Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What I Learned from Tissa David

Yesterday I went to the Tissa David memorial that Michael Sporn organized. And I learned something. That’s not why I went, to learn something, but that’s what happened.

I learned something very important.

Personal style.

Animators have one, the good ones. I know that, not because I can spot those styles myself, but because I see people talking about this or that animator’s style, not simply in general terms, but with specific reference to specific scenes. The people who do this—say Sporn himself, or Michael Barrier, Mark Mayerson, and Thad Komorowski, to mention a few—have generally been studying animation longer than I have, some are animators themselves, and look at different things. Which, of course, is fine.

Last night I saw Tissa David’s style. Michael made it easy. He selected a number of clips from the course of her career, from the early years at the legendary Hubley studio to her most recent work, an animatic she did for Sporn’s feature-in-progress, POE. Some of the animation was done for entertainment purposes, some of it was done for advertising, there was a wide variety of visual styles. But you could see the same spirit animating all of the clips. That spirit was obviously Tissa David’s.

I loved the clip from Sporn’s Marzipan Pig (which I’d seen in full a few years ago at Sporn’s MOMA retrospective), where she animated a bumble bee and a talking hibiscus blossom. Her work on the hibiscus stunning, for she didn’t draw your standard anthropomorphic flower, with eyes, nose, and mouth. None of that. Just a hibiscus blossom, with petals, stamens, and stem. And she made the blossom act.


But my favorite clip was from another film she’d done for Sporn, The Red Shoes. A little girl gets a pair of red shoes, shoes she obviously love—she says as much. No sooner are they on her feet than the soundtrack goes Latin and the shoes take off dancing. It’s visually clear and obvious that it’s the shoes that are dancing the girl, and not vice versa. The shoes lead and the body follows.

It would be somewhere between difficult and impossible to create that effect in a live action film because of the physical mechanics of dancing: the shoes and feet have to be under the body at all times, unless perhaps the dancer is leaping. Animation doesn’t suffer from that constraint. The body can be treated like rubber and the momentary lack of physical balance need not threaten the stability of the dance motion.

But it’s one thing to work in a medium that frees you from that constraint. It’s quite another to have the artistry needed to use that freedom gracefully and wisely. Tissa David had the artistry.

So, Tissa had style. I’m told that the best animators always have it. It’s not that I didn’t believe it when others said it. But that I couldn’t see it myself. Now, in this one case, I’ve seen it.

* * * * *

And that undoubtedly is critical to the very best animation. Lest that seem paradoxical, a personal style in such a collaborative medium, that is of course true as well of acting, both for film and on the stage. The best actors have their own style. They may subordinate that style to the demands of a specific role, but it never disappears.

Painters too. Yes, there’s the overall visual style, the forms and colors. But there’s also the line and the brush strokes themselves.

That, I suppose, is one of the things at issue in the continuing controversy about 3D computer animation. Can the animator develop a personal style within the medium, and yet still subordinate that style to the overall requirements of a specific project? I’d say that the verdict’s still out on that one.

We’ll see.

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