Saturday, October 17, 2009

Silhouette Animation

A few weekends ago, I went to the Alliance Francaise in New York City to see a series of cut-paper silhouette animations, "Princes and Princes", by French animator Michel Ocelot. The engaging stories, all folk tales from around the world, were beautifully animated. And especially enjoyable to me, as someone who makes animations, is that Ocelot "introduces" each of these stories with 3 animated Animator-characters, an older man, a boy and a girl, who are sitting in their animation studio discussing the story they are about to tell. The audience was filled with French-speaking parents and kids, as this was a family event. I wanted to write about this because the animations were absorbing for both the very small and the older set-- they were simple AND sophisticated, both in form and content.
There are some posted on youtube-- my favorite story was the 6th of 6, about a prince and a princess who kiss before they marry, the prince turns into a frog, he tries to fix this by re-kissing the princess, she turns into a slug, slugs kisses frog in attempt to get out of their situation, prince frog transforms into another creature, etc., etc. and in the process, they learn to trust each other (and agree not to eat or crush the other one, depending on what animals they have become) until they eventually take on human form again at the end... but the prince is now a princess, and the princess is now a prince. It's a great tolerance tale, and the design of the story is a simple and elegant back-and-forth with movement and plot advancement. In my opinion, Michel Ocelot's simple and elegant visual form is the perfect vehicle for telling this story.

Meanwhile, Michel Ocelot's silhouette animation ancestor, Lotte Reiniger, also enjoyed a screening in NYC most recently, at the Museum of Art and Design, where they are currently celebrating Cut Paper Art with shows and events.

As an illustrator who uses cut-paper in my collage work, I have loved Lotte Reiniger's silhouette animations since I first saw her Prince Achmed. In the history of animation, Lotte Reiniger is significant for her beautiful animation work AND for the fact that she is one of the few independent animators of her era (it was around the 1920's when she started), AND she is a woman (with a husband who assisted her!).

About 12 years ago, when living in Seattle, I was asked by animator Web Crowell to create some cut-paper silhouette puppets with hinged joints, for an animated trailer he was creating for the Grand Illusion Cinema, a small art-house theater. I was just learning animation at the time, and was excited to make these puppets to be animated by someone who really knew the craft. Web's vision for the trailer was to animate 3D puppets he made out of found objects and sculpted heads, using stop motion. In the middle would be a 2D sequence with shadow-puppet references to movies throughout cinema-history. Web requested I make silhouettes puppets of key visual moments from Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and, to my delight, Lotte Reininger's Prince Achmed. This was a great working/learning experience for me, and Web created a beautiful final piece which screened at the Grand Illusion as a theater identity before the movies played.

Lotte Reiniger's predecessors in the silhouette form, the Shadow Puppeteers of Indonesia, are enjoying a show at my favorite museum on the planet-- the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I read that Reiniger was influenced by shadow puppets of China, but I believe that Indonesia is best known for this art-form. If you happen to live near or to visit Santa Fe, this museum is a must-see full of folk art from around the world.