Pedro Serrazina – Spatial constructions: A practitioner’s view of animated space

In his work The Production of Space (La Production de l’Espace, 1974), the French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefèbvre highlighted that, historically, the word ‘space’ implied a “strictly geometrical meaning: the idea it evoked was simply that of an empty area” (Lefèbvre 2007, p. 1). While arguing for an understanding of space as a social product (p. 30), Lefèbvre also expressed a concern about “the privileging of the image” which, he noted, was leading to an “impoverished understanding of space” (Leach 2002, p. 138). With these issues in mind, this essay addresses the understanding and production of space within an animation practice that is less character focussed and makes full use of its frame of display. To accomplish this, I discuss and focus on what I call animated space, the frame-space that animators activate and, not unlike a character itself, becomes infused with anima to become a field of full plasmatic experimentation.[1] I will refer to the historical perspective presented by J.P. Telotte in his book Animating Space (2010), establishing a parallel with Scott Bukatman’s (2012) inspiring suggestion of animated characters as “disobedient machines,”[2] to argue for a practice of resistance against the standardization of the form in the construction of space in animation.

Since the Renaissance we have used geometry and technology (for example the camera obscura) to frame the real and thus construct a view of the world, anticipating the first Lumière brothers’ projections. Cinematic space, however, was never the geometrical “empty area” Lefèbvre refers to, nor the continuous and uniform space postulated by Euclid[3]: it was always an area full of meaning and implied visual narrative; a way of framing and an active participant in the process of filmmaking. Arguably, this is even more so in animation, due to the specificity of its production and, particularly, the fact of its production: a manufactured space where all its elements are generated and available for manipulation. While Lefèbvre describes space as a social product, the product of human activity and a “tool of thought and of action” (Lefèbvre 2007, p. 26), Stephen Kern maps the understanding of its heterogeneous nature[4], referring to the Kantian notion of space as a “form of understanding” (Kern 2003, p. 134). Framed by these reflections, one can argue that the construction and use of the cinematic frame is a reflection of and a way of viewing, understanding and questioning our surrounding space, both physical and social. Such issues, about space, representation and meaning, are dear to me because, before working in animation as a director and teacher, I started my career as a student of architecture. Through the analysis of practical examples from my own work and with reference to short films by Raimund Krumme and Georges Schwizgebel, this article will map a series of procedures that highlight a cinematic technique specific to the practice of animation and suggest how it can impact in our understanding of the space that surrounds us.

From architecture to animation

Before I began working in animation, I spent several years studying architecture. Despite never graduating, those formative years greatly informed my working methods and shaped my film practice. As my animation career progressed, with the opportunity to direct my first film, The Tale About the Cat and the Moon (1995), I realized in early production that, compared to my animation colleagues, rather than focusing on character design, I was much more interested in something else: the overall spatial concept of the film and the placement of the virtual camera, the framing and, specifically, the animation of the whole landscape space. This approach lead me at first to an understanding of the animated space as a powerful visual and narrative element and then, eventually, as a tool of social reflection.

After my attempts to apply a sense of order and control to the use of the line through my architectural studies, I finally realized that my line was not suited to the static form of architecture: I needed to allow it to flow through the drawings and stories that I was producing on my spare time. Leaving one creative practice for another is never a clear-cut action, and so I took with me not only a way of working, but also a style of drawing that placed characters almost out of the frame to privilege perspective over character design, inviting the eye to travel within the frame (Figure 1).

© Pedro Serrazina
Figure 1, © Pedro Serrazina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was a style of drawing that distorted space for dramatic effect, or focused on empty environments, places that suggested, more than showed the presence of characters in the frame.

Some were almost still life in essence: an open door into a room, suggesting something has just happened, or was about to… As if the drawing captures that moment of absence.

This kind of environment could be a representation of the historical understanding of “empty” space referred to by Lefèbvre, however, although devoid of characters, this space is never really empty. Narratively and cinematically speaking, it is charged with tensions, charged with the poetics that Bachelard has described so well.[5] Spaces such as that depicted  in Fig. 2 are also given meaning by the absence of, or the eminent arrival of characters: akin Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot, these are spaces in waiting, hanging on the tensions of anticipation, framed by outside narratives.

My focus on the drawing of space would eventually define my animation practice; brought into the context of animation, these spaces were ready to be animated, the lines ready to be called into play. With hindsight, I can now see that these drawings are a visual translation of what André Bazin highlighted when relating theatre and cinema: that “the drama on the screen can exist without actors” (Bazin 2005, p. 102). Bazin calls our attention to the details, asserting that “a banging door, a leaf in the wind, waves beating on the shore can heighten the dramatic effect” (Bazin 2005, p. 102). Thus, the absence of characters requests more of our attention to what is on the screen.

In the drawing shown in Figure 2 below, we find a character, but the figure appears lost in a dramatic space that highlights a sense of isolation. The door in the foreground places us outside the room, emphasizing our external viewpoint. This visual play creates a compartmented space, a divide not only within the drawing itself and within screen, but also between the plane of the “action” and that of the viewer.

Figure 2, © Pedro Serrazina
Figure 2, © Pedro Serrazina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflecting on these images, it seems obvious that, unlike my fellow animators, who easily fill pages with characters in different poses, I am more drawn to designing and playing with the setting for dramatic results. It is also clear that all those years in architecture left a strong legacy that brings spatial organization to the forefront of my drawings. As Bordwell and Thompson (1997) put it, the “cinema setting […] can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action” ( p. 172). As demonstrated in Figures 3 and 4, the testing storyboards for my first animated short film, Tale about the Cat and Moon (1995), are also strongly shaped by this awareness.

Figure 3, © Pedro Serrazina
Figure 3, © Pedro Serrazina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The early sketch in Figure 3 shows the planning for an alternative ending to the film. The original idea was to capture the passing of time through an animated camera movement over the city and, as the moon turns from right to left of the screen, we zoom out and play with space to leave the cat to disappear within the city, highlighting the distance that separates him from the moon.

Figure 4, © Pedro Serrazina
Figure 4, © Pedro Serrazina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sketch in Figure 4, part of which was used in the film, plays with the sub-division of the frame, suggesting multiple narrative space and time lapses. Yet, these spatial solutions were made spontaneously; there was no intentional or theoretical rationale at play. It is easy, however, to trace my inspirations and frame them within a tradition that goes back to the graphic work of George Herriman and Winsor McCay, the early pioneers of the Sunday comics. These were pioneer artists who challenged the boundaries of conventional framing in the comics’ format. McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-27) in particular is a renowned map of unstable spaces, with the manipulation of the frame a constant complement to the visual narrative. Similarly, Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913-44) challenges spatial conventions. It is not only the shape of the frame itself that changes within the page (something McCay also did regularly in Little Nemo), but also the location of the action, with backgrounds changing from frame to frame, adding a level of uncertainty to an already surreal storyline.

Looking more closely at the panel isolated in Figure 5 below, we see an opening of the frame. A balcony opening towards the reader (employed in many instances throughout the Krazy Kat series), subverts the conception of the frame as closed, and reveals the intentionality of leaving the flatness of the page to merge the image with the viewer’s space.[6]

Figure 5, © Fantagraphics, used with permission
Figure 5, © Fantagraphics, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Play with the frame of this nature can be contrasted with the staged way we find, for example, in one of the first Lumières’ films, L’Arroseur Arrosé (1895) – after being watered, the gardener must ensure that the mischievous boy who just tricked him was not going off-screen to the left, but brought right to the center of the frame instead (see Figure 6 below). An awareness and respect for the limits of the screen highlights the strict staging and flatness typical of early cinema.

Figure 6
Figure 6

 

 

 

 

By comparison, some of the early animation films from the same period were revolutionary in spatial terms and in the freedom they brought to the screen.

Figure 7
Figure 7

 

 

 

 

Although Blackton “interacted” with his Enchanted Drawing (1900) in a filmed lightning sketch[7] (see Figure 7 above), the film’s spatial references were still mainly theatrical, and therefore quite flat. Émile Cohl was among the first to explore a total animated space in Fantasmagorie (1908) (see Figure 8).

 

Figure 8
Figure 8

 

 

 

 

Famously, McCay took Cohl’s explorations further, appearing to enter into the frame and share a spotlight with Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). McCay’s appearance with his animated character suggests an interpenetration between screen and audience space. Concurrently, the Fleischers’ Out of The Inkwell series (1918-29) also undermined the boundaries between the animated and the real, human world.

While this paper addresses aspects of human space in its subsequent sections, it should first be highlighted that, by using the screen as a surface of implied permeation between the frame and the audience space, these early animations constitute films that were leaving behind a flat and theatrical visual language and establishing the roots for a non-conformist spatial vision. From a wider perspective, it seems relevant to note the profound contrast between the freedom suggested by all this graphic explorations and the environment of the time: the height of industrialization and mechanization of society.

A spatial art or a technical practice?

An historical review of the use of space in animation has been sketched out by Telotte in his book Animating Space (2010). Telotte reminds us that animation is a spatial art, as opposed to a medium whose history is always written from a figure-based perspective (p. 254). He also argues that animation can be “a tool for exploring and experimenting with [the] new spaces of the modern world” (p. 253). Telotte concludes his volume highlighting animation’s recent developments, making reference to films such as 300 (2006), A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Beowulf (2007). These are examples from mainstream films, in which animation and live action have become almost indistinguishable. In this context, then, it is understandable that Telotte proposes that animation “occurs in a special sort of space that is not quite the human world but aspires to that status” (p. 253). Within the specific, technically-orientated style characteristic of hybrid live-action/animation film, we can understand such a claim; however, animation practice also has the potential to offer us alternative spaces – spaces that make us understand the narrative if there is one, spaces that make us dream of imaginary landscapes, spaces that question our perception. As Bukatman (2012) says in the The Poetics of Slumberland, “comics and cartoons are […] about overturning established orders and hierarchies” (p. 2). As an animation practitioner, I am neither interested in nor aspire to represent the human world. In my practice, animation and the specific role of space within animation, become all the more powerful – as Bukatman implies – when challenging notions of the real.

In the preparation for The Tale about the Cat and the Moon, the initial drawings did originate from observation of that real, human space to which Telotte refers. Rather than merely replicating the city, what I desired was a departure from it, allowing the animation to go elsewhere and take the viewer along. It was also not a coincidence that the first sequence I animated was the opening camera movement through the streets of the city. This opening “dive” was the beginning of the journey “in;” but, instead of staying close to a realistic style, my main goal was to synthesize the idea of the place. Through the gradual abstraction, both the city and the backgrounds take part as active elements of the narrative: either through morphing, fragmentation of the frame, or via the disintegration of the landscape.

In this fashion, the visual becomes visceral, and graphic solutions help us experience the unfulfilled expectations of the cat in his hopeless pursuit of the moon. In essence, the representation of the space on the screen becomes a graphic play that reflects the character’s story. This interplay, of course, has been seen in other films, such as Walt Disney’s and Jan Svankmajer’s animated adaptations of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. The story, already renowned for its unstable landscape and shifting bodies, was brilliantly responded to by both directors, visually dealing with some of the spatial challenges that I forward as key questions for animation practice in general:

– How does animation become a tool for exploring and experimenting with the spaces of our world (as suggested by Telotte)?
– How does it help us question what we see around us?
– How does animation help us to “take part” – to interact with community and society?
– How can animation approach space as a narrative device?

These are questions that put space at the heart of, not only animation, but of filmmaking in general and, I believe, worth investigating through practice.

Case Study: Schwizgebel’s Frank N Stein (1982)

Georges Schwizgebel’s body of work of is a map of unconstrained spatial explorations. Through the use of (mainly) painted animation, the Swiss director has developed a personal style that is clearly identifiable, using the morph and the movement within the screen as a device for narrative construction. Le Ravissement de Frank N Stein (1982) takes us on a journey of self-discovery through space. As the film starts we are confronted with an image of the corpses that were used to build the body of Frank N Stein (see Figure 9).

Figure 9, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 9, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film is constructed through a single point of view, and the opening sequence suggests the viewer is with the main character, slowly waking up in the lab in which he was assembled (see Figure 10).

Figure 10, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 10, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Frank N Stein discovers a door, we embark on a first person walkthrough down a corridor that represents his physical and spiritual birth (see Figures 11 and 12).

Figure 11, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 11, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 12, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 12, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film travels repeatedly through the same corridor and room. The slow repetition and gradual progress of the visuals, from sketched to finished artwork, emphasizes the fragile nature of this awakening. The exposed stages of animation development depicted in Figure 13 reinforce a gradual construction of the place, embodying the character’s gathering of thoughts through the hypnotic succession of corridors and rooms.

Figure 13, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 13, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a process of repetition and discovery that lasts 8 of the total 9 minutes of film, the camera pulls away abruptly and Schwizgebel breaks the bond between character and viewer he has so carefully built: A sudden morph transforms what we expect to be yet another rendering of the room into the actual shape of the character’s head (see Figures 14 and 15).

Figure 14, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 14, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 15, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 15, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This unexpected transformation is thus the culmination of a clear process of identification between the journey through space and the awakening of a character that – like the animation itself – is built of different parts. Moreover, after the initial first-person walkthrough, the second morph pushes the viewer even further out, away from the diegetic space and back into the “original” audience space (the cinema seats revealed as the animation zooms out), providing a reminder that what we have been watching is nothing but a construction on the screen. The film, the animation, the character himself, they are an all-encompassing visual and narrative spatial construction embodying the character’s birth, as seen in Figures 16 and 17.

Figure 16, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 16, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 17, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission
Figure 17, © Georges Schwizgebel, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Animated space as a structural device

The linkages established between body and space, as well as the process of using space as a generator of events and structure for action, afford an opportunity to draw a parallel with issues also addressed in the field of sociology. In “The Constitution of Space,” Martina Low argues that “spaces are experienced [by the body], but also have an impact on bodies […] they structure action” (2008, p. 33). As exemplified by Le Ravissement de Frank N Stein, the animated space has the power to structure not just the action but the whole of the frame and the character itself. When confronted with such powerful approach it seems odd that so few animators and film-makers seem to be fully exploring this potential.

Examining current mainstream cinema, we find, as Telotte has mapped out, ever-increasing examples of a film practice that praises and places animation as an enabler of hyper-realism within live action. No matter how spectacular or immersive they are, these films do not question, nor do they structure; they simply reinforce a certain way of looking at the world (even if it is a fantasy world) with the latest visual technology. From an animation director’s perspective, I find this problematic. In mainstream films that employ animation and CGI, animation ceases to be an art form in itself, with its own visual solutions, but instead serves as a simple tool for realistic live-action effects and the re-creation of human space. At the same time, such an approach encourages a standardized view of the world and becomes alienated from animation’s true potential. As Lefèbvre has suggested, “social space is a social product” (2007, p. 30). Martina Low argues further that, in a capitalist society which fragments and organizes space to better control it, “it is difficult to conceive of spatial production beyond alienation” (2008, p. 29).

As the social spaces of everyday life under the conditions of capitalism become more globalized, mainstream cinema also becomes more formulaic and standardized. Live action films that use animation to such an extent that it becomes difficult to define where animation stops and live action begins, and animation films that look more and more like surrogate representations of reality, are equally trapped by the technical goals of photo realism, 3D effects and immersion (the elusive “holy grail” of cinematic technology), the pursuit of which all too often tends to be an end result in itself. Framing animation in this fashion, particularly when we consider the challenging role it embodied at its very early stages during the age of mechanization and all the standardization it implied, undermines the artistic potential of animation and converts the medium into a tool for supporting live-action cinema.

As such, Low’s proposal that rather than conforming to the circumstances, art and artists must work to call into question social conditions (2008, p. 28), becomes particularly timely. She suggests further that we should follow the “manipulated perceptions that point beyond the existing capitalist space, and […] make space conceivable as ‘something different’” (p. 29). Following such perspective and bringing it to the animation field, a new question can be articulated: how can animation help us to go beyond the constraints of standardization, and produce that something different in cinematic terms? As with Le Ravissement de Frank N Stein, examining Crossroads (Raimund Krumme, 1991) becomes another approach that may provide an answer.

Crossroads, toward a conclusion

In short, Crossroads is a short film about a man confronted by others who want to control the destination of his path. Eventually he escapes and re-gains self-determination and agency. To accomplish this, he must literally take the surrounding space in his hands and shape his own path, merging the narrative itself into the animated space (Bendazzi 2016, p.119). Not unlike the main character of Crossroads, animation may want to wrestle back the control of its own lines, to achieve Low’s suggestion of “something different,” but also to re-establish its original sense of identity (see Figure 18).

Figure 18, © Raimund Krumme, used with permission
Figure 18, © Raimund Krumme, used with permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

The standardization of established narrative strategies in mainstream cinema and animation means character building and identification have become predictable and to a certain extent, oppressive. The use of screen space and editing has become such that spatial orientation is never an issue, with continuity rules, the spatial codes within the frame making sure the viewer is on safe ground and never lost. This predictability is certainly disappointing.

Animation needs to claim back its spatial potential, but not only for artistic purposes. If social space generates action and events, animated space does not need to be fulfilled through commercial theme parks or conform to being live action’s tool in mainstream attraction films. If the structuring of space effectively impacts on and reflects social organization, it is of importance that animation maintains the practice of questioning it. Animation, with its popular, low art background, was born with an embedded otherness and a challenging spirit. At a time when technological advances are pushing cinema towards realistically-rendered 3D environments, immersion and simulation, it seems crucial to foster a subversive approach to visual narrative and spatial representation, which can be uniquely facilitated by animation. By following the example of the films referred to in this paper, it becomes clear that animated space is one of the ultimate tools to challenge our modes of viewing the world, not to reinforce old ones.

This approach leads to the proposal that animation should remember its roots and how it left behind its original frame, (of the comics, the theatre, the illusionism shows), to re-establish itself as an independent art form, ready to challenge our modes of perception, of spatial and even of social organization. As Noel Burch, when arguing for a cinema of the future, has said, “disorienting the viewer is one of a film-maker’s most valuable tools” (1973, p. 10). As long as animation continues to draw on its roots, the revitalizing power for disorientation can only lead us to exciting new places, both cinematic as well as social.

Pedro Serrazina is an animation director and tutor. He received his MA in Animation Arts from the Royal College of Art. He is presently completing a PhD on the subject of animated space.

 References

Alice in Wonderland. (1951). Film. USA: Walt Disney.

Bachelard, G., Jolas, M. and Stilgoe, J. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bazin, André (2005). What is Cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bendazzi, Giannalberto (2016). Animation: A World History, Volume 3, Contemporary Times. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. (1997). Film art. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Bukatman, S. (2012). The Poetics of Slumberland. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burch, N. (1973). Theory of Film Practice. London: Secker and Warburg

Color Rhythm. (1940). Film. Germany: Oskar Fischinger.

Crafton, D. (1982). Before Mickey. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Crossroads. (1991). Film. Germany: Raimund Krumme.

Herriman, G. and Blackbeard, B. (2008). Krazy & Ignatz (1935-1936). Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Eisenstein, S. and Leyda, J. (1986). Eisenstein on Disney. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Fantasmagorie. (1908). Film. France: Émile Cohl.

Gerald McBoing Boing’s Symphony. (1950). Film. USA: Robert Cannon.

Gertie the Dinosaur. (1914). Film. USA: Winsor McCay.

Kern, S. (2003). The Culture of Time and Space. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

L’Arroseur Arrosé. (1895). Film. France : Lumière Brothers.

Leach, N. (2002). Rethinking architecture. London: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. and Nicholson-Smith, D. (2007). The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Le Ravissement de Frank N Stein. (1982). Film. Switzerland: Georges Schwizgebel.

Little Nemo in Slumberland. (1905-27). Film series. USA: Winsor McCay.

Low, M. (2008). “The Constitution of Space: The Structuration of Spaces Through the Simultaneity of Effect and Perception.” European Journal or Social Theory, 11, pp.25-49.

Out of the Inkwell. (1918-1929). Film series. USA: Bray Studios.

Spiritual Constructions. (1927). Film. Germany: Oskar Fischinger.

Telotte, J. (2010). Animating space. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky.

The Enchanted Drawing. (1900). Film. USA: J. Stuart Blackton.

The Tale About the Cat and the Moon. (1995). Film. Porto: Pedro Serrazina, Estudio Filmografo.

 

NOTES

[1] I am referring to Eisenstein’s discussion of the plasmatic in Disney’s animation, in  Eisenstein on Disney (1986).

[2] Bukatman develops this in The Poetics of Slumberland (2012).

[3] See Kern, “The Nature of Space”, p. 131-142, in The Culture of Time and Space, for a concise overview on the understanding of space.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bachelard, Gaston (1994). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

[6] Referring to Riegl’s “haptic space” and Burch’s “motionless voyage”, Bukataman praises McCay’s accomplishment in suggesting a “spatial continuum” between the world of Slumberland and that of the reader (Bukatman 2012, p. 89-90).

[7] See Crafton for a more detailed reference to the origins of the lightning sketches in Before Mickey (1982), p. 48.

© Pedro Serrazina

Edited by Amy Ratelle

2 thoughts on “Pedro Serrazina – Spatial constructions: A practitioner’s view of animated space

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *