A StoryFutures event for anyone interested in immersive storytelling. In my talk, I will be reflecting on the spatial experience of animated installation (from my chapter in the Experimental and Expanded Animation book) and comparing that with examples of contemporary Virtual Reality artworks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Juergen Hagler presents the Expanded Animation book.
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.
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.
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.
My own practice is in expanded animation, in other words, I am interested in ways in which moving images can be used in contexts other than the single screen film. As an artist this has involved me creating works inspired by technologies from the origins of animation such as shadow puppets, silhouettes, optical illusions, trotting horse lamps, spirit photography, stage magic, Pepper’s Ghost and peepshows. Because of this, it was thrilling for me to go to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum Archive as a Visiting Researcher. Looking through boxes from their extensive collection of pre-cinematic optical toys at close range, I was struck by how tactile and intimate the experience of looking at them was and how these early printed materials anticipated the depiction of ways of moving through space that are commonly used today in animation. These short sequences felt like precursors to the animated gifs we see on web pages, interfaces, digital signage and, of course, Instagram.
Optical toys have also been an inspiration to a group of contemporary animators from China who call themselves the Feinaki Animation Gang and are inspired by their study of the phenakistoscope to create amazing short micro-animations that are designed to continuously loop. The group first formed in 2015 to create inventive animated gifs that celebrate public holidays such as Valentine’s day. The artists include my former student, CAI Caibei, and other noted practitioners such as WEI Shilei, AMAO, CHEN Chen, CHEN Lianhua, InkeeWang, LUO Sijia, SANGSUN, SUN Xin,Toyoya, WANG Dan, XIANG Yao, YU Kun, ZHU Yantong. They have just exhibited their works at the Shanghai MoCA Pavilion in a show called Stroll the Line in May 2019. More info here: Stroll the Line exhibition.
Several media theorists have also made connections between early mechanical optical illusions and our contemporary digital media. Shane Denson and Julia Leyda describe the way that we view digital moving images on a variety of different devices as post-cinematic. No longer recorded through analogue celluloid and projected at cinemas, the moving images we consume today are ‘essentially digital, interactive, networked, ludic, miniaturized, mobile, social, processual, algorithmic, aggregative, environmental, or convergent’ (Denson & Leyda, 2016). Alongside a variety of new transmedia viewing platforms such as computers, phones, tablets, games consoles and even giant screens on the sides of skyscrapers, new forms of moving images have emerged to be displayed on them. Making a comparison between these and the early short films of silent cinema, Ruth Meyer considers that while early silent films were short because of technological restrictions, nowadays brevity is part of the digital media we consume – the short film, the tweet, the meme, the status update, the text message. Because of their shortness, she calls these ‘micro-narrative’ formats (Meyer, 2016).
Looking at the paper strips from Émile Reynauld’s Praxinoscope (1889) there are also short ‘micro-narratives’: series of images that animate scenes from the circus – tightrope walking, juggling knives or weights, acrobatics with horses or dogs; or scenes from children’s play – blowing bubbles, skipping, a girl fishing, a baby eating, a fancy cat plays double bass; and even scenes from everyday work, leisure and sports – swimming, horse riding, dancing, feeding chickens, pumping water, sawing and cooking meat on a spit. All of these sequences of images capture bodies and matter in motion through illustration, before the cinema had even been invented. They do not take the form of stories, but are more like circus acts or fairground attractions.
Not only are the movement sequences on these devices short, but they are designed to be repeated. Colourful patterns on spinning tops, for example, continue spinning to create an optical illusion of merged colours until the force of momentum runs out. Lev Manovich points out that pre-cinematic optical devices were based on manually constructed, hand-painted loops of repeated image sequences. He finds in these earliest animated pictures a precursor to contemporary digital media and also to computer programming that involves looped and iterative instructions. (Manovich, 2016). Building on Manovich’s ideas, Nicolas Dulac and André Gaudreault point out that optical toys are based on not only repetition and brevity, but also rotation. For them, the endless loops of these animated drawings have no sense of time, just endless presence. Like a cog in a machine, they have a mechanical rather than human sense of time (Dulac & Gaudreault, 2006).
Like these toys, the earliest silent films were also built on short acts, gags, tricks or views from everyday life. Connecting them with the ‘attractions’ on show at the fairground, the circus and the music hall, Tom Gunning has named the earliest silent films (pre-1908) ‘the cinema of attractions’: a cinema concerned with spectacle, exhibitionism and quick thrills rather than storytelling (Gunning, 2006). Whereas this period of film history is related by Gunning to popular performing arts, Dulac and Gaudreault argue that optical toys from 1830-1900 are another form of media that pre-date cinema and should also take their place as a key influence on the cinema of attractions (Dulac & Gaudreault, 2006). While this may seem an obvious connection to make, surprisingly enough, in his extensive research on the origins of animation in the UK, Malcom Cook has not found any direct evidence to connect the type of animated pictures seen in optical toys with early animation (Cook, 2018).
While this may be the case, what I personally found fascinating about having the chance to examine the collection of optical toys at the Bill Douglas Cinema History Archive at first hand, was how the types of motion represented anticipated the kinds of ways in which we animate today. I was also struck by the manner in which movement was depicted in a static printed form. Consequently, I devised a workshop called ‘Animated Loops: From Print to Instagram’ for BA Illustration and Animation students at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, who work in both design for print and animation. It was part of a First Year unit, led by artist and animator Molly Okell to introduce students to animation. We began with a lecture showing photos and discussing my findings from the research at the Bill Douglas Cinema Archive, in which I identified the following types of animation:
Panning (in which the eye travels across a scene, usually a landscape): panorama, myriorama;
Light change: diorama;
Exploring three-dimensional space: peepshow, stereoscopic photography, peep eggs;
Transformation (using rotation or flipping to produce metamorphosis through substitution): printed adverts and toys;
Illusion of movement (through sequential images): flick books, phenakistoscope, zoetrope, praxinoscope,filoscope, kinora, mutascope, kinetoscope.
After the lecture, we went into the computer lab for a practical workshop about how to make animation in Photoshop and produce a short animation that could be put on Instagram. We only had a limited amount of time, but the students all produced sequences of animation by the end of the day.
Cook, Malcolm. Early British Animation: From Page and Stage to Cinema Screens. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Denson, Shane, and Julia Leyda. “Perspectives on Post-Cinema: An Introduction.” In Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film. Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016.
Dulac, Nicolas, and André Gaudreault. “Circularity and Repetition at the Heart of the Attraction: Optical Toys and the Emergence of a New Cultural Series.” In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, edited by Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, edited by Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Manovich, Lev. “What Is Digital Cinema?” In Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda. Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016.
Meyer, Ruth. “Early/Post-Cinema: The Short Form, 1900/2000.” In Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda. Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016.
6-8pm Thursday 17th January 2019
Cello Factory, 33-34 Cornwall Road, Waterloo, London SE1 8TJ
New performance as part of the opening of In the Dark, an experimental show by the London Group, the Computer Arts Society and the Lumen prize
dotdot dash is a participatory light action with laser pointers and voice directed by Birgitta Hosea. The performance is orchestrated around a chance-based score made through walking with paint-covered feet over musical paper. Coming together in a choral collaboration, participants are directed to explore the colours and mark making possibilities made by drawing with laser pointers and to accompany this with the sounds of their own voices. The effect is a live audio visual performance of animated lines in red, green and purple reminiscent of a scratched-on film, abstract animation such as those made by Len Lye.
Although many other artists such as Pika Pika and even Picasso have done light painting before, this is not the same. It is not a set up to be recorded on a slow exposure for a photograph, but a live animation of lights and sound that is created communally and experienced in the present moment.
dotdot dash was originally commissioned in 2018 for the Night Walking North Kent festival by InspiralLondon, a collaborative artists’ project led by Charlie Fox of Counterproductions. The project is based on a 300-mile walking trail around London in the shape of a spiral created by Charlie Fox and divided into 36 sections.
Determining a route by chance through this drawing of a line means that the walk cuts through many unpredictable parts of London. dotdot dash was created to be experienced by walkers as part of a series of site specific artworks at the end of the trail in Gravesend. My intention was to create a work of animation that could be made collectively by the participants on the walk; that was mobile and would not involve carrying any heavy equipment.
Additionally, following discussions with the InspiralLondon group about privilege and who is able to walk around freely in the dark at night, dotdot dash is a collective action to reclaim the night through light and noise for people who may not normally feel safe to walk at night in the city.
The route involved going through light industrial areas that are desolate and deserted at night, walking through a caged walk way over a sheer drop to a chalk pit, through bushes and undergrowth, past burnt out motor bikes, across another caged walkway over a railway line and then to a tunnel through a disused chalk pit near Ebbsfleet International station. Everyone on the walk was given two laser pens and with around 30 people present together we created a live performance of animation. With the help of brass megaphone, I gave instructions as to what colors and types of marks they should make. With the excellent acoustics provided by the tunnel, I encouraged people to sing along with the instructions too.
The work was repeated in a tunnel on the Regents Canal at Kings Cross, London for another InspiralLondon night walk for the London as Park City Festival, Friday 20th July 2018. A different group of walkers participated in the work. The addition of the water going through the tunnel added an extra element of bounced light and reflection to the mark making possibilities.
Chance-based score made by walking, Birgitta Hosea, 2018
The same score interpreted by participants with lasers!