Animation has a rich history of ingenuity. Since almost the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have experimented with how and what to animate, from slices of wax to drawing directly on strips of film to the more traditional forms that we see in commercial animation.
Below are four of my favorite experimental animation techniques: paint on glass, pinscreen animation, clay painting, and sand animation.
Paint on Glass
In paint on glass films, the artist paints directly onto panes of glass (sometimes vertical but frequently on a horizontal animation stand), making small changes and photographing the glass one frame at a time.
One of the earliest pioneers of paint on glass is Oskar Fischinger, a German filmmaker who began his first film experiments in the early 1920s. Fischinger’s film designs tended toward abstraction, and he was among a group of filmmakers in the 1920s and 1930s interested in the concept of “visual music” (a type of abstract filmmaking that emulated the tonality of instrumental music). He contributed a sequence to Fantasia (prod. by Walt Disney, 1940), but is best known for his elaborate optical poems and motion paintings, available through the Center for Visual Music.
Probably the most renowned paint on glass film is The Old Man and the Sea (1999) directed by Aleksandr Petrov. Requiring over two years and 29,000 panes of glass to complete, the film’s beauty emerges in undulating colors and wispy pockets of light. Petrov’s adaptation of Hemingway’s famous novel is hypnotically visual.
Pinscreen animation consists of a large, side-lit pinboard. The animator pushes the pins forward or backward, creating monochromatic images that ripple across the surface. Married filmmakers Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker created this technique in the early 1930s. A handful of filmmakers have experimented with pinscreen animation since then, but Alexeieff and Parker’s films stand as the most prominent examples of this mode of production.
The pinscreen technique can produce quite poetic effects, as it lends itself to subtle gradations and mysterious tones, as can be seen in Alexeieff and Parker’s 1963 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose:
Clay painting is a form of stop motion animation that grew out of clay animation. Instead of creating three-dimensional puppets, however, the filmmaker focuses your attention on the clay surface. The clay is mushed and sculpted into images, utilized as if it were paint, but with more dimensionality.
Joan Gratz, who worked in Will Vinton’s studio early in her career, pioneered this technique. Similar to paint on glass, clay painting allows for incredible color undulations and enables interesting metamorphoses between images. In Gratz’ Academy Award winning film, Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992), she takes us through the history of art, one transformation at a time.
Lastly, in sand animation, the filmmaker manipulates sand on an underlit surface, with the sand creating monochromatic silhouettes. Like pinscreen animation, sand animation often includes subtle gradations, and sometimes sand artists perform their stories live for an audience rather than animating them.
Canadian animator Caroline Leaf’s filmography contains some excellent examples of this type of animation. Her 1974 adaptation of an Inuit folk story, The Owl Who Married a Goose (1974), capitalizes on the technique’s propensity toward delicate figurations. The film is simple in style but effectively expresses the emotional complexity of the Inuit tale.
Of course, this list does not even scratch the surface of all the inventive animation techniques that filmmakers have developed over the years. I encourage you to do a little exploring yourself into the wonderful, varied world of independent animation.
The IU Cinema previously screened Caroline Leaf’s film The Owl Who Married a Goose as part of the NFB of Canada Animated Shorts Program in September 2013.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.