Judging Prix Ars Electronica (Computer Animation) 2019

Here is the text of a presentation I gave at the Expanded Animation symposium about the judging process for the Computer Animation category at Prix Ars Electronica this year.

Initial discussions

Introducing the jury

I’m here on behalf of the 2019 Prix Ars Electronica Computer Animation jury – Ferdi Alici, Ina Conradi, Nobuaki Doi, Birgitta Hosea, Alex Verhaest.

We come from Turkey, Singapore, Japan, UK and Belgium. Our joint expertise ranges from artist, animator, curator to animation theorist and most of us are involved in a mixture of all of those activities.

I thought I’d start off by talking about how the judging process works. It was actually very difficult.

The judging process

There were (I believe) 828 entries in the Computer Animation category this year including 5 nominations by each of the jury members. The type of work varied enormously from very slick CGI productions by professional top-end agencies to less polished works from students and emerging artists. It was thrilling to watch the variety on offer and we really felt like we were getting a snapshot of what is cutting edge in computer animation in 2019.

The process of selection takes several stages. Before the judging starts in Linz, each juror watches films at home in order to get familiar with the entries. After the initial preselection, there are three full days of further discussion and voting by the jury. The idea is to first narrow down the entries under consideration and then to select the final fifteen. Sometimes there was a consensus of opinions while we were doing this and we were in total agreement and at other times we had quite heated disagreements. When this happened, decisions were taken by majority vote. At all times, the jury was very mindful of the impact and exposure that winning an award can have on the recipient’s profile and future career. It could change someone’s life. Because of this, we tried to recognise independent artists and small studios over major industry players.

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Coming up with judging criteria

At all times we felt a very strong sense of responsibility about who would be chosen and why. We wanted to be very fair. Although you could argue that all animation, however it is made, is computer animation these days, we particularly wanted to make a strong statement about what we thought the Computer Animation category at Ars Electronica in its 40th anniversary should represent. We realised that computer animation encompasses many different forms. It is no longer simply a category for short films. It can be installation, It can be VR, AR, MR. It might be sculpture. it might be on the web. It might be software or a game or a visualisation of data.

We mainly watched the entries on screen, but we also spent time experiencing immersive works from inside VR headsets. Since computer animation can take so many different forms, we were very concerned that our selection would represent the variety of different approaches that animation can take.  That was something we talked about a lot. We thought a lot about how people are playing games, how people are communicating through animation, how animation can visualise ecological issues, gender issues, all kind of different social and political themes.  And how this can be communicated to the viewer.

In our judgements we really wanted to reward works that weren’t just dealing with aesthetics or form, or clever new techniques. We wanted to see ideas, thinking and investigation, so we selected works that demonstrated individual authorship, independence of vision and thoughtfulness. Even more than technical prowess, we valued meaning, daring and emotional risk.

We had to make some very difficult choices. For example, there were some very accomplished traditionally made animations that we rated highly as animated films, but we did not think they fitted a category called ‘Computer Animation’. There were some technically brilliant examples of animation techniques that we greatly admired, but lacked content and we just did not feel moved by. And there were also examples of very innovative and engaging cutting edge short films that we just could not consider as being examples of animation.

Trends we saw this year

As I said earlier, seeing the range of selections is like watching a software fashion show. Technical trends that we observed included processes such as algorithmic generation; point clouds that present a machine view of the world; artful photographic manipulation with Touch Designer; impossible Octane objects that show cartoon reality in CGI rather than the known laws of the physical universe; stylish graphic combinations of 3d mo-cap and 2D rendering; machinima animations that use existing game engines and various inventive methods to render live data. Common themes in terms of content that emerged from the works included personal issues – such as gender, sexuality, relationships, social inclusion, body image and mental health – as well as wider social and geo-political issues – such as migration, the impact of mass communication networks, ecological devastation and impending extinction.

The VR entries become more sophisticated year upon year. We noted how this year’s entries really play with point of view, misdirection, voyeurism and empathy to enhance storytelling and emotional affect. In addition, some of the entries played particular attention to the viewers experience in the world outside the headset by creating sensory experiences in the physical environments in which the VR was encountered that complemented the effect of the work.

Further thoughts/conclusion

Before introducing you to the winner and the two special mentions, I just wanted to end on a few concluding thoughts:

As animators we can conjure powerful visions through our fingertips and we must take responsibility for the messages we portray. We should be careful to avoid becoming totally absorbed by the technology and to remember that we are communicating ideas to an audience, not just showcasing the latest clever techniques. As a jury, we hope to continue to see animation that does more than technically innovate, but has the vision and bravery to engage with the complexity of topical issues in contemporary society and the sensitivity to portray intimate, personal, human experience.

EA_2019-01Juergen Hagler presents the Expanded Animation book.

Golden Nica

Kalina Bertin, Sandra Rodriguez, Nicolas S. Roy, Fred Casia (CA): MANIC VR

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Mental illness is too often a shameful and misunderstood topic that people do not want to talk about in public. It can be hard to understand if you have not personally experienced it. Although we were not without cynicism for the cliché of VR as an empathy machine, as several jury members had personal knowledge of friends or family with a bipolar disorder, we found it moving to be taken through the experiences of the filmmaker’s brother and sister and to hear them talk about it through first-hand accounts left as messages on her voicemail. Scenarios such as being trapped in a small room and then flying through the ceiling to touch the stars served as a metaphor for the rush of mania after a depressive episode. Above all, we applauded the work’s ambition to use expanded animation technology to seek understanding for a debilitating condition.

Awards of Distinction

Ruini Shi (CN): Strings

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With a clever script that mixes chat messaging with programming language in a nostalgic retro gaming aesthetic, Strings addresses online gaming and the loneliness of remote communication. Chasing ghostly algorithms within a discarded game, the narrator searches through data banks for traces of a lost cyber, femme fatale who has once caressed him pixel by pixel, but can no longer be found. The jury was enamoured with the highly poetic treatment of this story of lost love and the loneliness of social media. They also found the idea of a lost world of forgotten games to be moving and thought provoking.

Cindy Coutant (FR): Undershoot, sensitive data: Cristiano

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Inspired by her love for the famous soccer player Renaldo, in this installation the artist Cindy Coutant has created a virtual character with whom she can have a deep personal relationship. Undershoot pays tribute to the deeply personal need to connect through all of the senses – sound, touch, and smell – with the image on the screen and real person. The animation is emotionally charged and enhanced by the physical installation.  The jury was moved by the honesty of the piece. Undershoot provokes the social, cultural, and ethical standards of the current technology, screen-based and social media infatuation. We are in constant communication with everything around us through machines. As such, it is a tribute to lost emotional connection, intimacy, and materiality.

 

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