replicas from television. Yet, this need to play with toys goes back to the centuries-old-tradition of puppet-storytelling. Kids are in touch with that part of their need to rule their own world through manipulation of puppets and toys. We, as adults, still have this need and can apply it through model animation or we can transfer it to other forms of expression.
As technology in animation advances, there will always be a need for tangible and tactile forms of expression. Stop-motion animation is one of these forms of expression that will always have a place in human storytelling. This form of expression, like all other forms of animation, has the ability for psychological identification and it has the physical "hook" to draw the viewer in. Its direct relation to us as human beings through its physical form and inherent imperfection make it a direct reflection of our very nature. As we improve our approaches toward a more "symmetrical" and "perfect" life, stop-motion animation parallels our journey through improved technology. Ultimately, we can not deny our physical reality and humanity and this form of animation will be right there struggling along with us to tell our story.
About the Author
Tom Gasek started his 25 year professional experience with a student Academy Award in 1979. Many awards and frames since then, Gasek formed OOH, Inc. (a.k.a. Out Of Hand Animation) which primarily produces commercial work for clients like Hallmark, The Japanese Red Cross and The Michigan Lottery. Last year, he was hired as the consultant for a pre-school stop-motion animated series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Halifax, Nova Scotia called "Poko." Before forming OOH, Inc. in 1999, Gasek directed and animated for such prestigious studios as Olive Jar Studios, Will Vinton Productions, his own "Sculptoons" and "Suspended Animation", and Aardman Animations in Bristol, England. At Aardman's, Gasek directed and animated numerous commercials, animated on Nick Park's "The Wrong Trousers" and was a guest key animator on "Chicken Run." Presently, Tom is earning his M.F.A. from the Art Institute of Boston while simultaneously co-directing an animated series for Mattel.
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This is a Reprint which was available online from the author in 2004