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Animation Notes #11
Paint-on-Glass (under camera animation)
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Paint-on-glass, sand-on-glass, drawing using pastels or charcoal and other direct under-the-camera techniques can be loosely described as 'experimental' or 'alternative' animation. These techniques are nearly always undertaken by an individual artist / animator rather than by a production studio using factory-like processes.

Paint-on-glass animation is a technique for making animated films by manipulating some kind of wet media. Oil paint is most often used because it dries very slowly, enabling the animator to keep working with the medium across several days. Oil paint can be thinned with linseed oil and mineral turpentine is used to clean up various sections of the glass. Water based paints like Gouache are sometimes mixed with glycerine to slow down the speed at which it dries. It is also possible to animate in a similar fashion using dry mediums such as sand, brick dust, whiteboard markers and other art materials like charcoal and pastels.

These techniques impart a unique quality and richness to animation that comes not only through the distinctive graphic look that the characteristic of medium itself imparts to the image, but also from the individual personal approach of the animator and the way she or he is obliged to make things move. These techniques very often leave behind a history of the gestures and marks progressively made when the animator manipulates the medium. They are not a series of 'clean' images of the kind produced by other animation techniques, but contain a record of their making, which is part of the great charm of this method.

As the medium is pushed around directly under the camera and recorded frame-by frame, each image seems to merge from the previous one and melt into the next resulting in movement that can be very fluid and organic - a continual process of metamorphosis. Characters may move from place from place not by walking, but by being smudged away to re-form out of the background at the required location.

Artwork is continuously destroyed as new artwork is created. There is no going back. Without the ability to rehearse and refine the animation as in the key pose drawing on paper method, or the ability to set and edit keys within a computer program, the animator must plough on regardless incorporating any errors into the sequence. With a bold heart, this limitation can lead to spontaneity and work that is very fresh and distinctive as it celebrates the method of its making.

Caroline Leaf <overview of work>
Caroline Leaf
<the artist's website> (click on 'how to make' link)
William Kentridge <a review of his work and processes>
Aleksandr Petrov <biography>

"The most important thing for me was and still is to let the material I am working in speak to me and help me derive an aesthetic particular to it. The sand naturally makes certain shapes when you push it around. It tends to leave trails which can be of use if you don't try to fight them. I would say that a big dose of this philosophy would be a very useful cheat and tip for anyone wanting to work in sand. Experiment, and experiment to find your design." - Eli Noyes

"When I'm doing an animation film, just like painting a picture, I let out my energy and my feelings in the colors. With the animation, I'm searching to express ideas, but I also try to find the harmony of life. This harmony I can find during the filming process with mistakes and successes. Step by step, I try to project the beauty, the force and emotions within the animated image." - Alexander Petrov

"Kentridge modifies his composition little by little between each frame shot by erasing certain parts and re-drawing them. The charcoal technique, ephemeral and volatile, lends itself to this treatment, particularly in that faint traces remain of the imagery that has been erased. The result on screen gives a rather fragile image, all in nuances, quite in the manner of a man obsessed by the idea of traces, of reminiscences."
- Philippe Moins, 1998, on the animation technique of South African artist William Kentridge

  In this image of a boy jumping across some rocks at the seaside from a Kentridge film, you can see the ghostly traces left behind on the paper by the charcoal which he has not fully erased.

"Looking at my various animation techniques, I differentiate between those that are under-the-camera, and those that aren't. Usually animators make a series of drawings on paper or on the computer, say, and then film them to create a moving sequence. By contrast, working under-the-camera, one films as one draws, and one image is destroyed to create the next image. When a sequence has been filmed, there is nothing left except the film. There is no artwork to go back to if something doesn't work. I call this kind of animation a one-off performance. It takes nerve to do. The reward is a fresh, lively, unique and personal piece of animation. Often the material used to create the images, such as sand or paint, is visible, and an awareness of its inert qualities turned into motion in whatever shape my mind and eye decide forms an interesting part of the film appreciation"
- from an interview by Nag Vladermersky, February 2003 <click here>

"I enjoy the tactile nature of working directly with the various media, there was an unpredictablity to the animation which at times could be frustrating as I had little idea what the animation would actually be like other than in an imaginary way. Working under the camera is a somewhat rigorous approach to animation which has a kind of unforgivingness… if things do not go according to plan." - Ann Shenfield, 2000



An image from 'Lucky Dip', a paint-on-glass animation by 1993 AIM graduate, Julian Chapple. Julian applied his paint very thickly indeed. The three dimensional qualities of the brush strokes required special lighting to lessen the effect of too many spectral highlights from the wet medium and multiple shadows from the brush strokes.
Looking somewhat like a Helana Rubenstein beauty technician in his white lab coat, Julian initially applies the paint with a spatula and does finer adjustments with cotton buds. Julian preferred to animate his 'Lucky Dip' characters on a sheet on glass over a water colour background. This means he did not have to reconstruct his backgrounds as his characters moved about the frame.
A special rig using multi planes of glass so that the paint on a number of surfaces could be manipulated without effecting the brush work on the others. Such a setup and give depth to the scene as the camera looks through a number of visual elements.

Caroline Leaf used the intrinsic qualities of these techniques as storytelling devices to create some exquisite films. In her film, 'The Street', for example, the paint-on-glass technique contributes significantly to the narrative. The audience’s point of view is totally fluid and each scene transforms seamlessly into the next - in keeping with fragmented recollections from a Jewish man's childhood about events surrounding the death of his grandmother.

Like cut-outs, claymation and other ‘straight-ahead animation’ techniques, the work tends to be improvised as the sequence proceeds. It is almost impossible to pre-visualise the form and pacing of the animation to follow. Great concentration is required, particularly in maintaining a steady rate of manipulation so that there will be a consistent flow in the finished sequence.

Surprisingly, one great advantage of these techniques is speed. Although being locked away in the camera room for hours on end animating directly under the camera can be a relentless task, each day results in a significant portion of the film being completed. Moreover, these images usually don't require any further post production. How ironic that after all this activity, only one or two paintings on glass remain instead of hundreds of pieces of artwork.

'The Cow' (1989) by Russian animator, Aleksandr Petrov <click here>
'The Old Man and the Sea' (1999) by Aleksandr Petrov, Part I <click here> Part II <click here>
'The Street' (1976) by Caroline Leaf <click here>
'Josuha Cooks' (1985) by Penny Robenstone
'La Lune' (1987) by Ann Shenfield
'Lucky Dip' (1993) by Julian Chapple
'The Astronomer' (2005) by Kate McCartney

Petrov's Oscar winning film 'The Old Man and the Sea' (1999) was shot with an IMAX camera - paint on glass 'The Astronomer' (2005) by AIM graduate, Kate McCartney - paint on glass
Felix in Exile (1994) William Kentridge - charcoal on glass 'The Street' (1976) by Caroline Leaf - water colour paint and gouache on glass mixed with drops of glycerine

Paint or sand on glass can be either lit from the top or from underneath. Sand is more usually lit from below. Variations in the size of the sand grains or in the camera’s distance from the surface affect the textural quality of the image. Sugar or salt can provide another medium with which to create moving images. Since sugar and salt crystals are more translucent than sand, greater subtly in tonality can be obtained.

When using back-lighting, a full range of tones can be achieved by spreading the paint or sand thickly or thinly with the fingers or with drawing implements like sticks and brushes. The graphic power of backlit artwork comes from designing characters and objects in high contrast - white whites and black blacks. Using this flat sharp-edged imagery, the animator can easily manipulate positive and negative relationships to great effect. A black object on a white field can be transformed into a white bird against a black field. Is it a crow, a symbol of death, or is it a dove?

The following examples from YouTube are videos showing Hungarian performance artist Ferenc Cakó at work using the medium of sand. They are not animations as such but are pictures that have been realised using quick gestural motion. Nevertheless they give you an idea of the kind of images that can be made from negative and positive shapes within dark or light fields, and the tonality that can be attained by this technique.
Example 1) - Animal Planet by Hungarian artist Ferenc Cakó Example 2) - The opening night of SICAF Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival 2003.
Water based inks and tempura colours have the quality of illumination rather than reflection when lit from behind. Working with a water soluble medium, presents a problem, however. Paint can dry out too rapidly, especially under hot camera lights. To keep the ink or paint workable over extended periods, a wetting agent like ‘Color-Flex’ is required.

Drying out is not a problem with oil paints which can be thinned with linseed oil. Being opaque, oil paints look better top lit and the animator may wish to experiment with lighting to enhance the three dimensional qualities of thickly applied paintwork.

When working with paints that require thinners, make sure that your work environment is well ventilated. Working with pastels can produce lots of fine dust in an enclosed area. A mouth and nose mask should be used to filter the fine pastel dust. When working with sand, please protect the camera and precision moving parts of the stand from grit.
The messy aftermath of a paint-on-glass animation. Half squeezed tubes of oil paint, mineral turpentine, linseed oil and heady toxic fumes.

We live in a big rich world of chaos and constant change - from the rapid to the imperceptible. It is governed by laws so complex that they are impossible to comprehend. The computer is a much smaller world and everything we do within it, by its nature, is the result of excuting a set of man-made rules put there by the designers of software. The analogue world of tactile manipulation and happy accidents has infinite possibilities. The process of digitising brings these two worlds together, where an image creating by hand as a collection of pixels, has equal value to an image creating entriely within the computer, and thus can be subject to the same kind of manipulation. Remember that these analogue paint-on-glass techniques can become part of a digital animation, interactive or web projects, or an animating effect in a 3D games piece to great effect. The lyrical opening sequence of the multimedia piece, 'Three Mile Creek' is a sand-on-glass animation. When her work was exhibited at MILIA's New Talent Pavilion, AIM 1996 graduate, Alyssa Rothwell was repeatedly asked "What software did you use to create that?". "Sand on glass!" she replied. "Where can I buy it?" was the response. Hmm, that's an AIM secret.

If you are curious about these techniques, please feel free to experiment and produce a short 2-5 second piece as one of your two optional animation exercises. You could choose an event that relies on continual metamorphosis.

A colour camera is set up on the animation stand in the video camera room (next to the sound room) and is connected to an iMac with FrameThief. We have a box of old oil paints for you to use. However you could use charcoal, pastels, sand or sugar. Try to limit yourself to one hour or so under the camera so that others can have their turn. Experiment when you have some free time around other project work.

  "I reckon I need a good coat of paint. But not that smudgy experimental stuff please! Freaky left-wing socialist animation technique"


Animating Under the Camera - Animation World Magazine article, Issue 3.2 May 1998, complied by Heather Kenyon
William Kentridge: Quite the Opposite of Cartoons - Animation World Magazine article, Issue  3.7 October 1998, by Philippe Moins
William Kentridge: Stereoscope - an interview by Lilian Tone
Caroline Leaf - an interview by Nag Vladermersky, February 2003
An interview with Ferenc Cakó

Research Reports by AIM students:
An Investigation of Under the Camera Animation Techniques as Applied to Digital Technology - Ann Shenfield, AIM, 200
An Exploration of Digital Animation as a Tool for the Independent Animator - research report by Kyunghee Gwon, AIM, 2004

'Joshua Cooks' by Penny Robenstone (1985) used pastels on paper - a white ground. As Penny worked by drawing new elements on the single piece of paper while smudging and erasing others away, her paper became progressively dirtier. She used a white pastel to clean up unwanted smudges.
'La Lune' by Ann Shenfield (1987) also used pastels but for this film the ground was black. She also used a very heavily textured card. Like the above work, the single sheet of black card became progressively smudgy over time.
'About Face' by Ann Shenfield (1987). This short sequence used translucent inks and thus was lit from behind like so that the colours were rich and saturated like a stained glass window. Ann also liked to work small so the brush work features strongly. She kept her 'canvas' very wet so that the technique boiled and bubbled as she manipulated her images.
'Museum' by Ann Browne (1991). Water colour paintings were viewed through thick white oil paint smeared over a sheet of glass on top of the artwork. Holes were progressively rubbed through to reveal the underlying images.
'Mum's Friend' by Julian Wiggley (1991). This film used a limited number of expressive drawings overlaid with a glass sheet on which black printer toner was animated with a brush. This layer was kept very dynamic adding rich movement. Click on the above image to see this technique at work.
'Painted Horse' by an AIM student.
Sugar on glass by Jon Rowdon.This piece was backlit which allows for various densities of sugar to produce a delicate range of tones. Sand which is less translucent, produces more contrast by comparison. In fact you could animate with coffee grounds, sugar and milk and drink your animation after you've finished!