Breer's Babes

By Samantha Moore

Animation occupies a peculiar cultural position. Consigned by many to tea-time telly and kids’ Christmas specials, championed by boffiny nerds, it appeals to almost everyone at some point in their lives, but rarely elicits strong feelings. The word “cartoon” is synonymous with cheap, mass-produced, brightly coloured, exaggerated and unserious work. Alternatively adopted by artists exploring the moving image or by prospective live-action directors on their way to bigger budgets and real people to play with, it’s a bit of a filmic oddity. Man Ray, Len Lye and Eduardo Paolozzi all experimented with animation, although, interestingly, it was often discarded as a medium as it involved too much work for too little reward!

The production of animation is unglamorous and slow going, to be attempted only by the obsessive and the masochistic. Months, years (occasionally decades) go into films that are generally shorter than an episode of The Bill. Routinely the underdog (under-screened, under-appreciated and under-funded) animation fights hard for legitimacy: straddling the film, art, children’s TV and special effects arenas, it fits comfortably nowhere.


This is also its great strength; animation can be the most seductive Trojan horse, smuggling in ideas in an apparently non-threatening form. An audience who would balk at a programme of avant-garde or experimental film would approach a screening of animation with less trepidation and fewer pre-conceptions. The Animate! scheme attempts to broaden the perception and experience of animated film-making by commissioning works which innovate and experiment with a form that, in the mainstream at least, sticks pretty rigidly to humorous, character-driven narrative and a familiar aesthetic.

But what constitutes innovation in a medium where (Disney aside) there are no rules except that 24 frames make up 1 second of moving film?

Innovation of Form

Once you banish the smooth familiarity of cel animation (which, anyway, is almost impossible to achieve by a single person on a budget of £25k) a myriad of creative frame-by frame techniques can be used. About two-thirds of the films made for Animate! are mixed media, using various combinations of pixellation, photos, live-action, computer animation and working directly onto film. This can really free animators from the restrictions implicit in a unified style, and allow them to investigate different aspects of the subject.

In 15th February (1995), an unsettling and complex film, Tim Webb uses a combination of media (live-action, drawn animation and pixilation) to emphasise the fractured narrative and rhythmic structure of Peter Reading’s poem.

When using mixed media, however, some techniques seem to dominate the scheme, particularly working directly with the film, the use of computers, and live-action (pixilated, straight or through photos). All three techniques are extremely accessible, readily available to animators working with limited money. They also lend themselves to disjointed working patterns – the budgets involved rarely allow the luxury of full-time work on the film, and many of the film-makers do commercial or unrelated work to support themselves whilst making their films. In Jonathan Hodgson’s Feeling my Way (1997) the protagonist is seen, at the end of the film, to “yield” to ironically depicted commercial animation as he makes his way to work.

Whatever the reasons, in recent years an Animate! aesthetic seems to have begun to emerge. Many of the films reveal a big debt to such influential experimental animators of past decades as Norman McClaren, Len Lye and Robert Breer, in their style, technique, and occasionally content. This is inevitable, since, in many ways, these animators provided the model for the archetypal experimental animator – questioning, dissecting, and innovating. Nevertheless, at the end of the century those animators’ original ideas and techniques have to be developed and pushed forward, not reproduced in homage. Many animators have attempted to develop their own experimental vocabulary. Yet some of the films produced by the scheme seem specifically to take the work of this trio, and use it to provide templates for “experimental film”. The Animate! scheme is funded, uniquely, to commission experimental work. However, in a field where there is little support for such innovation, the space to fail is a precious thing and there’s no room to play safe.

Content in the style

Animation is a discipline evolving as much out of fine art and illustration as out of film. Perhaps as a result of an emphasis on the graphic design of the films, the term “experimental” when used of animation tends more often to refer to the technique used than to the subject of the film. The content of animation is usually assumed to be short, humorous, figurative and narrative. The seven-minute Saturday morning cartoon has set that in stone, and for many people the short animated film is incapable of expressing anything more than surreal anarchic humour.

In a Sight and Sound article (October 1992)  has argued that: “Animation is a reductionist form... it is not the business of the animator to make us know a person, love them, pity them, hate them.” This s an oversimplification of the medium, as if it were only capable of painting in broad strokes. Robert Bradbrook’s End of Restriction (1994) uses a non-narrative collaged structure to build up a sensitive and subtle portrait of a teenage boy growing up in an English village. It is witty and affecting, allowing its point to develop as the film progresses. The pacing is slow and deliberate; the visuals are simple black and white. It is made using a computer – a medium often associated with bright colours and tricky special effects. The technique is unusual and striking, but doesn’t encroach on your understanding or appreciation of the subject.

Ruth Lingford’s What she Wants (1994) is also made very simply on a computer, presenting images of a woman’s sexual fantasies as she travels on the tube. It is edgy and very honest, and because it’s animation it can seamlessly and simultaneously manifest the external and internal. This aspect of the medium allows interesting subjects that would have no other means of expression, or would seem clunky and contrived, to be dealt with by innovative animation.

Defining experimental animation by technique alone undervalues the medium. Some films that are defined as experimental have startlingly conventional content. By placing content below form in defining what constitutes the innovative, we undersell animation’s potential. Animation is the ultimate auteur’s medium, the place where no actors, lighting, weather or location can interfere with the director’s vision. The Animate! scheme is a precious oasis of resources, created to encourage genuinely new and interesting work to be produced and distributed. Hopefully it will continue to send out Trojan horses packed full of dangerous ideas.

Samantha Moore is an animator, and course leader in animation at the University of Wales College, Newport, as well as Senior Lecturer at Wolverhampton University.