Flame-glass animation. Mark Eliott 01/07/2016
What is Flame-glass animation (or flame-ation)? think Claymation but with molten glass: figures and forms shaped in the flame and photographed at tiny increments of change to produce sequences of animation.
Sparkling, translucent glass objects that are usually hard and brittle appearing to move, stretch and morph on screen. Picture the glassblower mixing colours and blowing an evolving shape from rods and tubes in a gas/oxygen torch; balancing the temperatures with careful heating and cooling for up to 6 hours at a time to drooping or cracking. Every minute or so, the piece is installed between a camera and green screen, in exactly the same position before taking the next shot. Now picture the other side of the equation: the animator in front of a computer spending countless hours cleaning up the sequences and retouching individual frames before digitally compositing them into a field of multiple animations and background imagery, then editing the whole into a film. This process can be likened to making a moving collage, mixing visual music or painting a picture with live brush-strokes.
Why am I interested in pursuing this project? In part I want to bring ‘glass to life and life to glass’. By bringing glass, to life, I mean portraying glass to an audience, as a liquid dynamic substance; one which often defies our attempts to control it. This is the way many artists experience working with glass - almost akin to a collaborative relationship. Collaboration involves uncertainty and opens up the possibilities for improvisation – happy accidents and the state of creative aliveness. On the other side of the coin, I want to bring life to glass by using glass’s life-like qualities to describe living organisms and address life-issues which are of central concern to me as a human organism.
I also want to share with an audience, the intimate relationship to craft processes and materiality which is a large aspect of my art practice. Craft is not a dirty word to me even (if it does mean getting your hands dirty). When I have an idea for an artwork, my first impulse is usually to engage with the idea through glass rather than to look for the most appropriate media - as a more conceptual artists might. Glass is usually my first voice of choice so at times I have to wrestle with the medium to produce a result Like a musician trying to make a trumpet sound like a violin. This struggle can help to stretch boundaries and throw up new combinations. Having said that, I also go out on ventures to explore other media then return home.
Why animation? Animation is a natural vehicle for the imagination because you can make stuff up. When I was a kid I used to love drawing and painting and animation to me, is a natural, temporal extension of this.
Animation is also a perfect medium for story telling. We hunger for stories and stories are by nature animate. An artwork, be it object, text or film can provide only the seed of a story. It may exist as a title like the cover of a book but it comes to life only in the moment of perception - a sequence of narrative movement through which the mind travels in the present.
Bringing together glass and animation seems a natural fit – both have commonalities in their use of light and movement. Glass is inherently animate not only due to its elasticity when molten but because it changes in refraction, reflection and illumination as we move around it and as the light changes (particularly of course transparent or translucent glass). Glass forms be they hot or cold worked, cast or fused, still carry the memory of their liquid and plastic states and often convey movement with the shift of light.
To some, including a lot of film producers, flame-glass animation sounds absurd. Why go to such lengths – adapting ‘old school’ stop-motion animation techniques to work with a notoriously temperamental medium like glass when the whole thing could be done on CGI (computer generated image) software. Why not just let glass be glass and enjoy contemporary animation as a purely digital media? True, glass can be frustrating, a detailed piece can spontaneously crack off the blowpipe – mid sequence and shatter on the floor, and true, computer simulations are improving in realism all the time, however the reality is that all animation is labour intensive and flame-ation is probably no slower than most other approaches – at times even faster - the steps from design through model-making, manipulation and photography to animation can occur as one fluid process without the necessity for extensive planning or the armatures often constructed to keep clay-type materials from sagging. A warm glass model can be softened and hardened in seconds. Glass sets so fast that no support is needed to keep a model’s arm in the air between shots. Furthermore, the notion that digital animation is an instant process is of course a myth. It too requires considerable time - in planning, drafting, processing. It too involves the hand and mind of a maker.
It is like asking the painter why she uses brush on canvas instead of doing everything in photoshop? It leads us into the region of French philosopher Merleau ponty’s phenomenology and the ‘lived experience’ – a term coined by German philosopher Dilthey. Each brush stroke is a unique gesture and an engagement by the artist in a particular moment with the materiality of paint and canvas. Likewise a sequence of stop-motion animated glass is not just a mechanism for story telling or the display of an act of design but also the documentation of an experience of making – complete with accidents and changes in direction.
This often lends a rustic aesthetic to a project, which can trigger in the viewer a nostalgic hunger for an old world craft culture in which all objects exuded a quality of human quirkiness rather than of mechanized and computerized production technology. At a deeper level however, I believe there is an innate human interest in materials and processes which occur at the natural and human scale. This is not to claim that it is better than glass simulations achieved through CGI. The look and feel is simply different and the creative pathways diverge. One cannot overlook the fact that computer generated animation technology has vastly extended the possibilities of animation particularly evidenced by the elaborate and often hyper-real worlds within worlds of the computer game genre.
I love glass and the processes involved in manipulating it in the liquid and plastic sates and I love what I call my house of flame-work – a kind of cultural home base which engenders a sense of belonging. I also love the unique qualities of stop-motion but when it boils down to it, I don’t believe that either craft based animation or CGI is superior to the other. Each tends to lead the artist on different creative trajectories and in truth, the current revival of stop-motion animation is in part made possible by the admixture of digital editing software – speeding up impossibly cumbersome processes. Each animation technology has many possibilities as well limitations. My focus is on an approach which is novel because it combines two craft traditions: the 20th century medium of stop-motion animation and the ancient craft tradition of glass flame-work (also known as lamp-work due to the old method of heating the glass with an oil lamp instead of the more modern gas/ oxygen torch). This new hybrid medium holds the freedom of not having to conform to a pre-existing aesthetic but it also carries the physical limitations of dealing with glass - a substance which involves constant juggling. These freedoms and limitations provide for me what I think of as ‘expansive constraint’ a creative state in which one is simultaneously aware of the limitless possibilities in art yet constrained to focus ones available energy on a palette of possibilities provided by the chosen medium.
Glass has resonances with water and is excellent for evoking the qualities of sea life and other water based organisms. Its elasticity and capacity to morph encourages the depiction of evolving forms. I am interested in narrative movement and story telling through glass animation. Also, since my experience of glass on a daily basis is of a substance with a beauty which could be described as living, liquid gemstone, I wish to convey through animation, these dynamic qualities to an audience used to perceiving glass as a hard inert material.
Jack McGrath and I began our collaborative project whilst conducting Masters research at Sydney College of the Arts in 2008. Our first film titled Dr Mermaid and the Abovemarine: is a whimsical narrative based work with an environmental message about a marine biologist who builds a fish hospital in the converted wreck of a WWII submarine in Bondi, Sydney. This was completed in 2010 and screened in various locations including the Glassmuseet in Denmark where it was accompanied by a collection of models, storyboards and sketches documenting the project and its improvisational development in the 2013 show Ocean. We have since reworked the soundtrack to this film with a a lighter approach which is more rhythmic and whimsical – incorporating a variety of acoustic sounds including voice, nylon string guitar, partially submerged saxophone and water-filled glass vessels - percussed and blown.
Our work including a spin-off from Dr Mermaid: Experiments in living Glass #1 and the Slow Growth Improvisation series has been shown in a number of exhibitions including the 2012 group show Glassimations curated by Lienors Torre in Melbourne and Canberra
In our most recent project: Experiments in Living Glass#2, we have taken this relationship between the object and the screen a step further by building an installation in which animations derived from the making of abstracted sea life are projected in the dark through the objects themselves, creating a scene reminiscent of the deep ocean with interesting refractions and reflections appearing in the scape due to distortions in the glass objects. This work was exhibited during the 2015 Animation Studies conference in Canterbury, England. For future works, We are experimenting with ways to bring the artists body into the work via the performance of making, live computer editing, live story telling and or soundtrack accompaniment.
Flame glass animation sits within the context of a tiny but unique community of artists who combine both glass and animation in diverse ways such as projecting animations through cast glass objects, digitally manipulating images of glass forms, painting and sand-drawing on glass plates or producing work with CGI glass simulations. The validity of our particular approach rests on its application. A variety of projects need to be developed by Jack McGrath and myself as well as by others with different ideas until a significant body of work accumulates leading to the emergence of an identifiable and compelling creative genre.