Thursday, May 15, 2008

All Grown Up

Anyone who has seen one of the many great animated films for kids over the last decade or so knows that the animators always remember who’s actually paying for the tickets and popcorn and throw in a little joke for the adults, hoping it soars over the heads of the kids as they sit agog at the cute pictures swirling before them on the big screen. Out of Picture, Volume 1: Art from the Outside Looking in, from the people at Blue Sky Studios (creators of Ice Age and Robots), shows you what these artists can do when they know the children aren’t watching. These artists “dance for years at a time, around a monster called an animated movie,” writes Blue Sky Studios director Chris Wedge in his introduction, “giving only what is asked of them” in the spirit of collaboration, all the while holding back “a reservoir of creative potential that roils, impatient for escape within their hearts.” In Out of Picture, the levy breaks, flooding the pages with images and ideas that amuse, bemuse, and refuse to accept the status quo of twenty-first century America. The term “out of picture” originates in the studio practice of cutting sections out of a film. Although these short pieces by the creative minds never actually touched the cutting room floor, they clearly represent the passions that their day jobs as animators for kid flicks would never allow to see the light of day.

Ever since Bambi’s mother met her fiery end, death and separation anxiety have been the twin towers of children’s animation, extending the gruesome legacy of fairytales and folk legends. If animated films highlight the bright side of the equation with their happy endings, Out of Picture highlights the unresolved reality in which light and dark exist in continual tension. Daisuke Tsutsumi’s “Noche y Dia” (above) enters into the carnival-esque psyche of a woman undergoing therapy to rid her of her dark side. In the end, she recognizes that dark and light are two sides of the same inseparable coin. In “Newsbreak,” by Michael Knapp, the terrorist demons brought to us daily by the media follow us even after we turn off the tube. Those terrorists morph into cuddly characters in David Gordon’s “The Wedding Present,” in which Snuggles, Puppybear, and others sneak a plutonium bomb into the United States. Art Spiegelman’s trick of embodying evil in cute animals in Maus becomes even more sinister in Gordon’s hands thanks to the contemporary setting. Nash Dunnigan imagines a “not so distant future” in which the seeds planted by the Bush administration’s erasure of the line between church and state bloom into a society that forces children to attend a special “Night School” to learn the truth while other children enforce the “law.” “Separation of church and state and evolution just won’t stay dead. Will they?” one character asks, as we hope the answer always remains yes.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in Out of Picture. Vincent Nguyen’s “Domesticity” shows the members of a family all facing their personal nightmares in the dark and then reuniting in the rational light of day, joined by love. In “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” Greg Couch whimsically recasts The Maltese Falcon with Little Jack Horner as Sam Spade, Humpty Dumpty as the Fat Man, Mary (who had a little lamb) as the femme fatale , and the black birds as the Falcon itself. In “Yes, I Can,” Andrea Blasich wordlessly follows a man helping a dragon to fly. Your heart will finds its wings in Robert Mackenzie’s “Around the Corner,” which hopefully offers the advice: “On those days when the clouds have bottled up the light—/ Don’t look so down./ Look within. / Look ahead, / The world you’ve imagined is waiting for you.” As bleak as the world around us can seem, these illustrators all tell us, the world of imagination within us can still change everything for the better, if you only believe.

A second volume of Out of Picture is set to be released in June. It seems that this effort has tapped a rich, perhaps endless source of imaginative energy. On one hand, these stories are for adults, despite the children’s book style of illustration often used. On the other hand, these stories are for both adults and children—basically anyone who loves to see through the eyes of artists to better picture the world around them. “It was one of those old books not meant for us children to read,” Daniel Lopez Munoz writes in his story “Silent Echoes,” “but up on that shelf it invited the occasion.” Put Out of Picture on the highest shelf, where the kids are sure to read it, and invite them (and yourself) to an occasion of the imagination.

[Many thanks to Villard Books for providing me with a review copy of Out of Picture, Volume 1: Art from the Outside Looking in.]

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