Rendered Invisible: the Silence of the Critics

By Ruth Lingford

Making an animated film puts you into a strange slow-motion world, on a different time-scale from the rest of humanity. A day’s work yields a few seconds of animation, if you’re lucky. When you’re working frame by frame, your perception becomes honed so that you can see individual frames as they pass. Watching line tests repeatedly, your mind slows them down so that you can see every detail. When you are watching your own work, you know where on the screen to look, you anticipate the action, and you cannot un-know the intentions of your own film. It is a constant struggle to keep a fresh eye, to second guess the audience’s potential confusions. After 18 months or so of this time-dislocation, when you have finished the film, you really have no idea of what you have made. A sort of snow-blindness takes over. Post-production is, for me, a particular torment, as I am asked to make decisions on a film I cannot see.

heliocentrum-richard-wright-jason-white.jpgHeliocentrum 1995 Richard Wright & Jason White

A film has no reality in itself – it exists only when it is projected. To sit in an audience and hear its breathing is to see your own work for the first time.

The first screening of a new film to an audience is an ordeal so full of pain and dread that, in my experience, it is comparable only to giving birth. The film-maker is beset by simultaneous contradictory fantasies – will she be pelted with rotten fruit or carried shoulder-high through the town? Of course, in the world of the animation festival, you will get one of only three possible responses from people who have seen your film. One is: “I really liked your film”, spoken sincerely, with good eye-contact. The second is: “I really liked your film” in a flat voice, the eyes sliding sideways. The third is complete avoidance, where your closest friends seem drawn to the opposite side of the room.

As animators, we know how long the process takes and how many artistic compromises are unavoidable, and it is just too painful to criticise our colleagues’ work honestly. In fact, animators tend not to talk much about animation at all, and when we do, it seems to be on a technical level. Although I make films that are intended to be challenging and provocative, the question I am most often asked after a screening is “What computer programme did you use?” At the Tampere Film Festival recently, it was a revelation and a delight to hear the unashamed passion and obsession of live-action film-makers talking endlessly about their medium.

For the most part, animated films are born into a critical vacuum. This, and the fact that they give us a chance to look at work on a big screen, is why events like the ICA’s Art and Animation conference are so important.

There seems to be no established critical framework for looking at the animated film as a cultural product with meaning and value. Art critics never write about animation, and when film critics do, they seem to view it as a holiday from serious thought. Animated films are rarely written about in newspapers or listings magazines, mainly on account of the rarity of cinema distribution for the films. This is a hot issue for animation, especially on account of the theatrical distribution requirement for Lottery funding. We are going to have to find a way back to the days when animation was commonly shown as a second feature with feature films, both art-house and mainstream.

A tiny handful of specialists write about animation, notably Jayne Pilling and Paul Wells. But they are in the position of evangelising for animation as a serious medium, therefore they tend to be relentlessly positive in their critiques. In this climate, it is very difficult to get honest feedback on your work as an animator, especially in relation to other cultural forms.

Some of the fault undoubtedly lies with the animators themselves. Generally a nice, kind group of people, not much given to open confrontation, they also tend towards an anti-intellectualism that reserves its harshest criticism not for the stupid and crass, but for those films that are seen as too clever or pretentious. So we animators find ourselves in the position of idiot child in the family of film-making – we are indulged as cute and funny, little is expected of us, and we become rather embarrassing when we over-reach ourselves.

The Animate! scheme has, I think, contributed significantly to the whole culture of animation. It is valuable to see a funding body taking animation seriously as art. Cross-overs between animation and other media have been made possible. Intriguing oddball misfits have been allowed a voice. Film-makers have been enabled to make animation that demands more of the audience.

I feel that one part of the scheme’s remit is particularly important, and that this is perhaps being neglected in the current climate: a willingness to take risks, a willingness to fund films that might fail.

As a film-maker and a teacher of animation, I find the body of work produced by the Animate! scheme an important resource. This is a body of work that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, and its failures, oddities and dead ends are, I believe, important and integral to it. The work issuing from Animate! has provoked a lot of discussion in the animation community, some of it critical, but it has, I think, been a stimulant to a wider vision of the medium.

One particular area in which the Animate! scheme has made a big difference is in the funding of small, unconventional digital films. This has contributed greatly to a much wider and more interesting use of the computer by animators, shifting the emphasis away from glossy surfaces and hyper-realism towards content and emotion, and some really fertile hybrid forms.

Films from the scheme that have been particularly important to me include Richard Wright and Jason White’s Heliocentrum, an intelligent, self-reflexive film about the relationship between the baroque and digital imagery; Kayla Parker’s Cage of Flame, full of rich and powerful images that communicate directly with my body; Robert Bradbrook’s End of Restriction, a softly-spoken but unexpectedly emotional digital work; and Keith Piper’s Go West Young Man, polemic with subtlety. None of these films is without flaws, probably none of them is a crowd-pleaser – they are all films that people disagree on. But I am glad that they exist.

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art, Ruth Lingford has made three films – What she Wants (1994), Death and the Mother (1997), and Pleasures of War (1998).