Early in my animation studies I encountered Norman McLaren's well know comment: 'What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame.' I read this phrase as referring to the viewer's experience of making meaning during the between frame moments as a sequence of slightly different images rush by. (Recently I spoke with Don McWilliams, an NFB filmmaker who was a friend of Norman McLaren's, and he explained that McLaren was actually referring to the time the animator takes to think about their next frame before setting it up and shooting it.)
From early on my animated work has centred on the question, 'How do I draw for that moment between the frames?' (as I understood the phrase.)
In his article 'Animation: Prozac or Kyosaku' the artist Jean Detheux cites the case for ambiguity and doubt in visual imagery. He believes that an image without ambiguity doesn't invite the viewer to bring their imagination and interpretation to bear on it. To Detheux the result is visual boredom. I believe he means that animated motion, rendered in a simplistic way, draws us away from “fresh seeing” (I first encountered this term in Emily Carr's book 'Fresh Seeing' published in 1972).
In narrative animation it's essential that the viewer be able to follow the story line so the images need to be quite representational. This often means sacrificing compelling more expressionist images, or as they say in the industry, 'tossing the lovelies.' In my narrative short films I push how expressionist they can be while still retaining a narrative line.
'Slide' for example, completed in 2005, has sequences in which the imagery is almost abstract.
'Profile', completed in 2008, has sequences which are very minimally drawn yet generate a strong emotional performance.
Motion Made Visible
This essay grew out encounters with the artwork and essays of Jean Detheux and cognitive science studies in animation by Janet Blatter.
Searching through my films for stills to represent the work in festival catalogues, I'm always astonished to find how little representational detail is required to give the animated sequences meaning. In fact, the strongest sequences often consist of almost unrecognizable images. Strung together sequentially they reveal in motion a complexity of information - for example gesture, attitude, or emotion - that would be impossible to duplicate with consciously motivated, precisely drawn forms. It's fascinating to see how far from a naturalistic image I can get and still have the animated frames communicate something fresh, something that wasn't apparent while looking at the stills, something in which the viewer can find a wealth of resonance and meaning.
In a recent blog 'Paintings and Inbetweens: What do the paintings of Charline von Heyl have to do with animation inbetweens?' I examine the tension between representational and more expressionist imagery in animation.
Comparing the near abstract paintings of Charline von Heyl with suggestive imagery in the animations of Caroline Leaf, I conclude that less representational imagery invites the viewer into a place of not quite knowing what they're looking at, followed by the feeling of things suddenly falling into logical sense. Or vice-versa - moments of assumption when I think I know what I’m looking at being suddenly replaced by 'oh, that isn't what I thought at all.' The closest analogy I can think of is the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.
But back to making motion visible. With static drawings and paintings, I find myself leisurely reading the image itself for meaning. Watching animation however, with the imagery flying by at 24 frames a second, I find myself reading a form's motion for clues to what's going on. The layerd marks and erasures in my drawings generate an illusion of images constantly moving and transforming (thank you to Ed Pien for that). Wiliam Kentridge's animations include both - highly layered still images rushing by at speed. In my animations however, it's the struggle to create the illusion of objects in motion without actually drawing them literally which drives the work.
How to draw for that moment between the frames? By drawing the moving rather than the form of the object. To quote Norman McLaren again, 'Animation is not the art of drawings-that-move, but rather the art of movements-that-are-drawn.'