Visual Arts

In 'Toon

Once upon a time, creating an animated film meant drawing and painting each frame individually. Animation was a painstaking, time-consuming process. A few seconds of Bugs Bunny waggling a carrot required hundreds of drawings; a single feature-length film could take years to complete.

Then along came computers and animation programs that mechanized the process, and animators started cranking out cartoons almost as fast as McDonald's makes hamburgers. The new technology put animation in the hands of auteurs and artists. It also sparked an animation boom that began in the late 1980s and continues to this day.

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art takes a look at 'toons in "SouthwestNET: animation," an exhibition of 10 animated film shorts by a pair of indie animators whose work is as different from one another as The Simpsons is from The Aristocats. It's definitely worth seeing, a perfect summer afternoon activity.

Bob Sabiston's Flat Black Films is at the cutting edge of animation technology. The Austin, Texas, firm has done work for MTV, PBS and filmmaker Richard Linklater. Sabiston uses computers to make his animated shorts, and he's even written some animation software. His work is about the cold, sleek power of the machine.

Colorado animator Stacey Steers is the backlash to the machine, and to computerized animation. She makes animated shorts the old-fashioned way, with paint, paper and patience. Her work is about the warm touch of the human hand.

Ten films by Steers and Flat Black Films show on a loop on a pair of screens at SMoCA. It makes for a different kind of exhibition. Instead of walking through the galleries looking at art, you sit in the cool dark and watch the art flicker on a screen. It's like an upscale twin cinema.

Sabiston's pair of shorts titled Line Research I and Line Research II are as chilly and sterile as the titles. Together, they deliver 41 minutes of computer-created dots and blips that blink and move hypnotically to computer-composed music. The films could be used as a sleep aid, a sort of animated Muzak. Like getting stoned and watching wallpaper patterns? You'll love these shorts. They're so abstract they're almost a spoof on abstraction.

Sabiston ventures into more human territory with Grasshopper, a 14-minute animated interview that packs a subversive punch. In the film, an elderly man named A.J. muses about his philosophy of life. Sabiston filmed the interview a few years ago in New York and used the footage to make this animated film. As A.J. talks about the importance of finding oneself, learning from one's experiences and loving what you do, his animated face undulates and changes colors. His eyes grow disproportionately large to the rest of his face or his mouth shrinks to a slash, but he never stops talking.

The effect of the animation is to undercut, even mock, A.J.'s monologue. It's as if someone were standing behind him holding two fingers behind his head. His voice seems to become a barely intelligible drone. We can't understand what he is saying, and we don't care. He's a boring old windbag and we're watching the funky animation. Grasshopper is about the role firsthand experience plays in our lives, about how we can't or won't listen when someone tries to tell us What It's All About. It's a life lesson A.J. delivers in a way he didn't intend.

Steers uses old-fashioned animation techniques to talk about simple subjects: extinction, creation myths, atrocious ex-husbands. To underscore her use of traditional media, paper cels from her trio of animated shorts hang on the gallery walls.

In Totem, the letters in an animated alphabet represent endangered species and organize a tale of mankind's lost relationship with animals. The film shows how humans once got our culture and identity from animals: Salmon morph into humans, butterflies become eyes, and a bear soul flies from a bear body killed by an arrow and becomes a constellation. The film is whimsical and heartfelt at the same time, a tough balance to strike.

In Phantom Canyon, a film that uses collaged images, Steers tells of her own real-life marriage to a man who was apparently less than a soul mate. Their fateful meeting is one any woman with a first husband in her past will recognize: A dashing man with bat wings locks eyes with an angel-winged woman. An anatomically correct heart falls across the screen. Fade to the next scene, where the man wraps his vampiric wings around the woman, concealing her, engulfing her, smothering her. It's a tragicomic illustration of what it looks like when you meet Mr. Wrong.

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Leanne Potts