Teaching Animation in an Interdisciplinary Context

Below is an essay I wrote for the Animation Journal in 2007 describing three different interdisciplinary programs I’ve collaborated on at Evergreen: Emerging Order; What to Make of It?, Animated Visions: Allegories of Resistance, and Marking Time: Rituals, Gestures and Languages of Movement. See Paul Ward’s contextualization of  my work in his essay “Animation Studies as an Interdisciplinary TeachingField” in Pervasive Animation (Buchan, ed, 2013). 

In the past ten years of teaching animation as part of the interdisciplinary curriculum at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, I’ve observed two patterns among students when given the opportunity to enroll in one of my courses.  The first is that those who have an affinity for the most traditional and culturally accessible forms of animation are the ones most likely to consider learning to animate and/or pursuing careers in animation.  As they develop their skills as animators, these students are inclined to attempt works echoing these popular forms.  This may include imitating tried and true linear, romantic or comic narrative formulae, avoiding difficult or complex content or, conversely, resorting to taboo-violating social satire to address it, employing clichéd characterizations and stereotypes and perpetuating other problematic tendencies of mass culture.  They may adapt their work to newer platforms[1] for distribution, but their choice of genres won’t fully explore what those platforms can provide.

The second pattern is that students with different sensibilities, those who don’t have affinities with the animation they see in the United States mainstream media, are not likely to think that learning to animate will benefit their creative, intellectual or professional pursuits. If they have not seen oppositional works like Trnka’s The Hand or Joanna Quinn’s Britannia, tried to decipher enigmatic, poetic works such as Amy Kravitz’ Roost or Lorelei Pepi’s Grace, navigated thematically and structurally complex pieces such as Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales, or experimented with time-based forms of scientific visualization, they don’t know about animation’s  great potential for exploring abstract or philosophical concepts through images and sound.  If they are not aware of various artists’ use of animation in performance or installation, they are less likely to think of it as another strategy of fine arts expression.

Since I began teaching at Evergreen,  I’ve observed the benefits of embedding animation education in interdisciplinary courses.  Rooting animation practice and study in the context of thematic lines of inquiry and making animation training available to a diverse group of students that includes both arts- and non-arts concentrators opens up the possibilities of the discipline for all.  For those who want to go into animation, media or the arts as a career,  interdisciplinary study can sharpen their critical thinking skills as well as their senses of ethics and responsibility.  Issues of representation, negative stereotypes, cultural blindness, appropriation or exploitation can be more easily addressed in animation if course syllabi are structured to include wider perspectives that question them in the first place.  Learning about animation as they learn about other arts such as poetry or performance can strengthen students’ abilities to structure time and pace their own animated pieces.  It can introduce them to other ways to present animation besides the traditional single channels of television and film.  This investment in students’ intellectual and creative development pays off in the breadth and depth of the work they produce in the future.

For those students headed into non-arts fields, the opportunity to gain animation skills in the context of various humanities, social sciences or science studies deepens their interpretive abilities, increases their visual and media literacy, opens their eyes to the possibilities of animation as an art form and widens their knowledge of culture at large.  It also frequently helps them better learn and retain the humanities, social science or science knowledge they are engaged with.  For all of my students, access to animation learning as part of their liberal arts education gives them another communications tool, along with writing, public speaking and critical thinking, to more effectively contribute to the wide variety of public discourses necessary to a functioning democracy.

Recent  discussions at the 2007 Society for Animation Studies Conference focused on the multiplicity of forms, strategies, venues and purposes of animation in contemporary culture.  At the SAS opening session, Suzanne Buchan talked about “pervasive animation” transcending its ghetto of entertainment television and film through integration into installation and performance art as well as the output of engineers, architects, scientists and others.  She asserted that animation scholarship has not kept pace with this development and that animation scholars have the responsibility to help the public develop the literacy skills necessary to engage with it.  As animation forms and formats proliferate, one way for animation scholars and teachers to help cultivate the public’s visual and animation literacy skills is to embed the teaching of animation history, theory and practice into interdisciplinary courses.  Animation is one of the most interdisciplinary art forms.  It makes sense to teach animation in a way that connects it to the other disciplines that inform it and that it attempts to address.  In this paper I describe some of the work I’ve done in this arena and what I believe students have gained from it.

Evergreen’s Curricular Model

The Evergreen State College is a liberal arts, four-year public college founded in the late 1960s to pursue an experimental curriculum based on “Five Foci,” which are interdisciplinary teaching and learning, collaboration instead of competition, working across significant differences among people, integrating theory and practice, and being personally engaged with one’s education.[2].  We have about 4500 students and about 200 faculty.

Evergreen’s only requirements for graduation are that students must earn 180 quarter-hour credits. We have established “Six Expectations of an Evergreen Graduate” that address a range of skills important to the practice of most disciplines and that we refer to when designing our curriculum[3]. There are no requirements for distribution, so a good liberal arts foundation has to arise from very broad interdisciplinary courses.  In general, two or more faculty design and teach what we call “programs”, around themes, not necessarily disciplines.  Programs are fulltime (12-16 credits per 10 week quarter), range from one quarter to three quarters in length, and enroll 20-25 students per faculty to form a “learning community.”  Faculty may establish pre-requisites for entry to a program to insure that participating students have developed some academic breadth or specific areas of knowledge before attempting more advanced work.

Evergreen has no departments and students do not declare a major.  Instead, faculty affiliate with different curricular planning areas that are loosely organized around related disciplines.  Humanities faculty affiliate with “Culture, Text and Language.”  The math, biology, physics and chemistry faculty affiliate with “Scientific Inquiry.”  Other faculty affiliate with the “Society, Politics, Behavior and Change,” or “Environmental Studies,” or “Native American and World Indigenous Peoples” planning units.  There are about 25 faculty affiliated with the “Expressive Arts” planning unit and within that, five faculty, including myself, are trained in some branch of the media arts, with an emphasis on non-fiction and/or experimental forms. We generally do not teach narrative fiction–visual storytelling is practiced in the context of documentary, autobiography and animation.

The faculty rewrite the Evergreen curriculum every year, two years in advance of when we will teach it.  Faculty are free to design new programs or repeat ones taught in previous years.  We are encouraged to think in broad interdisciplinary terms, and to design programs that create linkages across the academic divisions of arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences.  We have programs such as “Molecule to Organism” which is interdisciplinary within the sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), and “Mediaworks,” the foundation program in media.  The latter,  taught by two media faculty, usually integrates non-fiction and/or experimental film and digital video production into learning media history and theory.  Animation, sound design, performance or installation may also be included depending on which two of the media faculty are  teaching it.[4]

The quintessential Evergreen programs are much more broadly interdisciplinary. A botanist and an American studies scholar taught “Jefferson’s American West.” “Islands” was taught by an experimental filmmaker with a background in visual anthropology and a literature/humanities scholar. The team that taught “Calculated Fiction” consisted of a mathematician (who moonlights in an improv group) and a creative writer/book artist. There are many similarities in terms of research, practices of observation and strategies of communicating complex ideas between art and science, so we tend to have a good number of programs every year that combine faculty and disciplines from each.

One of the benefits of this approach to teaching is that faculty are ”co-learners,” constantly encountering skills and knowledge outside of our own expertise.  Some days I am the expert and I am teaching both students and my faculty partner.  Other days I am on the same level as the students, as my faculty partner lectures or leads a workshop on subject matter I know very little about.  We commonly structure programs so that they begin with intensive instruction and guided assignments that lead to more open ended independent project work arising from the students’ particular interests.  This model makes faculty work harder at the beginning of the program to bring students up to speed in our own disciplines, but it allows us to coast a bit later on as students bring their own influences to bear on program content.  That’s when students frequently venture into  research or creative work that is beyond faculty expertise.  In those times, faculty become “co-learners” again, but with the students as teachers.

I try to keep a few goals in mind when developing my teaching plans. One is to design programs that facilitate my own creative work and intellectual interests. Another is to explore how I can use animation to teach visual literacy skills to the majority of students who are not necessarily interested in future careers in media. These skills are necessary for an educated and engaged citizenry.  In addition, many fields depend on visual media for communication purposes, so being able to explain phenomena or ideas using images is as important as being able to write clear and concise prose.  A third goal is to teach animation principles and practices to students who want to become animators or media  producers  in a way that increases their versatility with different technologies and platforms and their career opportunities. A fourth goal is to build in aspects of the Five Foci as well as incorporate activities that will support students achievement of the Six Expectations of an Evergreen Graduate.

Balancing these three goals is tricky, but the practice has led me into some very rewarding programs.  Below, I describe three of the most interdisciplinary ones I’ve taught at Evergreen.  “Emerging Order” integrated science with animation and arts and as a consequence exposed students to basic animation principles and tools, helped them develop visual and technological literacy and gave them a broad foundation of academic experience on which to base the rest of their college work.  “Animated Visions” focused on the role of artists in society, specifically Soviet era Russia and Eastern Europe, and the visual, literary and practical strategies they use to communicate with their audiences.  Students developed interpretive and analytical skills appropriate to the arts, humanities and political theory, produced creative or scholarly work and engaged with the moral and ethical questions raised by program content.  “Marking Time” explored basic human relationships with time evident in the arts, and the study of  history and religion.  Students explored animation and a variety of performance modes in the context of this program, developed appreciation for the complexities of human cultures and made deep connections between the arts and human religious practices.

Emerging Order

During fall and winter quarters of 2005-06, I taught “Emerging Order; What to Make of It?” with a theoretical physics and math scholar. [5] We structured the program around the question, “how do artists and scientists recognize and express order in the universe?”  Our approach was in part a response to a college wide effort to satisfy general education needs by exposing arts students to math and science, and science students to the arts.  It was also a response to our own questions about what artists and scientists have in common.  I wanted students to explore the relative values of realism and abstraction and understand when and how to use those approaches effectively.  I also wanted to give them  permission to be amazed by the physical world and opportunities to express their amazement creatively.  My teaching partner was interested in exploring and developing applied math concepts in his teaching, and teaching students to recognize those concepts in the physical world.  We tailored our syllabi to first year students, although several upper division students also enrolled.  This meant that we included a focus on building college level skills in reading, writing and research, and computer literacy. The program was two quarters long.  In the fall we focused on applied math, animation and critical reasoning.  In winter we explored the nature of motion, sound and light waves and chaos theory and ways of expressing these  scientifically and creatively.  Students finished the program with research projects that integrated program concepts with their own individual interests.

Our weekly schedule was divided as follows:  On the first day we had lecture/screenings and seminar.  On the second day we held math/physics workshops in the morning and art/animation workshops in the afternoon.  On the third day we had computer labs.  We wrapped up the week with a general meeting that accomodated writing workshops, extra screenings, presentations of student work, and general team building and social activities.

We began the program by practicing ways to observe order in the environment through drawing, audio and video recording, and taking scientific measurements.  Early  fall quarter we took students on a three day field trip to the Olympic National Park beaches that served several purposes.  One was to give students a chance to bond with each other to better enable collaborative learning.  Another was to use the outdoors as a lab for learning and making art.  Finally, we wanted to totally immerse them in a magnificent and highly complex natural environment and then ask them to respond to it.  At the coast, students used time lapse and stop motion digital photography to document tidal fluctuations and other changes.  They drew in sketchbooks and on the beach itself to document patterns and numerical sequences in natural forms, movements of the sun and other phenomena.  They created mazes and Fibonacci spirals and sculptures of drift wood and other detritus.  Students also completed listening exercises in conjunction with  making field recordings for winter quarter’s work analyzing frequencies, and composing soundtracks.

Back on campus we made use of data and images collected on the coast in weekly applied math and animation workshops and in computer labs.  Students completed exercises  in Excel and NetLogo that supported their learning of number sequences, symmetry, tiling and branching patterns.  In winter quarter they learned to create sounds in Mathematica by writing equations that resulted in specific combinations of frequencies.  They also converted field recordings to sonograms to analyze their frequencies and rhythms.  To maximize their computer literacy, we had students work on PCs for scientific applications and on Macs for audio, graphics and animation using Photoshop,  iStopmotion, iMovie, Peak and Digital Performer.

Required readings ranged from non-fiction and scientific texts to fiction, averaging a book every two weeks.  Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek provided a context for observational work, and license for students to respond with awe to the miracles of life and order they witnessed on the field trip.  Richard Verdi’s Klee and Nature traces that artist’s development from scientific illustration to abstraction and served as an example of how artists adapt the forms they see according to the development of their own worldview.  David Wade’s Crystal and Dragon relates the physics paradox of particle and flow to cultural responses in Islam and Zen Buddhism.  K. C. Cole’s First You Build a Cloud introduces basic physics in lay terms while Paul Davies’ The Cosmic Blueprint and Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker took students through headier discussions of natural phenomena and the human need to make sense of it all.  John Van Eenwyck’s Archetypes and Strange Attractors stretched that theme further by using chaos theory as an explanatory metaphor for how symbols and archetypes emerge from and operate on the mind.  Edwin Abbott’s Flatland and stories from Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions challenged students to relate what they’d learned in all the workshops, both creative and scientific, to narrative works of imagination.  The readings prompted wonderful weekly seminar discussions of satire, other dimensions, the nature of time, perception, reality, chaos and complexity.

The animation I screened served two purposes.  The first was to illustrate techniques.  The second was to show how artists used animation to explore our program themes.  Al Jarnow’s Shorelines (1977) plays with natural forms of rocks and shells using rhythms and patterns that seem to emulate fluctuations of tides and daylight through the seasons.  Jane Aaron’s Traveling Light (1985) recreates a sunbeam’s movement across a room, in the process illustrating light’s effect on color and it’s trajectory.  Daina Krumins’ Babobilicons (1982) employs layers of optically printed time-lapse film to reveal and juxtapose processes of growth, decay and dispersion. Chris Stenner and Heidi Wittlinger’s puppet animated Das Rad (2003) compares human and geologic time in the story of two rock characters watching civilization rise and fall in a valley below.

I screened a good number of drawn animation films that explore or express math and physics concepts.  These include Steve Hillenburg’s Wormholes(1992), an illustration of the theory of relativity using a cartoon iconography of southern California strip culture, Adam Beckett’s Sausage City (1974) and Michaela Pavlatova’s Repete (1994), both of which build complexity through iterative processes.  Joanna Priestley’s Utopia Parkway (1997) and Surface Dive (2000)  combine simple drawn and object animated cycles to build complex reflections of natural and man-made phenomenon.  Jonathon Hodgson’s Feeling My Way (1997) uses rotoscoped and drawn sequences to explore perception, direct experience and semi-conscious responses to it.  To support our study of the physics of light and sound in the winter, I screened a number of visual music films by John and James Whitney, Oskar Fischinger and Baerbel Neubauer.  I also invited local artist Devon Damonte to conduct a direct animation workshop.

Emerging Order Animation Workshop Activities

In the fall art/animation workshop I focused on getting all students to a basic level of drawing as well as a basic level of animation and technical literacy.  Daily sketchbook and zoetrope animation exercises (bouncing ball, walk) and time lapse and stop motion assignments given in the form of “design problems” (narrow parameters, short turn around time) got students up to speed on the fundamentals and helped them further integrate some of the mathematical and physics concepts we were studying.  These also prepared them to do two more complex assignments involving metamorphosis, tiling and the uses of realism and abstraction.

During the weeks that we studied symmetry and tiling, we looked at a lot of M.C Escher’s work before each student designed their own tessellation tile.  Using zoetrope strips, each animated a short metamorphosis from the tile design to its basic geometric shape (square or triangle).  In a Photoshop workshop, they scanned these images, and composed them into a sequence for eventual export as animated GIF files.  They posted the GIFs to pages on the Emerging Order website where my teaching partner had written the code to transform them into tiled backgrounds, creating an animated Escheresque tessellated field.  Not all students completed this work successfully, but all gained some fundamental digital imaging skills and experience designing animation for the web.

This first exercise in drawn metamorphosis warmed students up for a more ambitious one, an Exquisite Corpse assignment designed to give students the opportunity to practice essential drawn animation techniques and further play with transformation. The Exquisite Corpse is a Surrealist game in which artists add to a drawing on paper without being able to see what others have drawn.  In an Exqusite Corpse animation, participants design a key pose and then create a metamorphosis sequence linking it to the key pose made by a neighboring participant. I like to do this exercise in the first quarter of a program because it helps foster group cohesion and teaches some basic principles of drawn animation.  As one of our aims was to help students understand how artists and scientists develop abstract ideas from concrete observation, I adapted a few of Paul Klee’s ideas from The Nature of Nature and asked students to redraw some of the naturalistic field trip images in their sketchbooks as he might have.  Each student’s original image and the second image drawn after Klee formed a pair of key frames in a sequence for “Realism to Abstraction.”  Students had to make a third keyframe, a geometric breakdown, based on the Klee image and then trace a copy of the geometric breakdown and pass it to a neighbor.[6] Finally, they had to animate from their own geometric breakdown through the other two images to the geometric breakdown received from another neighbor.[7] An interesting thing happens when students learn to animate in the context of discussions about math, physics, numerical sequence, complexity, order, light and space: animation becomes a sort of quantitative reasoning .[8] Constructing movement from distinct units (frames) of time is a process very much like counting.  Drawing and other analog practices of creating motion yields spatial understanding that can help enable a student’s understanding of math and physics concepts.

In the first half of winter quarter, students further developed animation skills, and their understanding of the role physics plays in motion by working through a series of exercises based on Richard William’s The Animator’s Survival Kit and doing a rotoscope project to analyze motion.  During the physics workshops on particles and waves students learned basic digital audio composition..  Pairs of students composed 3 minute soundtracks using audio recordings and sounds they had synthesized in the Mathematica computer labs while learning about frequencies.  Then the pairs joined into groups of four to create a 3 minute stop motion animation.  The soundtracks and animation sequences had to be structured to establish order, disrupt it and then reestablish it, or conversely, start in chaos, evolve into order and then fall into disorder.

At the critique for these works, we randomly paired each 3 minute animation with two soundtracks.  This gave us the opportunity to talk about how sound and image interact or, to be more accurate, how we perceive they interact, supporting previous discussions about the importance to scientists of knowing how their perceptual apparatus can distort their findings and how, while simultaneous events don’t necessarily indicate causality, we tend to read them that way.

Around the middle of winter quarter, students began work on their final projects.  The criteria for these were fairly open.  Projects had to have both scientific content and some creative element, but students were free to tilt the balance towards one or the other.  Naturally, with forty or so students there was a wide variety of work produced.  Some were animated explanations of basic scientific concepts we’d discussed.  Some were non-objective attempts using a variety of experimental animation techniques to express similar concepts.  One beautiful piece incorporated drawings and puppet animation to connect biological rhythms such as the heartbeat, to planetary rhythms of day and night and seasonal change.  A number of students further explored sound, for example using synthesis software to play in the gray area between randomly generated tones and complex melody, exploring simple object-oriented programming to manipulate frequencies, analyzing water sounds for subtle patterns and rhythmic textures, and creating an interactive sound installation. Most all the projects were surprising and enlightening responses to the mix of content and ideas in which students had immersed themselves for over twenty weeks.

Animated Visions

For a long time I’ve wanted to learn about the cultural conditions out of which have come the wonderful animated films of Russia, Eastern and East Central Europe.  In spring of 2006 I finally had that chance when I taught “Animated Visions: Allegories of Resistance” with a Russian language/literature scholar and an experimental formalist poet who has a good amount of experience working with Russian and East Central European poetry in translation. We designed the program to explore, in ten weeks, Soviet era animation, poetry, literature and film and the strategies that artists use to circumvent censorship in totalitarian societies.

The students who enrolled solely to do animation learned a significant amount of 20th century European and Russian history particularly relating to the Russian Revolution, Stalinism and the post WW2 era through Perestroika.  Context for the works they viewed was provided by lectures and documentaries on Russian, Czech and Estonian history, discussions of Dada, Futurism, Modernism and, of course, Marxism and Leninism.  Poetry helped develop an aesthetic and interpretive framework for understanding more complex animated works such as those by Norstein, Svankmajer, Lenica and the Estonians.  Films by Jove’s fabulous collections of Russian animation provided lots of examples of different animation styles and techniques that I used in my lectures on animation history and appreciation.  Of particular use, in addition to Norstein’s films, were those of Nina Shorina, Fyodor Khitruk’s Man in the Frame (1966), and Andrei Khrjanovsky’s Armoire (1970).

We began the program with films by Andrey Tarkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov to explain approaches to cinema and by extension, animation under Soviet rule.  These three directors had very different relationships with their government and it was instructive to compare Eisenstein’s staunch dialectical approach to Tarkovsky’s veiled poetics.  Vertov’s exuberant and experimental Man With a Movie Camera (1929) contrasts remarkably with his later propagandistic tribute in Three Songs of Lenin (1934).  Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita with its carnivalesque and Faustian motifs, echoed the theme raised by Vertov’s work, of pressures on artists to compromise their vision.  Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir of her time in the Gulags in Journey into the Whirlwind, Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” and Alexandre Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel which explicates Hegel’s Master and Slave Dialectic gave substance to our discussions of Soviet realism, samizdat strategies of disseminating contraband ideas, the nature of propaganda and of the pornography of suffering (the danger that representations of torture, oppression, brutality, become a source of voyeuristic pleasure).  These fleshed out our historical and artistic focus and gave students lots of food for thought in relation to their own creative goals.  In particular, our exploration of the Stalinist era resonated with what students already knew about the Third Reich, and, in the context of the ongoing US war in Iraq, raised provocative questions about freedom of expression and the responsibilities that come with it.[9]

Also included in our syllabus was Clare Kitson’s Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales.  This case study of one animator’s career helped explain day to day struggles that artists might encounter and the “Aesopian” language that many employ to communicate their ideas. Kitson’s description of the obstacles Norstein has faced in making his films was vividly brought to life for us by guest animator Nina Shorina.  She screened both her animated and live action works and, through a translator, talked about her own experiences as a Russian producer and answered many student’s questions about the politics, culture and working conditions of artists in Russia both before and after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

Our typical weekly schedule included large group activities such as lectures and screenings and smaller workshops and seminars.  Mondays we began with a session that framed the week’s focus through a lecture, screening of short films, or a guest speaker.  Monday afternoons each faculty met with a smaller group of students in seminar to discuss the week’s readings.  Monday evenings we had an Artists and Poets Series during which we screened longer films, collections of short animation, and hosted visitors Nina Shorina and poet and translator Genya Turovskaya.  We began each Tuesday morning with a debriefing session that allowed students and faculty to respond to the previous evening’s presentation.  This became the conceptual heart of the program as it was the time when the three of us faculty could discuss the material from our different perspectives, and when students could ask questions that helped them integrate concepts and information.  For the balance of the week, students participated in one of three disciplinary workshops led by faculty.  Some did more intensive work with the history and literature of Soviet era Russia and Eastern Europe.  Some explored creative uses of language in the poetry workshop. A third of the students worked with me in an intensive animation workshop.

Animated Visions Animation Workshop Activities

Some of the students in the animation workshop had previous animation experience, a few had none.  Many had significant art or performance work under their belts from programs integrating theater, puppetry, drawing, painting and sculpture.  Others had studied literature extensively, but very little art.  As in other programs I’ve taught, teaching to students with such a broad range of skills is a challenge, but emphasizing close viewing of films, concept development and simple analog production techniques led to some wonderful work.

Students were required to maintain a sketchbook and film journal throughout the quarter. They were expected to write a response to each film screened  that included salient information (the artist, title, year, brief synopsis and whatever historical or national context we knew) as well as observations about aesthetic or stylistic choices made in its production. They were also required to take visual notes on what they saw, sketching character designs and thumbnails of scene composition or other details. A major assignment was to do a close reading of one animated film chosen from a list that I prepared based on what we had in our library and I had in my own collection.  The close reading  included drawing a reverse storyboard of the film (drawing frames as the student viewed the film shot by shot) and researching to find out as much as possible about the animator and the context of the film.  In cases where there was limited information about the animator or film available, I encouraged students to speculate based on what we knew already from our readings, viewing other works and talking about them in class.  Each student did a short oral presentation that included a screening of  the film they’d studied and these often triggered good discussions about technique and meaning.

To learn basic animation principles, students made zoetrope strips of a bouncing ball and then a walk cycle.  For a second walk cycle done on animation paper, students had to design a character drawn from one of the readings.  I then asked them to animate a metamorphosis from another student’s character to their own, without disrupting the walk.  The result was “Russian Character,” an Exquisite Corpse composed of a sequence of walking characters who suffer abrupt and frequently hilarious transformations.  The students’ widely differing drawing styles contributed to the individuality of the character designs.  For example, a robust but tightly drawn fat aristocrat struts across the frame before dissolving into an elongated loosely charcoal drawn Anna Akhmatova, who drifts back in the other direction.

For the quarter’s final project, students had to choose some theme or element from the syllabus to visualize.  The goal was not for them to recreate examples of the animation we’d been viewing, or tell the same stories, but to adapt the ideas to their own understanding of history, politics or the human condition in general.  Parameters for this assignment included collaboration with at least one other student, use of an intentional style in both art direction and movement, combining 2d and 3d animation somehow, and a minimum 30 seconds of animation with a maximum of 3 minutes.  Sound was optional. They had to first develop the concept in a written treatment, accompanied by sketches and a storyboard.  I showed them a variety of techniques to employ, emphasizing under-the-camera work, including cut-outs and paint-on-glass.  Some chose to work with puppets and objects in our 3D stop-motion lab.  Of course the quality of the resulting works ranged widely as did the efforts students made to adhere to the assignments’ parameters.

In any case, it was interesting to see in the results how students were integrating the program’s themes into their own creative practice. A couple of pieces responded to the theme of the pornography of suffering.  Two students found a web audio clip of Paul Celan reading his Death Fugue and animated to it using his metaphors and obscure images to express the horrors of the Holocaust.  This featured a mixture of under the camera techniques including drawing, cut-out, paint-on-glass and clay on glass lit by flashlight to emphasize shadows and the dark nature of the subject.  Another group developed a narrative of cavemen observing and enjoying one of their fellows being attacked by a lion.  This was done with clay puppets and a fairly detailed set.  The animation was rough, but as the team had storyboarded the piece carefully, the story came across.  A third project involved beautifully designed articulated puppets and drawn backgrounds to explore the desire for spiritual connections in the context of state enforced atheism.  The students creating this piece made good use of a combination of Russian Orthodox and constructivist design elements to heighten the conflict.

“Animated Visions” was a one quarter program and the three of us faculty agreed that if we teach this again, we will extend it to at least two quarters, both to enable better coverage and deeper learning of the common parts of the syllabus, but also to allow students to develop collaborative projects between the workshops.  The possibilities of allowing cross-pollination between the discipline specific workshops were suggested by one of the final projects created in the poetry workshop.  The major assignment there was to create a language, write a poem in it and then translate the poem into English.  Two students who had taken animation from me the previous quarters in Emerging Order were in that workshop and joined another two students to work on this assignment, teaching them some basic animation in the process.  They presented a video inspired by a scene from (Russian immigrant) Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and the idea of the necessity of having to communicate surreptitiously and non-verbally.  In it the four sit around a table as if playing a game.  In pixilated close-ups shot in reverse, one pulls a piece of origami from her mouth.  When the paper is unfolded the image drawn on it animates to become part of the poem.  The next person’s drawing and mode of unfolding responds to and builds on that.  The resulting video was a playful and enigmatic representation of how personal vocabularies of images can develop into a common, hidden language.  It was also a wonderful example of the coming together of all the disciplinary influences of the program into a surprising and inventive collaboration.

Marking Time

A conversation I had with a faculty colleague in literature and performance studies about gesture and its function as a temporal phenomenon and a unit of non-verbal communication led us begin to plan a program that would combine animation with movement and studies of how artists structure and use time in their works.  Simultaneously, another faculty of religious and Islamic studies sent a query looking for people interested in  teaching a program about ritual.  As dance and theater, and by extension film and animation,  share historical roots in ritual practices, the three of us decided to collaborate on a year long program that we titled “Marking Time: Rituals, Gestures and Languages of Movement.”

The three of us began to plan, not quite knowing where the planning would take us.  Through many discussions and brainstorming sessions, we developed a central question:  “What are the relationships between and the implications of the various ways human beings in groups and as individuals construct and understand their experiences of time?”  From that question, we contributed ideas from our different backgrounds to build a syllabus that would explore personal and religious rituals, history, performance, cinema, literature and other art forms.

In fall quarter we focused on the dichotomy of the sacred, cyclical ideas of time as opposed to profane, and linear or historical approaches to it.  Books by Marie von Franz and Mircea Eliade presented Jungian and anthropological studies of time while a number of texts on Jewish, Buddhist and Confucian traditions contrasted the practices of those religions. Alison deVere’s Black Dog(1987), Priit Parn’s Breakfast on the Grass (1987) and Amy Kravitz’ The Trap (1988) were screened to illustrate the idea of art as a reprieve or interior journey.  Stephen Kerns’ Culture of Time and Space: 1890-1918 introduced modern western culture by examining how the Industrial Revolution and World War I transformed previously agrarian people’s perceptions and understanding of space, time and memory.  Kern’s descriptions of new concepts such as standarized time, simultaneity and collapsed space set a context for students’ encounters with works by Virginia Woolf, William Bulter Yeats, T.S. Elliott, the Cubists, Dada photomontages artists John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, early animators and filmmakers such as George Melies, Winsor McCay, Edwin S. Porter, Emil Cohl, Rene Clair, Man Ray and Dziga Vertov and other modernists who developed narratives and themes in non-linear or spatially disruptive ways.  Kern’s focus on the beginnings of mass culture also provided a context for me to teach students about the beginnings of mass media.

We taught this program in the 2001-02 academic year.  In the fall the shadow of September 11th loomed over us.  The media’s response, which included endless replays of the twin towers falling, communicated the idea that a single historical moment means more than the processes that may have led up to it.  I screened McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) one day, and we discussed how beautiful and fascinating his images of the boiling smoke, rolling waves and doomed ship were.  It was easy to associate McCay’s earnest, voyeuristic and virtuoso portrayal with contemporary media’s equally earnest obsession with 9/11.  Both transform visualizations of a tragic event into spectacle, at the expense of a deeper understanding of history and the conditions of the people involved.  Both use tragedies as opportunities for displaying technological artistry.  McCay ends his film with portraits of distinguished, predominantly upper class men who died in the attack, and the comment “..and they tell us not to hate the Hun!”  This sensationalism forecast that of our own media, which after 9/11 contributed to stereotypes of all Muslims as terrorists and played into the Bush administration’s use of fear to push its domestic and foreign policy agenda.

In winter we began to deepen our explorations of creative and religious responses to time.  Grimes’ Deeply Into the Bone: Reinventing Rites of Passage set an overall context for this work as he shows how rituals help humans navigate personal and societal transitions.  The art and visions of Hildegard of Bingen and Black Elk combined with the poetry of Rumi brought students’ attention to more personalized strategies of ritualizing, processing or recounting temporal events and the boundaries between linear profane time and cyclical sacred time. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things allowed us to focus in particular on the ways that stories, films and other artworks can take us into “sacred” time and facilitate healing after traumatic events.

The spring quarter syllabus focused on readings and lectures that continued our exploration of themes discussed in fall and winter.  Annie Dilliard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Robert Lawlor’s Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time contributed to our discourse about empiricism and human spiritual response.  I accompanied these readings with screenings of Visual Music films by Oskar Fischinger, John and James Whitney and others.  Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us, Olivia Butler’s Kindred, and Mary Oliver’s Dream Work provided students with poetic and fictional strategies of processing the impact of history on individuals.  A series of films further highlighted the different ways artists can respond to or make use of historical events.  These included Patricio Guzman’s 1997 documentary Chile, Obstinate Memory, Anna Deveare Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (1997), and Hans Fischerkoesen’s Weather Beaten Melody (1942) in conjunction with clips from Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) and Ray Muller’s documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Reifenstahl (1994)

Marking Time Animation Workshop Activities

Fall quarter, students all took workshops in movement, animation and religious studies.  Each of us faculty faced the challenge of how to engage students in a discipline they may not have thought was very interesting.  I had to come up with strategies to involve non-art students who had not drawn since grade school in making animation.  The dance faculty had to devise exercises and assignments that would hook some very self-conscious students into expressing themselves through movement.  The religious studies faculty had to inspire art and dance oriented students into doing serious intellectual work.  For my part, I focused on teaching the essentials of drawn and cut-out animation and getting students up to speed on the technology they would need to do more sophisticated works later.  This included creating an encounter between a replacement animated cut-out and an articulated puppet, and several zoetrope and other drawn exercises based on John Halas’ Timing for Animation. Using selected readings from Vivian Sobchak’s Meta-Morphing; Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change students produced an Exquisite Corpse metamorphosis and considered metamorphosis both as a temporal process and as a performance device.  I supplemented the animation workshop assignments with screenings of Priit Parn’s Time Out (1984), Michel Ocelot’s Prince and Princess (1999), Gianini and Luzzati’s Pulcinella (1973), Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales (1979) and Hedgehog in the Mist (1975), Michaela Pavlatova’s Repete (1994), the Fleischer Brothers’ Betty Boop in Snow White (1933) and Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) and many other  films.

By winter most all students had gained basic familiarity with each of our disciplines So we asked them to  select one discipline based workshop to go to for the entire quarter. My faculty partners led workshops in movement and field study of religions (the latter focused on developing observational and interviewing skills so students could gather information about Northwest religious communities). I taught an animation workshop in which students expanded their basic skills to include composing soundtracks and learning how to break them down and animate to them.  They also were introduced to rotoscoping, under the camera techniques such as sand and paint on glass animation, and storyboard and animatic production.  These workshops were supplemented by screenings of a number of experimental works such as Mike Patterson’s Commuter (1981), Caroline Leaf’s Two Sisters (1990) and The Street (1976), and my own films Eggs (1977) and Reign of the Dog: A Revisionist History (1994).  I also asked them to independently view and respond to a selection of animation by artists including Oskar Fischinger, Joanna Quinn, David Anderson, Ladislaw Starewich, Jan Svankmajer, Otto Mesmer, Steven Subotnick, Jiri Trnka, Nick Park, Marjut Rimminen and Karen Watson.

To bring the different workshops together students all worked in the “Exploration Lab,” collaborating and experimenting with different ways to integrate their learning about time, movement and ritual.  We asked them to use Grimes’ book as a core text from which to investigate personal rituals or ritualized activities and use that experience to develop a 10 minute presentation in response to a global or community concern. Students from different workshops composed groups of four or five so that presentations would benefit from what all our disciplines could offer.  They presented their works at the end of the quarter.  These ranged from simple theatrical skits to more conceptually and technically complex multimedia performance artworks.  A comedic performance about the cultural significance of hair, a multi-media piece showing personal resistance to a barrage of television images and a highly symbolic theater piece illustrating how an individual’s personal ritual process enriches her community are examples of these works that engaged students in exercises of timing, performance, teamwork and conceptual design skills that are important for any animator.

In spring, students spent about half their time on independent projects.  These ranged from anthropological and religious studies research to creation of performance works and animated video.  Students producing animation joined the animation workshop.

As frequently happens in Evergreen  programs that are as broadly interdisciplinary as this one was, faculty and students discover larger themes and questions arising out of their initial inquiries.  In Marking Time, a theme that came to dominate, that we only partially anticipated, was the nature of self-discipline and how different practices in the arts and in religion require us to put aside our immediate impulses or desires to follow a schedule or routine designed by someone else or that we’ve inherited from a particular tradition.  This idea became very important in the spring quarter animation workshop. To accommodate student’s production goals, I structured the workshop by dividing it into a few weeks each for pre-production, production and post-production. Students were given deadlines by which to produce treatments and storyboards for the first section, animated footage for the second and completed works for the third.  They presented work in progress in critique sessions that allowed them to air ideas, brainstorm solutions to conceptual and design problems and share tips on techniques.  Many of them resisted this schedule as it interfered, they thought, with the free, unstructured pattern of working they assumed was the nature of artistic creation.  As the quarter unfolded, it quickly became clear to them that imposing structure on one’s creative work is not only a good thing, but frequently a necessity.  Students realized the multiple meanings of the word “discipline” in relation to their creative aspirations and their understanding of the time commitment of animation. The students who effectively applied time management skills to their work finished on time, got more useful feedback from critique sessions and were better able to integrate that feedback as they completed their piece.

Students’ films ranged from abstract to narrative and autobiographical animation, making use of  a wide range of  techniques, including drawing, collage, paint on glass, stop-motion and live-action trick film effects.  Most fully explored animation’s potential for metamorphosis, dream imagery and associative thinking.  Memorable pieces that came out of this workshop include a circular tale of a man who dreams of becoming a zombie designed after early 20th Century trick films, one student’s retelling of a coming of age dream that she had had using drawing techniques inspired by John and Faith Hubley, and a piece about the interior states achievable through meditation that involved multiple layers of torn paper and drawn animation. All the works that students produced  benefited from the broad range of ideas we had discussed in the larger program throughout the year.

Concluding Thoughts

There are distinct costs and benefits, or to speak more positively, challenges and rewards that come with the interdisciplinary teaching we do at Evergreen.  The challenges add to our workload.  The rewards make it lighter.  This work is demanding and labor intensive and requires constant re-invention.  It can be stressful to rewrite the curriculum every year, on the other hand it allows us to adapt to current research interests or those of our students as well as responding to national and global issues fairly soon after they arise. For example in the 2007-08 edition of Mediaworks, we are planning a part of the syllabus around the Focus the Nation initiative (a nation wide effort among colleges and other organizations to bring climate change issues to the forefront in the 2008 presidential campaign).  Introducing this theme as part of students learning of media will give them content to produce work about, challenge them to attempt to create persuasive media, find alternative platforms for it and in general emphasize media as a part of the public discourse that students have rights and responsibilities to participate in.

Teaching animation in an interdisciplinary context means I have to develop teaching materials that speak to whatever disciplinary mix I’m involved with at the time.  That can be a stretch and may mean that I spend a significant part of my unpaid time reading and researching those connections.  But inevitably the new content arising from this cross-pollination refreshes the way I approach animation as a teacher, scholar and as a producer.  A reward of teaching “Emerging Order” was new insights into how aspects of chaos theory such as complexity and iteration relate to my own artistic practice as well as other artists and animators.  “Animated Visions” greatly expanded my understanding of the cultural forces that informed Soviet era Russian and Eastern European animation.  Now I am much better able to talk about those works when screening them for students.  Movement exercises I learned from performance faculty in Marking Time have helped me teach about expressing character through posture and walk cycles and feel more comfortable integrating performance elements into my programs.

Team teaching can be logistically cumbersome, but it also reduces the amount of work I am responsible for.  In a three-faculty program, I only need to do one out of three lectures.  While I may not be able to go into the same depth as if I were teaching alone, shifting students’ attention to content from a sometimes myopic concern for technology and technique is much easier when working across disciplines.  The humanities, science and social science approaches that my faculty colleagues offer make it easier for me to incorporate issues of ethics and responsibility into teaching about animation.  The ability to include these concerns in teaching animation creates a different sort of depth that enriches students’ appreciation and understanding of the works they view and create.

Animation, at its best, is one of the most interdisciplinary of the arts. It provides extremely adaptable tools for expressing complex ideas.  Animators must have a broad foundation of knowledge and active, inquiring minds to use these tools to do effective work.  As platforms for and purposes of animation increase, producers need to develop versatility and an ability to design for the limits of specific formats and for the goals of different projects.  An interdisciplinary approach to animation education can help aspiring animators develop the intellectual curiosity, flexibility and vitality needed to feed their creative practice.  Students who’ve engaged with animation in this way may follow other career paths, but they carry with them an educated appreciation of animation as an art form arising from practical experience with it, as well as strong visual literacy skills that will help them navigate our increasingly image-oriented culture.

[1]The inaugural Platform International Animation Festival highlighted the proliferation of ways that animation can now be viewed by including competitions and panels on animation for installation, internet, mobile devices.

[2] http://www.evergreen.edu/about/fivefoci.htm

[3] The Six Expectations of an Evergreen Graduate are to articulate and assume responsibility for one’s own work, participate collaboratively and responsibly in our diverse society, communicate creatively and effectively, demonstrate integrative, independent and critical thinking, apply qualitative, quantitative and creative modes of inquiry appropriately to practical and theoretical problems across disciplines, and as a culmination of one’s education, demonstrate depth, breadth and synthesis of learning and the ability to reflect on the personal and social significance of that learning. http://www.evergreen.edu/about/expectations.htm

[4] Evergreen has no departments and students do not declare a major.  Instead, faculty affiliate with different curricular planning areas that are loosely organized around related disciplines.  Humanities faculty affiliate with “Culture, Text and Language.”  The math, biology, physics and chemistry faculty affiliate with “Scientific Inquiry.”  Other faculty affiliate with the “Society, Politics, Behavior and Change,” or “Environmental Studies,” or “Native American and World Indigenous Peoples” planning units.  There are about 25 faculty affiliated with the “Expressive Arts” planning unit and within that, five faculty, including myself, are trained in some branch of the media arts, with an emphasis on non-fiction and/or experimental forms. We generally do not teach narrative fiction–visual storytelling is practiced in the context of documentary, autobiography and animation.  We are committed to developing media literacy amongst students in the belief that our democracy urgently needs citizens who can effectively read and respond to the mass media.  Consequently, we often use approaches that critique mainstream media content and practices.  We rotate through teaching “Mediaworks” and follow-up program for more advanced students to create independent work in media.  Most of the rest of the time, we team up with other faculty in interdisciplinary programs.

[5] Emerging Order evolved from a program we’d taught three years earlier, “Patterns Across Space and Time.”

[6] I got the idea of having students make geometric breakdowns from observing one of Lorelei Pepi’s classes at the California State Summer School for the Arts in 1999.

[7] see the final movie at http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/emergingorder/Fall/students/realism_to_abstraction/realism_to_abstraction.mov.

[8] In a conversation with Yuri Norstein through a translator during his visit to Seattle in October, 2000, he used the Russian word “multiplicator” for animator.

[9] see http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/animatedvisions/home.htm for the program syllabus and description.