Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dianne Jackson

Well, Christmas is fast approaching, and with that comes the annual tradition of pulling out those classic holiday films; It's A Wonderful Life (1946), George C. Scott's A Christmas Carol (1984), and the beloved animated film, The Snowman (1982).

Oh, what cozy memories I have as a little girl being curled up on the couch totally immersed in the magic of that story. The motorcycle ride was adventurously thrilling...

The flight through the sky so beautifully chilling...

The visit with Santa quite warmly fulfilling...

And the end of the story is sadly tear-spilling. *Sniffle* I suppose all good things must come to an end...

The movie is based off the English author/illustrator Raymond Briggs' children's book, The Snowman, published in 1978.

The movie, like the book, is wordless, except for a beautiful quote voiced over by the author at the beginning of the film:

I remember that winter because
it brought the heaviest snows
I’ve ever seen. Snow had fallen
steadily all night long. And in
the morning, I awoke in a room
filled with light and silence.
The whole world seemed to be held
in a dreamlike stillness. It was
a magical day. And it was on
that day I made The Snowman.
- Raymond Briggs

The book was adapted into a 26 minute short film for the just starting British Channel 4 station, and it has been shown on that channel every Christmas since then. Hey, that's the same channel that commissioned the Brothers Quay idents; they seem to be big on patronizing the arts and looking for independent, non-traditional styles of animation, good for them!

The Snowman is an enchanting tale about a boy named James, who one snowy day builds a snowman, and at twelve o'clock that night the Snowman comes to life! James shows him all over the house, and in return the Snowman takes him on a magical flight to the North Pole to visit Santa. The flight sequence has the most hauntingly beautiful melody, written especially for the film called, "Walking in the Air", by Howard Blake, and sung by a young choirboy named, Peter Auty. Please enjoy it below:

*Sigh* It brings a tear to my eye.

The film was directed by animator Dianne Jackson, who did a wonderful job keeping the style of animation similar to the original illustrations drawn by Raymond Briggs. It was all hand animated in colored pencil on frosted cel vinyl, which is a truly monumental undertaking by today's digital standards! Just look at how flawlessly the change in perspective and camera angles were executed, and all without the aid of a computer.

Below is a sample cel from the film (1/24th of a second!).

Page From the Original Book

I never would have imagined colored pencil could be such an effective medium for animating---what with the sketchy lines creating continuity problems---but in reality the way the crosshatches dance about the page creates a liveliness and movement that is just lovely. Every frame is a work of art, and at times it has a very painterly, impressionist feel to it.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Animated Short of 1982, and arguably I believe it should have won.

As a director and animator, Dianne Jackson enjoyed a distinguished career, until her premature death from cancer in 1992. Born in England in 1941, she attended Twickenham Art School, and then in 1967 she joined TV Cartoons (TVC) where she met John Coates who would become Producer to many beloved animations, and Canadian animator George Dunning who would be a vital mentor to Dianne. One of her earliest credits is as one of several animators for the colorfully psychadealic, 1968 musical homage to classic Beatles' songs, The Yellow Submarine.

After directing little more than a few commercials, John Coates picked Jackson to direct The Snowman, and to stunning success. She even added and personally animated a dance sequence set in the North Pole that wasn't in the original book, but which maintained the character and integrity of the original story whilst elaborating it effectively.

Next, Jackson animated a fantasy dream sequence for the character Hilda in When the Wind Blows (1986), based off another Raymond Briggs book. It's about a nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a retired couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs. There's even a song in it sung by David Bowie. :)

Jackson's next directorial project was a film based off of John Burningham's book, Grandpa (1989), about a girl who enjoys playing imaginative games with her grandfather, pretending to be a princess, flying fighter planes, chasing whales, and even swinging through jungle trees.

In like fashion to The Snowman, it maintains the same illustrative style as the book, has the same signature camera pans, and it ends with a similarly mournful death of the grandfather who brought such delight and joy to the little girl's life---just as the Snowman did to James. You may enjoy Part 1/3 below:

Jackson is credited as Writer and Story Board Artist for the animated short Father Christmas (1991), based on two books written by none other than, Raymond Briggs of course, titled: Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday, published in 1973 and 1975 respectively. It is an enjoyable film about what Santa does "the other 364 days of the year" as he vacations in France, Scotland, and Las Vegas, and then returns home to answer his mail. He even meets up with the boy from The Snowman and dances with him and the other magical snowmen.

Just be warned, this film is much saltier than your average kid's flick (i.e. we see Santa gamble, drink, dance with show girls, "swear" (can "bloomin'" count as swearing?), undress many times, be rather crotchety and grumpy, and skeptical of foreigners (I thought he spoke every language in the world?), and we even see him take a poo in the toilet), but hey, it's all hilarious. I guess Raymond Briggs imagined Santa as a real (English) person (I always imagined him a Scandinavian) instead of the glossy, always-jolly Santa we imagine him to be. His job would be incredibly stressful. Anyway, I think I prefer the dreaminess of The Snowman to this one. :)

Finally, Jackson wrote and Directed 5 of 6 titles from the Beatrix Potter animated series, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends. If you've ever read the original books you may remember that it's a magical series inhabited by disobedient bunnies, rambunctious kittens, and practical hedgehogs.

As in all Jackson films, the animation is charmingly crafted to match the original books, and is paired with a few live-action sequences, these ones filmed in the English Lake District at the author's beloved Hill Top Farm.

Please enjoy two excerpts from the episodes, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, and The Tale of Pigling Bland:

Alas, Dianne Jackson passed away before she could see all the films released, but she would be proud to know they were completed with the same integrity and quality she always brought to them. I'm sure she was content knowing that her body of work helped elevate many beloved stories to a level that would endear them to countless generations of children forever. And what better labor of love is there than that? Rest in peace, Dianne.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tara Donovan

Attending art classes this fall has exposed me to some wonderfully inspiring artists. One in particular whose talent, vision, and method I greatly admire is the New York born/based artist, Tara Donovan.

Born in New York in 1969, Donovan received her BFA in 1991 from the Corcoran College of Art, in Washington DC. Afterward, she waited tables for six years before earning her MFA, and didn't quit her day job until her first solo exhibit in NY in 2003 proved to be a success. In 2008, she won the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Award, and has had shows at the Pace Gallery and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among others.

From a distance her sculptures appear to be beautiful homages to naturalistic structures, made from polymer plastic, or graphite, or some expensive material manufactured just for her show.

But what could it be?...

...Styrofoam Cups

But in fact, her sculptures are made from everyday "found" objects such as Scotch Tape, drinking straws, tooth picks, buttons, paper plates, and Styrofoam cups. Upon even closer inspection, I was blown away to realize the sheer mass of individual objects present and the number of man-hours required to complete the overall impression.



Donovan takes commonplace materials and "grows" them through a process of massive accumulation, sometimes called "generative art". Using a basic structure as a guide, Donovan creates a system of processes that she then repeats in incremental units to seemingly infinite possibilities. The results are large-scale abstract floor and wall works suggestive of landscapes, clouds, cellular structures and even mold or fungus.





Here is a beautiful seaweed-looking piece that consists of 2,500 pounds of plastic sheeting, loosely folded into a wide box that is glassed in the front and back, and built into a freestanding white wall. The light streaming in from the other side is all natural sunlight.

Even though Donovan's sculptures look entirely organic, "it is not like I'm trying to simulate nature," she says, "It's more of a mimicking of the way of nature, the way things actually grow." She considers patterning, configuration, and the play of light when determining the structure of her works, but the final form evolves from the innate properties and structures of the material itself.


...Paper Plates



What a great method for appreciating the complex formation of natural structures that exist all around us! Just like Donovan's button sculptures were constructed piece-by-pice through a repetitive motion over thousands of man-hours, so are naturally occurring formations like caves, stalagmites, geodes, ant hills, pearls, coral reefs, and canyons, all developed through slow and steady processes, drip-by-drip, inch-by-inch, deposit-by-deposit, for thousands or even millions of years.

Perhaps more striking than the inherent beauty in nature is the knowledge that it takes so long to create itself, and yet it is so delicate and easily destroyed. I'm sure after an art assistant helped Donovan create one of those fuzzy "fungal" shapes out of thousands of strings of fishing line (shown below), they had a greater appreciation for the slow and intricate processes that nature undertakes to grow simple structures.

One example of Donovan's system of processes is the way she forms her large-scale on-site cubes made of tooth picks, metal pins, and broken glass.

First a wooden frame in the shape of a cube is built; then thousands of pins/toothpicks are systematically laid down inside the frame in a crosshatching pattern. In the case of glass, a single sheet is laid down, shattered with a chisel, then another is laid down, shattered, and another, and another, until hundreds of broken sheets sit several feet tall. Once the frame is removed, gravity and pressure hold everything together; no glue. If a corner is broken, the entire structure must be made over again. By the end of an exhibit each cube is simply swept away.

It seems rather wasteful, I hope they reuse the materials.

Donovan's methodology really speaks to the beauty inherent in mass and pattern. Anything, even if it is a generic plastic cup, can look beautiful when paired with thousands of its kind and organized in a systematic pattern.

It kind of reminds me of that documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, an award-winning film about renowned artist Edward Burtynsky, whose large-scale photographs portray the devastating impact of industrialized expansion on the environment.

These landscapes are disturbing to say the least. They depict the materials and debris of civilization--quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams. Despite their provocative nature about the ethics of impacting our environment, there is something undeniably aesthetic about their patterns. Even an ugly stone quarry or a pile of old tires can look strangely beautiful when compacted together and viewed from a distance.

Despite the fact that man-made trash can look beautiful when amassed together, I think I prefer Donovan's organic sculptures because they mirror patterns found in nature which can only occur when the environment is left to grow and flourish on its own, as opposed to the rigid and forced nature of our manufactured landscapes which look unhealthy, and make us feel guilty about negatively impacting our environment. A lush forest will always look more beautiful than an oil field, no matter what you do.

Well, this is how you know you've found good art. When it makes you think about your world on so many different levels. I will continue to ponder the varied dimensions of Donovan's work whilst looking forward to her future conceptual sculptures. Like all her works, I'm sure they will be marvelous creations to behold.