After more than a century of Detroit helping the world move on wheels, the city is letting us sit back and see how filmmakers made our beloved cartoon characters come to life over the years with “Watch Me Move: The Animation Show” at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Planning started back in 2010 and, with the scope of the show, the time in planning it is not a surprise. The event focuses both on the artistic nature and history of the animation. Visitors will have the rare opportunity to see an incredible array of techniques in more than 100 animated film segments from across generations and cultures.
“Artists have been experimenting with ways to create the illusion of movement throughout history,” said Graham W.J. Beal, DIA director. “Animation as an art form offers limitless opportunities for creativity, and this exhibition illustrates how artists use the medium not just to entertain, but also to explore cultural issues and elements of the human condition.”
As soon as you walk in you see a rebuilt model of an early moving picture camera, which brings you into the era as you watch one of the first modern animated shorts … a running horse.
Those who are fans of Daffy Duck, Snow White, and Betty Boop will not be disappointed. As you follow the main path of the exhibit you will see those and other familiar faces. You’ll even see how Daffy was once part of an experiment in existentialism as he argues with the animator about how he is being represented and why the creator tortures him. Snow White joins other animated stories in a show of how animation has preserved folk tales.
The likes of Yogi Bear, Homer Simpson, the Jetsons, and the Toy Story’s Woody are flickering faces seen on the wall when you walk in. They show the progression of animation from painted cells to Pixar and how story telling evolved in animation. Those milestones are mapped out and seen at the DIA.
Among the folk tales is “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” which debuted in 1926 and is widely considered to be the first full-length animated feature. The story is taken from 1001 Arabian Nights, and made by German puppeteer, Lotte Reiniger, who developed silhouette film, a technique she used in numerous short and feature-length films. That technique created an atmospheric quality that evoked an emotional tone of foreboding. More than seventy-five years later it is still considered one of the great classics of animation.
Also featured is how animation has helped filmmakers show things that are beyond human ability … things that are superhuman. The exhibit starts as far back as the 1940s with Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons and includes the more modern likes of Pixar’s The Incredibles and the budget-breaking Hulk movie. The video shows not only how animation is quintessential to defining things beyond the normal scope, it also shows the progression of how animation became more integrated with live action movie making.
Aside from the basic look at animations origin and the earlier forms of it like magic lanterns and how things like puppetry added to learning the skills, you can also see how animation not only was a part of history, but how it influenced how we see history itself.
One segment of the show deals with dinosaurs and how they have been portrayed from Jurassic Park to Looney Tunes.
The sinking of the Lusitania is viewed through lens of animation. Back in 1917 there were no cameras filming the German’s sinking of the huge ship so a quick animation was created and tagged onto news reels to show what had happened. The very image playing at the DIA helped inspire a nation to enter World War I.
However, for those seeking things beyond the family friendly take on animation there are smaller segments throughout the exhibit dedicated to more avant garde or adult themes.
These smaller rooms are a great way for older attendees to look at how animation has covered issues that may be not be seen as easily lending themselves to animation such as historical atrocities. It is also an interesting look at how animation was used by artists in other fields who wanted to experiment as well as those who chose animation to make their name in art and garnered critical acclaim in the art world.
Len Lye, for instance, not only has his films in the Museum of Modern Art and the British Film Institute, but also has sculptures in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Chicago Institute of Art. Viking Eggeling’s abstract animation is viewed as an excellent example of the form and he is also widely associated with cubism.
In Japan animation is more revered. Part of this is because their older art forms already include a type of sequential storytelling. This kind of animation has distinctive large eyes with numerous reflective highlights and detailed color along with small noses and mouths generally denoted by minimal. This Japanese form, or anime, is showed among those from America. The Japanese focus on anime Japan has led to many artistic advances over the years.
Countries in Eastern Europe also embraced animation early on. Often times the progress was helped by the governments who pushed it and funded it for propaganda purposes.
One of the more original displays is “Swan Quake,” which uses the oft forgotten realm of animation video games. The creator of this piece hacked into the software for the game Quake and used it to produce a form of Swan Lake. In it the version at the show, two characters dance to the classic ballet through an empty DIA. It is interactive … two buttons control the dancers. As you progress through the museum the music gets louder. Interestingly, the younger participants the better they are at it. Most adults back out when the music gets too loud. Give it a try.
If anyone worries about the blaring of sound from the animation it is taken care of in two ways. Noise engulfing cones have been placed in front of some exhibits so anyone standing in between the two can hear fine while the rest of the participants can go about their business. Others exhibits have headphones to keep the sound in the viewer’s ears.
Immersion, another less commonly thought of form of animation, is featured and is commonly used to train the military, homeland security, and law enforcement personnel. The virtual program is designed to help them develop the cognitive skills they need.
The show also features the DIA’s own animation called “What Will Come.” In it an airplane flies in a circle and its image is reflected in a mirror. This technique follows a tradition of using reflection that dates back to the Romantic era.
The exhibition is divided into six interrelated chapters.
- Apparitions – the emergence of the animated image
- Characters – animation’s ability to construct powerful, complex personalities
- Fables – the use of animation to re-present existing myths and fables and invent new ones
- Structures – underlying formal and conceptual structures of the medium
- Fragments – animated narratives in a post-modern world
- Superhumans – the exaggerated, extended character; and Visions – mapping animated worlds onto the “real” world.
The last part of the show displays what may be in store for the future of animation.
In the final room animation fills the normally blank white walls with life. The forms change and display a multitude of images and colors. This demonstration of what the medium may be headed for draws the eye and stands out from the rest of the exhibit without completely removing itself. The possible future of design was by Gabriel Hall and Daniel Land of New D Media, graduates of the College for Creative Studies.
Move yourself down to the DIA and see the story of animation. The show ends January 5.