animate! 2001: Pushing it…

...out into the world. The animate! scheme picked its eleventh annual slate of new commissions at the end of March 2001. A couple of days after the selection team had made its decisions we arranged a round-table discussion, to ‘measure the moment’.

Taking part were three members of the 7-person selection team:

Gareth Evans - freelance writer, researcher and programmer, working across media and with a particular interest in innovative and experimental practice. He writes regularly for the Time Out film pages and is currently developing an Armenian Film Festival for UK tour later in 2001.

Gary Thomas - Visual Arts Officer in the Visual Arts Department of the Arts Council of England, responsible for Film & Video including the animate! scheme. The Arts Council co-funds the scheme with Channel 4 Television.

Dick Arnall - Scheme Producer at Finetake Productions, who produce animate! on behalf of the Arts Council of England and Channel 4 Television. He is also an independent animation producer.

They were joined by one of the newly-awarded animate!-makers:

Ruth Lingford - graduated in animation from the Royal College of Art, London. Since then she has made the multi-award winning films Death and the Mother and Pleasures of War for Channel 4. She is currently tutor on MA courses at the Royal College of Art and the National Film & Television School. The Old Fools will be Ruth’s second animate! commission; What She Wants was completed in 1994.

Dick Arnall: Can I start by making a generalisation… an observation? I think it’s been the strongest year yet for animate! - fewer applications that missed the remit to risk-take, very very tough competition in the shortlist. But a vast number of the applications were primarily concerned with narrative… it was extraordinary. Hardly any abstract proposals, structuralists, people who wanted to drill down into the film emulsion! In the shortlist half of the projects weren’t just narrative-driven works - they were actually script-led… you know, a scripted washing-line for the form of the works. And these were mostly pushing out into the ‘real’ world. Why do we think this year there were so few people pursuing ‘conceptual quests’ and so on?

Ruth Lingford: Well, certainly, looking at the Royal College of Art and the National Film School, there’s been very little of that for quite a while. I think abstract stuff has been quite underdeveloped in a way.

Dick Arnall: Have students actually been attempting ‘abstract’ projects, the sort of ones we would recognise as being experimental film or video works?

Ruth Lingford: Well, probably two of the first-years are doing some sort of abstract work at the moment; none of the second-years. And one of the present second-years tried to be abstract in the first year and it didn’t really work, so she’s shied away from it. So it’s not like they tried to be abstract and we’d go, “Ooh, no, don’t do that.” It’s like, we’d love them to actually explore that a bit more, but they have nearly run out of steam, somehow.

Dick Arnall: How many students have you got in each year?

Ruth Lingford: The Royal College has twelve in each year; and at the Film School we’ve got nine students altogether, over two years, and there it’s slightly different because there is really more of an agenda of storytelling there, so they tend to do that, and it tends to be what they’re good at doing there. There have been quite loose things, like Swimming in a Sick Head, which is quite an expressionistic collage of things, but with a thread of written stuff going with it.

Dick Arnall: Can I ask you a question? The motivation for these few abstract projects, is it people continuing an exploration of something that they see as part of the animation tradition, or… this is an impossible question for you, really, but… or do they feel that they’re actually at frontier-land and testing something new, as it were? Is it a homage and beyond, or is it actually a fresh quest?

Ruth Lingford: When we get applications in, you tend to get quite a few wannabe Stuart Hiltons and, of course, Stuart Hilton you can see as a wannabe Robert Breer or Jules Engel or all sorts of people. I mean, there’s a tradition in animation at the Royal College that continues quite a sort of observable straight line coming from itself. But last year’s student I mentioned was more into being at the Royal College of Art and looking at print-making work, fine art work. Actually, the College’s painting department tends to be fairly narrative, quite a lot of it, but I think there’s more coming in from other angles - or there’s one woman who’s doing stuff that’s much more close to sort of, like… sorry, I don’t know the right term for it: I call it ‘difficult filmmaking’, you know, the sort of filmmakers’ co-op stuff, independent, non-narrative sort of filmmaking work.

Gareth Evans: Do the students have a real sense of the history of the medium? Because in the larger filmmaking culture, with the exception of selective journeys back into the tradition, cinematic ancestry is almost completely lost now, and particularly in cultural cinema, in the broader sense of what that means.

Ruth Lingford: Yes. I would say it’s something that’s almost lost at the National Film School in general, that it’s not part of the agenda there at all in terms of teaching history of film. At the Royal College there’s Al Rees doing like the pioneers of abstraction and stuff every Thursday night, and that tends to be the students who are interested in that stuff who go there. It’s on offer. But of course, it isn’t what they’ve seen, it isn’t what they’ve grown up with, and it’s extraordinary how much people do revert to the pattern of what they’ve grown up with. I mean, one of the most depressing things is that occasionally you get somebody coming and saying, “Well, I’ve been doing fine art; I’m a painter, I’m a sculptor, but I’ve just really got into animation,” and they show you what they’re doing, and it’s like the most naff cartoon stuff, because they think that you’re allowed to be visually stupid when it comes to animation, and you lose half your brain cells somehow when you approach it. But, you know, all of us have, I think, grown up with coming home from school and watching cartoons…

Dick Arnall: Which half of the brain cells do you think one loses?

Ruth Lingford: The ones about subtlety of characterisation. You know, the thing that often gets lost with animation is any sort of engagement with the real world. I mean, very good animators tend to make little hermetically sealed worlds for themselves.

Gary Thomas: I think that’s it, and I think that that applies whether you’re making abstracted work or anything, really.

Gareth Evans: It’s in the nature of the profession, isn’t it? You’re on your own, often in a room for a very long period of time. The patience, the endurance nature of animation often breeds that kind of hermetic world, perhaps.

Gary Thomas: But I think it’s also a failure to make reference to the outside world, because though your students might not have grown up with what we grew up with, they’re growing up with much more to see in the world. You know, they go to the cinema and they’ll see adverts and they’ll see Kyle Cooper titles for films and things, and… it’s not sinking in, I guess.

Ruth Lingford: Mm, it often doesn’t, no. I mean, I’m not slagging off my students, because we’ve got some very wonderful students, and the examples I’m telling you about are really awful: they’re people who don’t get into the Royal College, they’re people who come but think that through this animation they can be really stupid, so they don’t get in. It’s just interesting that that’s their perception, that you can be really stupid when you come into this world, that it’s like a holiday from thought, you know. But this hermetic thing - partly it’s the isolation. I mean, if you look at somewhere like the Film School, they don’t get out much; they’re out in Beaconsfield, and generally they stay there, and that’s where they have their waking hours. Also, I think, something that is particular to animation is a sort of despotism: like, you have total control over this world, and like, the pay-off for getting RSI and spending years on your own over a light-box is that you have this world where you have total control and you can make everything happen and you can make anything happen.

Dick Arnall: Except that people so often don’t make anythinghappen, and there’s something about the form and the engagement with the form that is its great strength but also its big final pitfall… that it’s more engaging, perhaps, on the surface than any other sort of screen-based work, but because of the methodology and the isolation you’re talking about, the inward-looking channelling that you have to apply to realise it, then somehow people miss the point… or miss the bigger point.

Gary Thomas: It’s more engaging for the person making it…

Dick Arnall: And for the audience. So, somehow there’s a level at which it’s a very lazy form. Although it’s incredibly labour-intensive, it’s actually very lazy, because you don’t have to think an awful lot to make something which people will enjoy and get off on.

Gary Thomas: Yes. I don’t mean this, but in a way you don’t have to think very much to make very bad soap opera, and people probably engage in that quite…

Ruth Lingford: There’s organisational skill involved.

Gary Thomas: Yeah, but even bad soap opera… I think an audience engages more readily with a live image than a drawn one, in a way that people engage perhaps more readily with photographs than they do with painting - I don’t know.

Gareth Evans: As you said, the idea about engaging with a live image… do you think that makers self-censor at a very early stage? They realise that the general push culturally at the moment is towards a kind of realism in visual culture, particularly photographically you would see that now. And is there the sense, in parallel with the journalism that doesn’t go investigatively anymore or whatever - do you think people just assimilate a more limited framework for what’s possible, because they know that when they get out there, they’ll face greater difficulty?

Ruth Lingford: I think, for some reason, animators are particularly self-limiting. It’s weird, you know… Well, I suppose part of it is it’s a medium where you can do absolutely anything but people will return to redo the same things, and that’s inexplicable to me, except that I suppose it’s scary to…

Gary Thomas: Well, if you can do anything, you must really want to narrow it down.

Ruth Lingford: Yes. I mean, if you can imagine writing, that you could make up any words, you would go back to the tried and tested - you know that they’re going to communicate and that it’s going to work.

Gareth Evans: Well, this is with the digital, isn’t it? Because suddenly now, visually anything is possible, you’ve got to put some borders on it; otherwise you don’t even start. How do you begin? How do you frame anything? So maybe that’s why the storylines have just kicked in in a big way because, as you say, there’s got to be some kind of washing line to hang things on; if not, it’s just overwhelming.

Dick Arnall: Gareth, say more about what you reckon is happening in the wider world. You talked about photo-realism and the pressure of the real…

Gareth Evans: Well, I think you see it in non-visual culture as well, in literary culture to the same degree, that there’s a real shying away from the more crazy end of the spectrum, away from launches into the full realm of the imagination. Particularly if you look at the way that the Citibank Photography Prize has moved, even in its five years, perhaps. There might be the theatricality of certain photographers, and I think the White Cube2 exhibition in Hoxton as well underlines that, but they’re still operating within very a recognisable realism, and at one end you’ve got Boris Mikhailov, who won the prize this year with a gruelling realism, and at the other end you might have the adolescent photographs, the teenage girls, again staging themselves but within a totally recognisable realism. And that’s come out of magazine culture, it’s come out of art photography, it’s come out of television, I think, television’s growing impact on more explicitly cultural forms as well. And underlying that realism in a sense is the sense of narrative, that if you stop that visual image at any point, that visual flow, you will be able to extrapolate a narrative from it, in a way that with abstract work you can’t. And parallelling that, but perhaps at a once-removed level, is the idea of confessional culture, which again is a highly realist culture, from Oprah Winfrey through to abuse testimonials. And that is the world of realism, and it’s the everyday realism of people’s lives, and those two come together in cultural production, I think.

Ruth Lingford: Do you think there’s an altered sense of what an audience is? Do you think there are fewer artists who are content to do work for a tiny audience of other artists?

Gary Thomas: I think that the audience is much more sophisticated now, and the audience that goes to The Lux Cinema is the audience that goes to White Cube2 and goes to see Gladiator, and that’s good. And there may be people who are making work for other people like themselves, but we wouldn’t know, would we?

Ruth Lingford: I guess we wouldn’t know, you’re right.

Dick Arnall: But that’s an interesting point, the sophisticated audience. Do you think that the animators’ sense of the context in which they’re making the works has shifted?

Gary Thomas: Well, I don’t think it’s shifted in the way that some YBAs [Young British Artists] might have shifted, though they’re probably addressing a market more vigorously than animators might be. I don’t know. An awareness of an audience would be a move on, wouldn’t it, from the way things have been?

Ruth Lingford: I mean, certainly it’s something I’m kind of aware of because of the broadcasting pressure. I mean, I think my Death and the Mother got an audience of 300,000 on the telly, which in terms of an artist is huge, it’s a huge number of people, but in terms of Channel 4’s demands now, it’s tiny and insubstantial and…

Dick Arnall: Inadequate.

Ruth Lingford: Highly inadequate.

Gary Thomas: But that doesn’t change the way you’d make films, does it?

Gareth Evans: But at some point it will eventually…

Ruth Lingford: Well, it’ll change the way I get commissioned!

Gary Thomas: Yes, yeah.

Gareth Evans: But there’d be two pressures: one from above and one internally. The remit is narrowing all the time… But it’s interesting with animation, isn’t it, because if you look at someone like David Shrigley, say, who seems to be a good example… he was talked about twice at the animate! selection meeting as an influence on a couple of applications… but the process of assimilation now, particularly within visual culture, is so so fast, so rapid, that you can go from… people discovered Donald Parsnip’s Journal when it was just off Brick Lane, and then it’s at the Hayward Gallery in the space of maybe 18 months, and the two venues would never have met maybe 10 years before in the same way, through magazine culture, through all the intermediaries. And that’s the sophistication that you talked about as well, because people will take on board the counter, or sub-cultural, so much more quickly because they can frame it within various debates and ‘discourses’. But that also, I think, affects things. I mean, it can be positive, obviously, that you bring these forces in to expand the mainstream, but at the same time, the energies that were present at the edge can also get severed.

Gary Thomas: It makes it much harder to be at the edge if it’s just getting used up that quickly.

Gareth Evans: Yeah, because where is the edge? Yeah, exactly.

Dick Arnall: animate! is at the edge!

Gary Thomas: animate! is on television… which is sometimes the edge, yeah.

Ruth Lingford: It’s on the edge of television!

Dick Arnall: Gary, I remember a conversation with you at the Arts Council before Finetake took on this latest round of animate! commissioning… I think we were talking about a particular animate! work that had just come in, and some of us were saying how refreshing it was to have an animate! project that was actually about something, and you said - well, wouldn’t it be great if all animate! projects were actually about something! And Finetake, we tried, I think, to construct the guidelines this year to present that as being an ambition of the scheme… without being specific, prescriptive about what the something might be. That’s why we rattled on a bit in the guidelines about seeking irresistibly original ideas. We wanted it to be clear that we welcomed projects that used animation as a window, a prism, on the wider world. But we tried to say it so that we didn’t undermine… so it was just as clear that the idea, the something, could be an abstract or conceptual quest - like perception of vision or something - that people wanted to pursue with passion.

Gary Thomas: Yeah. Maybe though it’s not so much wanting everything to be about something, but wanting everything to know what it is that it is about.

Dick Arnall: To be a knowing… ?

Gary Thomas: Not so much to be knowing, but to know itself.

Ruth Lingford: To take responsibility. I mean, it’s about taking responsibility for your energies.

Gary Thomas: I think it’s to do with intelligence even, and thought, and things like surefootedness…

Dick Arnall: Confidence?

Gary Thomas: No, I don’t think confidence… You’re not confident, are you, Ruth? No, confidence is probably a killer.

Dick Arnall: What is surefootedness, then, if it’s not confidence?

Gary Thomas: Er… we’re talking about art - we don’t have to make sense!

Gareth Evans: But isn’t it… I mean, the architecture can be hidden, but there must be some architecture to it. It can be invisible to the viewer, but there has to be some organising intelligence behind the work. And some of the animate! proposals… you know, some of those nebulous, floating mood pieces that came in… haven’t got that; there’s not an anchoring point either in form or in content. Is that…?

Gary Thomas: It is. An example of that is Love Is All. I don’t have the language to discuss Love Is All, but I know that it knows what it’s doing. I think it’s difficult to say what Paul Bush’s Furniture Poetry is about, and yet when you watch it, you know… A general audience immediately knows what it’s about, and laughs, because one of the things it’s about is being funny. And that’s the same with abstract work: if it knows what it’s doing, it’s much easier for the audience to accept, I think.

Dick Arnall: OK, well, there was a noticeable lack of applications this year from people who wanted to, as it were, drill down into the emulsion of film or those sorts of explorations, those sorts of quests. Can those quests be as knowing as the more pre-configured works…?

Gary Thomas: Well, absolutely they can, yeah. And I think it’s strange that there weren’t those proposals, but that work is certainly still going on elsewhere, and interestingly.

Dick Arnall: Why didn’t we see that in animate!, do you think?

Gary Thomas: Possibly, some of those people think they’re artist / filmmakers rather than animators.

Dick Arnall: We tried to lay out the stall this year in such a way that those people would feel welcomed to animate!, but I guess we didn’t pull it off.

Gary Thomas: I think it’s a hurdle to get over, I think it’s a barrier. The term ‘animation’ is a barrier, I think. You know, we’ve been in audiences where there’s been discussion of animation and art… and there’s often that distinction between fine art and photography and artists’ film and video and everything, and animation. Well, you know, it’s all art. You know, new media art, it’s all art; that’s what it comes down to being.

Dick Arnall: There are people who have been supported on animate!, who have actually made previous projects, like Paul Bush, despite the fact that he says he’s not an animator. And even more surprisingly, perhaps, someone like Stuart Hilton who still protests that he is not an animator and yet that, to the rest of the world I think, is his territory, and he’s been supported on the scheme and made really interesting stuff on the scheme.

Dick Arnall: Can I ask you, Gareth, coming back this latest selection round of new proposals… you’re very well aware of all the works that have previously come out of animate! but you haven’t been ‘inside’ the scheme before… on the selection team you were put through the mangle of the processing and the criteria that drive the scheme. I think you were quite struck by the sort of internal world that was being applied to the proposals, the references and shorthand that were being used. How did that strike you? Were you surprised by that?

Gareth Evans: Well, I mean, I extrapolated to work out who the names were and so on, but I suppose I never conceived of the animation world as being so perhaps clearly defined before; I’d always thought that it would spill out more. I mean, not that it doesn’t spill - obviously it does - but still, within that, there is a space that very clearly could be called the animation industry or world in the UK, the family of animators. And I just find that very interesting; it’s not a positive or negative observation, really, but just clearly there is this tradition of people working often on their own, in a very intense and isolated way, and yet they are part of that larger family, and then that itself sits within the larger visual culture. And I hadn’t thought about it in that way. I’d thought that there would be less sense of self-definition within the larger visual culture, because of the need financially to move into, say, commercials. Other people perhaps… you know, a lot of people work in the other areas we talked about. But it came across very strongly yesterday, and obviously I was the only person who wasn’t in that world.

Gary Thomas: Well, you say that, but actually I think animate! itself isn’t in that world. You know, I’m certainly not on that world’s mailing lists, for example.

Gareth Evans: But you’re watching people, and you are catching people on the up, aren’t you?

Gary Thomas: It’s catching people on the up, and it’s wrenching people out of that world, really, back into reality! Well, it’s one of animate!’s declared aims, to afford people in that world the opportunity to do something that isn’t part of that world.

Dick Arnall: Do you feel that it’s a sort of hermetic world?

Gareth Evans: No. I like hermetic worlds in lots of ways… I like other people’s imaginative universes, other very distinctive parallel worlds. And when you take that into a sort of more commercial business sense, the idea of the animation world being hermetic, given the nature of the cultural and financial climate, I think it’s probably a supportive world rather than a negative hermeticism; because it’s difficult out there, it’s a hard world, and people need someone, like a producer maybe, to give them that boost when they really need it. So I think in that sense, it’s actually a supportive intensity, as opposed to a smothering one or a kind of enclosing one. That’s how it came across.

Ruth Lingford: Mm. It’s got drawbacks as well, that world. This is something I keep harping on about, but there is the flip side of that support, and of everybody knowing how long everything takes, and what agony the whole process is, that there’s a real lack of critical grist, you know, of cut and thrust.

Gareth Evans: Can I ask you… I mean, you personally, but also, is it a tendency among animators to show to the wider community, of whatever degree, their work in progress?

Ruth Lingford: It hasn’t been, and I think that’s a real lack. Certainly, when I had a studio at Clerkenwell and there were lots of animators dotted about, people would show their…

Dick Arnall: Including the animator who got the Oscar this year…

Ruth Lingford: Oh, yes, including Michael Dudok De Wit, yeah… people would tend to show each other little bits of work in progress, much more in terms of… sort of almost technical stuff - “Is this movement working? Can you read this?” - and that’s very supportive. People tend not to say to each other, “That’s complete crap. Why are you making this shit?” That tends not to be said, but people tend to go, “What about if you put another couple of frames in there? Wouldn’t that work better?” So it’s supportive and critical to an extent, you know, helpfully critical. But people are very respectful about each other’s ideas and…

Dick Arnall: Agendas.

Ruth Lingford: Agendas, yes.

Gareth Evans: But given the longevity of the process, I would think that’s inevitable, isn’t it? You have to respect that, because you can’t just go back and have another take, as you might do with live action. Is it not perhaps almost a constituent ingredient of the medium?

Ruth Lingford: Yes, that once you’ve done it, you’ve done it, and it’s uncriticisable.

Gareth Evans: Well, it’s a bit like an Australian road train: it’s very hard to brake; once you start up, you’ve got the momentum.

Ruth Lingford: The momentum, and also you get so close, you know.

Gary Thomas: But even after the work is done and out there, there’s a lack of critical engagement, I think, where you can get away with jokes in animation that you can’t get away with anywhere else. I’ve seen so many animated films which are not funny, in an audience of animators who are laughing uproariously, and you just think, “You’re wrong!” And how many times do we need to applaud a film about urban isolation and the little funny figure who’s red going to work in the streams of funny blue figures? It’s not like you see those films once or twice: you see them again and again and again.

Gareth Evans: But that kind of semi-constructive… or constructive… criticism is always on hold. Just before coming here, I was at the London Book Fair… the publishing industry is another incredibly sealed world from the outside. I think that cultural production is multiple worlds, isn’t it, that have little bridges between them?

Gary Thomas: It should be, yes.

Gareth Evans: It should be, certainly the multiple worlds, whether the bridges have been burnt or still in place. I suppose partly just because the scale of production is so huge now, in whatever medium you work, you have to find some way again of restricting yourself or framing or excluding… I mean, the whole process it seems to me, being a contemporary spectator of culture, is how you exclude, not how you actually perceive, but how you actually edit.

Ruth Lingford: I guess that’s something people have to learn very quickly with the internet, isn’t it?

Gareth Evans: Yes, exactly, which I think is a complete shift from maybe even just twenty years ago, when you were still hunting out little pockets of activity. Now, whether you want to or not, they’re going to come to you if you’re vaguely in the loop, and you’ve just got to somehow keep them out. You know, there aren’t enough hours in the day…

Gary Thomas: It’s also peer response, I think, as well. Certainly in avant-garde film, people will tell people that they think a film doesn’t work, and the artist doesn’t think it’s the end of the world, whereas I don’t know if that happens in animation…

Ruth Lingford: It tends not to, and it’s quite shocking when it does. We’re all very unused to it. And I’m sometimes seen as a very harsh tutor, because I sometimes say that to my students, and actually the expectation is that mostly people say things are lovely, and the students are terribly soft compared to other departments at the Royal College.

Dick Arnall: Really? Relatively speaking? I got rightly ticked off by Sarah Cox today on the phone. She’s changing the voice on Dear Nelson and I said, “Good,” and she said, “What do you mean? Why didn’t you tell me beforehand then, if you felt it should be changed?” And she’s absolutely right - I didn’t.

Gary Thomas: Well, on animate!... we don’t hold back!

Ruth Lingford: Yes. It’s painful, but you need it. It’s sort of salutary; and occasionally someone’ll get drunk and tell you what they really think.

Gary Thomas: It’s easy for me to say, because I don’t have to take it, but it must make you stronger, doesn’t it? If you’re not questioning what you’re doing, and are unable to accept other people questioning what you’re doing, then why are you doing it? You know, that’s what you do in your day job, isn’t it?

Gareth Evans: And because of the nature of the medium it’s much closer, to use a literary parallel, to poetry than it is to prose… every word counts, very frame matters. And if there isn’t that precision there in the original project proposal, either for oneself or to the larger world, then just the slightest deviation can take you off course. Maybe it needs to be sort of more formalised, perhaps, with some kind of constituency forum where people can take things at various points.

Gary Thomas: Well, that sounds like an animate! website to me!

Gareth Evans: Absolutely. So that the personal nature of one person responding directly to another is somehow diluted into a larger observation.

Dick Arnall: I think that’s very good. Finetake wants to help kick-start that!

Gary Thomas: But, you know, ‘fine’ artists open themselves up. They get their work reviewed in ‘Time Out’, people say nasty things about it. Then they carry on doing the same stuff!

Ruth Lingford: It’s still painful, but it’s sort of part of the ‘contract’. And even if it’s something you are outraged by, you do have something to rebel against.

Gary Thomas: Well, it can even make you more convinced of your rightness.

Ruth Lingford: There’s this horrible sort of sogginess in animation. I mean, I can remember a couple of occasions going to festivals which were mixed festivals, with animation and short fiction and documentary, and on both occasions, in Tampere and in St Petersburg, the chairmen of the juries stood up to give speeches at the end of the festivals, and they said, “We noticed in the fiction films there was a lack of blah blah blah, and things tended to be rather badly cut, and blah, and there was an awful lot of films that we just thought were too blah and too blah. The documentary people weren’t very good at using dialogue, and blah blah blah and blah blah blah… And the animations were lovely.” And in writing as well you get that as well, as a sort of a footnote: “Lovely animation”.

Dick Arnall: But some of that is the easy seductiveness of the form, that somehow is its strength and its pitfall.

Gareth Evans: There’s also a patronising quality there: that it’s not worth the debate…

Dick Arnall: But also, perhaps, there’s the puritan work ethic, that pays too much respect to the amount of time that has been invested in a project.

Gary Thomas: Well, that’s physical work. But there’s the same kind of creative philosophical input going on as in any art, and that doesn’t put the other art above criticism. Just because someone spent a long time realising something, doesn’t place it above criticism. It’s also that either there isn’t a language, or people are lazy about finding a language, to discuss animation. And that lack of discrimination between works, you know, the idea that animation is this one thing… and it’s not this one thing. You can’t like everything. I don’t like everything that the animate! scheme’s commissioned, in the same degree.

Ruth Lingford: It’s like saying, “I love people,” isn’t it?

Gary Thomas: Yeah, “I like all films.”... Yes, “I like people. I’m a people person.”

Gareth Evans: But is there that siege mentality, the idea that animation is kind of surrounded by threat, and in that sense you’re expected to like everything, because if you don’t, then maybe there’ll be a slight gap in the wall, and suddenly who knows what’ll happen? I don’t know - is there?

Ruth Lingford: I think a little bit. So little is written about animation that when you write about it, you have to just support it all the way and go: “Look, you must look at this - it’s fantastic,” and it doesn’t allow for going, “Well, you might like to look at this. Actually, it’s a bit kitsch, but it’s got nice bits. Look at this quality in it.”

Gareth Evans: And I suppose because the whole of culture generally is so much against longevity either in production or in the nature of the work lasting, the immediacy and brevity of production is now endemic. So maybe there’s just a sense that when people start thinking beyond any immediate response about animation, there’s an alienness to it - that’s not the right word, but there’s some kind of otherness to animation that is actually at odds… however seductive the immediate surface might be, if you stop to think about how the animator got to that surface, you suddenly think, “God, well, that took two years”.

Gary Thomas: Well, that’s kind of to do with craft and preciousness, isn’t it?

Gareth Evans: The positive side is craft, I suppose; the negative side might be the precious.

Gary Thomas: Actually, I didn’t mean “precious” just in a bad sense, because when I was thinking about Love Is All and how I could possibly put into words my feelings for that film, all I could think of was that I could only talk about it in the terms that one might use to talk about jewellery. And it’s not just that film, it’s other crafted works of beauty - you know, terrible beauty as well.

Dick Arnall: Did you see some of that on animate! selection day, amongst the proposals… terrible beauty?

Gary Thomas: Everything that we funded was terrible beauty… wasn’t it?!

Dick Arnall: So that’s the promise, is it? There were real difficulties, I think, in trying to construct a sense of criteria, an agenda for animate! this year. There’s this increasingly nebulous idea of what animation actually is, as a genre and everything. And we tried to put something down which would encourage people to think perhaps more openly than previously, but without being prescriptive. What do you think of the outcome, Gary?

Gary Thomas: Well, we’re always trying to push it, and that’s the point. If we kept on funding the same work year after year, then we’d stop funding it - you know, what’s the point? It’s about pushing it.

Dick Arnall: You’ve been waiting to say that!

Gary Thomas: Absolutely not! It’s about pushing it and reassessing it, and one good thing is that this year it wasn’t simply about pushing it in terms of technique and things like that, but in terms of what’s possible, and engagement with narrative is terrific.

Dick Arnall: Well, to come back to the first question this evening, the curious thing to me during the selection process was that, because the structuralists and so on were almost completely absent, we spent very little time discussing techniques in themselves; technique was really the underpinning.

Gary Thomas: Well, it was absent in animate!; in the world they’re not absent.

Dick Arnall: I think there’s more to be said about that… perhaps animate! didn’t pick up on that and we should look at why…

Gary Thomas: I think that might be something we’d need to address next time and make sure that the word spreads even further.

Gareth Evans: When you did the surgeries around the country, did you have people coming up who were working in that world?

Dick Arnall: No, no, there wasn’t any evidence of it. The people who were preoccupied with their process were like the ones who couldn’t get their plasticine to lip-sync the way they wanted it to, and they were in a quandary about putting a tape into animate! because it wouldn’t show what they hoped their plasticene would achieve eventually. You know, maybe a film about the leeks and turnips in their allotment patch.

Ruth Lingford: Well, that’s been a very respectable subject in animation.

Dick Arnall: Erm, are we sensing the Aardman factor here?

Gareth Evans: Well, it is a real danger when one aspect of the medium becomes supremely successful, isn’t it? I mean, obviously, not only does it erase other fields, but you say “animation” to people and they go “Oh, yeah, I know what that is: that’s dah-dah-dah,”. Then everything potentially falls in line behind that, and suddenly you think… at a certain moment of exposure, you might applaud the success, the commercial reception of that aspect of your medium, and suddenly you think, “Oh, no, hold on - I think that’s enough now. You’ve done enough to get us talked about, but not at the expense of everything else that’s possible.”

Ruth Lingford: Although I’m sort of rather sanguine about both Nick Park and the Simpsons, in that in their own special ways they’re both quite intelligent.

Dick Arnall: Do we feel that after the animate! selection we’re any closer to knowing what animation currently is, as a genre?

Gary Thomas: But Dick, you know that’s not an answerable question, and you know that I will say that Gladiator is an animated film, that it’s…

Dick Arnall: No, I didn’t know that, Gary!

Ruth Lingford: Because of the manipulation of the image?

Gary Thomas: Yes, because it’s an intervention into live action, or the continuum, I guess, of the moving image. That’s what it is.

Ruth Lingford: Yes. And they animated Ollie Reed, didn’t they?

Gareth Evans: And a CGI reconstruction of the Colosseum?

Gary Thomas: Yeah. The building’s not there, it doesn’t exist, it’s not live action. What is it?

Gareth Evans: But I suppose, if it’s a question of foregrounding or backgrounding materials, maybe that’s where you could distinguish…

Ruth Lingford: But I don’t have any problem with Gladiator being animation. Does anybody have a problem with it?

Dick Arnall: Well no, except that traditional funders of film production, who support a genre which is conveniently labelled ‘animation’, they might have a lot of problem with that definition.

Gary Thomas: But clearly Channel 4 and the Arts Council don’t have a problem, so that’s OK, isn’t it?

Dick Arnall: I guess it is. But the point of the scheme, for the makers… It may be very confusing to the constituency that animate! has always appealed to, and somehow also missing the point with the peripheries and adjoining constituencies that actually could be very interesting to the scheme. I don’t know quite how we’d crack that one.

Gary Thomas: Well, this year’s projects could certainly all be shown outside an animation context.

Gareth Evans: Maybe that’s what defines real animation - there’s no limit, it can be shown anywhere, in any format, it breaks out of that world. That’s not a very helpful comment, really, but…

Dick Arnall: No, no, it’s directly relevant to animation festivals. I think it’s a very sad comment on the constricting envelope that traditionally surrounds animation, that many of us have an ambition to create something that would be more successful and valued beyond that circuit… outside that loop.

Gareth Evans: That it can exist without the supporting edifice of a safe, supportive world. Yeah, well, that sounds like a healthy agenda.

4 Responses to “animate! 2001: Pushing it…”

  1. Jo Ann Kaplan Says:

    I was interested to browse your editorial offerings and a curious question arose about Narrative…

    On the one hand the people on the animate! selection panel were indicating with surprise that so many applicant projects were “narrative”. And on the other hand Keith Griffiths is saying (I think) that digital media allows a loosening up of “narrative” or freedom from the industrial requirements of “story-telling”.

    It may be that animate! applicants (or any other supplicants for funding) have been bashed by funders for so long about the necessity for “narrative” and “story-telling” (on the grounds of audience accessibility and budgetary predictability) that we simply do what’s required to get the dough. Or is it?

    The more interesting question is what we think of, indeed invent, as “narrative” or “story.” Maybe a story’s just a thread?

    Maybe we should talk about this?

  2. Sarah Cox Says:

    [Sarah was a member of this years animate! independent selection panel]

    The majority of recent shortlisted animate! proposals definitely possessed a strong narrative, sometimes even scripted, structure. When asked why I thought this was, my initial response was that it made Channel 4 very happy, which it certainly did. I do however think that there is more to this than just gratifying the funders.

    The nature of putting in a proposal itself must surely affect the resulting structure of a film. A storyboard, an outline and a script are requested, all being components of the dominant narrative form. I wonder how many intangible concepts are discarded merely because they are so difficult to describe verbally.

    The standard of proposal presentation nowadays is also very high (for those established animators with access to computers and good printers etc) and I often think as panel-members we can be seduced by a professional looking proposal with a neatly defined concept.

    There was a distinct lack of proposals this year concerned purely with formal experiment, either on film or digital media. One reason could be that the use of software such as After Effects can so easily replicate the look of many abstract films that there is little formal challenge there. Does there needs to be a norm which is not yet established in digital filmmaking in order to react against it?

    The animate! films selected for 2001 have embraced storytelling as the primary function of filmmaking yet still manage to differentiate themselves from mainstream animation, if only in the nature of their content. By telling darker and more marginal stories they retain their radical and experimental status. At least, as a panel, that’s how we justify our choices.

  3. Jo Ann Kaplan Says:

    I wasn’t really questioning Animate! decisions about what it funds, merely noting an interesting coincidence and trying to open out a conversation about “narrative” and “story-telling”.

    The thing is, as you say yourself, “a storyboard, an outline and a script . . . (are) components of the dominant narrative form,” and indeed you “wonder how many intangible concepts are discarded because they are so difficult to describe verbally.” Why is so hard to understand these “intangible” concepts in some other way? Or is it to do with this industrial need to know what the thing is before it exists, thereby squeezing the life out of it? I must say that one of the most notable and consistent responses I’ve had to deal with as a film-maker, is the “but this is not what I thought it was going to be response,” even when, most especially when, I the film-maker think the thing looks uncannily like the outline/script/storyboard I presented in the first place. So, how did this big “hole” in perception occur? Is it maybe in the expectation of the beholder, not in some lack of the film-maker?

    To me, there is also some connection between the “lack of proposals concerned with formal experiment” and the above assumption that storyboards etc only come one way (the “dominant “way) and that any other way is hard to understand. I don’t think the apparent lack of interest in formal experiment has anything to do with technology - a lot of the use of tools like AfterEffects is not at all concerned with form, but with style - and style in a very particular contemporary way - that is, icing on the cake, not a function of form.

    So really I think formal experiment and narrative experiment are the same thing. What do you think is going on in a Godard film, or a Duras film, or either of the 2 “essay” films Keith Griffiths refers to, or Chris Petit’s work (and it’s notable Petit is a writer) if not both formal and narrative experiment? What is a story? I thought we already knew it isn’t necessarily what the conventional storyboard/outline/script says it is?

    Personally, I have an attachment to the kind of story that is the “tell it over an over again” kind of story - one that is so familiar you only need to say “once upon a time” and the story is there, entire. What I like about this kind of story is exactly the room it gives you to invent, and I don’t think this kind of invention is merely “theme and variations” - not necessarily. As a viewer, I have to say that I’m not very attentive to things that seem to conventionally count as story - original twists of plot, for example, or “character” development. I lose track of the plot pretty easily and most characters don’t really involve me emotionally very much. I always seem to be looking at something else which is catching my attention or involving my heart. I’m not quite sure what these things are that I’m looking at, but I do think it is formal, and that the “story” is a hanger. As a maker, I find this “hanger” is very important, and it takes a long time to find it, and it does evolve, but it isn’t entirely the focus of attention. One is also working it out through a whole proliferation of things that are the bottom-line building blocks of cinema - that is, moving pictures + sound. That’s basically what you’ve got and you ain’t got a movie without them. And this isn’t anything to do with style - that is, merely how it looks or how it sounds. It’s how you make meaning in the cinema, no?

    I’m sorry if this is a bit rambling and vague. Like I say, it’s just an attempt to provoke conversation. I think these concerns are on a lot of people’s minds.

  4. joanne Hummel-Newell Says:

    I am studying animation at the Royal College of Art. Although I currently have 1 more year to safely bask in my royal college shell, I am extremely concerned with the issues addressed by Jo Ann and Sarah. How do the formal funding/industry requirements really affect the film maker’s creative process? and are they conducive to explorative boundary breaking film making? Any musicians out there will agree that a successful unimprovised jam is indeed more toe-curling and exciting to watch, and play, than a pre-renditioned performance (both enjoyable nonetheless). If jazz musicians can play intuitively then let’s see more jazz animation.

    Personally I lose adaptive grandiosity with a film which has been storyboarded, perfectly scripted and even worse, has an animatic. However we are all individuals and make films for very different reasons, some for the process, some for the audience and some for the glory, all 3 require different processes. In an ideal world I would all like to see more funding to allow room to play with animation. I think that moving into the fine art sphere and using the gallery platform may assist this.

    I feel that it is these fundamental communication hurdles mentioned by Sarah (“we can be seduced by a neatly defined concept”) that hinder exciting animation being funded and exposed. Although I understand that risk-taking can be non-profitable. Once again it all boils down to money, in which case you will properly receive a beautifully printed storyboard and script from me in about a year. Yours jo x

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