“Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive,” said Walt Disney of the cinematographic field he helped pioneer. Since Disney popularized animation however, its creative potential has been largely underestimated and the genre has often been relegated to essentially childish themes. Even animated films such as “Toy Story” and “Up,” that received widespread critical acclaim, attained commercial success by marketing themselves as movies intended for pre-teens.
The newest exhibition at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, “Frame by Frame: Animated at Harvard”—which runs through February 14—displays an entirely different kind of animation than movie theaters frequently feature. The show explores Harvard’s intriguing and largely untold history with animated film, beginning with the Visual and Environmental Studies Department’s first forays into the field in the mid-1960s and ending with student projects from as recently as last year. This animation timeline showcases a variety of films that have rigorously mined the imaginative possibilities of the form and, in doing so, proved that animation has potential beyond the merely cartoonish.
The main room of “Frame by Frame” is dominated by a rolling loop of Harvard’s first and most important efforts in animation. Renowned animator Eli F. Noyes ’64 made the earliest film on this loop, “Clay or the Origin of Species,” when he was a senior at Harvard. The film, which is one of the first animated movies to use clay and went on to receive the Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Subject, features charming clay imaginings of early forms of life and gradually culminates in the creation of humans.
Equally innovative is the 1968 film “Sand, or Peter and the Wolf” by filmmaker Caroline J. Leaf ’68. Leaf’s work is one of the earliest and best examples of the use of sand in animation, as she creates an ethereal, shapeshifting set of grainy black and white characters. Though its graphics appear rudimentary to today’s eye, Leaf’s film remains visually captivating. Leaf constantly recreates her characters’ forms, faces, and even species; in one scene, a wolf eats a bird that later morphs into an alternatively smiling and frowning moon.
The exhibition’s most successful movie is likely that of Frank P. Mouris ’66, whose “Frank Film” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject in 1974 and has since been preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Mouris’s film features two overlapping audio tracks: the filmmaker lists words beginning with the letter “F” while also telling his own life story. At the same time, an ever-shifting collage of magazine clippings appears on the screen. These stock images range from depictions of the Buddha to packs of cigarettes and appear in coordination with Mouris’s narrative. For example, when Mouris explains his middle and high school crushes, the screen fills up completely with drawings of eyes and lips.
The backroom of the exhibition presents more recent efforts in animation at Harvard. Four televisions showcase work by current students and recent alums. Another screen shows a short film of the exhibition’s co-curator, Terah L. Maher, along with the sheets of clay sandwiched in Plexiglas that were used to make the movie. The students’ films track a wide range of graphic and conceptual complexity. A work by Lisa A. Haber-Thomson ’02 consists exclusively of stick figures, but deals with the beautiful image of a woman trying to stitch together a torn book as letters pour out of it to the sound of running water. “Pop,” a film by Sarah M. Ngo ’13, shows a perfectly-drawn girl in a simplistic world surrounded by fish who repeatedly “pop” and disappear.
Despite the scholarly bent of “Frame by Frame,” a few families were in attendance. Cambridge mother Alix Kepner had taken her nine year-old daughter Gemma to see the exhibition. “We’re big Pixar fans,” explained Kepner when asked about what had brought them to the Carpenter Center. Talking about her favorite film, “Going Up,” Gemma said, “I liked the script.” When her mother commented that the film in question did not feature any words, Gemma replied, “You don’t need words—pictures can say a lot.” The films in “Frame by Frame” still hold charm for children like Gemma, suggesting that the medium maintains its wonder.
—Staff writer Alex E. Traub can be reached at email@example.com.