Taking a Line for a Walk

Jonathan Hodgson’s animate! film Feeling My Way, completed in 1997, received a raft of international awards. Amongst these was the \\international\media\art\award 2000, Karlsruhe, the major annual European prize for artist’s video and media. The competition’s theme for that year was ‘cITy’ and the following article by Chris Darke accompanied the award.

The Animated Itinerary of Jonathan Hodgson

Feeling my Way animate! commission © Jonathan Hodgson 1997

While the names Aardman and Cosgrove Hall Films have come to represent the international face of British animation, there are many other animators who are able to combine commercial work with a more exploratory, if not experimental, approach. The context from which Jonathan Hodgson has emerged and the trajectory that his career has followed since he graduated from a Graphic Design course at Liverpool Polytechnic in 1981 is representative of the lot of the career animator in the UK, even while his work displays an exemplary imagination.

As John Southall has observed in a 1997 overview of the conditions of organization and production in contemporary animation in the UK: ” Although attempts have been made to set up large animation studios in the United Kingdom, few have survived for any length of time. Today, the British animation industry is largely composed of small units that expand and contract depending on levels of production.” 1

Identifying what he calls ‘the service sector’ as the chief commissioner and outlet for a variety of animation-based formats, be they station idents, broadcast inserts or commercials, Southall also stresses the changeability and uncertainty that dogs the work of many animators who have to exist as freelance ‘creatives’ and balance commercial priorities with visionary intentions.

Hodgson, it appears, has managed that balancing act better than many. After graduating from Liverpool Polytechnic with his film Dogs (1981), Hodgson went on to what was, for a period, a major forcing house for British animation talent, the Royal College of Art, from where he graduated with the highly awarded Nightclub (1983).

Dogs © Jonathan Hodgson 1981

Along with his RCA colleague and then creative collaborator Susan Young, Hodgson set up a production company, Practical Pictures under whose auspices the duo undertook a number of commercial commissions as well as a project for the United Nations promoting multilateral disarmament. Practical Pictures lasted for three years and Hodgson then worked as a director for a number of other companies including Phoenix Films, Bermuda Shorts and Speedy Films before founding his own production company, Sherbet, with partner producer Jonathan Bairstow. Through Sherbet, Hodgson has continued with his commercial work for clients such as Saab, Bell Atlantic and the BBC.

As with many other animators, however, Hodgson has been able to explore other forms of animation through the animate! production scheme established in 1989 by The Arts Council of England and the TV station Channel 4. Originally the brain-child of the independent producer Keith Griffiths and the Arts Council’s David Curtis, then Film and Video Officer, it was enabled and implemented as a production scheme with the assistance of Channel Four’s Commissioning Editor for Animation, Clare Kitson.

Since its first year of production in 1990 the scheme has produced some of the most challenging and innovative animated shorts - over forty at present - by film-makers keen to essay ideas outside the constraints of the commercial sector. Hodgson’s 1997 film Feeling My Way was funded by an animate! award in 1994 and this mixed-media voyage through the streets of London went on to pick up a number of other prestigious awards.

Nightclub © Jonathan Hodgson 1983

Norman Mclaren described animation as ‘the art of movements-that-are-drawn’ 2. And it is movement or, more accurately, the tension between stasis and movement that is explored in Hodgson’s work. Beginning with his first film Dogs (1981), Hodgson’s world is one comprised of simple activities. Whether it is a walk to work (Feeling My Way 1997), a visit to the zoo (Menagerie 1984), a night out at a club (Nightclub 1983) or a stroll in a park with a dog (Dogs 1981), his films depict and glory in everyday subjects that are always treated with a refined eye for their abstract possibilities. And it is precisely in their treatment of movement that his films approach and explore the abstract potential of animation.

It would be wrong to consider Hodgson’s films as strict examples of the tradition of abstract animation that extends from Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony through James Whitney’s Abstract Film Exercises up to present-day computer animation, largely because Hodgson is working both with representational imagery and narrative structures - there is a beginning-middle-end format to his films (and always in that order) as well as a concern for characterisation, especially visible in Nightclub.

However, the films evince a fascination with the extent to which abstraction exists as a latent possibility of animation and that modernist exponents of a purely abstract practice have explored to the exclusion of indexical representation and narrative pleasure. The abstract quality of Hodgson’s animation resides in its depiction of movement and in the way that this movement invokes figure/ground relationships. It is a quality present in his first film and that extends across his work.

In Dogs, with its scratchy, illustrative aesthetic, one can identify the way in which the animator’s use of line becomes a way to play at the border between the representational and the abstract qualities of the image. In this film the horizon is a line, a dog is a fluctuating form of colour and ink, a human is a bulky smudge. This film sets up a painterly approach to the illustrative element of Hodgson’s work that unites it with his later films even though, as a director, he has worked with different animation artists across his output.

Menagerie © Jonathan Hodgson 1984

Hodgson’s line itself moves. There is the constant suggestion of mutability and imminent transformation even in the mark that makes a line into a horizon and which itself shudders in its frame-by-frame animation. This line is also a declaration of intent. It is surely the simplest mark that can be made in space to suggest a threshold for events, a horizon and a perspectival limit because it works as a figure against the ground of ‘empty’ white space (Hodgson has no fear of such space, even when coloured, as a ‘ground’ that features in much of his work).

I emphasise this feature because it introduces another element in his work that associates movement with the potential for abstraction. This has less to do with (although it is in no way disassociated from) animated figures and their movements than with the way that the film-maker deals with the filmic grammar of movement-in-space. So it is in his repertoire of transitions - of cuts, fades and dissolves, of the relationship of on-screen to off-screen space, of foreground to background - that Hodgson’s animation makes the management of filmic space an adventure in perception.

Menagerie provides a fine example of how Hodgson animates filmic space to make it expressive. Again, it is a matter of his lines, elegantly drawn and vibrating in space, that provide the viewer with the film’s thematic and narrative substance. The film opens with two birds set free from their cage and we are carried down a long tree-lined road into a zoo on the film’s exploration of captivity. The strong sense of movement that the film sets up as a counterpoint to the animals’ own incarceration is almost entirely achieved through Hodgson’s use of line. When a visitor arrives at the entrance of the zoo, for example, the smoke from the attendant’s cigarette blossoms into delicate curlicues that fill the screen and that act as a dissolve into the next scene.

Train of Thought © Jonathan Hodgson 1985

The highly effective simplicity of Dogs, in which Hodgson explores an absolute economy of means by which to convey movement - there are moments when the dog running dissolves into an almost flick-book-like flurry of line and becomes a sketched abstraction of form suggesting movement - becomes more illustratively ornate in Menagerie. But the film is more ambitious in its use of drawn animation to suggest a freedom of movement between frames and between scenes and does so through its abstraction of the representational figure.

Michael O’Pray has suggested that animation may be divided into what he distinguishes as ‘three systems’: (a) that of the means of representation - drawing, cels, clay, objects, (b) that of the representation - Mickey Mouse, a Svankmajerian collage figure, Grommit and so on, and© that of the representational system of film with its close-ups, zooms, pans, edits, superimpositions, sound and colour.3

It is Hodgson’s exploration of the third element of this system that has been developed across his work; even while the means become more sophisticated and the aesthetic more ‘painterly’ Hodgson refines the possibilities for filmic movement within the animated film.

The Man with the Beautiful Eyes © Jonathan Hodgson 1999

Where Menagerie develops what Dogs introduced, two of his most recent works further extend this exploration of movement. The Man with the Beautiful Eyes (1999) depicts the world described by a Charles Bukowski poem, one in which a group of suburban children escape from the strait-laced confines of their parental homes to play in the garden of a house belonging to a drunken deadbeat, ‘the man’ of the title. Hodgson gives the poem’s world a highly-coloured sense of visual ‘period’; it looks and feels very 1950s, as though this were a dream of childhood freedom remembered through the colours and forms of Madison Avenue modernism. One can almost imagine that the parents’ houses as being filled with Eames’ chairs and TV sets, and the interior of the forbidden house as littered with empty bourbon bottles, books of Zen haikus and a pistol loaded with a single bullet.

The elements that Hodgson had started to introduce into his animation with Feeling My Way - the presence of onscreen text, the word-as-image, a collage aesthetic, in fact - further enhances this sense of ‘50s design styles as being a significant aesthetic influence in The Man with the Beautiful Eyes. Which, perhaps, should be no surprise considering his own background as a student of Graphics. The vibrating, fluctuating and mutable quality of line already visible in Dogs and Menagerie here becomes a quality of the film’s colours whose fields shudder, grow and dissolve. Once again, one finds Hodgson’s trademark curlicues as a feature of this animation’s treatment of filmic movement.

Hodgson is skilful at creating the sense of a bounded physical space - whether it is that of a park, a zoo, a nightclub or city streets - as well as a distinct temporal frame for the action that takes place within it. These act as parameters for the animation to warp between representation and abstraction.

Perhaps the most adventurous of his films to flit between these two potentials of animation is Feeling My Way which takes the sense of ‘real’ space - a walk to work through London’s West End - and the ‘real’ time of the stroll as the frame for a moving collage of material and impressions. Working from several hours of Hi-8 footage that Hodgson had shot in the city and which were then digitised, frames printed on an inkjet printer, then hand-coloured, painted and collaged. The overall effect, as video imagery is abstracted, via snatches of subjective onscreen text, into line drawing and back again, is of a shuttling between subjective reverie and real-time perception.

Feeling my Way animate! commission © Jonathan Hodgson 1997

This mixed media approach has proved to be popular with many of those animators working with animate! awards, and one should mention two films in particular that share this collage aesthetic with Feeling My Way, as well as its urban focus; Mario Cavalli’s Soho Square (1992), in which live action was recreated by mime artists, re-coloured through painterly sketches then composited on video and Tim Webb’s 15th February (1995), a live-action, stop-motion exploration of romantic rejection.

In Feeling My Way, Hodgson contributes to that vital genre of the city-film, creating a mini-symphony of the sounds and first-person impressions that assail and threaten sometimes to overwhelm the urban inhabitant - an experience of the metropolis that is one of the founding existential conditions of experimental art, not only in film. In its constant shifts from Hi-8 video to graphics, from line to coloured form, from image to text, from the representational to the abstract, Feeling My Way could be taken as the account of an animator taking his eyes for a stroll and finding on his daily walk to work both his material and his subject matter.

Notes

The title Taking a Line for a Walk is derived from the 1983 animation of the same name by Leslie Keen.

Text originally commissioned for and published in cITy - international media art award 2000, ed. by Center for Art and Media Technology, Karlsruhe, 2000.

The Media Arts Archive at \internationalmediaartaward includes one-minute extracts from all of the 450 videos and interactive works nominated for the prize since 1992.

1 John Southall Aspects of Contemporary Animation in Great Britain: Organization and Production in Animation Journal Spring 1997, p. 45

2 Michael O’Pray The Animated Film in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. John Hill & Pamela Church Gibson, Oxford University Press 1998, p. 434

3 ibid p. 435

Jonathan Hodgson’s The Man with the Beautiful Eyes (1999), a direct commission for Channel 4, won the 1999 BAFTA Award for Best Short Animation. He subsequently made a second animate! film Camouflage (2001) which was nominated for a BAFTA Award and received the Grand Prize at Filmfest Dresden 2002 amongst many other awards.

Camouflage animate! commission © Jonathan Hodgson 2001

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