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Music drawn by hand

August 11, 2012

When I was young I watched Fantasia more times than I can count, and ever since the combination of classical music and interpretive animation has intrigued me. If only there were more such films. Popular music videos can be entertaining, even artful sometimes, but can never achieve quite the same effect. I only know of a few Fantasia-esque works, but they’re some of my favorite films, of any length, of any genre. Here are four of them, with brief comments. (Note: watching all of them will take about forty minutes. I think it’s worth your time.)

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Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker – Night on Bald Mountain – 1933

My favorite part of Fantasia was always the final sequence, combining Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain with Bach’s Ave Maria, the demons of the night vanishing when a bell tolls and giving way to a choir of monks. It was strange, then, to discover that the first half of that sequence borrowed heavily from the above film, also a rendition of Night on Bald Mountain. I did not read this anywhere, but came across the above while going through lists of “best short films” for fun; the connection, however, seems to me undeniable.

This version is undeniably more inventive, more terrifying, more artistic. I have an impulse to associate it with Expressionism. The Disney version, however, is better executed. This one has, among other problems, too much trouble keeping consistent lighting. That is, perhaps, mainly a result of it being the first film ever made through pinscreen animation. The creators were not yet fully in control of the medium they had recently invented. Pinscreen, according to Wikipedia, “makes use of a screen filled with movable pins, which can be moved in or out by pressing an object onto the screen. The screen is lit from the side so that the pins cast shadows.” If you do a Google image search for pinscreen animation you get a better sense of what that means. Not many films have been made using pinscreen. According to Wikipedia they can now achieve similar effects with computers.

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Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin – La joie de vivre – 1934

This film manages to feel simultaneously innocent and scandalous, much like, say, a poem by Robert Herrick, e.g. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” or “Corinna’s Going a-Maying.” It feels very 1920s to me, not 1930s; but it’s also French, and I don’t know much about how the Great Depression affected France culturally.

I find fascinating the connection this film draws between the two women and their white dresses. The women leap into the air with the skirts floating over their heads, showing off their long legs; they wrap themselves in their skirts and seem to turn into flowers to hide from the man behind the door of Danger; they strip to go swimming and then, when the man catches up to them and picks up one of the dresses, they flee naked and birds swoop down to bring their clothes back to them. The dresses are not and yet are natural, are not and yet are a part of them. For simple line drawings, these women manage to be quite sensual. The symbolism throughout is rather obvious, but then, so is much Cavalier poetry.

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Norman McLaren – Pas de deux – 1968

It begins simply, but by the end the way the dancers’ outlines multiply and separate and reunite becomes so complex you sometimes forget that you’re looking at human bodies. The music, too, is hauntingly ethereal, and while watching this film I often find myself forgetting that there is music at all. This film is long for what it is, but it doesn’t feel long.

Though you forget that they’re human bodies, you don’t forget that one is feminine and one masculine. You do, however, forget that they’re clothed. The female dancer is wearing a leotard, but it’s often so washed out you can’t see it, and its presence doesn’t matter. Strangely, this film feels virgin and abstract, like a Greek statue, the opposite, almost, of “La joie de vivre,” and yet both feel classical, or what is stereotyped as pagan against the stereotype of Christian prudery. Herrick was, it should be noted, something of a classicist.

This film predates digital photography, so it had to be filmed on high-contrast stock and then each frame re-exposed repeatedly, once for copy of each dancer. That its creation was so laborious, and that a similar effect could be achieved today with ease–somehow, this only makes me love the film more. But why? For the same reason we love old realist paintings? We have a sense that what the animator does here requires more care, more patience, and is thus artistically superior to what a computer might churn out. There’s a danger, though, of falling into condescension–look at the people from olden days, putting so much effort into doing what we do today so easily…

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Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Yuriy Norshteyn – The Battle of Kerzhenets – 1971

This is the only film by Yuriy Norshteyn that fits the criteria for this post, but the other two that I’ve seen, “Hedgehog in the Fog” and “Tale of Tales,” are even more breathtaking. They’re all stop-motion animation, so the characters are extremely detailed, being made of paper cutouts, or, in this case, cutouts of Russian icons, that slide around from frame to frame. According to Wikipedia, he uses “a special technique in his animation, involving multiple glass planes to give his animation a three-dimensional look. The camera is placed at the top looking down on a series of glass planes about a meter deep (one every 25–30 cm). The individual glass planes can move horizontally as well as toward and away from the camera (to give the effect of a character moving closer or further away).”

Especially in “Tale of Tales” (which some call the best animated film ever), this technique allows him to show us a world that looks truly three dimensional and yet to retain the appealing flat surface of traditional animation. This, I often think, is what modern 3d animation lacks. It always has to look like a real thing existing in a real Euclidean space out there past the screen. It can only look like live action or like plastic, like action that fails to look alive. It can’t look like something that’s drawn, and can’t look like one physical object (a scrap of paper, a pin casting a shadow) representing another (a falling leaf, a ghost). It can’t leave anything to the imagination.

But what if someone did make a film using a computer that looked much like Norshetyn’s films? It would be 3d animation, technically, since he would probably have to use 3d rendering to do so. Or maybe he wouldn’t be–maybe he would use translate the layering technique into GIMP or Photoshop (it would translate rather well, really). The result would look like one object representing another, but the existence of the first object would be itself an illusion.

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