In anticipation of the Bentson Mediqtheque program Animatedly Yours, curator and writer Herb Shellenberger shares his research into the field of American experimental animation and the emergence of animators in the 1970s and 1980s, a distinctive historic moment due to its high volume of female voices.
It’s not a regular occasion. It can take a surprising amount of emails, logistics, travel, and funding to happen. But during those rare moments where I sit in an audience in front of a big screen which pours out rushing colors, untamed lines, and wild sounds, I become transfixed. Some experimental animation films make me laugh. Others probe the depths of erotic fantasy. There’s a whole set of films which produce completely unique, overwhelming visual/aural sensations, whereas others produce a calm, quietude, and introspective sensibility.
My research into American experimental animation, particularly artists who came to the medium from the beginning of the 1970s until the end of the 1980s, has led me down countless paths. Films beget films, particularly with animation. There are always more names, titles, and suggestions. These artists worked on celluloid (35mm, when they could afford it, otherwise usually 16mm), crafting each film frame-by-frame, a series of thousands of individual images composed like a symphony in miniature, the idea being that this small strip would then be projected bigger than life. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to work on a film for a year, or even several. Once you had a shiny new film—probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5- to 10-minutes in length—you were so sick of it that you wanted to exorcise it from your body and brain. So you started the next one.
Techniques were varied. Collage, direct-on-film animation, single-frame cinematography, optical printing, and compositing were all used in addition to every form of drawing, painting, and illustration imaginable. Artists pooled equipment, resources, and ideas. They developed distinctive styles and techniques, such as Adam Beckett’s loop cycle, which created interlocking systems of looped drawings, which would then be modified by optical effects. Jane Aaron brought abstract animation into real space. Lisa Crafts built her own animation stand from scratch, grinding metal and sculpting this fantastic contraption through which she brought her intensely intimate film Glass Gardens to life. Each experimental animator had a deep relation to their work through the efforts it took to chisel it into existence. Imagine: animation as bringing some very real sense of life into the world through film. The act of projection reanimating these sequences. It must feel like magic.
The Walker’s Animatedly Yours selection is an interesting grouping of short films, some of which are classics and others that are very rarely shown. While not specifically a program of women’s animation, only one of the seven artists shown is a man. This isn’t particularly uncommon. The field of new animators from the 1970s was distinctive precisely because it included so many female voices.1 Animation scholar Jayne Pilling put forth the important argument that animation suited women as a medium during this period because it could be made on a truly independent, individual basis. “Whether its [sic] informed by a distaste for the hierarchical nature of male dominated live-action films or commercial animation studios, by personal or socially inculcated lack of confidence, for many [women] the attraction of animation has been, initially at least, that it can be done by oneself.”2 This was in the midst of second-wave feminism and “the personal is political,” and personal, interior experiences comprised a good number of these films.
The protagonist of Crocus closely resembles artist Suzan Pitt herself, rendered in cutout puppet form. The film shows the scene of a sexual coupling between herself and her partner but is quite distinct in the stiffness of the figures. In an interview with Robert Gardner in 1975, she explained: “I wanted the people to look like they were cutout puppets, as though they were moving around in a wooden-like manner.”3 This stiffness, combined with a dry sense of humor and the quaintly horny scene it depicts, becomes upended by a scene of floating objects and energies which pass through the couple’s room, a technique that anticipates the theater scene in Pitt’s later masterpiece, Asparagus.
Frank and Caroline Mouris’s Impasse feels like a different kind of proposition from the animated duo. Though all of their works are fantasies of color, movement, and speed, they were never so formalist as in this film. This completely abstract celebration of color, shape, and motion takes influence from the first wave of abstract animators like Mary Ellen Bute and Oskar Fischinger. Whereas the artists consider it to be a lesser work of theirs, and much prefer the “animated documentaries” like Frank Film, Coney, and Screentest, we can see this work continuing their interest in animating real objects (in this case Avery labels) in front of the camera. This is a technique that still finds resonance among artists today, particularly with filmmaker Jodie Mack, who approaches the subjects of craft and materiality though similarly fascinating animated means.
Quasi at the Quackadero is probably the most well-known title in the program, and deservedly so. The film has been selected for the National Film Registry and is a classic of American independent animation.4 The film follows her characters Quasi and Anita, two “duckies,” and Anita’s pet robot Rollo as they go to the futuristic Quackadero amusement park. They play games, look at the attractions, try out rides, and partake in fantastical mind control activities. We are never quite clear on their relationship (frenemies?) but they trade barbs, and ultimately one of the characters is banished to another dimension entirely. Cruikshank’s animation fuses elements of the 1930s (Fleischer Brothers–style character animation, ragtime music) and the spirit of 1970s alternative culture in portraying a distant technological future. During my research, the film became a case study in the ways that experimental animators didn’t simply refute all traits of commercial cartoons, but cannibalized them for some of their best attributes, which they would use within their own distinct sensibilities.
Mary Beams began to experiment with animation through taking an introductory-level class with animators Frank Mouris and Eric Martin at Harvard. At the time, she was studying documentary filmmaking at Boston University but was immediately taken with animation and explored it in a number of short, personal works through the 1970s. This compilation of her short films showcases her quite tender work, taking situations from everyday life and stretching them out into poetic exercises of line, shade, and tone. Going Home Sketchbook is a document of fellow riders on Boston’s public transit, bodies moving silently together. Whale Songs shows rotoscoped footage of whale-watchers, close-up studies of water patterns, and the movement of whales surrounding them. Tub Film is a short scene of a woman whose bath is interrupted by a nosy cat. Seed Reel breaks down body parts and sexual acts to basic line structures, made all the more hilarious by the cheerful little ditties of a harmonica on the soundtrack.
I haven’t yet seen the films in the program by Kathleen Laughlin and Lisze Bechtold.5 That’s not for lack of interest. In my visits to festivals, archives, distributors, museum collections, and elsewhere over the last eight years, these two are among the many titles which I’ve not yet come into contact with. And there are plenty more.6 Films find their way in both direct and indirect ways. Sometimes they pop up on Vimeo. Other times I get to an archive I’ve never been to before. Just a few weeks ago I was sat down in a kitchen with the films of Ken Brown unfolding before my eyes, sights and sounds I’ve waited years to behold. However, wherever and whenever they are screened, the films of these amazing experimental animators need to be witnessed, as they remain fresh and contemporary decades later. These films will release your inner powers, as they have mine.
1 A question I always ask artists during interviews is whether they know any LGBTQ or POC artists who are making animated films. As of now, I’ve found few non-white animators from this period.
2 J. Pilling, Women and animation: a compendium (London: British Film Institute, 1992), 6.
3 Screening Room with Suzan Pitt [film] (Boston: Robert Gardner, 1975).
4 It’s important to note that the National Film Registry is just a list. It doesn’t actually entail having the films preserved or restored in any way. Thankfully, Cruikshank and her husband, producer Jon Davison, have worked through restoring her films to beautiful, new 35mm prints. These have been deposited in several archives internationally and can be loaned for screenings.
5 Though Bechtold’s Moon Breath Beat is a classic well worth seeking out.
6 The films by Richard Protovin, many by Karen Aqua, several by Robert Russett, Toilette by Joan Freeman, to name a few…