In the shadows of the far side of the cavernous space, are rows of faces. Or more precisely, rows of a face. One row of twenty-four tiny faces, formed in plastic by a 3D printer, becomes one face. Each photographed, then pulsed together in a burst of twenty-four frames per second, becomes a single second of film— the illusion of motion depicted in moving light projected onto a screen. Viewed as if pulled back from that film-to-be, the faces on the wall appear as moments frozen in time. The smallest syllables of spoken words, hanging on the small, painted lips of the characters. The subtle topologies of facial expressions, caught in a stasis, so that we might examine them. But they are not moments. Those moments never existed.
They are moments envisioned and meticulously created by the crew of stop-motion animation company LAIKA, now on display at the Portland Art Museum’s Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA exhibition. While the show is likely to be a hit with fans of LAIKA’s four feature-length films, for someone like myself who hasn’t seen any of the films, the exhibit also provides a window into the process of connecting digital and physical sculptural techniques, in order to create a world where none existed at all.
At one point in our technological history, it was revolutionary to draw or sculpt completely within the digital confines of a computer, as opposed to using physical mediums. In the last ten years, 3D printing caused a new revolution, as the content of digital files have been more easily rendered into physical materials through additive manufacturing. LAIKA’s work casts itself between these separate domains of digital and physical. First, characters faces are drawn on a computer. Then, the faces are 3D printed in thermoplastic, and finished by hand. Next, in sequence, the physical models are digitally photographed. The digital images are spliced together, digitally rendered, and finished with effects. And lastly, that digital series of images is projected back in physical light, onto the cinema screen.
Somewhere between all of these technological teleportations, the “magic,” the “lifelike quality,” of stop-motion animation gains that power. In the 140 years between Eadweard Muybridge first used a succession of cameras to capture the motion of a running horse in still images, and then animated those images to simulate the running motion, sculptural and imaging technologies have advances incredibly. And yet the magic is the same.
In the exhibit, we see not just the faces, but all manner of art forms used to create this magic. There is an 18-foot puppet, expansive sets filled with exquisitely handmade objects, case upon case of handcrafted costumed, engineered puppet skeletons, clever contraptions for roiling seas, rampaging monsters, and reveals of the tiniest details that the vast army of artists (seventy people work in the rapid prototyping department alone) have included into the overall picture. But despite all of these magnificent examples of art, the actual finished product, the film itself, is not visible. The sum of the parts, is not the whole. Without that overlap between physical and digital, the magic cannot occur. As intricate and beautiful as these individual works are, the spellbinding quality of each face upon the wall, without the film that drives the entire machinery as its motive force, the pieces would never have existed alone.