|Animation Research Group||
I'm an animation lecturer at UWE in Bristol, England and have taught for that institution since 2000, but my professional involvement with animation goes back to 1968 following a degree in fine arts and theatre.
As this is about research, I might as well cut to the chase and give a context for my current interests.
Research is understood to be an expected aspect of university academic life, but it also occurs in any child’s life when they experiment to see ‘what happens if .....’ and it also naturally occurs in the working life of any artist/practitioner who feels the need to extend their aesthetic or technical range either out of personal curiosity or professional necessity.
Over the forty odd years I’ve worked in animation or freelanced in loosely related areas it has been enjoyable and/or necessary to solve many problems. Very often the problems were ones that I created for myself as a refreshing diversion from the ones that were inevitable during any production of a film or other artwork.
Given similar technology and similar observations and intentions, people often converge on similar solutions. Over forty years ago I wanted to generate a camera revolve for a frozen moment during the climax of a short film about a bomb courier called ‘The Delivery Man’. In order to shoot this scene for my film I wanted to arrange about fifty tilted SLR cameras in a circle and use a flash unit. At the time it wasn’t possible to borrow the cameras and the film was not shot, but my concept was derived through a shared human logic and, to his credit, the possibility was eventually realised in a somewhat different way by Tim Macmillan with his ‘Time-Slice’ technique.
However, another aspect of filmed images that began to intrigue me in the early 60’s which I did manage to pursue and experiment with aesthetically and technically over the years was the natural blurring of a moving image on a live action frame and the more extreme blurring which occurred during a time exposure. As a young man in the years before major animation festivals were common and before the internet, I hadn’t yet seen this effect in the animated films of Whadislaw Starewicz from the early 1900’s. My earliest sequential tests date back to the late 1960’s or early 1970’s and were shot as two second time exposures with a 35mm SLR stills camera. The fact that digital stills cameras are being used to shoot jpegs as frames for contemporary animation is an interesting parallel. One of these early tests on Tri-X film is show below.
Initial blur test sequence
Another example is shown in the following image from an animation made for the Tony Hart programmes on the BBC.
Line and form animation
A painted white wire was stop-motion animated in front of a black background and rotated during exposures which ranged from .5 to 9.5 seconds in order to blur the single line into a form. The slightly erratic, shimmering quality of the morphing form is due to vibration in the wire and slippage in the motorised rig which was triggered to stop and start when the camera shutter opened.
This blurring effect was later applied either manually or with motors to another model animation project for Aardman Animations and the BBC Natural History Unit. In this case, the subject was the pterosaur, Dimorphodon, and the blurring was used to soften the edges of either the head, wing tips, or whole body depending on the needs of the scene. An image of the model, which I built and animated, appears below. What is apparent in this picture is another visual effect which appealed to me; shadows.
For several years before this project, I had been wanting to try out a technique which seemed both interesting and useful; projected shadows. Besides blurring the animal, it seemed desirable to add blurred shadows to this stop-motion subject in order to heighten the illusion.
To prepare for the shot used under the end credits, I loaded my Bolex with a spare reel of Ektachrome and filmed a convenient bush against a hazy bright sky while I shook it to compensate for the windless day. Although I had to double-frame the projection because an extra credit added to the creeper made the shot longer than my original shadow footage, the technique worked quite well and was subsequently adopted by other people.
Another technique which could have been used in this context, but was developed for another project, was the creation of a fog effect on a model set without smoke. There were variations on this effect, but the one demonstrated in the following image uses double exposures of the same scene, but with variable diffusion when either the foreground lighting or the background lighting was being exposed.
Fog effect sample
In traditional drawn animation which used to be traced and painted onto sheets of cellulose acetate there were problems with static electricity, dust, Newton rings, reflections, cel shadow, and scratches. Fortunately, this last problem also turned out to be a solution in another context.
When a cel is scratched and dirt gets into that scratch the damage is more or less irretrievable. However, when I needed coloured lines that were as thin as a human hair but not easily damaged, cel scratches and china-markers were the answer. Scribing a shape on to an acetate cel allowed me to do two things; ply and crack through the scribed line to make a stencil if the shape was enclosed or rub china-markers across the scribed lines and then wipe off the excess with a tissue to produce coloured and even gradated lines as artwork. I initially invented the technique to deal with complex botanical animation sequences for Aardman Animations and Oxford University Films, but also used the technique for elfin wings in a Madonna video for A Productions. The inset image below shows the basic tools and the background image shows how the technique was subsequently applied to a more abstract design.
The following image shows an example of the scribed, china-marker animation from the botanical films on the left and, on the right, the use of model animation shot with a stills camera and combined with the graphic animation in the same films.
Sample applied techniques
The first time I used this model/graphic animation technique was on a commercial in the late sixties, but I have found it useful since then and applied it to the generation of background artwork for a proposed S4C/BBC Wales musical television series.
The Fleischer Brothers used similar techniques in their films, and TVC did the same on ‘When the Wind Blows’, but my use of it grew out of the collaging of prints of engravings on to models which I was introduced to while working on a feature film at Potterton Productions in Montreal.
When I had an opportunity to design pilot material for my episode of the musical series I needed an art gallery environment that the camera could freely move around in while the drawn characters performed the farce and physical comedy which drove the story. The following images show the collage/drawn style .......
..... and part of the 1:20 scale set, below.
All of the techniques mentioned so far were based on pre-computer technology. When that became an option for me, it altered and expanded the way I approached my personal and professional work, but it did not completely exclude these original techniques.
Applications like Photoshop or Flash could be used to enhance the line quality of conventional drawn animation as as shown in the following images.
Live action/graphic animation
Experimental textural effects could now be applied with greater freedom and control, even though the source material was still physical. Eye blinks, for example, or swarms of insects could be animated in a graphic application using the live action footage of my mechanical model, above, as a starting point.
The initial test image above the last one also employs a technique which relates to my current research interest; combining drawn and puppet animation in one character. The head of the hominid is sculpted and the body is drawn.
Like an illustration technique that I invented several years ago, and which I would like research further, this sculpted/drawn animation was born out of curiosity pressured by necessity. As a freelance practitioner I need to function quickly, but as an artist I want to make work that is visually interesting. This tension is what frequently drives my innovating. The rest is just a child-like curiosity about possibilities.
I’ve written a narrative script which grew out of a short film idea that crept up on me while commuting to Birmingham in the 1980’s. While writing it, I saw it as real; a live action film. Dreams are real while you’re dreaming them.
In practice, however, I realised that it would be better to stylise the visuals in order to let the story’s allegory work in the mind of the viewer. Initial tests were done using what was available to me at the time; film-based photography and photocopying. Even though hyper-realistic CGI techniques have now become an option, that editorial opinion about stylisation still holds, but my means have changed.
As things currently stand, the visuals for the project will probably combine three main techniques. Computer enhanced puppet animation, drawn animation, and one of my illustration techniques.
The title of this sample is ‘Chimera Study 1’ and it is part of my research into a hybrid animation technique combining model animation and bas relief with line and wash effects. There are other studies, of course, but this one features an illustration technique which I invented and refined while dealing with a difficult deadline and trying to help out a picture editor who had been let done by another illustrator.
Almost all of the drawing in the above image was done on a bed of clay prior to scanning or photography and further refinement.
Layout sketch and clay bed
The image above shows how the initial compositional sketch is scribed onto a clay bed about one centimetre thick before additional sculpting. The detail below shows further experiments with a sketched line gradating into the fully textured and water colour washed image.
Sketch/full test detail
Other more conventional techniques will be used, of course, involving masks, salt on water colour, and Photoshop vignetting to create moving tableaux with the puppet animated images. This editorial concept is meant to allow the viewer to either be caught up in the immediacy of events or, at other times, be reminded that this is a story being told. Another innovation that I might use is my design for a special double collared joint in the shoulder armature of the main puppet character.
Arjo collared joint
So far, that’s the plan.
Vignette combo test
©Arril Johnson 2010