The Crossing, and why technique matters in animation

As people who follow me on Twitter might know, I had the opportunity to attend the 2021 Annecy festival – the most important festival dedicated to animation in the world. I had initially planned to release a few articles on the movies and works I’ve seen, but finally decided against it: the pieces I had started to make were simple (and, in my view, rather uninteresting) reviews, and their content didn’t really fit what I wanted for this blog. However, there is one movie that I feel the need to talk about, because watching it made me think a lot and realize many things on animation as a whole, my position towards it, why I like certain things and dislike others. That movie is The Crossing (La Traversée), a European film by Florence Miailhe which won the Jury Mention. What makes it stand out is not so much its beautiful and rather well-led plot, but its technique: it is entirely made by paint-on-glass.

Anyone with a bit of knowledge on animation is probably aware of this technique and especially of its unique look. For most, paint-on-glass is no doubt synonymous with Alexander Petrov’s works, notably The Old Man and the Sea. Like all animation techniques, paint-on-glass comes with its own set of difficulties, the most notable being that no mistake is allowed: it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to correct or erase an error in the painting once it’s been made. Another specificity is that, unlike most other animation techniques, from traditional 2D to 3DCG and stop-motion, there is very little distinction between each of the steps of the movement. Indeed, if we take traditional 2D animation, it is easy to go frame-by-frame and take the movement apart – because each frame or group of frames represents a part of the movement – what we can call a pose.

Poses don’t really exist in paint-on-glass: the artist doesn’t make a new drawing for each frame (as in 2D animation) or move a figure for each new shot (as in stop-motion), but paints over what has already been painted. In short, there is no succession of images but rather a constant overlay. This creates a singular impression: that of an animation that’s constantly morphing, in which shapes are anything but stable, constantly flickering and evolving as each touch of paint is subtly modified. The Crossing, like many paint-on-glass works, constantly plays on this with constant fade-ins and fade-outs – that is, transitions through which it is the image itself that changes, rather than an abrupt shift from an image to another.

The consequence of this isn’t just that objects and the world itself appear unstable, constantly subject to modification. It is also, most importantly, that the images seem to create themselves before us. Indeed, with paint-on-glass, the viewer sees the image being made just before their eyes, since they witness each new touch of paint being progressively added to the overall screen. Most animation works frame-by-frame, that is in time, but paint-on-glass works in space: the motion happens in one single image (the painting), not from one image (a drawing, a photograph, a 3D model) to another. To go even further, we could say that what the viewer witnesses is not even really the picture being made: without the visible presence of human hands or tools, there is outside intervention. More radically, it is the picture making itself, as if by its own will and energy.

One might believe this isn’t very different from usual animated works. It is customary, not to say cliché, to mention that animation is always about its own making and that it is always more-or-less aware of itself and its medium. This argument can be questionable (especially since it implies that, in some other instances, the medium can be somewhat “forgotten”), but also often rests on a confusion between the kind of self-awareness and apparent self-creation mentioned above, and metafictionality and/or self-reflexivity.

To take an example, Satoshi Kon’s works are all metafictional to some degree. However, none of them (except a certain episode of Paranoia Agent) are really about animation as a medium, or what is the process of creating animated images: what most of Kon’s movies are about is live-action cinema, and what creating and viewing live-action films entail. They are metafictional in that there is a confusion between what we call reality and another mode of existence (fiction, dreams, etc), and that characters are always both actors and creators. But the paradigmatic mode of fiction in Kon’s narratives is almost never animation itself: it is live-action. What makes Kon so interesting is therefore not so much the metafictionality in itself, but the fact that he uses the technique of traditional 2D animation to discuss live-action cinema. It is in that apparent distance and incompatibility that Kon’s genius and inventivity really develop and raise original questions.

On the other hand, The Crossing is absolutely not metafictional: it develops a simple, linear narrative. It is not even really “about” animation, although the main character draws all throughout the movie and her drawings are shown to us. Rather, it is the paint-on-glass technique itself which, because of its very nature, brings to the fore the process of its own making. In that sense, there is a distinction between what the movie (as a narrative told through the medium of film) develops and what the technique itself brings about.

What paint-on-glass “brings about” is then not just this “making of” process, or a “self-generative” sort of energy. It is also a deep and constant awareness of matter. By matter, here, I mean the stuff that makes up the image: simple and crude lumps of paint. In this, there is something direct, raw, as if the image didn’t bother to polish itself but rather appealed directly to the viewer from some kind of a world where shapes are never quite complete. And that kind of feeling is precisely what I love in animation.

It took me a lot of time, first as a viewer and then as a critic, to figure out what exactly I liked in animation – what it is that makes animation something special for me. A common answer when asked this question is a so-called “lack of boundaries”: animation is not as restricted as live-action since it creates its universes from scratch, and therefore has more possibilities open to it. This is certainly true, but is in the end mostly related to the kind of narratives you can tell in animation; in my mind, it doesn’t tell you much about what animation is and how it works. Whereas I believe that most animation techniques are unique in their way to explore and illustrate what it is that makes them.

The fact that this is what I like in paint-on-glass is not unrelated, I realized, to my taste in animation in general and anime in particular. Indeed, this is because of this unique “materiality” that I tend to prefer older, cel-era animation and some animators over others. To give some precise examples, my main problem with webgen and a lot of contemporary Japanese animation is that I feel that the way they use digital animation (or digital animation itself as a technique) tends to erase this sense of materiality. On the other hand, I believe that a director such as Osamu Dezaki, thanks to the graphical diversity of his work and his ceaseless experimentations on photography, is among those that most explored the material workings of cel animation.

On an even bigger scale, and perhaps in a less subjective way, I believe it is possible to make up a gradient of various animation techniques according to the impression of materiality that they showcase. Of course, said gradient featured below is limited: it does not include all animation techniques, techniques should overlap each other, and their classification should depend on how each one is used in specific works. But this is, at least for me, a sort of guideline which may allow us to better think of each technique in its own specificity.

For example, you’ll have noticed that I consider 3DCG as the least “material” of animation techniques. On a personal basis, this is why I am fundamentally uncomfortable with all 3DCG animation, even when it is technically flawless: that is because it contains none of what appeals to me in animation. Indeed, shapes, textures and motion, especially in good 3DCG, always seem too polished. But to me, matter is always malleable, and it is precisely the artist’s work to make it adopt new, unexpected configurations. In other words, the artist is someone who experiments. On the other hand, 3DCG functions as a closed system: of course it can be technically flawless and visually impressive, but this comes at the price of hiding all that has gone into creating that perception. There are no animation mistakes in 3DCG, but there is no good animation either: it’s just good or bad 3DCG, something that only qualifies technological proficiency or lack thereof. Various kinds of 2D animation (both cel and digital) allow for such things as mistakes or bad animation (whichever way you define them); but it also means that things can evolve, switch from a mediocre to a better quality, reach artistic heights and low points… all because the basic elements of the craft (the “matter”) are more open to possibilities and reinterpretation.

At this point, it is necessary to point out that what I mean in my criticism of 3DCG doesn’t amount to an otherwise often-heard line of criticism which is that, in 3DCG, one doesn’t feel the individuality or the “hand” of each artist. That is certainly a valid argument, and mine may be close to it, but only insofar as what’s appealing in animation is the individuals behind it. However, I believe that approaching technique at the level of the material elements and processes it involves is more fundamental: it is because the technique opens more or less possibilities of invention in the first place that individual artists then have room to invent.

Ultimately, what this means for me is that a good 3DCG movie will always only be a good film; it will never be a good animated work. There are some exceptions to this; but that is most of the time because these movies visibly integrate a reflexion on the technique and the choice of it – in that, my favorite example will always be Promare, which doesn’t only use 3DCG to create a spectacle that would be hard to reproduce in 2D, but also challenges 2D animation techniques on their own ground, mostly in the domain of Kanada-style effects.

You may also have noticed that I haven’t included rotoscopy in my gradient of techniques; perhaps it is because rotoscopy has always been a difficult technique to master and understand, and because its uses are always very diverse. But I believe that, just like 3DCG, they can help us consider what it is that makes animation special – its openness to its own matter. Indeed, the problem with rotoscopy is often that of an overlap between live-action (or CG) footage and 2D drawings. In that context, there is a sort of mismatch between the “immaterial” primary footage and the “material” drawings.

This is not to say that live-action footage, or live-action cinema, is a purely immaterial and abstract entity; on the contrary. But, just like in 3DCG, the world of live-action is a “closed” or  “perfect” one: there isn’t as much (if there is any) plasticity in the body of an actor than there  is in an animated drawing. The real world is always finished, without any other imperfections than the ones of our perception; it is therefore hard for it to create itself just like the animated world. But, just like for 3DCG, this isn’t an absolute and universal statement; among the appeals of live-action cinema is its attempts to challenge that perfection, to create an impression of self-creation that rivals animation’s.

In the end, of course, what matters is the works themselves. In art criticism, the discussion should always start from there, and general statements such as the ones I’ve made are only valid insofar as they were generated by works and apply to as many works as possible. There will also naturally be many exceptions to all I’ve said here; but I do think that recognizing such general tendencies of one’s taste is important, not least because it allows for better mutual understanding, and illustrates that pure technical proficiency is not necessarily what art – or one’s taste for art – should always aim for.

5 thoughts on “The Crossing, and why technique matters in animation

  1. I think you make some great points here. “Human involvement” being tangible has been something I’ve been pondering over for quite some time, especially since its loss is particularly apparent in modern stop-motion productions. If one looks at stop motion from the early 40s, e.g. Trnka’s masterpieces like Czech Year, or modern indepedent shorts, what one will realize is that virtually every single production is quint-essential surreal, in that they are clearly trying to emulate reality to a certain extent, but character motion’s just choppy enough and objects have just enough texture to still come off as something “that was crafted by a person’s hands” (one of Japan’s most successful stop motion productions to date, a remake of Gon the little Fox from 2019, is a pretty good example for this https://vimeo.com/360650813). Ironically, Laika, who is the big dick production studio for stop-motion animated feature films, has been distancing itself from this approach to “tangible animation” ever since its first feature film. In fact, most of its productions are so elaborate that 1) virtually every single scene is a) pre animated on paper and b) pre animated in 3DCG and 2) virtually every single character has dozens, at times even hundreds, of different facial plates allowing for detailed depiction of a characters expression. What this does, however, is move stop-motion closer to 3DCG, and thereby rob it of its tangibility, in surreal nature that was pushed and, to a certain extent, prioneered by the Czech post war avant-garde (not only traditional animators like Pojar, but also members of the Laterna Magika). It’s this, some would call it uncanniness, that makes animation great and what elevates it above live-action cinema (on that note: I think it’s funny Wes Anderson understands this better than the people at Laika, in how he doesn’t look at boiling (human involvement being visible on a frame-by-frame basis) as a weakness, but instead treats it as an idiosyncratic and defining quality of stop-motion itself).

    Imo the presence of “boiling” is what qualifies something as having “matertiality”, as you describe it. However, I think it should be said that this effect is neither exclusive to stop-motion nor paint-on-glas – although one can make the argument that it’s much more apparent in both because it takes insane amounts of labor to get rid of it in either – but that there are ways for digital and traditional cel, hell, even 3DCG, to achieve similar effects. This can be observed in many experimental films, from both east and west. So I think what you call “materiality” is defined less by “technique” employed, and more so – as you’ve pointed out yourself in one of the paragraphs on 3DCG – by the amount of polish staff went through to create a palatable mainsteam experience, e.g. the 3DCG films by Jean-François Laguionie have a pretty “tangible” feel to them, mostly because they utilize some simplified version of Disney’s ‘deep canvas’ technique; I also think Studio 4C did an impeccable job with Kaijuu no Kodomo’s eratic line art, it creates a similar effect of tangibility, even on the 3DCG models; Nick DiLiberto’s work on Nova Seed also strikes me as pretty “material” for a piece of Flash Animation (probably cause it’s – what feels like – animated on 1s, I think it’s Flash at least), Josep (french film from 2020) creates this effect by essentially alternating between 2 slightly different drawings per scene allowing for what is basically a static image to look tangible and active cause there’s “fake movement” on display; counter example being Kulička by Hermína Týrlová, another Czech legend, whose stop motion on so sophisticated it looks almost like 3DCG. It’s almost ironic how its this crudeness, this lack of “polish”, that gives animation its soul. In a sense, to me boiling has always felt similar to filmstock related noise. It shouldn’t be there, it’s an unwanted byproduct, but it’s still there, and yet somehow it also kinda makes it better (though digital animation really doesn’t help itself in how everything’s so incredibly sterile; when people like Ogura painted “realistic environments” for Patlabor, you could still see the brushstrokes and still feel the backplates “materiality”, nowadays they feel like filtered photographs).

    Reading this I feel inclined to ask: How come your focus has been commercial, rather than independent animation? Based on what I can deduce from this post, experimental shorts seem right up your alley.

    PS: If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper into paint-on-glas, stop motion, other more tangible/experimental forms of animation, I’d love to give a hand.

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    1. Thank you for your detailed and insightful comment!

      I don’t have much to add, to be honest – the comparison you make with visual noise I find to be very apt, and I don’t doubt there are many inventive exceptions to the ideas I laid out here.
      I also think there’s something to dig in the parallel between stop-motion and 3DCG – both are kinds of 3D animation after all, though the way they actually work is very different.

      As for your question on experimental animation – I do have an interest in it, although I feel less compelled to write about it. Maybe it’s just harder to do so! But I have to say there’s also (for me at least) a problem of accessibility for a lot of Western, especially experimental, animation. But perhaps I just don’t know where to look.

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      1. I can see where you’re coming from. Experimental animation’s often more about « being felt », than it is about « being understood ». Although many pieces still warrant extensive analysis, especially since they employ a plethora of different visual story-telling techniques and – by sheer virtue of allowing artists to go create something without being limited by commercial restraints – represent, what is in my opinion, the purest form of animated art. Makes for a very subjective experience, however. Much less tangible than shows or feature film animation for sure.
        Accessibility’s definitely an issue. There are some private tracker communities that allow one to bypass this particular problem, but they are rather hard to get into (and to be invited, the inviting party needs to essentially vouch for the invitee). There are some useful reasources that might make the journey of exploring western animation a bit easier for you, though. Maybe they’ll turn out being of use to you.
        Generally speaking, modern online communities are so blatant about violating copyright, lots of animation can be found (for free) on Youtube, Vimeo and Dailymotion.
        -Vimeo on Demand; I think artists started to put more and more stuff on Vimeo due to COVID, e.g. The Animation Show of Shows, a compilation of great independent animation, has been made available by it’s publisher https://vimeo.com/ondemand/21stasos
        -The National Film Board of Canada has a great database to work with, most of it is accessible to people outside of Canada, remaining restrictions you can bypass using a VPN, https://www.nfb.ca/animation/; similar things can be said for region locked Vimeo on Demand content, such as Nobuhiro Aihara’s shorts https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uplinkcloud1040102/ or Schwizgebel’s shorts https://vimeo.com/ondemand/schwizgebel/ et al
        -Animatsiya is an incredible website for everything Russian, the Admin even subs stuff himself, https://www.animatsiya.net/
        -Short of the Week provides temporary access to many animated short films, but one’s kinda forced to watch/download them within a week or else one might never get another opportunity to see them outside of the festival circuit, https://www.shortoftheweek.com/
        -due to COVID, many animation festivals were hosted online; e.g. Ottawa 2021 will be held online again, which is probably worth checking out, especially since it’ll sport some interesting shorts (produced) by the likes of Koji Yamamura https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4ZSprhlLlQ
        -some great stuff’s also being made available by the Czech film archive, some really cool, remastered stop-motion animation https://www.youtube.com/c/Českáfilmováklasika/
        -if what you’re looking for are lists to get a better idea of « what to watch », I don’t think there’s anything that can keep up with Letterboxd (MUBI has some cool lists, too); some lists even feature links, see this list on western feature film animation https://letterboxd.com/maxmovieperson/list/explore-the-expanded-world-of-feature-animation/
        Sure, many of those releases aren’t of the highest quality (there’s no nyaa equivalent for western animation, which is obviously related to Japan’s much more lax approach to copyright infringement at large), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find bluray quality releases outside of the aforementioned private communities. However, I think you’ll be surprised how much shit’s available through publically accessible video hosting platforms by searching for its native title.
        Hope this helps to get you started. Cheers.

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          1. To follow up on this: Ottawa next week (22nd til 2nd), all shorts and features available as part of this year’s Online Screening Event. Event Pass is 60CAD (circa 40EUR, weekend Pass is 35 CAD but only lasts a single Saturday so pretty worthless). Some feature films are region locked (e.g. Studio 4Cs most recent endeavor), but said region lock should be rather easy to bypass (seems to determine location by IP, rather than CC information provided during pass purchase). Over 200 films if this guy’s list is to trust https://letterboxd.com/neperfectionist/list/45th-ottawa-international-animation-film/

            https://www.animationfestival.ca/boxoffice/
            https://watch.animationfestival.ca/oiaf2021

            Cheers

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