One can consider frames of animation like musical notes on a scale. This is especially true when visuals are closely linked to sound tracks. Generally, when a waveform rises in size on the audio track, the corresponding visual frame is active or more detailed, reflecting more energy and dynamic. If the sound recedes, then the corresponding image may remain static with little dynamic change. One master of this approach to visual music was Norman McLaren and his many film experiments, including his 1959 Short and Suite and the 1971 Synchromy. McLaren used many different techniques, including drawing directly on 35 mm film with pen and ink. He also used optical printing techniques in Synchromy to create a direct visual link to the sound track.
Similar to music, when an animated sequence is highly active, it can be exhilarating to watch. Too much exhilaration can be exhausting, and the audience can start to drift away. It is critical to let your frame and characters rest for even just a moment, so the audience can catch up and digest what is happening and maybe even get a sense of character and thinking from an animated subject. This is practical and adds dynamic to any composition. Even with the lack of sound tracks, object movement and visual frames can have patterns that create certain effects and illusions to the eye. These patterns become recognizable to us because we know their movement even though the objects are not necessarily related to that movement in real life. We saw this in the work of PES. His candy-corn flames and his pepper heart are great examples of movement that have a distinctive pattern. The Pepper Heart features three or four red peppers in increasing size that are replaced one after the other. The first and smallest pepper is held for about eight frames, then each pepper is replaced with a larger pepper. There is a brief hold (four to six frames) on the largest pepper, then the peppers are replaced with smaller peppers (the same three or four peppers), and the smallest pepper is held for eight frames and so forth. PES uses the loop or a cycle of movement mimicking the repetitive beat of a human heart. This creates a visual music of sorts that can be appealing to the eye. The hold along with the changing pepper movement make this a successful sketch.
William Kentridge follows his own intuitive approach to movement and patterns. In his Fragments for Georges Melies, which is part of an exhibit that traveled around the world in major venues, Kentridge gives his artwork a life of its own through the use of stop-motion, drawing, and reverse playback techniques. The artwork of one of his drawings appears to sink to the bottom of the frame, until Kentridge enters the frame, frame by frame, and rescues the slumping image. When I asked Mr. Kentridge about his approach, here is how he responded:
“The morning I decide to make a film, I begin. I may have to pause to find an object or image. Thinking about the film starts while setting up the camera … I can make a film without having to sell the idea to a producer. I can practice my craft without being dependent on the whims of anyone else—there is no crew, no cast. I like to use a camera like a typewriter.
“In the long term, my approach is based on a year at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where there is an emphasis on the expressiveness of gesture throughout the body. In the short term, I find the trajectory of a movement either by watching myself in the mirror, or filming myself or other people with a video camera; or by making a movement in the air with my hand, while counting.
“Objects and images in the films float between being seen as photographic objects, or the things themselves, and provoking other meanings and associations—for example, a cloth draped around a corkscrew is also a woman lifting her arm.”
His animated movement is lyrical and so is the pattern and pace of his animation. It unfolds in a mysterious yet simple pattern that makes us wonder about the life of the created image.
This rhythm and flow of images can be an abstract concept to grasp, but it is often the element that defines a particular piece of animation. It is the artistry. Whether the visuals are tightly matched to a music track or much more interpretive in nature, there does need to be a driving force to carry the film along. Once again we turn to the clay painter, Joan Gratz:
“I am interested in creating a ‘visual onomatopoeia’ in which line, color, movement, and rhythm create the feeling of a particular experience without illustrating
Tom Gasek has over twenty-five years of award winning stop motion animation production experience as an animator and director, having worked with directors like Will Vinton, Art Clokey, Peter Lord and Henry Selick. Most recently, Tom has worked on Aardman’s “Creature Comforts America”, Sony Bravia’s “Play-Doh”, and Laika’s “Coraline.” Tom is currently an assistant professor at the School of Film & Animation at Rochester Institute of Technology.