Tuesday, October 09, 2012

David Sproxton: The Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture (Pordenone 2012)

Auditorium Regione, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, 9 October 2012.

The Catalogue: "In 2002 the Giornate del Cinema Muto inaugurated this annual lecture in commemoration of Jonathan Dennis (1953-2002), founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive. Jonathan Dennis was an exemplary archivist, a champion of his country’s culture – particularly of Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand – and above all a person of outstanding human qualities. The lecturers are selected as people who are pre-eminent in some field of work associated with the conservation or appreciation of silent cinema."

"This year’s lecturer, David Sproxton, is co-founder and executive chairman of Aardman Animations. He and Peter Lord – a former Jonathan Dennis lecturer – met as schoolboys in Woking, and in 1970 collaborated on their first animated film, using a Bolex camera belonging to David’s father to film cut-outs and chalk drawings."

"It won the pair a chance to make short animated films for the BBC children’s programme Vision On. This inevitably led to trying their hand at film-making full-time, and in 1976, when Sproxton and Lord graduated from university, they set up Aardman in Bristol, where Vision On was recorded."

"Since then the studio has grown beyond all recognition. One of their first professional commissions was the series The Amazing Adventures of Morph. They soon attracted attention with their ground-breaking marriage of animation to real-life vox pop conversations, for Channel 4 Television. Over the years Aardman have discovered and nurtured many new animation talents, including Nick Park, Peter Peake, Richard Starzac, and Stefan Marjoram."

"The special quality of the original Aardman partnership is that Sproxton and Lord have never allowed themselves to be turned into moguls. Despite the international success of the company, they remain human and committed artists, involved in every aspect of the production. Sproxton has co-produced Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Flushed Away, Arthur Christmas, and the recent Pirates! Band of Misfits, directed by Peter Lord, and is intimately involved in the studio’s many television projects."

"Like Peter Lord and Richard Williams, David has been a frequent visitor to the Giornate: all three great animators acknowledge the powerful influence of silent cinema on animation techniques. Aardman are major sponsors of the Bristol Slapstick Festival, for which they have instituted the annual Aardman Award for outstanding achievement in visual comedy. In 2008 Aardman contributed generously to the costs of restoring the films of Alexander Shiryaev for the Giornate’s historic tribute to the pioneer animator."

"His Jonathan Dennis Lecture will be a development of the Richard Gregory Lecture he delivered at the University of Bristol last year, and which attracted marked attention for its original and ranging association of animation history with the nature of perception. He writes, “The talk is really about how we perceive moving images and moves on to whether there is a universal language of facial expression or body language; and why we don’t like characters that are almost human but not quite. It is focussed on how we perceive motion, emotion, and how we as audiences respond.” The Catalogue.

David Sproxton dedicated the lecture to the memory of the psychologist Richard Gregory (1923 – 2010) who specialized in cognitive psychology, in particular in the "perception as hypotheses" approach.

He started with the basics: why we can see movement in films. We saw samples of optical illusions. "Do we see what we believe or do we believe what we see?" From the early moving image machines such as the Praxinoscope we proceeded into silent film and the question of the frame rate, with 15 fps as the bumper rate. Discussed were also extremely high frame rates and the incredible stop motion views made possible by them. "Much of what we think we see we make up". Animation depends on quite complex a visual illusion. We went back to cave paintings and ancient Egyptian series of images about wrestlers. The earliest animation shown was a matchstick stop motion animation from 1898 urging us to buy war bonds. Mr. Sproxton talked about body language, and the question of whether there is a universal body language, answered positively by Charles Darwin and Desmond Morris. We think we can read a face, based on small shifts in the microexpressions of eyes. We saw Michael Caine explaining how blinking conveys weakness and not blinking great conviction. "Acting is all about the eyes", also in animation where Aardman replaced glass eyes with painted wooden beads. Nick Park: "Gromit did not really need to speak".

Mr. Sproxton discussed lip synch: talk out of synch stops us from believing. In foreign synchronization much goes out of the window. In animation, every character has a set of mouths, a box of mouths.

Mr. Sproxton presented "the uncanny valley" known in robotics and 3D, about how human replicas look and act. Human likeness is attractive only up to a point. Too realistic an imition feels disgusting. Between ROBOT - ANDROID - HUMAN we are ready to accept the first and the last. In brain scans, in the encounter with an android the brain activities are almost manic.

As an unsuccessful example of animation Mr. Sproxton singled out Polar Express, at the bottom of the uncanny valley. They are like zombies, it's like watching a bunch of dead people moving.

Does 3D enhance the illusion? There is little scientific evidence. In 3D it takes a while to get engaged. 3D requires higher shot length.

Other samples included: an Aardman showreel, a Lego swimming contest, Shaun the Sheep: The Boat.

In the Q & A session Mr. Sproxton discussed the problems of motion capture in The Adventures of Tintin. In traditional animation you only put in what you really need. The joy in animation is in it. In motion capture, you pick up all the noise. There is an awkward hybrid movement.

In the face there are more muscles than anywhere else. The brain filters out a huge amount of stuff. The brain takes out the differences.

In Brave there is a huge amount of computing power in creating the hair. Big question: is it worth it? We actually prefer less realism in animation. It is then easier to move into the fantasy world of the movie.

Why was Pirates in 3D? It was a very late call. It did cause problems, but the 3D is fine - just see it very bright. But kids hate wearing glasses.

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