Suspended Animation: ‘Moving Pictures’ in Kemper

While students participating in Winter Term’s performance arts were running frantically about campus trying to be “everywhere at once,” the visual arts participants, including the Andover Film Society, were in a mellower mood. In Kemper, Steven Subotnick, a world-famous animator, gave a presentation in lieu of the Addison’s current show, “On Paper.” Subotnick has been doing hand-drawn animation since the 1980’s. Some of his work has included television commercials and work on interactive CD’s, but that’s only “to pay the bills.” The vast majority of his work consists of independent animated films, which range from a few seconds to ten minutes in length. Subotnick started the presentation by having the audience list ways people use animation. The list included television animation and personal expression. Subotnick emphasized the second category as the most important. “An animator animates,” Subotnick reflected, “much like a painter paints, a potter throws, or a dancer dances.” Most people, when they think of animation, think of Walt Disney’s full-length features. Before showing his first clip, Subotnick pointed out the rarity of that type of work; “Most animators work independently, and the average film ranges from three to five minutes long.” In standard film, there are twenty-four frames per second; animators must draw twenty-four pictures for every second of film. The presenter, witnessing the crowd’s shock, quickly reminded them that there were, of course, ways to cheat. “You can replay stuff to fill in time, and you don’t always want things to be moving fast. Lots of animators will play the same picture for two frames.” The first sample of animation Subotnick showed had been sponsored by Absolut Vodka. Organized by Christina Panushka of Los Angeles, the liquor company had a contest for animators with a cash prize. The requirements were simple: the film had to be exactly ten seconds in length, and the famous outline of the bottle had to appear in at least one frame. The thirty winners included Subotnick and famous animators from all over the globe. The videos had various themes. One short was a black screen with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored bottles floating about. Subotnick’s clip was of several bottles swinging around a white backdrop. It ended with an off screen collision. However, the variety of content was outdone by the types of media used; hand-drawn animation, clay-mation, and computer animation were all present. The next film was entirely Subotnick’s. Entitled “Calling Cards,” it was made in 1992 using a computer program written by his friend. The program enabled the artist to draw lines, either with a mouse or an electronic pencil, and record the lines in real time on the computer. The program, though restricted, yielded phenomenal results. Next, he showed “Devil’s Book,” one of his more well-known pieces. Inspired by a folk tale called “Nahila Gehenra,” Subotnick surmised that Hell is nothing more than an accountant’s ledger book, each entry accounting for a soul. The only way to lift a fallen soul from the dreary depths of tax figures, according to the legend, was through the beautiful voice. The video was an abstract, handmade art series. Subotnick ingeniously combined etchings, collages, and photo-grams in provoking colors to achieve the desired effect. The film was pulled together by the music of Joan LeBarbara, a vocalist working in California. LeBarbara’s eclectic combination of tape-loops and synthesizers provided a unique background to the film. “Hairy Man,” an even more popular piece, followed. Based on another tale, this one from Southern Appalachia, the story followed a young girl and her grandmother on their adventures with the terrifying Hairy Man. When he finished drawing, Subotnick had nearly ten minutes of film. Subotnick took this opportunity to emphasize the importance of editing in animated-film making. “In almost every project, there is a fair amount of editing involved. Animation is all about getting the essence of a story. It’s about weeding out all that unimportant fluff and getting to the really good stuff.” A short talk on commercial work came next. He showed two of his most popular commercials. One, for a high-caffine Brazilian Coca-Cola product called Kuat (which, unfortunately for all PA students, is illegal in the U.S.), featured brightly colored vines growing all over a gray city. The other was a “dairy fairy” (a cow with wings and a magic wand who flew around and zapped milk into the American cheese) in a commercial from Kraft Cheese’s calcium campaign. “Commercial work,” Subotnick related, “ is largely derived from independent work. The [Kuat] commercial came from ‘Devil’s Book,’ and the Dairy Fairy was derived from ‘Hairy Man.’” Subotnick ended with a short presentation from the interactive CD that accompanies his new book. Artists on the CD included Bryan Papciak, Dan Sousa, Christine Panushka, and Tim Miller. Subotnick’s book, entitled, Animation in the Home Digital Studio: Creation to Distribution, distributed by Focal Press, is available online and in most bookstores. During the final question and answer session, one young artist asked where one could go to see the finished animation. Subotnick answered, “the best way is to attend an international festival.” The closest festival, he pointed out, is in Ottawa, Canada. Other popular festivals include those in Amnesty, France and Hiroshima, Japan. “There are also screenings at libraries and art museums of local artists’ work. You can buy collections either directly from the artist or through a company called Spike & Mike or Facets Multimedia.” Subotnick ended the evening with advice to aspiring animators, “Watch all the animation that you can get your hands on.”