The term "alternative methods" merely begs the question—alternative to what? Within the context of animation, the methods discussed below essentially operate as alternatives to the trends in industrial production contexts, largely resisting the dominant aesthetics of contemporary CGI in feature work, traditional puppet and model animation, and orthodox cel or drawn material. There is also a resistance to the "Disney style," both visually and thematically, and inevitably a more personal or auteurist approach to the work, which often customizes a technique to achieve a highly individualized look.
Previously, these kinds of films might have been termed experimental animation, and to a certain extent this does embrace the auteurist sensibility present in such work, and the strong links it often has with an avant garde approach or the personal approach of fine art. "Experimental animation" as a term has become more associated with nonobjective, nonlinear work—which some claim is the purest form of animation—but in other ways this misrepresents a whole range of work that is not necessarily highly progressive in its "experimentation," but merely of a different order from "classical" or traditional 2D cartoons or 3D animation. It is essentially "developmental" animation in the sense that it is often a response to, and a resistance of, orthodox techniques, in a spirit of creating a personal statement or vision not possible in a big-studio context, or within the field of popular entertainment.
The abstract films of Walter Ruttmann (1887–1941), Viking Eggeling (1880–1925), and Hans Richter (1888–1976) in the early 1920s are commonly understood as a benchmark for some of the formative ways in which animation was used in the service of a modernist approach to filmmaking. Richter's Rhythmus 21 (1921), made with Eggeling, sought to use the movement of shape and form as an expression of thought and emotion in its own right. Ballet Mecanique (Fernand Léger, 1924), featuring full animation, painting directly on film, and Méliès-style effects, as well as live action, demonstrated a wholly self-conscious use of technique as a model of creative resistance to modernist machine cultures and consumerism. The kinetic combination of abstract form and sound to create a kind of "visual music" was pioneered by Oskar Fischinger (1900–1967) during the 1930s in experimental works such as Composition in Blue (1935). Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981) successfully combined abstract work with a visual narrative more accessible to wider audiences using the technique of cut-out, silhouette animation, most particularly in her full-length work The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). She collaborated with Berthold Bartosch (1893–1968), who later made The Idea (1932), a thirty-minute poetic narrative of high technical innovation and achievement.
As the industrial model of animation production emerged at the Disney Studio and elsewhere between 1928 and 1941, experimental work continued. Mary Ellen Bute (1906–1983) and Leon Thurmin worked with the idea of drawing with electronically determined codes in The Perimeters of Light and Sound and Their Possible Synchronisation (1932), while Alexander Alexeieff (1901–1982) and Clare Parker created the "pin screen," where raised pins were lit to create particular images in Night on Bald Mountain (1934). Particularly influential were Len Lye (1901–1980) and Norman McLaren (1914–1987), whose work for the GPO Film Unit, under the auspices of John Grierson, significantly advanced experimental forms. Lye's Colour Box (1935) was painted directly on film, while his Trade Tattoo (1937) used stencilling on documentary footage. McLaren, who continued to work with Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada, experimented with many techniques, including direct "under-the-camera" animation, pixellation, cut-out and collage animation, and shifting pastel chalk, making many influential films including Begone Dull Care (1949), Neighbours (1952), and Pas de Deux (1968). Lye and McLaren essentially recognized that animation was a cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary medium, and they exploited its affinities with dance, performance, painting, sculpture, and engraving.
This period of high experimentation in the 1930s was arguably the purest expression of what animation could achieve beyond the American cartoon and European 3D stop-motion puppet traditions, demonstrating that animation had credibility as a "fine art." Cartoon animation still remained unrecognized as an art form despite the critical and cultural attention enjoyed by the Disney Studio with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio (1940). Disney responded with Fantasia (1941), which aspired to combine classical music with lyrical animation in the same spirit as the abstract artists. The mixed reception to Fantasia helped to establish the sense of separatism between different kinds of animation, a trend that has continued into the contemporary era. Yet all animation is arguably "experimental" by virtue of its aesthetic, technical, and cultural difference, even as it finds continuing currency in mainstream culture. The late Jules Engel (1909–2003), though ostensibly an experimental filmmaker, worked on Disney features, developed the characters of Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo at UPA, and worked on individual projects, rejecting the false boundaries within the field.
Norman McLaren was one of the most innovative and influential figures in animation. Throughout his life McLaren worked in any number of techniques, including painting, drawing, and scratching directly onto film; pixellation (the frame-by-frame animation of staged live-action movement); stop-motion chalk drawing; multiple compositing; hand-drawn soundtracks; cut-outs; and 3D object animation. Beyond the implicit influence of his work, he also nurtured other artists, and maintained a pacifist, left-wing, humanitarian agenda in his creative practice, evidenced early in his student film, Hell UnLtd (1936).
Educated at the Glasgow School of Art in 1933, he made his first experimental "cameraless" film in 1934, and entered two films, Camera Makes Whoopee and Colour Cocktail in the Glasgow Film Festival of 1936. Though he believed the former to be his "calling card" to the creative industries, it was the latter that impressed the documentary filmmaker John Grierson, who invited McLaren to work at the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit. Initially undertaking camerawork for Defence of Madrid (1936), and later, encouraged by the new studio head, Alberto Cavalcanti, he made Love on the Wing (1938) and Many a Pickle (1938); the former was banned by the postmaster for its use of phallic imagery. McLaren was then invited by the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, later the Guggenheim, in New York, to make a range of abstract loops, including Allegro (1939) and Dots (1940), though he managed also to make two other personal films— Stars and Stripes (1939), which used the US flag as its background, and an experimental electronic work with Mary Ellen Bute, Spook Sport (1939).
By this time Grierson had moved on to establish the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), and McLaren joined him, becoming head of the newly formed animation unit in 1943. Embracing the creative freedom offered by the NFB, McLaren embarked on a career that sought to advance animation as an art form, most notably by drawing upon its relationship to dance in such films as Blinkity Blank (1954) and Pas de Deux (1968), but also by the imaginative use of sound—for example, in Begone Dull Care (1949) and Synchromy (1971). McLaren's desire to transcend national and ethnic boundaries in his work, and to ensure aesthetic, technical, and creative innovation, meant that he used little dialogue, and employed multilingual credits. Neighbours (1952), his famous antiwar parable, not only redefined the cartoon, the principles of live-action performance, and the use of animation as a peacetime propaganda tool, but also embodies the philosophic, imaginative, and humanitarian heart of Norman McLaren's vision.
Love on the Wing (1938), Hen Hop (1942), La Poulette Grise (1947), Begone Dull Care (1949), A Phantasy (1952), Neighbours (1952), Blinkity Blank (1954), The Crow (1958), Pas de Deux (1968)
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What is important about "alternative" animation, though, is its innovation in the use of materials and techniques. Robert Breer (b. 1926) used file cards with different imprints of various kinds for his seminal LMNO (1978), effectively creating a visual stream of consciousness of an artist as he creates his art; Caroline Leaf (b. 1946) deploys sand on glass in The Owl Who Married a Goose (1974) and ink on glass in The Street (1976), foregrounding the core principle of metamorphosis in animation as one scene evolves directly into another; in Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) Jan Svankmajer uses all manner of materials, which are crushed and pulped to illustrate the innate conflict in human communcation; the Quay Brothers "reanimate" detritus and abandoned materials in Street of Crocodiles (1986) to create the sense of a supernatural other-wordliness; and Vera Neubauer (b. 1948) creates knitted characters in revisionist feminist fairytales such as Woolly Wolf (2001). In recent years the rise of conceptual art has enabled the use of all materials and contexts for the suggestion and facilitation of artmaking; in a sense, animation has always been an art form that has worked in this spirit, defining concepts through the choice, treatment, and application of new materials and new techniques.
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