Brian Smee, “Sports” (2014) (image courtesy Eyeworks)

A lonely pink figure walking down a shadowy track amidst glowing neon shapes is a poignant moment in Brian Smee’s “Sports” (2014). The scene also serves as an allegory for the genre of experimental animation. Many animators pursue darker, stranger, and more eccentric avenues than Saturday morning cartoons.

Since its founding in 2010, the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation has become the premier presenter of avant-garde animation from around the world. It presents annual festivals in Chicago and orchestrates additional screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and overseas in Europe. Like Smee’s pink figure, Eyeworks invites its audience to bask in the eerie glow of animation’s road less traveled by.

“Experimental animation” is the label festival directors Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carré have embraced. This term was popularized by Robert Russett and Cecile Starr, whose text Experimental Animation: Origins of a New Art (1976) remains the book on animation which shares an artistic affinity with the avant-garde movements in film, video art, and visual art. In explaining this category of animation, Starr and Russett wrote in their preface that “despite the obvious limitations of the term ‘experimental,’ the editors have used it mainly to suggest individual techniques, personal dedication and artistic daring.”

The Association Internationale du Film d’Animation defines animation as the “creation of moving images through the manipulation of all varieties of techniques apart from live action methods.” There are many ways to go about animation, from the entirely by-hand styles of yesteryear to the CGI techniques of tomorrow. This festival embraces that spectrum.

The festival’s works span from the 1970s to the present, allowing the audience to forge connections between historical and contemporary work by the vanguard of animation. Each animated work is made by one artist and reflects his or her singular creative vision.

Three themes recur in several of the animation pieces Eyeworks is screening across the country this year: 1) abstract geometries; 2) unconventional character animation; 3) nonlinear storytelling.

Abstract Geometries

Takeshi Murata,”Melter 2″ (2003) (animated GIF courtesy Eyeworks)

Deanna Morse, “Plants” (1989) (animated GIF courtesy Eyeworks)

Abstract geometric patterns dance in several works. The play of light, color, line, and shape can be mesmerizing. For example, in Takeshi Murata’s “Melter” (2003), rainbow-colored forms pulsate. In Deanna Morse’s “Plants” (1989) vegetal patterns move and spin to evoke plants.

Unconventional Approaches to Character Animation

Peter Burr, “Green / Red” (2014) (animated GIF courtesy Eyeworks)

Amy Lockhart, “Quilt” (2013) (animated GIF courtesy Eyeworks)

These strangely shaped characters have enough anthropomorphic characteristics to be read as sentient beings. But their unorthodox stylization tells us more about the character. In Peter Burr’s “Green / Red” (2014) a man wanders through a realm of pixelated interference, almost getting lost in the mix. In Amy Lockhart’s “Quilt” (2013), sweat and blood drip a woman brushes her teeth in a style that looks as raw as her bleeding gums.

Nonlinear Storytelling

Kevin Eskew, “Still Life” (2015) (animated GIF courtesy Eyeworks)

Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva, “The Classroom” (2012) (animated GIF courtesy Eyeworks)

Many animators gravitate towards less linear story arcs and more towards the logic of dreams. The beginning, middle, and end structure can get a bit droll. It’s more dynamic how Kevin Eskew in “Still Life” (2015) jumps from a burning truck, to a store called Tuesday morning, to Alka-Seltzer dissolving in water. As every teacher knows, 15 children in the same classroom each take away his or her own experience. Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva’s “The Classroom” (2012) literally shows students in different places.

No pithy quotes circulate online where famous writers praise animation for its avant garde sensibilities. For far too long, experimental animation has been concealed from the wider community and seen only by a small circle. Eyeworks is inviting all of us to discover how entrancing animation’s less traveled road can be.

The 2015 Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation‘s next screening will take place at CalArts, Bijou Theater (24700 McBean Pkwy, Valencia, California) on December 12. 

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