I’m very interested these days in the concept of integration. How, for instance, another discipline can fit into a film and make a meaningful input. I have already written three posts on the contribution of photography to experimental cinema. In this one, I am particularly curious about the use of drawing, the transposition of the tracing gesture into a digital medium. How drawing, this connection often unconscious between the mind and the hand, permeates the cinematic material. I myself carry out experiments on how I can make video and drawing interact in the same sequence, blurring the references. I unearthed three different approaches that are not traditional animation but share with this practice the art of gesture.
Working since the 1950’s, Robert Breer (USA) is known for his approach to experimental animation. A good example of his work is the film «Fuji» (1974, 16 mmm, 8:48) which uses visual patterns and unpredictable movements to create a film characterized by rapid changes and a frenetic rhythm.
«Fuji» is an artistic interpretation of a rather banal filming, that of a train trip in front of Mount Fuji in Japan. I can really feel that Breer analyzed all the material collected to keep only some visual components.With the help of drawings and rotoscopies, these images were processed in multiple ways, sometimes hardly recognizable. The variations of this limited range of visual motifs were then mixed in a super fast editing, sometimes even frame by frame, to recreate the cadence of this train that runs at full speed.
Close-ups of his wife’s face looking out of the window, at the very first scenes and at the very end of the film, are there to signify that everything that happens between these two moments is indeed related to reality. The use of rotoscopy maintains the reference to the real world. We feel the hand of the artist who intervened on the collected material. Although the film scrolls at a dizzying speed, we recognize elements: the window of the train, the seats of the wagon, the controller.
The perception of consistent objects is destabilized by fluctuating rates, colouring and continuous alternating between visual figuration and abstraction. Breer’s work acknowledges that the individual frame is an image in itself and also part of a sequence. He challenges the extent to which our perceptual threshold can be stretched to experience disparate figures as consistent. Even an abstract drawing of a man viewed alone would not be recognizable as a human figure if we hadn’t shapes similar in previous sequences.
When the train passes in front of Mount Fuji, we witness a delirium of colors and overlapping shapes. The mountain is reduced to a simple triangular form, and the rapid color changes give the sequence a visual rhythm comparable to a flicker film. Creating another perceptual ambiguity, drawings of birds are introduced and alternate frame-by-frame with Mount Fuji so rapidly that they appear to be in the same view.
"Fuji" soundtrack also plays an important role in the film experience and provides continuity. Breer uses punchy mechanical noises and sound effects to accompany the images giving the impression of really hearing a moving train.
Beyond Breer's ability to play and thwart the codes of perception, his "hands-on" treatment from a real shooting is, in my opinion, a compelling interpretation. It stems from a careful attention to reality transposed subjectively as to make it more meaningful. This rapid succession of images renders so well the idea of speed and dizziness of our modern life and of the fragile place of the human being in this vertigo.
Quebec's Pierre Hébert is known for his work in celluloid-engraved animation that began in the 1960s. Since then, he has also pursued a practice as a visual artist and performer. His recent project, «Places and monuments» (2009-2021), is a series of videos and video installations which are characterized by real shots subjected to digital manipulations and animated interventions. Moreover, one of these, "Filming Mount Fuji from a moving train" corresponded to Hebert’s old fantasy of "doing it in the manner” of Robert Breer.
The videos “Place and Monuments” always start from real scenes. The initial shooting phase involves the same device: setting up the camera in a given location and capturing for a long time everything that passes in front of the camera – apparently banal scenes of daily life. The shooting locations are however selected as witnesses to a memory. Hébert chose to film anonymous crowds around monuments or anything else that can be considered as markers of time and history, often unaware of what is commemorated there.
Hébert has set up his camera worldwide. For example, in front of a communist monument in Prague; in front of the statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome where the philosopher was burned as a heretic in 1600; in Herqueville, a village in Normandy located below a nuclear waste treatment plant; in front of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville wrapped up after protests and the terrorist action of a far-right activist.
What I'm interested in here are the animated interventions applied after the shooting. Hébert works on the primary image and digitally traces, isolates a figure or brings out details. Those animations (or "drawings") are precisely adjusted to the contours of the live shots and are used to create points of intensity that guide the eyes.
Hebert's interventions are not static, but quivering with blinking lines. This work can be described as animated highlighting. As Hébert says, “The ‘Place and Monuments’ series is a project that explores the gaps that crack any ordinary scene, any anonymous crowd, any forgotten monument, and allow the invisible constellations of History to infiltrate until they burst.”
As a particular example, in his video “John Cage – Halberstadt” (2013, 10:50), Hébert refers to John Cage's piece “Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible)” which started to be played in 2001 in the Burchardi Church in Halberstadt and will be performed until 2640. His images were shot during the 12th note change in 2012. He intervenes first with blinking lines highlighting the outline of people or the texture of the walls, then invades the entire image with vigorous strokes of colored pencils. These animations seem to follow and accentuate the vibrations of the music, and convey what Hébert felt when faced with this colossal undertaking. The video brings its own music into what becomes an impromptu dialogue between Cage and Hébert.
Another example is "Bazin’s film" (2017, 70:00). Hebert was inspired by the notes of film critic André Bazin who wanted to make a documentary about the modest Romanesque churches of Saintonge in France, but did not have time to shoot before his death. Hébert’s film is characterized by its interventions in digital pencil that make palpitate and blink a form or a detail, sometimes by scratching on the celluloid (a practice to which he had returned) to evoke rain or wind. The video often superimposes photographs taken by Bazin and their reproductions in charcoal or colored pencils by Hébert, thus engaging in a respectful dialogue with the deceased critic.
Watching Hébert's videos reveals a different meaning in this space between reality and creation. The scenes filmed do not present much interest as such but a poetic value emerges from the seemingly banal course of daily life. The filmmaker’s attentive gaze transforms in turn the viewer who might begin to take a different look at his environment.
Filming the traces of the drawing
William Kentridge (South Africa) has developed since the 1970s an important production closely associated with his life and his experience of apartheid in his country. Despite his continuous exploration of various media, one of the cornerstone of his art has always been drawing which become the very material of his films.
Kentridge developed a special erasure technique different from traditional image by image animation on separate sheets. Using large-scale charcoal drawing, always on the same sheet of paper, he changes certain elements, adds or erases parts. These different stages are filmed, giving each change a quarter of a second to two seconds' screen time. He continues this process meticulously. A single drawing will be altered and filmed this way until the end of a scene. So, Kentridge's movies keep the traces of the previous images. On paper, only the latest version remains. There are only a limited number of completed drawings at the end. The films made in 16 or 35 mm are then transferred to video for public presentation along with the drawings displayed as finished pieces of art.
Kentridge erasing process retains an artisanal aspect that does not involve any special effects. He calls his animation technique «stone-age filmmaking». Months of work are needed for a few minutes of film. Here's how he explains his unplanned approach : “It's in the process of working that my mind gets moving - I mean the rather stupid physical activity of going towards the drawing, moving forward and backward between the drawing and the camera, modifying, adjusting the image.”
More than just witnessing the changes made to the drawings, the shooting records its story. Charcoal is a very soft material that can be wiped off easily. Erasing gives a vibrant texture to the film – a ghost image of what was there. Kentridge claims this imperfection. At first, he didn’t want the erasure traces to be apparent because they were too rubbish and smudgy. Then he realized and accepted that they were part of the film and even added to its meaning.
The strong black contrast drawings made by using mostly charcoal with sometimes a touch of blue or red pastel go hand in hand with the harsh subjects linked to the socio-political conditions in post-apartheid South Africa. Kentridge’s drawings reveal that even after a change in leadership, memories of colonial oppression and discrimination under apartheid remains part of the nation's identity. Among his realizations, ten films over 20 years tell a saga featuring Soho Eckstein, the archetypal Johannesburg obsessed by power businessman of the post-apartheid era. As an alter ego of the artist, the other character of this saga, the sensitive Felix Teitlebaum, represents vulnerability to apartheid’s devastating acts.
Similar to Kentridge’s irreversible way of dealing with drawings, we cannot go back in our own lives. Our existences are layered upon what has happened before, bringing along a sense of fading memory or passing of time and the traces it leaves behind. His work reminds us that what is suppressed or forgotten can still be felt.
As a last line
Drawing remains a tangible and direct trace of a human presence. These examples, among many others, show that even in our hyper-tech world, there is still room for a human touch.
“Fuji” by Robert Breer :
Excerpt from “John Cage – Halberstadt” by Pierre Hébert :
Excerpt from “Bazin’s film” by Pierre Hébert :
Excerpt from “Stereoscope” by William Kentridge : https://archive.org/details/KentridgeWilliamStereoscope1999
About the Author:
For more than thirty years, Johanne Chagnon has adopted a diversified artistic practice that calls on several mediums, in addition to exploring various forms of distribution and various types of presentation venues, often unconventional. More recently, she has turned to experimental video in which she brings together writing, installation and performance to illustrate her symbolic universes. She has been involved for over 15 years in the art magazine ESSE as coordinator and editor. From 2000 to 2017, she also developed the LEVIER and ROUAGE programs of the Engrenage Noir organization, which works to support community action art. She has published a monograph, “Naviguer malgré tout” [Navigating despite everything], retracing her practice from 1986 to 2015.
IMDB page: https://pro.imdb.com/name/nm12593014/
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