I don’t think this site’s commitment to the medium of animation can be questioned, can it? Aside from all the regular programmes of shorts I’ve reported on from the film festivals at London and Edinburgh, for the last few years I also appear to have been the only person who’s written a review of every single film in the British Animation Awards Public Choice section. That’s a lot of cartoons, and in the case of the BAA articles a lot of exhaustively researched links to film clips and animator websites too.
So you’d imagine that an exhibition like the Barbican’s Watch Me Move: The Animation Show (running until September 11th 2011) would be just up my street. And so it would. If there's any cause for concern, it's with the format - because this isn't a collection of still artwork, it's a collection of short films and clips. You know that irritating feeling you get hanging around outside a film installation in a gallery, waiting for it to go round to the beginning again? Imagine that feeling multiplied a hundred times or so. But if you're patient enough, there are some sights to be seen.
At the start, you imagine the whole exhibition will be like this, taking us on a chronological journey from puppets on a stick to CGI. But the Barbican has taken a much smarter approach here, grouping works by theme rather than by period. So, as one of the early gimmicks of animation was using it to give life to inanimate everyday objects, we’re suddenly hurled forwards 80 years to see John Lassiter doing the same thing digitally with his early short Luxo Jr. Similarly, in one room we get to watch three very different takes on dinosaurs: Winsor McCay’s hand-drawn version in Gertie The Dinosaur (1914), Willis O’Brien’s pre-King Kong model work in The Dinosaur And The Missing Link (1917), and the seamless mashup of Phil Tippett’s CG and Stan Winston’s animatronics in Jurassic Park (1993). The techniques have changed dramatically over a century, but the stories don’t change so much.
From there, we lose all sense of chronology, and dive into a huge room with two giant screens dedicated to a cycle of clips relating to general animated Characters on one side of the room, and characters with the powers of Superhumans on the other. There are some interesting choices amidst the usual favourites: for example, out of all the kid-friendly fun that Aardman have created over the years, the key film of theirs on display here is Going Equipped, a character study based – like Creature Comforts – on an interview, but with much more serious intent.
The most sprawling section of the exhibition, taking up a large part of both levels of the gallery, is labelled Fables & Fragments. To be honest, it’s really just a dumping ground for narrative shorts from all over the world. It’s at this point you realise just how imaginative the Barbican have been when it comes to showing over 100 animated films simultaneously without them all crashing into each other. The early silents are projected onto hanging curtains in a darkened room, which becomes a labyrinth of imagery that you have to navigate through. Many of the animations, including the two large screens, use headphones to reduce the ambient sound. Elsewhere, some films play in dedicated screening rooms, while others require you to sit in a booth with speakers inside.
In fact, for someone like me who’s a fan of all this stuff, the fact that the films aren’t all completely isolated from each other is a bonus. For the four hours or so I was at the exhibition, I spent a lot of time running between screens, drawn by something familiar that I recognised from a distance: glimpsing the garden landscape from Neighbours, or hearing the yelp of a man falling off a stool over and over again in Tango. If there’s a problem with such an embarrassment of riches, it’s that it’s sometimes easy to miss the labels that tell you who made each film (particularly since, of necessity, this isn’t the most brightly lit exhibition in town). Similarly, it amused me greatly that the booth showing Run Wrake’s magnificently disturbing Rabbit has a content warning placed on it, but one that’s only really visible as you’re leaving the film.
The rest of the exhibition goes into more abstract areas. Visions looks at the use of animation and technology to create whole new worlds, demonstrating in the process that Tron looks better than Tron: Legacy because of the stylisation enforced by the technical limitations of the time. Finally, Structures takes in all manner of artistic games – the use of psychedelic colour schemes to advertise the 1935 postal rates, the intricate manipulation of an old Andy Hardy film, and Daffy Duck’s finest hour.
That last one makes me wonder: is there any medium other than animation which is so much in love with deconstructing itself, and showing the audience exactly how it works? The earliest cartoons frequently had a character interacting with their animator, and in Duck Amuck Chuck Jones took that idea and ran full pelt with it. Could you do the same with CGI these days? Possibly not, because as an audience we don’t have as instinctive a feel for how computer animation works, as opposed to the traditional kind. Your typical viewer doesn’t think of, say, those bloody meerkats as being animated: they’re just special effects. Which is kind of where we came in, isn’t it?
Did I pick up anything new from Watch Me Move? Not really. But then, I’ve seen tons of animation over the years. And I can’t deny that it’s a fantastically comprehensive exhibition, covering pretty much every major animator you can think of (although I’m slightly disappointed at the absence of Bob Godfrey from the list of contributors). If you know these films already, you’ll have a fun afternoon at the Barbican running around between your favourites, and enjoying the chance to see them exhibited at better-than-YouTube quality. If you don’t know them, be prepared to spend an entire day watching them move.