DETROIT — If a picture’s worth 1,000 words, imagine how much 100 animated films are worth.
As engaging for adults as for kids, Watch Me Move: The Animation Show at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Jan. 5 is worth untold words. Billed as the most extensive animation show ever mounted, it covers the medium’s vast array of techniques — from time-lapse and stop-motion to hand-drawn and computer-generated — and its international history.
And if you’re not convinced that animation is due serious cultural attention, prepare to be seduced. Walt Disney understood that. Posted on a wall in big letters at the exhibit’s entrance is his quote: “Animation can explore whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication.”
Created by the Barbicon Centre in London, the animation and even the set-up itself is ingenious and surprisingly quiet despite scores of operational screens. Most screens are small, 19 of them face booths that seat six, a handful are mid-sized, and for the few huge screens, earphones are placed on oversized ottomans. Most clips play for no more than a few minutes.
Here’s how kid friendly it is: Walls have waist-high ditties such as “Looking for help to find your way? Grab a map and get ready to play! You’ll see the rules animation can break, And break some yourself, make no mistake.”
Not all is for tender eyes, though. Yellow caution tape at doorways to a few galleries indicate films that have mature content.
This ticketed exhibit begins with the 1879 effort to create the illusion of movement; not a picture flip book but the zoopraxiscope built by Edward Muybridge. Lit from behind, it projects from a rotating carousel with glass disks onto which images have been painted. The carousel moves rapidly, making the subject, a galloping horse or a racing greyhound, appear to be moving.
Then it’s a meander down a long, dim hallway with screens on either side showing very short moving pictures from the 1880s and early 1900s, by French, British, and American photographers and artists. In simple white-on-black images, horses fly and skeletons dance a jig, a cat falls to the ground, and a hand closes into a fist. In 1908 there was the humorous Fantasmagoria by Emile Cohl, little more than stick figures, and in 1910’s Birth of a Flower, England’s Percy Smith used time-lapse photography. The 45-second A Serpentine Dance captures mesmerizing movement of a dancing woman twirling yards of fabric faster than a speeding bullet. The brilliant Leumiere brothers who made that film also invented a motion picture camera and projector.
By the 1920s in New York, artists were drawing Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, followed soon by Hollywood animators who added some of the first sound tracks to ’toons such as Mickey Mouse (in Steamboat Willie, 1928, by partners Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney) and Looney Tunes (Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and the Road Runner).
One area is devoted to superhumans, with a big-screen 22-minute loop.
There’s 1953’s Duck Amuck with surrealistic overtones and 1944’s Tom & Jerry: Mouse Trouble, as well as much that has been little seen: art house experiments such as the Deco-esque white curves and lines suggesting musical instruments in 1924’s Symphonie Diagonale, and 1935’s abstract A Colour Box, for which New Zealander Len Lye painted celluloid to create a dizzying piece.
A hypnotic delight in an adult gallery is Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Tango (1980) in which a single room gets filled and then emptied by a cast of of characters engaged in simple, daily activities, oblivious to each other.
In the seven-minute Dante Quartet (1987), Stan Brakhage bleached or applied thick paint onto Imax, Cinemascope 70 millimeter, and 35 millimeter film, and ran it through a projector at varying speeds. It’s his version of the ultimate inferno, but is a surprisingly beautiful sea of abstraction.
Few are by women but one, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, is the oldest surviving animated featured film and it plays on a big screen. Working with others, Reiniger made cutouts from cardboard and thin sheets of lead, then manipulated them frame by frame under a camera. Similar to shadow puppets, it’s captivating.
By Nathalie Djurberg of Sweden is a five-minute movie in an adult room with her bizarre large-sized puppetry filmed in stop-frame. Putting Down the Prey (2008) features a female hunter who kills a walrus, disembowels it, and climbs inside. She sews up the gash and dives into the ocean, experiencing the sea as the walrus did.
An Eskimo legend, 1974’s The Owl Who Married a Goose, is done by silhouettes drawn in sand. And an early Japanese film was partly made with woodblock prints.
Hailed as one of the all-time great animations is 1979’s melancholic Tale of Tales, with war and the massive losses suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II as its indirect theme. Russian Yuri Norstein, the animator, said it’s about simple concepts that give one the strength to live.
Most intriguing is a round table with a turning cylindrical mirror in the center and an overhead projector. The innovative William Kentridge of South Africa drew distorted images depicting Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, which are projected and appear on the table as distortions. But when viewed in the upright mirror, the images appear normal in What Will Come (2007).
The newest works are near the exit. Visitors can try out RMB City, a virtual city in the online world of Second Life, by Beijing artist China Tracy. It’s a platform for experimental creative activities that test the boundaries between virtual and physical existence. In another room is Serious Games III: Immersion (2009) that explores the use of virtual realities and war games, already used to recruit and train U.S. soldiers, but here used in psychological therapy for soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It raises the squeamish possibility of using virtual-reality technology to replace damaging memories with different images.
The final gallery is dark: animation has escaped the rectangle that has confined it for 130 years and appears to be 3-D. This high-tech illusion was commissioned by the museum to provide an immersive experience and was constructed over eight months by Detroiters Gabriel Hall and Daniel Land, who do architectural projection mapping.
“We take our computer images and format them to physical objects,” said Hall. They designed 11 shapes in 3-D, exported the data to computer-aided design (CAD), and fed it into a foam cutter, which sliced high-impact foam drywall into odd, angular pieces ranging from the size of a bread box to 16 feet by 8 feet. With additional software, they created patterns that are fed from two synced computers to five near-ceiling mounted projectors and a television that send light bouncing on the drywall in different shapes.
Contact Tahree Lane at email@example.com and 419-724-6075.