Experimentation in animation

Richard Reeves teaches his secrets at Tour de Film workshop

Richard Reeves has built a sterling reputation as one of Canada’s most talented experimental animators. But for all the standout qualities of his craft — his abstract work is beloved for drawing both sound and illustrations directly onto film — his upcoming workshop at Quickdraw Animation Tour de Film isn’t about deconstructing his technique it’s about experimenting with and cultivating a love for analogue animation techniques.

“Basically go through how Super 8 and Bolex cameras work and Super 8 cameras are very sophisticated” says Reeves who’s been a Quickdraw member since 1989. “First we’ll teach people how to operate cameras. Then you’ll have about five days to go and shoot film. Then we’ll take some of that film and process it by hand — it should take some of the mystery out of film processing.”

Much like Reeves’ hand-rendered work the techniques exposed at Tour De Film will focus on DIY animation. After processing the film — which he adds can be processed using orange juice coffee or even urine — it can be manipulated by scratching it drawing on it and selecting projection surfaces which can add a dosage of work-altering texture to the mix. Though Reeves (and his workshop) focuses on analogue techniques he’s quick to add that he doesn’t oppose all things digital.

“When digital first came out I was afraid of it” Reeves admits. “But now I’m comfortable in a digital environment. When I was teaching at the film school [Galiano Island B.C.’s Gulf Islands Film and Television School] we shot a lot of Super 8 but then we’d digitize it add digital colour and processing. But when I started working with digital I was like ‘Where’s the tech support?’”

He laughs. “But film itself has gotten much better. There’s really good colours now. And I have a soft spot for neglected technologies. I love taking still photographs with ancient cameras. And while I spent a lot of time on computers I still like the tactile approach: You sit in the dark mix chemicals and then turn the lights on.”

That tactile approach is what Reeves will be tackling at Tour de Film. Beyond the techniques however there’s another agenda at the workshop: To make animation and film accessible to creators. For example processing film with orange juice and coffee isn’t efficient or predictable but it’s a sign that animation isn’t simply for those with access to high-powered equipment high-priced facilities or expensive chemicals.

“Trying out different ways to process film is just an alternative way to think about the art” he says. “And it can be very cost efficient. Film is an expensive art form; you’re always buying film and paying for the processing. But if you can buy $10 worth of chemistry [and learn how to use it] it can be affordable for low-budget productions. Some really exciting films have come from low budgets because it forces people to get creative.”

It’s a mantra Reeves lives by. When we ask him about some of the oddest technologies he’s used in his own work he points to the Optical Orchestra a group that uses a playable 16 mm violin — using magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair — and projections in a group performance. He says he drew much of his inspiration from Laurie Anderson the experimental performance artist who developed the film violin in 1977. “A 16 mm violin was brought into Quickdraw and it sat there for the longest time before anyone figured out how it worked” says Reeves.

He also plans to have the Optical Orchestra perform at the conclusion of Tour De Film. Just in case anyone wanted to see how a 16 mm violin works. “I imagine on the final night we’ll have a projection going on” he says. “I’ll rig up whatever we have for sound and the Optical Orchestra.”