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Sand Animation – Nag Vladermersky’s Introduction to LIAF 2009 Technique Focus

'Traverser' (Hugo Frassetto, 2008)

'Traverser' (Hugo Frassetto, 2008)

Sand animation? Literally creating animated films one frame at a time by manipulating images with sand – or coloured salt, coffee or a range of other powders. Each year LIAF takes a look at a particular way of creating animated films and this year’s ‘TECHNIQUE FOCUS’ has its origins in a major festival of sand animated film curated by the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The basic idea is that a layer of sand is spread over a sheet of glass. Underneath that sheet of glass are lights, above it is a camera and beside it is an animator with a box of tools. In that box will be any number of gadgets: brushes for crafting an image, puffers for blowing piles of sand into wispy shadows, random bits and bobs for creating a million shapes, even old drinking straws to ‘vacuum’ up loose grains of the stuff. The sand animator winds up with no artwork at the end of their filming. Each image carefully etched out of sand is re-imaged for the next frame. The flying bird is rubbed out and recreated a little further across the frame until it has departed the frame altogether; the figure walking down the road away from the camera is rubbed out each frame and recreated a little smaller in the landscape until she is too small to be seen. At best, the animator gets to keep only the very final frame of the last shot.

This ‘TECHNIQUE FOCUS’ programme is divided into two parts. First up is a collection of recently released films in competition. Sand animation is by definition a very hands-on technique; there’s not much work for a computer in the making of these things, and yet the technique is still going strong. ‘Traverser’ (Hugo Frassetto), for example, is a stunning, gorgeously crafted student film made at the legendary French school, La Poudriere and ‘Take It Easy’ (Cesar Diaz Melendez) is a gloriously colourful music video – it doesn’t get much more contemporary than that. Frassetto’s film shows how finely drawn and how strongly narrative this technique can be while Melendez simply turns the dial to ‘fun’ and pushes ‘start’. ‘Take It Easy’ is a brilliant opening film for the programme because the audience gets to see the animator at work, the sand being crafted and images being reformed by hand and brush. ‘White Snake’ (Yunting Ruan) is perhaps the most successful sand animation on the festival circuit at the moment and shows not just that the form is alive in China but also how perfectly it captures the grace and style of much Chinese mythical artwork. It is also a reminder that simple black sand on a white background creates imagery of stark grace. Also worth highlighting is ‘Hungu’ (Nicolas Brault), which is a sand/drawn hybrid film.

The idea of using sand to create the shadows that lead and follow characters as they traverse their desert environment is a stroke of simple genius and a brilliant use for sand animating. Sitting in the same programme is a collection of classic sand animations from filmmakers who invented and refined the technique. Renowned animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi credits Swiss animators Ernest and Gisele Ansorge with pioneering the technique and their films certainly have an ethereal, textural visuality that few have come close to mastering since. In particular, ‘The Crows’ (1967) is a master study in how to capture these creatures in full, flowing flight and how to create the sense of the enormity of the skies they fly in. In ‘The Metamorphosis Of Mr Samsa’ Caroline Leaf absolutely pushes the flowing, morphing properties of sand animation to the limits in what has to be the best ever matching of a technique to a story as she adapts a classic Kafka tale to the big screen. However, the prize for creating some of most beautiful looking films ever made (in any technique) has to go to Polish animator Aleksandra Korejwo. Her films ‘Carmen Torero’ (1996) and ‘The Swan’ (1990) take the breath away. Korejwo perfected a method to infuse salt with bright colours and to blend and intertwine these colourful swathes of salt into the most beguiling of images. The movement portrayed in her films are a blend of the balletic, painterly and the poetic. Sand animation is perfectly suited for filmmakers who set out to embrace the most imaginative, flowing properties of animation. It is a technique which creates films simultaneously beyond the imaginative reach of most of us but in which we can see before our very eyes the raw material.

Nag Vladermersky, 2009