November 26th, 2005

operesque

Animation as animism

Pictoplasma: Characters in Motion is a two-day conference happening in Berlin this weekend, a "celebration of contemporary character design in animation, music visuals and motion graphics". The event seemed somewhat cramped compared to last year's conference, with the small (but elegant) Kino Babylon unable to match the bohemian grandeur of the Cafe Moskau.



I drifted through the rooms with mixed feelings. Character design is a strange field. It seems to attract designers with a twee Hello Kitty sort of sensibility (for some reason many of these people are Swedes, like the little group sitting in front of us at the "Characters in Narration" screening, Swedes with Japanese girlfriends, cuddling and giggling at the anthropomorphism on screen), but at the same time it attracts highly ambitious visual types; after all, if your cute little mouse or rabbit becomes a mascot for some campaign or the hero of some hit movie, you're made for life. So character animators display this odd combination of tweeness and thrusting ambition, tender-mindedness and opportunism. Actually, most successful characters have the eye-to-head and head-to-body dimensions of babies, and babies share this combination of weakness and opportunism; they use their cuteness to manipulate us, tapping into our mammalian programming like the most cynical advertisers.

The best of the short films Hisae and I saw was Kathi Käppel's mysterious, lyrical "Tiny". (Watch her film "Superman" here.) Käppel is with Berlin-based agency Monogatari, which is the Japanese word for "tale". Her film was about the life cycle of insects. What I liked were the colours and shapes; Käppel has a way of reducing insects, fairies, rocks and leaves to abstracted rainbow lozenges which challenge us to recognize them. This ostranenie of semi-abstraction allows her to avoid the anthropomorphism and brash cuteness which afflicts so much work of this type. Watching some of the other films, though, it crossed my mind that character animation might be a form of animism; this is a world where inanimate objects like a crowbar, a shirt or an egg can, with the simple addition of a pair of big, cute eyes, become living beings. Is this a modern manifestation of "the old religion"?

There was also something impressively monastic about the drawing area upstairs, a place laid out with anglepoise lamps, light tables, pencils and pads. Here visitors to the conference were encouraged to sit down and doodle in flip-books. The room had something utopian about it; usually, left to their own devices on a Friday night, people tend to smoke, drink, flirt, schmooze, and jabber into phones. But here, instead, we all craned intently and intensely over sketches, mostly in silence, combining solitude and togetherness, austerity and playfulness. And actually, it was a lot more fun than smoking and drinking. Here's what Hisae drew, a flipbook in which an anglepoise lamp morphs into our rabbit Topo: