April 6, 2009

Better Than Real Life

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For an art form that often lives in the shadow of its live-action big brother, animation finally received its share of the spotlight on Saturday at Cornell Cinema’s special event, Homegrown Animation. Headlined by Tara Cooper ’08’s ten-minute short Until the Lake Froze Solid, the program included nineteen animated shorts made by Cornell students over the past six years, as well as a Q&A session with Tara about her MFA thesis film. Although there was no red carpet or hordes of paparazzi waiting outside Homegrown Animation was both a showcase of the cream of the crop of Cornell animation projects and some well-deserved face time for the incredibly talented artists whose work rarely earns the attention that it’s due.
The evening began with Cooper’s film, a somber glimpse into the troubled mind of a woman struggling with regret, loss and survival in the wilderness near a frozen northern lake. The film was structured as a collection of the female protagonist’s ruminations of sorrow and loneliness, conveyed powerfully by a poetic narrative written by Cooper’s fellow MFA student Autumn Watts ’06. Voice overs such as “I have stopped recording good things in this journal. Instead, I am recording only things,” captured the melancholy of a life where each day that passes is just “another day.” A far cry from the upbeat Pixar shorts of today’s popular animation, Until the Lake Froze Solid is morose from beginning to end — ominously drifting from grim to grimmer before quietly vanishing from the screen as simply and unobtrusively as it began.
Visually, the film is just as complex as its abstract narrative suggests. The bleakness and utter despair of the protagonist’s world is expressed in several shades of black and white, with very little color seeping through the boundaries of the film’s lifeless visual landscape. Cooper’s animation consists of several different layers, including collage-like paper and pencil drawings, brief live-action backgrounds and stunning digital animation. When seen through the lens of an almost dreamlike camera that seems to float aimlessly across the images, the result is a remarkable blend of imagery that makes for a truly unique visual experience.
But bringing this complex visual story to the screen was no simple task. Cooper estimated that the animation alone took her about three months to complete. Working every step of the way with her husband Terry O’Neill, Cooper just finished the first cut of the film the Thursday before the screening. “I’m pretty new at this film stuff,” she said modestly after the screening. “I had done some drawings dealing with the psychology of loss, regret, survival. This piece stemmed out of my thesis.” As an MFA graduate with a background in printmaking and lithography, Cooper explained that the film was the fourth translation of a project that evolved from live action to drawings to book, before taking its current form as a piece of film. With the help of what O’Neill described as “cheap camera tricks”, and with the support of the Cornell Council for the Arts, Cooper’s film became a reality and was very well received at the screening on Saturday.
Rounding out the program was a collection of various student works from a summer animation course taught by visiting professor Lynn Tomlinson. Ranging in length and scope, the films featured everything from hand-drawn flipbooks to stop-motion photography, and ranged in length from 17 seconds to over five minutes. Some of the highlights were a violin-playing cat in Fiddler on the Windowsill (2004) and a humorous account of three Cornell students’ brush with stardom in History of Animation at Cornell (2005). Other eye-catching films were Never Eat Lobster Out of Context (2003), Western (2003) and Bad Painting (2004).
By the end of the evening, everyone in attendance had been treated to an hour of highly innovative and imaginative animation. So what’s next for Tara Cooper and the many student animators whose work was screened on Saturday? Who knows? Cooper plans to continue fine-tuning her film until it’s ready for submission to various film festivals. The next time you see an animated film, be sure to check the credits for one of Cornell’s homegrown animators. Until then, be sure to enjoy living far above a frozen solid lake.