About Millie

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I animate, therefore I am a teacher. I teach, therefore I illustrate. I illustrate, therefore I draw on my environment. In drawing on my environment, I am animated!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dealing with the depressing and the personal

Animation as a genre is usually associated with humour, childishness or the bizarre fantasy. It can also have the capacity to deal with difficult and dark subject matters. In the Character Design 1 class last week, in an effort to broaden their ideas on what makes a good character I screened two films whose characters deal with difficult to address subject matter. Death, illness and Old Age.

In Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) is a 1988
animated film written and directed by Isao Takah. A profoundly human story, in the words of Isao 'a very simple story where the two main
characters die.'
It is the tale of the relationship between two orphaned children, pre-teen Seita (清太) and his young sister Setsuko (節子). It is in terms of commercial cinema expectations a very difficult idea to sell: a cartoon about children dying.
However, despite his initial reservations about the project, which had a release date already set which limited the creative ideas he would like to have adopted for the film, Isao developed the animation and it's characters with deep sensitivity. He concentrated on bringing out the details of the characters mannerisms and environment. Their world, their lives in detail and by adding into the narrative from his own experience of living as a
child after the War.

He gives the Setsuko a prop of the Sakuma drops sweet tin that from the book was only mentioned as the container for her ashes. But by recognizing the significance and preciousness of these particular sweets from that time of rationing, he develops the internal context of the character, so that the tin holds the memories of her playing with it and thus it becomes more than just a contain
er for her ashes but a container of her memory. The film is full of symbolism and signifiers of these childrens plig
ht. The fireflies is deeply significant - symbolic of the short life of the girl.

"Mature fireflies which emit light have extremely short life spans of two to three weeks and are traditionally regarded as a symbol of impermanence, which resonates
with much of classical Japanese tradition (as with cherry blossoms). Fireflies are also symbolic of the human soul (Hitodama), which is depicted as a floating, flickering fireball. Heikebotaru (平家蛍, Luciola lateralis),
a species of firefly that exist in the Western region of Japan, is so-called because people considered their lights, hovering near rivers and lakes, to be the souls of the Heike family, all of whose members perished in a famous historic naval engagement - the Battle of Dan-no-ura.)"* Wikipedia.org
The design of the characters establishes and maintains their purity and innocence in the
circumstance. The Anime style used maintains realistic proportions and movement and the colours used throughout are subdued. They move and play and react in realistic movements. The physical environment of their story unfolds in has a photo realism that sets the tone to be s
erious yet their characters maintain the lightness of a child's view.
As their progressive deterioration of health takes hold, from the affects of the bomb's fall out radiation, their appearances decline, the colours become more subdued. Their expressions take on the somberness of children who have lived through trauma. It is deeply moving to witness their lives, experience their small pleasures and feel their disappointment. The film keeps it personal and in the moment. It is a must see, but only in full dedication mode, not thinking you can watch it and do something else. Total absorption. It is one of the rates antiwar films ever made. Further reading on the Physicality of the Grave of the Fireflies from Bill Mousoulis

In a completely different but equally successful approach to difficult life topics, Harvie Krumpet by Adam Elliot id the Oscar winning story of a very unfortunate ordinary man. The story deals with many issues including refugees, loosing a testical, having a magnetic metal plate in his head, falling in love, infertility, adoption, Thalidamide, loosing one's spouse, death and euthanasia.
The character elicit our interest and sympathy as the ultimate underdog and his lot. His very ordinariness set up against seemingly insurmountable life situations makes his naïve simplicity a delight to watch - no-one can feel bad about their own life after meeting Harvie. Yet he is not morose and even deals with the onset of Alzheimer's with a playful acceptance. He is an extended metaphor for the principals and strength of family values and despite the lack of ambition and opportunity he has in his own way a good
Despite his traumas (including the banning of nudity in his nursing home) he remains hopeful, upbeat, even grateful for his change of mind from his own suicide (which in turn provided the means for euthanasia to his new found friend and her cancerous goiter). Harvie is a treat to watch, he is the ultimate antihero that helps us all feel that life is OK. I am looking forward to seeing Adam Elliot's latest piece Mary and Max.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Medium is the Message

In the words of Paul Rand
"Good Design is the synthesis of form and content ‘without content there’s no form and without form there’s no content”.

Animation has the ability to express ideas on so many levels with its technical construction being able to control the sounds and images to 1/25th of a second; what gives the genre even more dynamic is when directors control and express their ideas with consideration to the medium. There are a myriad of techniques and medium that are open to animators - all mark making, image capturing is available. It's a matter of choice, convenience and in some cases time...it seems a shame however that the choice is often limited to a few techniques.

From an interview with Paul Rand is quoted, saying,

" “Play is tense,” says Johan Huizinga. “It is the element of tension and solution that governs all solitary games of skill.”

Without play, there would be no Picasso. Without play, there is no experimentation. Experimentation is the quest for answers."

So last week I tried to get my students to consider the medium as an intrinsic part of the message they wish to express. I introduced them to four animators whom I believe incorporate the technique and medium intrinsically into their message.

Alex Petrov is one of the worlds’s most talented animators, he incorporates fine art painting techniques into his work. With influences from Art movements and artists such as Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Seurat, Cubism, Leonardo Vinci, Sumdblom his work stands out as unique. The medium he incorporates, oil on glass allows for the painterly style gives a natural flow in an uncannily realistic cinematic style. The classic composition framing and metamorphosis transitions lend themselves to the epic tales. He has a long filmography, with The Cow and The Old Man and The Sea are particularly impressive.
The Old Man and The Sea (1999 Oscar winner) uses the technique of painting directly onto the glass with oil paints. The result is astonishing. The epic tale based on Ernest Hemmingway's novel is enhanced by the fine art painterly technique. Originally made for the enormous IMAX screen the format where the image projection is so large that it makes the paintings and details seem almost life like.

Yuri Norsteins amazing technique of layered cut outs, although painstaking in the production, give a perfection of appeal and magic to all his films. His topics draw on Russian Folktales and literature and his style reflects influences from the Russian Artists. His film ‘Tale of Tales' considered “the best animation film ever”. It certainly has an awe-inspiring appeal – and for animators a reverence at the amazing dedication needed with the medium. I chose to show 'Hedgehog in the fog' which has magical appeal and the fog and water are incredible, created without the aid of a computer, but using understanding of film, layers and light techniques.

'The Sandman' – Paul Berry's 3d model animation is an outstanding film which I saw in the cinema for the first time at Cardiff Animation Festival. It etched itself onto my memory in the way nightmares do. From this dark story of the Sandman coming to take the eyes of sleeping children, depicted brilliantly by Paul Berry’s eye for detail and getting the right sounds (check the bone cracking sounds of the hands), he went on to help design and animate on the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’. The amazing bird-like movements in the model, and the extreme angles in the set design all add to the atmoshere of innocence and nightmare. Again computer free.

Phil Mulloy is one of my favourite animators and is a perfect example of the medium is the message. His maverick approach to the outrageous and the offensive is dealt with in black and white rough painted style. The characters of the cowboys depict the base human qualities necessary for the satirical critque of the human condition.
He is not afraid to offend, in fact he revels in the vulgarity, laughing in the face of ‘common decency’ – even down to the school-boy base humor of the sex life of chairs.
He does, however, have a strong underlying message throughout his work, the seeming gratuitous violence and debasement serve a greater purpose – this can be seen especially in 'the Chain' which demonstrates perfectly in it's severe attack on the pointlessness of war.

Despite my fervent love of 2D animation, I am not completely against the 3D animation. My interest was enlightened many years ago by the inspiration of John Lasseter of Pixar animation at the beggining of their journey into bringing the life into the 3D graphic world. I saw him talk at I think it was Bristol Animation Festival. He screened Luxo Junior, who became the Pixar logo. His determination to bring the Disney philosophy of character into the 3D world has changed the face of commericial animation, some may argue to the detriment of 2D. I hope not. It is just another medium, and the creative techniques and processes lend themselves to a certain type of animator and a certain type of animation. I still cant see the point of recreating what you can jujst as well film, but that's where Lasseter made the good point of charcaterisation. The depth and subtlety of making the inanimate object come to life. I think this medium works best when used to create and add to the 'reality'. I really enjoyed recently the screening of '9' at the Bangkok International Film Festival, the influences of some of the greatest 3d model animators can be seen (Svankmayer/ Brothers Quay) and the computer rendering and techniques were quite awesome. But I still hanker for the gritty textures of the ' real' world models... maybe I'm just an outdated artist/animator who enjoys the flaws of getting messy with the medium. The computer creates a clinically perfect world. the random and the mistakes are taken out. Great in 'Wall -E' in a world that has yet to come... but it's not the only way to create animation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cat and Mouse...

So today I was introducing character design to second year degree students. I took the liberty of indulging both them and myself in some classic animations.

Tom and Jerry in "Fine Feathered Friend's" directed by William Hannah and Joseph Barbera in 1942.

This follows the cat and mouse in a classic, non verbal, chase and rivalry scenario... with the addition of the mother hen character. A fine figure of a chicken whose warmth and maternal protection is used by Jerry to gain the upper hand. Jerry outwits Tom in all his attempts to capture him. However, Jerry isn't always so smart and can be seen loosing concentration and following a line of ducks down to the pond as the Busby Berkely style moment of Duck/Chick line up bypassing each other.
Tom however gets a hard time throughout, his attempts to outwit the chick and mouse ending up in inevitable violent retribution metered out by the menacing and one might reckon quite masculine mother hen.

This is in sharp contrast to their roles in 'The Zoot Cat' directed by
William Hannah and Joseph Barbera in 1944.
The two adversaries are given dialogue. They are seen to be parodying the smooth talking, actions and styles of the Zoot suited Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican American and Italian scene of the 1930's.
Tom is seen in the beginning in what could suggest a fumbling romantic but the stereotype veers toward an archetype of the black southern country boy favored by many Hollywood studios at the time.
In failing to win his girl overhears a radio announcement on how to be 'hip' and get your girl, just get into a Zoot suit.

From here on Tom and Jerry become love rivals in their quest to win the dance/ heart of the cool cat gal - zoot suited up (complete with coat hanger shoulders) and putting on the charm they vie for her hand on the dance floor.
It is quite a leap of faith/ suspension of belief being thrown at the audience that they are both after the kitten's love interest and a far cry from the earlier straight cat and mouse scenario seen in 'Feathered Friends' and all played along with the sometines heavy handed jibes that parody the Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican American and Italian culture of the time. It's hard to tell if these are homage to the dance clubs and the natty dressing cats or a veiled dig at them.
But then in 1944 there was far stronger propaganda being played out in the cartoon world... which I will save for another day...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I animate therefore I am a teacher
I teach therefore I illustrate
I illustrate therefore I draw on my environment
In drawing on my environment I am animated!

This blog is an extension of my work at Mahidol University International College.
It will, I hope be a place that I can collect and collate animation and related articles and work that has inspired and influenced me, to help support my teaching practice and to help inspire those who I teach and perhaps entertain and inspire those who would just like to know stuff.
I have taught animation for 18 years in the UK in many forms, from the fields of Glastonbury Festival to beach at Brighton , at Infant, Primary and Secondary schools, Sixth Form Colleges, Further and Higher Education Colleges and Universities.
I am now in Thailand (land of my inspiration) teaching on a BA Degree course in animation at one of the top Thai Universities, Mahidol. It is a dream job, I live in a dream place (Ayutthaya) and enjoy the company of some of the most amazing elephant people in the world.
I hope my dream can help others see what is important and what is worth preserving in this life.