Alternative Animation: Creations for an Art House Audience

Animation has long been a staple of cinema around the world. Like most genres, however, animation has bred an independent circle, in addition to the more popular, mainstream works one would see coming from Walt Disney Studios or Warner Brothers.

For the Fourth Annual Theatre, Film and Media Studies (TFMS) Film Series, the focus has been on alternative animation.

The animations on the first night of the series were composed by Karen Aqua, an artist from Boston, Massachusetts whose animations have been featured on many notable programs, including Sesame Street.

Her style, which is almost exclusively hand drawn, is a blend of illustration and rhythm which is meant to trigger feelings of nostalgia, absolution, and even catharsis.

Heavenly Bodies (1980), one of her earlier works, is designed to be a mind-bending ride that flows from one image to the next in a way which makes the familiar unfamiliar.

Kakania (1989) follows in the footsteps of Heavenly Bodies stylistically, but also seeks to show the dynamic range of Aqua as a storyteller.

Whereas Heavenly Bodies is about the fluidity of life and how things blend together, Kakania is a frantic portrayal of society as a constantly working machine.

The music, this time tinged with essences of 80s New Wave and Ska, is meant to produce a natural rhythm for the piece that is just as erratic as the movements of the characters.

The last piece by Karen Aqua, Twist of Fate (2009), is her most recent film.

The dystopian nature of the animation was shown by the switches throughout from photographs to abstract patterns of lines to stop motion animation.

The piece, which was inspired by Aqua’s battle with cancer,  engaged a brutally honest attitude regarding the cold sterility of the world of medicine, the warfare that hospice has on the body, and the anxiety that comes along with it all.

On the second night of the series, the guest animator was James Duesing who specializes in computer animation and has been featured at international festivals like Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.

His work was a different breed from that of Aqua’s: it was more cynical, more skeptical, and much drier. His goal seemed to involve making the viewer re-examine their own ideals.

The narratives in his work all revolve in some fashion around materialism and elitism in our culture.

Whether it’s the superficiality present in Law of Averages or the exploitative nature of tourist traps in Maxwell’s Demon, Duesing presents this highly disillusioned view of our society as if our culture’s moral compass sits in mediocrity.

His animations present fears that many individuals may have regarding the state of our culture.

At a grander level, he addresses the fears that accompany issues we have had to face over the past 25 years, like the growing presence of AIDS, stem cell research, and the role technology plays in our everyday lives.

The dialogue had provocative aspects that were meant to test and cross boundaries.

The chances and the liberties he takes with his work are what makes him stand out as an animator and a storyteller.

Tugging the Worm is named after a slang phrase for masturbation and it specifically tackles drug abuse, gay culture, and the objectivity of “acts of the flesh.”

In Law of Averages, he infers that the average is a state of pretension where material needs are our main fixation.

He even includes intertitles between scenes with lines like “Buy things on credit” and “Always aspire for wall to wall carpeting.”

Sophomore Mark Lehtonen said, “I liked the first [event] better. The second one was … harder to understand. [Aqua]’s stuff was really colorful and was a lot more about making stories with music. [Duesing] used dialogue, hers were a lot more audio/visual.”

Sophomore Carol Cerzo said, “At both events they showed the films in a chronological order spanning 30 years and it was really interesting to see how the animation changed across that time.”

“Like [Duesing], his first few films were hand drawn but then computers came around and he started using them to animate and got better as time went on. It was interesting to see how the artist’s style as well as the mediums they used evolved.”

The film series so far this school year has been enlightening in regards to what can be done outside of mainstream , commercial animation which is more publicized and better funded.

TFMS Department Chair Joanne Klein said of the event, “Film does such a good job of recording everyday images that we sometimes forget it can also show us what we can never see around us. The worlds of animation are magical places, with their own landscapes, physical laws, and creatures.”

“The films in the series are animations, but they are not cartoons. They are confluences of art, music, poetry – plus all the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. For those with a taste for the post-modern, these films are a snack without limits,” said Klein.

Duesing and Aqua both expressed views of the world around them which, through illustration, can be quite a wild ride.


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