Animation: Puppet and Projected life
From an early age I have always admired animation. To this day, I am still one of those adults that goes to see the latest Disney or Pixar movie in a cinema full of children and parents. These animated films have always had the ability to take me on a journey with story, character and song. However, what has grabbed my attention is the animation itself; the creation of life from lines on paper or pixels on a computer screen, the seemingly limitless imaginativeness and the endless surprises. I will still watch clips from animated movies, just to analyse the emotional expression, from big gesticulation to the subtlest of movements.
As a child I always dreamt of being able to animate, to harness that huge creative power. I even day-dreamed in cartoons. The skill was not one I managed to pick up. However, I believe that urge to bring life to my imagination, to create life is what brought me to puppetry. Like with animation, I could create characters I could never be, explore worlds I could never visit and even break physics apart. Puppetry was my conduit to that creativity that I had been searching for.
I have focused on puppetry for most of my performing career but during my recent studies for an M.A at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama I once again started thinking about animation. I was devised a piece called #WATERLOOBRIDGE, with writer and performer Rebecca Robinson, which explored the impact and rise of male suicide. Inspired by the long-running collaboration between William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company and 1927’s most recent piece Golem, I wanted to explore the potential of projecting animation with a puppet figure. We started with a few questions to answer. What could hand-drawn animation offer to the puppet? What was the animations role in the world? How could we balance the puppetry and the animation?
From the start of our explorations with #WATERLOOBRIDGE, we were aware that by the nature of bringing life to a puppet, we would also be able to take that life away. We always knew we would be using puppetry to explore the subject of suicide for this very reason. There was a constant tension to keep our puppet, a figure of a man, an every-man (we never gave him a name) alive. His mental struggle with suicidal thoughts was highlighted by his fragile relationship with life as a puppet. However, what we did not expect was that by using projected animation, other parts of his world could have the same tension.
Both animation and puppetry share common ground. The word animate has its origins in Latin and is derived from anima which means ‘life’ or ‘soul’. Animating is the ‘instilling’ of life; the connotation is that it is something that is given. Both animation and puppets utilise the same illusion of life despite being, by themselves, devoid of life; animation being a series of images being viewed in quick succession and the puppet is an inanimate object manipulated by a performer to move. Puppetry and animation have to struggle to be alive (The Handspring Puppet Company founders Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler have noted particularly on the puppet’s need to strive to be alive). They do not have the privilege of life, it is a quality that is given to them and even then they are made alive not only by the artist utilising them but also by their audience. Both forms require a willingness to harness the imagination to bring them to life.
Our initial experiments focused on what we could bring alive with the process of animation (we made a clear decision that our man, who we would follow on his conflict with suicidal thought, was going to be a puppet). The aesthetics of the animations had the same fragility shared by the puppet. Each frame of animation was drawn from scratch and, due to my inexperience of animating, each frame had its imperfections, never quite matching the frame before. When viewed as a sequence, these imperfections gave the animations a breath, a subtle and constant movement that kept the drawn lines alive. The world we were creating for the puppet, normal everyday places such as a tube carriage, an office had ‘life’ but at the same time, the possibility to fall still, to be wiped away or to die, much in the way a puppet can ‘die’ when it is without its own breath. We animated text, faces, a little girl, doodles, water, a brain, realistic and stylised hearts, which all had a breath and a life. Our next step was to see what would happen when we brought these animations and puppetry together. What could animation bring to puppetry and what could puppetry bring to animation?
Our puppet had a plain, almost featureless face (highlighting his every-man quality) and we were able to project animated faces. This gave the puppet not only a face that could shift with emotion, thought but many faces that he could try on. In another experimenting we projected a beating heart onto the chest of the puppet and then allowed the puppeteers to step away from their manipulation, to see if the life of the animated heart would keep the puppet ‘alive’.
This layering brought many fascinating moments and opportunities but it also brought to focus many differences of the logistics between the way of life for animation and puppetry. The animation was pre-recorded, while the puppetry was in the moment and live; the choreography of a scene was usually strictly dictated by the animation and where the puppet (and the puppeteers) were blocked. The animation was projected in 2D, while the puppet was solid and 3D; mapping the projections on a 3D puppet became a time consuming task and an exercise in preciseness. The animations could change shape, constitution, size, while the puppet could only move in the way it was constructed and could not change itself.
This brought up an interesting and unexpected challenge; I found that both forms were almost in competition with each other, with which was more alive. The more focus and character driven the animated projections became, the less alive and limited the puppet became. For example, we experimented with giving our puppet an animated bird, a metaphor for his hopefulness that suffers during his rapid bout of depression. The bird would fly around the puppet, land on his hand, appear inside him and eventually fading away and dying. Although this allowed a creative way of showing hope, the puppet started to become little more than a canvas for the bird. The puppet responded to the ‘life’ the bird had, he watched it fly and reacted to its actions but the animation did not reciprocate. The puppet was becoming an audience within the piece, helping to collaborate on the bird’s own life. The animation began to pull focus.
A piece of feedback we received stuck with me after we showed the animated bird and the puppet. The puppet was loosing its ‘puppetness’; that unique quality of limitless imaginativeness and the endless surprises that I was able to creatively channel through puppetry. However, aftwewards when we began to focus on the ‘puppetness' of the puppet, (it’s breath, it’s materiality and its physical presence) the animations fell to the background and were used more for scenery, something for the puppet to react to rather than with. It appeared when both puppet and animation represented something ‘alive’, the two competed in an animated survival of the fittest. A middle ground was not found and as the deadline to performance drew closer, I fell back on what I knew.
This frustration and imbalance may have reflected in that I was both in charge of the animations, the puppet-making and the lead puppet performance. Both tasks of making puppets and making animations are labour intensive and time consuming, both were vying for my attention and focus and so both struggled to be alive. To achieve a scene took a period devising, choreographing, animating, re-choreographing, mapping, animating, re-choreographing and rehearsal.
The timeframe for our research and development and final presentation of #WATERLOOBRIDGE was short, at a little over three months. I believe, with more time, we could have found more sophisticated strategies to balancing the life and soul of animation and puppetry and to create a more cohesive world. On the other hand, we could have exploited this imbalance to further contrast the puppet man increasingly loosing touch of his own life and the animated (in every sense of the word) world around him. Only from reflecting back can I only begin to appreciate the delicate but dynamic world of animation and animating. I believe there is a way for both to ‘live’, theatrically, equally alongside each other.
I wanted to find some sort of concise conclusion or analogy, to help prepare myself and my collaborators for future projects and here it is: Animation and puppets are like roommates; you have to find the right ones and the right balance for everyone to live in harmony. Or you may have to just enjoy the drama that ensues.