15 June – 11 September 2011, Barbican Art Gallery
Covering the first 150 years of animation with an eclectic selection of key works and screenings, Watch Me Move delves into the myriad, diverse styles and interpretations contained within animation’s vast repertoire. The exhibition begins in a strange, almost ghostly space where screens hang suspended in the air within a dark-shadowed maze – it’s akin to ‘cave paintings’ used here as examples of the first attempt by man to animate. Hanging ethereally are works by key names any student of animation will have heard of: the Lumière brothers: George Méliès; James Stuart Blackton; Winsor McCay, and many more – as much a guide to the foundation of cinema itself, for animation and movie-making were born pretty much simultaneously and have continuously swapped tricks and mimicked each other.
This introduction leads on to a sequence of main rooms which attempt to explore recurring themes: cartoons, ‘heroes and villains’, etc… Dinosaurs are covered across a century, first by the drawn work of Winsor McCay and his performing Brontosaur, Gertie, through to the ‘Missing Link’ in the shape of Wild Willie, a rarely-seen piece by Willis O’Brien, the man who made King Kong move. Finally we see Phil Tippet’s terrifying computer-animated T-Rex, from Jurassic Park. What is extraordinary is the speed of development across the medium and how quickly the rules of cinema and animation were established.
There is also a display of stop-motion puppets, some up to 80 years old, including models by Aardman and Ray Harryhausen. Meanwhile, upstairs one can find examples of everything from the works of pioneering abstract animator Norman McLaren (featuring pixilation sequences mimicked by those of today’s digital animators) to classic, hand-rendered clips by Disney. The Monstro whale sequence from Pinocchio still staggers; its difficult water animation executed by hand, yet with all the volume and detail of CGI, and considerably more charm. Disney in the late- 1930s understood how to draw in four dimensions better than any other animator since, and we need to cling on to these skills as animation becomes increasingly computerised.
Indeed, the show’s selection of drawn animation is fantastic and runs the gamut from the whimsical (Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937, pictured bottom) to the political (Ji Trnka’s The Hand, 1965, pictured top); but what impresses more than anything is work from the dawning days of animation. In many of the early pieces by McCay, for example, the weight and volume of the creations is what beguiles.
The first three decades of animation set the artistic bar extremely high, especially in light of the limited equipment at the artists’ disposal. In many ways we are still catching up with them. The exhibition succeeds in showcasing the sheer staggering diversity of drawn, photographed or computer-modelled animation, although many lesser-known names are absent – there’s simply not enough room for everyone and everything. Another problem for a show of this scale is that in embracing all the major practitioners, examples of their work are necessarily reduced to a ‘manageable’ size. So, we get who we might expect, but perhaps not enough of what…
There is a continuing problem in the animation world, a perception that it can only really be for children; a brief diversion from reality. This exhibition counters that, offering a tantalising glimpse of all the other things animation can be: social comment; visual poem; political propaganda and protest… It is animation as installation, abstraction and Art, dancing across the decades. John Horabin