As an educator, I’m constantly cycling through the history of animation on a zoetrope hamster wheel, noting how each technical development re-investigates the same fundamental principles set forth by painting, literature, theatre, photography, or any method of communication and presentation. The constantly evolving modes of production in cinema foreshadowed our economy of planned obsolescence via a quest for re-perfection. As revealed by animation historians like Donald Crafton and Maureen Furniss, principles of Taylorism—standardized animation production methods spawning uniform products—governed industry practices. This model re-packages pre-existing modes/products with advances in technology. In this case: 3D is sound; 3D is color; 3D is analog/SD/HD/2K/4K/6K/XK video; 3D is IMAX; 3D is new media. I ask my students: have you ever noticed that life is actually in 3D?
For me, an obscure and underground experimental animator, cinema is about learning or remembering how to see, and some of my favorite films teach us how we see. But, whether we locate abstract animation within the history of cinema or within the history of the plastic arts, we face the same complications of mimesis. No technical gimmick can replicate reality, not painting, not photography, not cinema. Instead, these mediums provide glorified realities against which we measure and now perform our own existence. Even though many of my films extend the history of the abstract film, I can’t deny the impossibility of the truly abstract image, for all abstractions are deviations from reality.
And, even if we could debate our way out of that claim, we couldn’t escape the viewers, who, for the most part, can’t detach their own narrative or associative expectations and thus won’t submit to the film or, even worse, attach the imagery to metaphor. Nevertheless, some of my animated predecessors and contemporaries—Robert Breer, Paul Sharits, Paul Glabicki, Scott Stark, Ken Jacobs—create films that, through speed and strobe, deconstruct vision and employ the cinematic apparatus in way that celebrates the act of seeing.
Let Your Light Shine is kind of an imposter within this series because, well, it’s not actually 3D. It’s something more like 3.5D or 7D when you consider the sole principle of the diffraction grating glasses it utilizes: to split light into colors. In either case, it’s a visual feast, not unlike a show of fireworks. When people ask me where the glasses come from, I say “They’re used to teach science!!!” The product description for the glasses used for Let Your Light Shine reads:
More educational than a Pink Floyd concert and more fun than a laser light show, these diffraction grating glasses separate light from any source into its spectral components. Study and analyze the spectra seen through these holographic lenses or just see what colors lie within the lighting in your home.
The simple product description locates the codification of abstract/pure/true animation or visual wonder with the ideological detritus of 1960/70s counterculture. Early shows at the Adler Planeterium between 1957 and 1960 by sound artist Henry Jacobs and animator Jordan Belson extended early performative efforts of audio/visual synthesis involving light and music by pioneering practitioners like Louis Bertrand Castel (1688-1757), Mary Hallock Greenwalt (1871-1950), Alexander Wallace Rimington (1854-1918), and Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968). Throughout the 1960s in London, Mike Leonard (with Pink Floyd) and The Boyle Family (with Soft Machine, Hendrix, etc.) explored other methods of projection with music while American light collectives like the still-operating “Single Wing Turquoise Bird,” “The Joshua Light Show, “ or other spinoffs—“Brotherhood of Light,” “The Pig Light Show,” etc.—also combined projection with concerts.
But, the Jacobs/Belson planetarium shows seem essential to what ended up happening. The mass production of these planetarium light shows transformed live and special, careful performances into systematically produced entertainment packages for a growing suburban audiences—at science museums! Fitting perfectly into the commodification of a post-hippie aesthetic complementary to molten lava lamps and black light posters, the tradition of light shows surely helped define the stigma conflating abstract animation with all things “trippy” while also opening up another point of entry into the abstract form: scientific discovery.
Let Your Light Shine came out of a series of films exploring the possibilities of spectacle out of an interest in theatre, performance, cinema, and the history of abstract animation.
After using diffraction grating filters during the production of my film Dusty Stacks of Mom I began to wonder about the possibilities of using these filters in glasses for an animation featuring white lines on a black background. I immediately tested some of the early numbered studies by Oskar Fischinger (6-8, 1930 and 1931) along with the experimental classic Free Radicals (1979) by Len Lye. The prismatic effect pulled his lines in front of my face and magnified the stratified texture of etching into black leader in a way I’d never experienced before! I started testing the glasses with other uses of black and white animated imagery and gaining an understanding of the ways different line qualities altered the prismatic projection.
Choosing to work only with simple lines and shapes, I explored the possibilities of texture using various materials. With toothbrushes, paint, charcoal, combs, crayons, pastels, and stencils alongside experiments with solid and textured cutout animations, I choreographed a series of animated dances in conjunction with a graphic score of alternating rhythms in 5/8 and 7/8. I stuck to the most fundamental categorizations of movement as outlined in Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924) and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Scenes obeying a flat plane and remaining the same size while moving left, right, up, or down contrast moments where shifts in size indicate depth. These rules allowed me to focus on the variables of the form, the results of the varying impressions, multiple onscreen images, and the relationship between black and white on screen.
With Let Your Light Shine, I aimed to create work that creates a pre-lingual point of entry into the possibilities of seeing and understanding through contemporary experimental cinema. Acknowledging a desire for all things natural and spectacular—fireworks, sunsets, rippling water—the piece celebrates the collective viewing experience and the live elements involved within the process of spectatorship. Relying upon each viewer and a pair of cheap glasses, the piece remembers the performative elements of cinema’s history as the screen reflects back to the audience. And, so it’s curious that the film will follow a 3D cinematic replica of… a Katy Perry concert!!! My main question is: will anyone stay past the credits for the little showstopper in miniature?