Film

The Creativity of Pre-Digital Animation in the 1970s and ’80s

A program of experimental American animation at the Quad is a gift, and a riotous romp through a pre-digital creative movement.

Lisa Crafts, Desire Pie (1976) (all images courtesy Quad Cinema)

Having already played at the Tate Modern and International House Philadelphia, this weekend’s too-brief Independent Frames: American Experimental Animation in the 1970s and 1980s program at Quad Cinema is an unmissable opportunity. Assembled by Herb Shellenberger, it’s a trip into a moment straddling the avant-garde heyday (including works by Stan Vanderbeek, Paul Sharits, and Bruce Conner) and the rise of DIY animation in the 1980s and ’90s, much of it made by artists with little formal training and a decidedly noncommercial agenda. Shellenberger’s lineup traces the influence of breakthroughs in optical printing and collage, while filmmakers attempted to wrench the art form back from the corporate-produced, brain-pureeing Saturday morning cartoons of yesteryear. The resultant survey, divided into five themes, is a gift, and a riotous romp through a pre-digital creative movement.

Bill Brand, Circles of Confusion (1974)

Featured in the “Exploded View” section, Bill Brand’s 1972 short Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune reanimates 8mm home movies of a house cat through a “zip-a-tone” overlay, a gradient that Brand used to pull additional negatives and positives of the original image. Inspired by Baroque musical compositional structure, the film is a thrilling glimpse at the analogue processes available at the time to isolate filmed matter from negative space, and to create the illusion of texture from a fundamentally two-dimensional image.

George Griffin, New Fangled (1992)

Independent Frames includes a few works (including 1975’s cheeky, phallocentric cartoon The Club) by animator and designer George Griffin, who will be at Quad to present his two-minute short New Fangled, from 1992. It’s a play in metaphors structured around an audio recording of three “creatives” sussing out an unspecified ad campaign: Griffin uses shapeshifting visuals to track the maddening fluctuations in jargon and, duly, the interplay between the stale and the fresh. More than a few animators doing contract work in the ’80s and ’90s would find themselves in this position; while the kind of artistic innovations programmed here remain niche, more than a few of these artists would go on to make work for mainstream TV and advertising platforms.

Jeff Scher, Milk of Amnesia (1992)

In the “Introspection” section, we have the rare chance to see rotoscope artist Jeff Scher present his hypnotizing daydream Milk of Amnesia (1992) on a celluloid print. While Scher’s aesthetic is technically more “pop art” than some of the other artists featured, Milk of Amnesia is among the most psychedelic shorts on offer. Hand-painted and rotoscoped to match film shot on 16mm, Scher’s frames are vibrantly colorful and meticulously detailed, but the mirage is exploded whenever he slots in a two-dimensional photograph or shaded pencil drawing, rescaling the dimensionality of the pictures. Scher is also a master at using rotoscope to slow down and speed up the audience’s perception of time.

Lisa Crafts, Glass Gardens (1982)

There are two seminal works by artist Lisa Crafts, who will also be in attendance. The final program, “Bodymania,” includes 1976’s cel-animated Desire Pie, a very funny Second Wave response to the glut of male-centric erotic cartoons that followed the putative liberation of the 1960s. And there’s Glass Gardens (1982), a graphite-on-paper vision of a woman wandering a post-consumerist dystopia. Crafts’s wordless manifesto packs a lot of emotion into six minutes: from the first plucks of Laraaji’s harp-centric score, Glass Gardens is a sad-eyed reflection on the future that faces a society stuck in the interminably souped-up present.

Lisa Crafts draws Desire Pie

Famous for commissioned murals that decorate Boston’s MBTA Green Line, artist Mary Beams gets a kind of miniature retrospective within Shellenberger’s program: her hand-drawn squiggle line animations are triumphs of simplicity, protoplasms that can be withholding and mysterious (Whale Noises more than delivers on its premise), but never less than human. A trio of short works between 1975 and 1980 animates footage that appears to be taken from the artist’s own life; she seamlessly moves from “camera angles” (such as when she looks down a pair of legs in the bathtub in Tub Film, or makes silhouettes of passengers on a bus in Going Home Sketchbook) to a simple line on a page. Like the best animation it doesn’t just please the eye, but also inspires: Beams points to a febrile world of experience that can’t be reduced to a mere sequence of moving pictures, but gives it her best shot anyway.

Mary Beams, “Hungry Poem”

Independent Frames: American Experimental Animation in the 1970s and 1980s is running at Quad Cinema (34 West 13th St, West Village, Manhattan) February 2–4.

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