Recording the Trace of Movement: Norman McLaren

Scottish / Canadian animator, Norman McLaren, was an innovator who experimented with the technological processes of his time. McLaren’s film Pas de Deux from 1968 is clearly influenced by Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography mentioned earlier. Using high contrast photography and optical printing, the flesh of McLaren’s dancers dissolve into outlines of light. The characters multiply across the image in the shape of the the movements that they dance.

As McLaren was born in the town of Stirling, there is an extensive archive about McLaren’s life and work at Stirling University.

Pas de deux from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

Pervasive Animation

Pervasive Animation was the name of a three-day conference at the Tate Modern, London in 2007, which featured speakers including Suzanne Buchan, Norman Klein, Tom Gunning, Esther Leslie, Vivien Sobchack. The conference sought to bring into question accepted ideas about what animation is and to present the interdisciplinary currents that feed contemporary digital moving image practice. The whole conference was recorded and can still be seen on the Tate website.

Recording the Trace of Movement: Past and Present

In her current exhibition, Motion Capture Drawings, at London Gallery West (3rd February – 4th March 2012), artist Susan Morris has captured her own movements over a period of time in a motion capture studio and painstakingly converted the data via algorithms into lines, which are printed onto photographic paper. The images resemble a fragile, dense fog of movement.

Her work references Étienne-Jules Marey, born in France in 1830 and a pioneer of motion analysis through his work with chronophotography, which, unlike the sequential images of Eadweard Muybridge, used multiple exposures recorded and combined together in one photograph to analyse the trajectory of a movement. Here is a selection:

Marey’s work was a clear influence on the Futurists and other artists concerned with representing speed and motion in painting. Compare the image above, Etienne Jules Marey, Étude de l’homme, chronophotographie, 1887 with Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Nude Descending a Stair, 1912.

Beautiful as Morris’s images are, they bring to mind a tangled web of technological references to the history of motion analysis that she does not acknowledge. Capturing the trace of movement is the aim of contemporary motion capture technology, beautifully illustrated in Ghostcatching, 1999. In this digital dance piece shown below, movement data from choreographer and dancer, Bill T Jones, has been used by Bill Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of the OpenEnded Group to create graphic lines. The data was not used ‘straight out of the tin’, but required extensive clean-up and artistic input from Kaiser and Eshkar.

Another example of graphic black and white linear imagery inspired by Marey’s motion analysis can be seen in Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux.

Bodies Moving Through Space

In the Life Drawing Field Trip that MA Character Animation recently took to London’s Southbank Centre, we looked at the scale and perspective of people moving through urban architecture. Starting in Waterloo Station, we drew people in motion and examined the change of scale from background to foreground. After more drawings in the streets and down by the river Thames, we convened in the BFI Cafe, where it was warm, to look at each other’s drawings and to get feedback from Life Drawing tutor Maryclare Foa.

The whole issue of the shape of physical movement through space is of special interest in the world of performance and especially dance. In the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer padded and extended the bodies of his performers into abstract shapes and choreographed movements that took the form of patterns. Here is a reconstruction of Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet by Margarete Hastings in 1970.

To see more recreations of Schlemmer’s original dance performances see this website for Bauhaus Dance videos.

William Forsythe is a contemporary choreographer and dancer who works with the body in architecture. Here is a clip from One Flat Thing Reproduced.

In the next clip you can see how he works with a development of Rudolph Laban’s notion of the kinesphere – the invisible three-dimensional space that surrounds us – and composes his choreography based on patterns in space.

For more information on this work and links to other fascinating projects, see the Synchronous Objects site.

Animate Projects have just curated an online exhibition Moving Pictures in conjunction with Portland Green cultural projects, who specialise in dance film. This exhibition features projects which combine animation and dance.