Broncos and Buffalos: Reinventing Muybridge at Anifilm Festival (GoCritic! Review)

Experimental animation films collage

Gijs Suy reports on two contemporary experimental animation shorts, screened at Anifilm Festival 2024 (part of our GoCritic! review series).

One of the most famous precursors of cinema is Eadweard Muybridge’s 'Galloping Horse' (1887): several photographs of a jockey riding a horse meant to be projected in the zoopraxiscope, a transparent spinning wheel, resulting in the cinematic illusion of movement.

In the Abstract and Non-Narrative Animation competition at Anifilm in Liberec, two films use Muybridge’s work as their starting point: 'Chamber of Shadows' by Seyoung Ok (South Korea) and 'Time Metallurgist' by Tomáš Rampula (Czech Republic). These artists latch onto the idea that resonates with many experimental filmmakers: of cinema reaching new terrains by reappropriating its past, even beyond its beginning as we know it. Neither Ok nor Rampula, though, are just interested in employing a simple historical reference. Instead, their films form a radical deconstruction of the principles that Galloping Horse introduced.

Ok uses transparent acrylic sheets to frame Muybridge’s pictures. This means the depicted animals are no longer bound to their respective frames but are freely able to interact with one another. In many cases, this leads to abstraction, such as when the image of a walking cow completely fills the screen. The beast thus becomes a monochrome field, shrouding the other animals in darkness. The acrylic sheets themselves aren’t just carriers for the pictures, but Ok self-referentially gives the materials with which she works an important role in the film, fluctuating between 2D and 3D animation. This constant shift of perspective leads to a deliberate confusion of the representations appearing on the screen.

Chamber of Shadows

Ok’s film is also a documentation and extension of the installation of acrylic sheets she constructed. In that sense 'Chamber of Shadows' is reminiscent of László Moholy-Nagy’s avant-garde 1930 film 'Ein Lichtspiel: schwarz, weiss, grau', made for his own installation, the 'Light-Space Modulator', where he catches shadows and reflections with his camera, leading to a deliberately ambiguous series of images. 'Chamber of Shadows' aims at a comparable visual complexity, where the creative use of lightning achieves a cinematic space that subverts a photographic reality into something almost unrecognizably abstract.

Rampula’s film focuses less on Muybridge’s photographs, although they still play a pivotal role. 'Time Metallurgist' instead extends its scope to the time and place where Muybridge took his pictures. It is a macabre and surreal exploration of the universe of 19th-century America, conceptually somewhat akin to Aleksandr Sokurov’s 'Fairytale' (2022). The films are united in their dark atmosphere and manipulation of historical images, as Sokurov’s film is a fictional evocation of purgatory populated by deepfake versions of 20th-century world leaders.

'Time Metallurgist', a film that employs AI, is equally liminal, with Muybridge’s animals being deformed into zombielike creatures, often living carcasses. Rampula, for instance, often returns to the image of a running buffalo corpse, whose insides are vividly inspected. The anatomical studies that Muybridge’s photographs represented are cynically subverted, as the pureness and natural order that his humans and animals radiate are hijacked by decay.

Time Metallurgist

The exploration of the carcasses eventually evolves into a vibrant, abstract sequence where the matter that the buffalos are composed of starts to live a life of its own. Just like in 'Chamber of Shadows', representational questions arise, but Rampula deviates completely from Muybridge’s photographs as he uses abstract imagery somewhat reminiscent of Stan Brakhage. It results in an otherworldly experience that has lost all connection with the cohesive human-centered world of Muybridge.

'Time Metallurgist' also features sequences where AI appropriates a more traditional animation technique: photomontage. This way, Rampula actively blurs the distinction between humans and animals. An example of this is photos of a group of cowboys posing in a traditional Western town. Those pictures are intercut by photos of their horses standing in the same setting as if humans were morphing into animals. Even more unsettling is a tracking shot of circus grounds, where frames of the animals are rapidly intercut with each other – which gives the impression that camels are changing into horses and other circus beasts.

Whereas Ok’s film shed new light on avant-garde techniques, Rampula’s universe is more new-agey and explicitly post-humanist, as his subject matter completely subverts the human-centered perspective of Muybridge’s photographs. The use of AI pushes this to new levels, as Rampula cooperates with non-human technologies to explore terrains beyond the anthropocentric world.

contributed by: Gijs Suy

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