blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


FEATURE | September 16, 2002


Elizabeth King on the animation "What Happened"

An experimental project in collaboration with director Richard Kizu-Blair, this is a stop-action animation on 35-mm. film depicting the private ruminative gestures of a small life-like articulated figure, a sculpture I call "Pupil." The shooting and editing were done in 1991 at Colossal Pictures, now gone, but for many years a venerable film and special effects production studio in San Francisco. Blair, as everyone calls him, and Chris Whitney, his producer at Colossal, had invited me to bring one of my sculptures to San Francisco and see what we could do by way of animating it on film, taking advantage of a couple of unscheduled weeks on Colossal’s big animation camera.

The sculpture itself is small, about one-half life-size, made of carved wood, with a porcelain head. Like most of my work since my early puppet-making years, the figure is jointed in such a way that it can hold any pose one chooses for it, a little like an artist’s manikin, but a very elegant one. I pose a piece differently from one show to the next, and the pose is an important part of the formal life of a work. With each new figure, I learn to make the limbs capable of ever finer kinds of motion. Many of the joints are wood-on-wood, and hold their positions by friction. But sometimes I hide a more complex joint made of machined brass inside the wood. For example, for the piece "Pupil" I built a tiny brass ball-and-socket assembly and implanted it in the base of the thumb, just above the wrist joints, for the opposable motion that gives the hand its intelligence. Unwittingly, I had been making an ideal film animation model. The calculated tension of its joints made incremental position changes easy—at the touch of your finger—and the size and weight of the figure were small enough to permit ready leverage and extension against gravity.

Blair, a lifelong friend, has always been an important voice in my ear from the film world. Now a director at the production company Complete Pandemonium in San Francisco, Blair worked from 1981 to 1995 at Colossal Pictures, and the city itself still harbors an unusual community of film animators. It was Blair who first introduced me to works by animators like the Brothers Quay, and I began to dream of animating a sculpture on film. The offer from Colossal was a piece of pure providence.

But we only had a week's notice on the sudden open slot in the schedule for the camera and stage. Blair assembled a small crew, consisting especially of Mike Belzer and Trey Thomas, two of the best animators in the field (both major talents in Tim Burton's feature film The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach). Producer Chris Whitney found a way to make the project administratively and financially possible. We had no script whatsoever, and just started blind. Stop-action animation—shot frame by frame on film for replay at 24 frames per second—is a very, very slow way to assemble a moving image. But its hallmark is that, unlike computer animation, which can be aided by all kinds of time-saving programs, stop-action preserves the material realism and idiosyncrasy of the physical world, in all its stupendous and rich complexity, surprises intact. And these very qualities are the ones I want to foreground: a made object imitating a real one, first materially and then kinetically. So that you see always both that the figure is made of wood—real wood, not imitation wood—and at the same time is behaving as a live thing. To have all this, one works a solid eight or ten hour day to net about five or six seconds of animation time.

What would we have this small pupil do? On the first day we thought: make it inspect its own wooden self. And thereafter, day by day, we tried one thing after another . . . each morning Blair teasing everyone to distraction, myself miming the gesture we finally agreed on, Mike Belzer watching this gesture with an animator’s eye for micro-time and making a rough calculation of the total number of frames he would need, and cameraman Richard Lehmann programming the camera’s computer drive for a very basic pan or zoom to take place in microscopic increments as each frame would be exposed. The real magic was accomplished by Mike and Trey. They worked entirely by feel and not by computation. Frame by frame, hour by hour, with stunning concentration, they made the limbs and head and eyes of the sculpture come to life. If five things were moving at once—say, the eyes, a finger, a wrist, the torso, and the neck—each on its separate trajectory and respective speed, they knew which things to move and which not to move and how much and where, on each frame shot. Hundreds and finally thousands of individual frames: it is an art that requires a level of mental spatial memory and anticipation that is indescribable. Like three-dimensional chess. And they knew all kinds of anatomy kinetics. In a given blink, the eye takes longer to close than to open. When the head turns, the eyes turn first. An elbow has exactly this section of an arc in its range of motion and not more. The only tools they used were a small auxiliary black-and-white TV that permitted viewing the prior few shots, and a set of machinist’s scribes—little adjustable pointers on stands—that were brought out between each shot and placed to touch key motion sites on the sculpture body, so the infinitely small movements made for the next shot could be seen. Then the scribes would be removed, the next shot exposed, and the scribes brought back out again. But the larger momentum of the action was all constructed in the animator’s head. I watched, and performed little adjustments to the sculpture, loosening or tightening a screw or a spring, amazed that Mike could play so well the instrument I had made. Each day’s film was developed that night, and we looked at it the next morning. Gradually, a theme emerged, not unrelated to the kinds of things we ourselves were doing to make the film: what does the body involuntarily do when the mind is in motion?

What about a soundtrack? The version here is a silent one, but we also made a different edit with a soundtrack: a fragment of a composition for voice and computer by the artist Laetitia Sonami, who graciously gave us permission. Her piece, and after it our little two-minute film, were called "What Happened." And this title itself comes from yet a third work and the origin of Laetitia’s piece, a story written by the author Melody Sumner Carnahan. (The full Sonami work, along with other composers performing Carnahan’s writing, is available on the very wonderful CD and book The Time is Now from Burning Books Press and Frog Peak Music:, or Later, in the ever-telescoping evolution of my own work, I made yet a third edit of the animation footage for an installation called "The Sizes of Things in the Mind's Eye" in which I optically project the animation out in space as a virtual image floating in an empty frame. "Pupil," the original sculpture, is now in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. 

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