Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: December 2008, 23

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

10:47:17 pm , 790 words, 2455 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Jonathan Hodgson

Some of the most compelling animation I've seen in the last few years has been documentary animation. People have been using animation more and more to look at and illuminate real life. Animation offers innumerable ways of doing so, and the approaches that I've seen have been multifaceted and rich with personality.

Jonathan Hodgson is a British animator who's been active for more than two decades. I only discovered his work just recently, but it's all magnificent stuff and he's instantly one of my favorites. He's done a number of pieces with a documentary bent to them that are very rewarding viewing. In fact, almost all of his work seems tinged by a more realistic bent, in the sense that there isn't so much a narrative and characters in his work, as the eye of the creator looking out on the world around him. Animation in his hands is used as a means of conveying lived experience, you might say.

The first film I saw of his was Feeling My Way, and it's the film that made me want to learn more about someone who could create such a conceptually simple but tremendously exciting film, a film that empowers the viewer by showing how rich and valid each and every one of our viewpoints is. He brings to life the act of walking to work by first filming the walk, and then later in the studio embellishing the work with animation that illuminates the psychology of the walker in response to the various stimuli he encounters. In an interview I read with him, he avers that he's never really been interested in the animation scene. I can see why he would want to distance himself from the connotations of the term, as animation does carry a whole baggage of associations with form, style and substance that seem constricting and suffocating of true artistic freedom. He looks to other media for inspiration, he says, and I think that clearly shows up in this film in particular. I felt that this film showed a great way of breaking free of the shackles of animation, and taking back control to make way for a more personally meaningful approach that arises from the creator's expressive needs, whatever means those needs might require. True animation, I believe, is animation that exploits the possibilities of the medium to the fullest extent possible by seeking new formal and expressive means in harmony with the goals of the artist.

Hodgson's drawings aren't even that great, but his animation is great. His stance as a creator was already evident in his earlier films like Dogs and Nightclub, which fall closer to the typical conception of animated shorts in that the animation is quite richly executed and rewarding in itself. Yet these films deliberately avoid conventional animated narrative or characters, and retain a sort of deliberate crudeness that refuses to fall into the trap of mimesis, of attempting to create the illusion of life. Which is ironic, since what he's conveying through this approach is life itself, but mediated by the gaze of the viewer, like a pen trac(k)ing the image projected on the retina. You're watching shards of reality, but as if sketched quickly, like trying to sketch someone walking past you as you sit on a park bench.

His more recent films like Camouflage and The Man with the Beautiful Eyes are more sophisticated creations that adopt a realistic narration or format more closely resembling the documentary, using the imaginative means offered by animation to embellish and narrate the reality being spoken with a rich flow of transforming ideas. These are powerful creations that have great emotional impact, because these are real stories of humanity and frailty and life being told, and the wistful whimsy of the animation only makes them more heartbreaking. They combine the immediacy of a person telling you their story, with the imaginative embellishment of an animator's interpretation. The approach reminds me of that of the Fierlingers in the one film of theirs I've seen, A Room Nearby, in which the animation acts as a free-flowing, free-associating exegesis of the narrator's reminiscence. I think these films represent one of the most exciting discoveries in animation of the last decade or so - the conundrum of animation being uncannily well-suited to documenting real life.

I find Hodgson's films inspirational because for one they point a way out of the box of conventional approaches to animation, and for two they feel empowering for asserting the importance of the small histories we all represent, and affirming the capacity of each individual to come up with means of structuring those narratives in a way that extends beyond the merely personal to communicate something meaningful to others.