Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

05 JULY, 2011

Before Walt Disney: 5 Animations by Early Cinema Pioneers

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What a shape-shifting egg has to do with racehorses and the science of facial expressions.

Animation is one of the most ubiquitous and all-permeating forms of visual communication today, seen everywhere from the multitude of TV channels dedicated solely to cartoons to the title sequences of our favorite movies to the reactive graphic interfaces our smartphones. And while most of us have a vague idea of how, when and where it all began, we tend to take for granted the incredible visual wizardry possible today. With that in mind, here’s a brief history of the beloved medium’s beginnings through the seminal work of five early animation pioneers.

COHL: FANTASMAGORIE (1908)

French cartoonist and animator Émile Cohl is often referred to as “the father of the animated cartoon.” The legend goes that in in 1907, when motion pictures were reaching critical mass, the 50-year-old Cohl was walking down the street and spotted a poster for a movie clearly stolen from one of his comic strips. He confronted the manager of the offending studio, Gaumont, in outrage and was hired on the spot as a scenarist — the person generating one-page story ideas for movies. Between February and May 1908, Cohl created Fantasmagorie, considered the first fully animated film ever made.

To create the animation, Cohl placed each drawing on an illuminated glass plate and traced the next drawing, reflecting the variations necessary to show movement, over it until he had some 700 drawings. Since chalkboard caricaturists were common vaudeville attractions in the era, the characters in the film look as though they’ve been drawn on a chalkboard, but it’s an illusion — Cohl filmed black lines on paper and printed them in negative to make his animations appear to be chalk drawings.

Fantasmagorie and dozens of other influential early films can be found on Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2: 1908-1916, with over ten hours of glorious raw material.

MÉLIÈS: THE PROLIFIC EGG (1902)

French filmmaker Georges Méliès is known as the first cinemagician for his early use of special effects in cinema. Between 1896 and 1914, he directed some 531 films, ranging from one to forty minutes in length, usually featuring single in-camera effects throughout each entire film. In 1902, he appeared in one of his own films, l’oeuf du sorcier (The Prolific Egg) — a groundbreaking exploration of scale, multiplication and transitions that truly sealed his reputation as a “cinemagician” and the father of special effects in film.

Méliès’ seminal work can be found in Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913), an outstanding 5-disc collection of 173 rare and rediscovered Méliès gems alongside a beautifully illustrated booklet featuring essays by acclaimed National Film Board of Canada animator Norman McLaren, and its sequel, Méliès Encore: 26 Additional Rare and Original Films by the First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1911).

MCCAY: LITTLE NEMO (1911)

Cartoonist and artist Winsor McCay (1869-1964) is often considered one of the fathers of “true” animation.

His 1911 film, Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, also referred to simply as Little Nemo and featured here last week, contains two minutes of pure animation at around 8:11, using sequential hand-illustration in a novel way not seen in previous films.

For more on McCay’s work and legacy, look no further than the stunning and illuminating Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. There’s also a wonderful Kickstarter project out to resurrect McCay’s last film, The Flying House — join us in supporting it.

BLACKTON: THE ENCHANTED DRAWING (1900)

British filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton is credited with creating the first animation in America and was among the first in the world to use stop-motion as a storytelling technique. In 1896, Blackton, a reporter for the New York Evening World, was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his brand new Vitascope invention. In an age where wooing reporters was critical to success, Edison took Blackton to Black Maria, his studio-cabin, and created an impromptu film of Blackton doing a lightning sketch of Edison himself. Blackton became so infatuated with the technology that he soon founded the American Vitagraph Company and began producing films, debuting with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900.

In the film, previously featured here, Blackton sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine, then “removes” these last drawings as real objects so that the face appears to react. Although the stop-motion sequence isn’t considered “true” animation in technical terms the way Little Nemo, which Blackman co-directed with McCay, is, the technique offered an early glimpse of what animation could become.

Blackton’s films are included in The Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921 — a fantastic collection of the work that sparked what became one of the most powerful and permeating movements in visual creativity.

MUYBRIDGE: WALTZING COUPLE (1893)

Though the work of English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge isn’t animation, his animal locomotion studies are among the earliest visual experiments with moving images, laying the foundations for later forms of videography.

In 1872, the Governor of California took a public position on a commonly debated question of the era: When a horse gallops, are all four of its hooves off the ground simultaneously. Most paintings of galloping horses at the time showed the front legs extended forwards and the rear legs extended backwards, so Governor Stanford sided with the “unsupported transit” theory and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. He hired Muybridge to settle the question, who enlisted a series of large cameras using glass plates placed in a line, each triggered by a thread as the horse passed. He paired that with a clockwork device. The images were then copied as silhouettes onto a disc, later viewed on a zoopraxiscope. In 1877, Muybridge finally settled Stanford’s question with a single photographic negative showing Stanford’s racehorse, Occident, fully airborne in the midst of a gallop.

In 1893, Muybridge used the phenakistoscope — an early animation device that harnessed the “persistence of vision” principle to create an illusion of motion — to extend his visual studies to animation.

Hans-Christian Adams offers an excellent account of Muybridge’s work and legacy in Eadweard Muybridge: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs, best examined in parallel with the work of Muybridge’s equally influential French contemporary, Étienne-Jules Marey.

For more on early animation, you won’t go wrong with Donald Crafton’s Before Mickey — the most ambitious history of animation from 1898-1928 ever published.

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04 JULY, 2011

A Tribute to René: Haunting Motion-Graphics Homage to René Magritte

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What a non-pipe has to do with transfixing time and tracing the roots of modern advertising.

Belgian surrealist René Magritte remains one of the most relevant artists in modern history, his work exploring the intersection of art and philosophy through arresting, mind-bending imagery that leads the viewer to question the most fundamental givens of agreed-upon reality. In this mesmerizing motion-graphics homage to the great painter, London-based studio Box of Toys and video art outfit flipEVIL explore Magritte’s most iconic pieces in a haunting third-dimension, complete with an original piano score inspired by his work.

Given the context we wanted to take a very traditional and unadorned route, and so composed a bespoke piano piece in and around the motion. The piano leads the way in terms of pace and characterization, backed by subtle sound design that reinforces the dream-like state of the visuals.”

For more on Magritte’s genius and legacy, look no further than Magritte: Attempting the Impossible — an absolutely stunning, lavish anthology featuring more than 300 works, including many unpublished material. The six-pound volume opens each chapter with a close analysis of one of Magritte’s most influential masterpieces amidst a reconstruction of its historical and intellectual contexts. Additional essays explore Magritte’s photography, drawings and influence on German and American contemporary art and advertising.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

01 JULY, 2011

Nabokov’s Legacy: Bequeathing Butterfly Theory

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Getting schooled in the arts and sciences, or what literature has to do with lepidoptery.

Tomorrow, the 34th anniversary of Vladamir Nabokov‘s death, isn’t just a chance to observe the author’s contributions to the literary canon; it’s an opportunity for triumph. Nabokov admirers have long known of his double life as a lepidopterist — a scholar of butterflies — and master of prose (in multiple languages, no less), but it’s taken the scientific community time to catch up with his achievements in the former pursuit.

In January of this year, Nabokov’s 1945 hypothesis was finally recognized as scientific fact, putting the lie to that tired adage, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Since Brain Pickings exists to celebrate cross-disciplinary creativity, we’ve long been enamored of the multi-talented linguist and lepidopterist. A true combinatorial force, Nabokov brought the precision of entomological study to his writing, and the playfulness of his words to the hunt for new butterfly species. (And as if that weren’t enough, he was also a synesthete.)

As an artist and a scholar, I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

It wasn’t until this year, however, that the author-scientist’s thesis on a particular blue butterfly was proven true. While Nabokov served, initially on a unpaid volunteer basis, as the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, he speculated that the American Polyommatus had evolved over millions of years of emigration from Asia. And we now know that he was right.

During his 20 years in the U.S., Nabokov spent almost every summer traveling west both to work on his writing and search for new specimens. In fact, for proof of the cross-fertilization of his efforts, one need look no further than his masterpiece Lolita, a road-trip novel that mirrored the author’s own criss-crossing the country.

I spent what remained of the summer exploring the incredibly lyrical Rocky Mountain states, getting drunk on whiffs of Oriental Russia in the sagebrush zone… And yet–was that all? What form of mysterious pursuit caused me to get my feet wet like a child, to pant up a talus, to stare every dandelion in the face, to start at every colored mote passing just beyond my field of vision? ~ the fictional character Vadim Vadimych, in Nabokov’s final novel Look at the Harlequins!

So in celebration of his equally impressive contributions to two disciplines, we’ve gathered some of Nabokov’s entries in a third, the field of visual arts. Allowing his creativity free rein, Nabokov’s beautiful butterfly drawings–often penciled on the title and endpages of his many books–were actually pure products of his imagination. Like his work, these hybrid creatures combined existing species in new ways that only he could have conceived.

The author on a hunting expedition with his son Dmitri, near Gstaad, August 1971.

Image via Glenn Horowitz Bookseller.

Unlabeled butterflies on a copy of the first American edition of Lolita from 1958

Kurt Johnson, author of Nabokov's Blues, identifies the four overlapping butterflies as North American species, reflecting the journey across the U.S. of Lolita and Humbert during the novel, and also the author while writing it.

Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Unnamed butterfly from a copy of King, Queen, Knave

The author created a fantastical hybrid of the Hairstreak and Australian Lacewing butterflies.

Image via Christie's.

The invented Morpho sylvia, for Nabokov's Wellesley College colleague, short-story writer Sylvia Berkman.

Morpho is a genus of bright, large, metallic-blue South American butterflies.

Image via the Wellesley College Library.

Eugenia oengini from the endpaper of Conclusive Evidence, the first version of the author's autobiography.

Named for Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov translated.

Image via Nabokov's Butterflies.

Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Brenthis dozenita Nab.

On receiving the 1971 American edition of the 1958 short-story collectionNabokov's Dozen, the author drew this invented species -- calling it 'Dozenita Fritillary' -- and presented it to his wife as a gift on January 19, 1971. The drawing resembles an actual northern bog species which Nabokov describes in the opening of Speak, Memory.

Image via Nabokov Museum.

Arlequinus arlequinus male, drawn for the author's wife in a copy of Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov's last completed novel published in August 1974.

At Nabokov and Véra's first encounter in 1923 she was wearing a harlequin mask.

Image via the Cornell University Library.

Charaxes verae Nabokov male, an imagined species drawn on the endpaper of the first English edition of The Gift, for the Nabokovs' forty-third wedding anniversary in 1968.

The Russian inscription reads, 'Here is the tenderest of butterflies, worth of our anniversary.'

Image via Nabokov's Butterflies.

The captions above draw on an excellent, but sadly out-of-print volume called Nabokov’s Butterflies. For more on his fluttering finds, however, read the brilliant Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius; or visit the fantastic online galleries of the Nabokov Museum. And if it’s more gorgeous scientific sketches you want, check out our review of Field Notes.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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