centre for animation & interactive media

Animation Project #7
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'Pixillation' was the term coined by animation pioneer Norman McLaren in the 1950s for his technique of photographing human subjects with stop-motion frame by frame animation techniques rather than by live-action recording. He described the process as "applying the principles normally used in the photographing of animated and cartoon movies to the shooting of actors: that is, instead of placing drawings, cartoons or puppets in front of the animation camera, we place real human beings."

The actor becomes a kind of living stop-motion puppet.
Live subjects shot in this way have a strange stilted surreal quality imparted to their movements as if they were bewitched puppets manipulated by an unseen force. The normal physical laws and forces which act upon 'realtime' movement, such as inertia, weight and gravity, are dispensed with as the apparent movement is entirely contrived and constructed with deliberate discrete manipulation.

"In reality, movement is not photographed, but only a sequential series of substitutions, which in projection results in a special case of metamorphosis: the illusion of continuous movement." - Dan Burns, 1968

The ability of the animation process to ‘edit’ time and action can also set in train a series of magical events which defy normal logic. Objects can move of their own accord or appear and disappear. Human subjects can be made to move about the set in the most extraordinary way. Norman McLaren’s inventive film, ‘Neighbours’ (right) made at the Canadian Film Board in 1952 is the quintessential example of the pixillation technique and was shot with variable-speed photography often using sped-up motion (shooting at 12 frames per second to be played back at 24) in combination with stop-frame techniques.

Engaging pixillated sequences will always exploit the ‘magical’ time-manipulation possibilities which are characteristic of stop-motion recording - the impossible made possible because of the ability to distort and edit time, and play tricks with logical expectations. Pixillation can also playfully explore the possibilities of human interaction with inanimate objects and props which can take on a life and performance all their own. A woolen jumper can animate off a human subject and go for a crawl around the floor all by itself.

Czech animator, Jan Svankmayer, has been called a "militant surrealist." He began making films in the mid 1960s but by 1972 the Communist Party became so alarmed by the nihilistic and anti-authoritarian tone of his films, that it banned him from moviemaking. Although many of his films which involve human subjects are presented in conventional cinematic structures, the filming methods he uses within each shot are anything but ordinary. Svankmayer works with great ingenuity back and forth across the threshold of live-action shooting and stop-motion animation techniques to convey astonishing visual ideas and metaphors, that at times, can be psychologically disturbing.

"For me, animated film is about magic. This is how magic becomes part of daily life, invading daily life.... Magic enters into a quite ordinary contact with mundane things ... (making) reality seem doubtful." - Jan Svankmajer, 1990

Pixillation is a technique which also has great potential for use in interactives where it is yet to be fully exploited. A library of 'poses' digitised from video can be stored in computer memory and called upon in various order to produce all kinds of different scenarios. If you shoot your actors against a strongly coloured wall, (green screen) you will be able to use this colour to create a mask so that you can pull your subject out of its background.

Because of the stilted, jerky nature of the action inherent in the technique, it works beautifully in a computer environment where the poses you chose to digitise can be designed and directed so that they work well with the prod and poke of the user's mouse in a highly interactive and reactive fashion. Such interaction is very satisfying for the user.

Neighbours’ (1952) by Norman McLaren, National Film Board of Canada. An eloquent plea for peace, McLaren's Oscar-winning film, 'Neighbours' shows how a lust for ownership escalates into genocide. ‘Neighbours’ can be found on YouTube: <click here>

'A Chairy Tale' (1957) by Norman McLaren,
A young man battles for control over a chair. It uses a mixture of variable speed shooting some pixillation and puppetry. To view this film on YouTube: <click here>

'Gisele Kerozene' (1989) by Jan Kounen, a French film director born in Holland. Three `proto punk' witches mount their broomsticks and indulge in a wild pesuit around a modern city to try and retrieve their stolen idol. This excellent example of pixillation was directly inspired by the floating jumps in Neighbours. To view this film on YouTube: <click here>

'Sledgehammer' (1986) a Music Video Clip produced by Aardman Animation for singer/songwriter, Peter Gabriel.

'Food' (1992) by Jan Svankmayer is a surreal movie trilogy combining live action, pixillation and claymation. These films can be found on YouTube:
Breakfast’ (Desayuno) <click here>

'Lunch' (Comida) <click here>
'Dinner' (Cina) <click here>

'The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb' (1993) by Dave Borthwick of Bolex Brothers. A boy born the size of a small doll is kidnapped by a genetic lab and must find a way back to his father in this inventive adventure filmed using stop motion animation techniques. Tom meets a variety of strange creatures and eventually discovers a race of miniature humans like himself.

'Puppenhead' (1990) by David Cox
Puppenhead uses a mixture of stop-motion puppet animation and live-action filming. One shot from the film in particular, uses the technique of pixillation to bridge these two worlds which operate in different time frames. This powerful shot shows the puppet-master, John Flaus, lovingly examining one of his puppets as it moves within his hand and convinces us that it indeed possesses life. To see 'Puppenhead', <click here>

'Gymnastique de pixillation' also on YouTube, this is rather slow-paced and 'flat' as a film but has some inventive moments. <click here>

This may be one of the optional projects you chose for your portfolio of animation exercises. Design and direct an engaging pixillated sequence. Pixillation usually requires the co-operation of a number of people, so perhaps you can work on a small collaborative piece with others in the group who may be interested in experimenting with this animation technique as you will need at least one human subject and a director of action. Workshop some ideas. Plan a short inventive piece true to the spirit of the technique which can be produced within a half day shoot. You may have to find time during a weekend to fit this one in. To produce your sequence, use a tripod with either the BVU video tape recorder and video camera or FrameThief on an iMac with a DV camera and tripod.

Just as in any animated scene, the action should be choreographed to direct the audience’s attention to the relevant dramatic occurrences. Remember that the audience simply won’t know where to look next if you make your sequence too busy. In other words, 'ping pong' the focus of attention back and forth from one character or object to the other. Also think about the improbable ways to move human characters about the set in an unnatural manner. Sliding instead of walking, popping on and off every alternate frame. Be weird.

Always keep in mind the basic principles which underpin all good animation and apply these to your live action subjects - timing, the 'held' pose, anticipation (very important), squash and stretch, comic exaggeration, staging the action etc. Remember that objects and people can be replaced with others during the sequence.

Please refer to some examples before you embark on this project. Keep the shooting time down to about 1 hour. Therefore, keep your ideas short, clear, and simple to produce.

This is an optional project. But before you begin such a project, please make sure that your ideas actually harness pixillation's attributes - that of animating human actors as though they were puppets, and through the manipulation of time, making the impausible seem possible. A review of past student pixillation projects is a good starting point.

You should aim to get this assignment completed before you commence your Minor Project, i.e.
Friday 22 May.

"I'm just going to the
bottom of my
garden to see the
pixies pixillating "


Pixillation - Dan Burns, Film Quarterly, 1968

Jan Svankmajer - The Best Auteur You Never Saw, by Jason Silverman, Wired Magazine, 2007

Pixillation Collection - ask David or Jeremy

Scenes from Norman McLaren's 1952 Oscar-winning film,‘Neighbours’.
This memorable effect from Neighbours produces an impression of unreality in that the subjects appear to float above the ground with bended knees. In reality the subjects were directed to jump off the ground tucking their legs underneath them. This action was synchronised with the exposure of a frame of film. One, two, three, jump! click. Subsequent frames exposed in this fashion gave the illusion of continual suspension in mid-air, apparently defying the laws of gravity.

'Gisele Kerozene' by Jan Kounen, is an excellent example of pixillation and uses the same floating jumps (above) as devised three decades earlier by Norman McLaren for his film, Neighbours.
'Sledgehammer' Peter Gabriel's music video clip.
'Breakfast' from the trilogy, 'Food' by Jan Švankmayer. Švankmayer moves his method fluidly between live-action shooting and stop-motion techniques, in this case, substituting a clay model of his actor's head in order to achieve a particular effect.
'The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb' (1993) by Dave Borthwick
'Puppenhead' (1990) by David Cox. Melbourne actor, John Flaus, gives a fine frame-by-frame performance within this scene from 'Puppenhead' as the puppet in his hand is brought to life via stop-motion photography.


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