WRITING L’ANIMATION : GEORGES SIFIANOS

 

FILMS : The Blind Writer et Waiting for the barbarians (film in progress at the time of the meeting)

Georges Sifianos : In this film, I raise a problem that this type of writing poses more generally: writing by association of ideas. You could call it ‘poetic’: how to keep the thread of ideas going and condition the viewer so that they stay with the film without getting lost in ramblings. This is because the association of ideas in the film gives rise to other free associations in the viewer. Even in a traditional film, each viewer sees another film. They make their own associations, except that the plot holds them captive and they can’t escape. In a concert or ballet (I suppose for you it’s more or less the same thing), it’s much easier to escape while remaining focused on the concert. Is this a disadvantage? Does it need to be improved? How can it be improved? Personally, I feel that something needs to be done to make the viewer stay with the film rather than leave.


Waiting for the barbarians (film in progress)

William Henne : It raises questions about the way it was written, because it’s not narrative. It’s narrative anyway because all discourse is narrative, but it’s not actually predominant in this film. You talk about associations of ideas and the fact that perhaps that’s what determined the logic of the writing. So first question: what was the specific writing process? Because if it had been narrative, we wouldn’t have too many questions about the way it’s written, we know very well how a plot is usually constructed, but here we’re dealing with a different object in terms of writing.

GS : What is the process? There are obsessive ideas somewhere that evolve, but they’re always on my mind. If you look at my notes, they’ve been lying around for years, coming and going. From time to time, these ideas, these reflections, also produce images, scenes… I have the notes and one moment I try to assemble them around a theme that emerges and dominates. Some things fit together better than others, but each time, as time goes by, I correct my aim while trying to bring things together, either by similarity, or by theme, or by rhythm, and so on. The film is also based on philosophical ideas. It’s a precious term, but I can’t think of anything simpler. Considerations of this kind by their very nature contain something abstract. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse either. In any case, the process generates a thread, but a thread that is not very conscious. It’s a thread that is discovered as the film progresses. And I sometimes see the process better once it’s down on paper. Having said that, to be honest – and this is why it becomes a problem – when I watch my film after the fact, I sometimes get lost, I sometimes forget the connection. So I suppose the same problem applies to the others.

For The Blind Writer, I tried to push things to the limit. I wanted to use the film as a metaphor for Socrates’ “I know only one thing, that I know nothing”. I also tried to push the technical process to the limit, to see what would happen. Luckily, it produced results, but at the beginning, nothing was guaranteed.

The Blind Writer

Is this a legitimate approach? Is it a weakness? Does it help viewers get into the film? Reactions are quite different. For example, in France, apart from Annecy, I don’t think the film has been selected anywhere else. In other places, particularly in Asian countries, it seems to be much more appreciated, to the point of winning several awards. It’s probably a cultural and civilisational issue.

Zepe : There are many films in this genre. Regina Guimarães, for example, makes documentaries and sometimes fiction, which is quite unusual. Their films often have a strong literary component that requires references. Let’s imagine that she analyses or films a painting or a landscape and then, associated with that, words from philosophers or poets appear, references that speak to a certain category of people who have more access to these references. So the film is an exchange between the maker and those who are familiar with this cultural universe. It’s a kind of approach that sometimes makes it difficult to access. Do you want to move away from that?

GS : It certainly starts with personal interest. But I think the general interest is more important. We’re looking for an alternative dramaturgy and we’re trying to push it further. Is this kind of association of ideas around a few concepts, around a few emerging, spontaneous images, legitimate and relevant? Is it irrelevant? Is there a way of strengthening it?

The Blind Writer

Z : To answer your question, I really like William Burroughs, the American writer. He can write either poems or texts of two or three pages, and I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but I manage to follow what, to someone else, might seem completely disjointed because it’s made up of collages. I have the impression that, from a literary point of view, there’s something in the breathing, in the type of language, in the rhythm that catches my attention. For example, in Noémie Marsily’s film Ce qui bouge est vivant (What moves is alive), there are shots that present a point of view distinct from that of the viewer, and other shots that are very personal and autobiographical. There are also others that are more traditional cinematographic shots: with the graphics you call Ligne Claire, which I liken to Jean Cocteau’s drawings. It’s a line that can be transformed into anything, but it’s not a question of clarity. It’s a poetic element that links everything together. For her, it was also a more effective technique. There are different levels of representation: there are – I put it in inverted commas because it’s animation – ‘concrete’ shots and others that are more abstract. But she always manages to hold the audience in suspense in an effective way, even those who are not interested in this kind of narrative. You’re always in the building, you can feel a bit lost, and then you find your bearings.


Ce qui bouge est vivant by Noémie Marsily (Zorobabel, 2022)

Pierre Hébert, who produced Michèle Cournoyer’s film Le chapeau (The hat) for the NFB, quickly realised that the director had a real desire to talk about this subject, but felt inhibited. So Hébert suggested that she make isolated islands, animated islands, like free isolated sentences. Then we’d just imagine how it would all fit together. I think Noémie’s process is completely different. It’s more structured, with lots of discussion and back and forth. She already had a fairly clear vision.


Le chapeau by Michèle Cournoyer (ONF, 1999)

In your case, it’s a dialectical, back-and-forth process, where you don’t take it one step at a time. The two films could be similar in their processes. But if I compare the system set up by Noémie, she rather has concrete moments, and then she comes back with echoes and answers. In your film, even though you have a structure at the start, I get a bit more lost from the middle of the film onwards.

I’m going to talk about my film Stuart, which I made around Lisbon 12 years ago. The film alternates passages from the life of a cartoonist who existed in the 1930s with scenes of the city. Olivier Cotte, a French animated film critic who wrote a book called Il était une fois le dessin animé, told me that I should have contextualised the film at the beginning and talked about the artist in question. In my opinion, that’s not very interesting. I was simply inspired by this cartoonist, his graphic universe and his wanderings. I used cuts and changes of style, and that created a mood, a way of getting into the movement of the film… that produces its content.

Stuart by Zepe (Animais, 2006)

The other question you ask is whether the graphic, rhythmic, musical and other systems can lead the audience through something they don’t understand. Or whether the intention was rather to provoke a shock with freer associations.

GS : You’ve just pointed something out: in a music video, for example, you don’t necessarily understand what you’re seeing. But there’s a backbone which is the song, the music. And so we accept it quite easily. Noémie’s film has an autobiographical theme, so it’s she herself who makes the link. Her relationship with her child and so on.

In poetry, there are sometimes poems that you don’t necessarily understand. And there’s what I call the ‘exoskeleton’ of the poem, the repetition of the rhyme that holds it together. It’s a kind of mechanical structure, like scaffolding, that holds together a more malleable content, which is supported by this rhythmic scaffolding.

Sometimes you have to make an effort to hold on to it. Poetry has fewer readers than prose, which holds us together through theme and plot.

In my film The Blind Writer, the visual aspect is brutal and at times gripping.

In the second film, Waiting for the Barbarians, which is currently being made, I’m trying to create a range between free and sometimes violent graphics and the naturalism of rotoscoping, to put it quickly. But in that case, I lose the raw and violent aspect of the drawing. I chose to use a poem by a famous author whose theme interests me. But it’s a kind of ‘alibi’ – in inverted commas – because it’s a very well-known poem, and therefore more accessible to many people. And I associate a more abstract visual with it, like in a ballet, or music, with the associations of ideas I mentioned earlier. But in this case, Constantin Cavafy’s poem serves as my exoskeleton.

I don’t know whether this film will hold the viewer more easily than its predecessor, or whether the fact that it will be a little wiser in terms of visual design will rob it of its original appeal.


The Blind Writer

William Henne : I’m not sure I’ve been enlightened about the writing process. There’s a comparison that Zepe made with literature, that Georges made with poetry, but I’d be hard pressed to explain how that came about. There’s an interplay of quotations in the film, which are listed at the end. This might be a way of renewing the viewer’s interest, even if it’s not the heart of the matter obviously: in this game of recognising references, it’s a way of arousing the viewer’s curiosity and interest, when they know the reference of course. It’s also a way of creating a common thread and provoking associations of ideas in the viewer.

The Blind Writer

GS : Quotes come to me spontaneously. It has to do with the period of postmodernism, which is a culture of quotations, but I don’t emphasise that. It’s a bit like what happened at the beginning of writing, when paintings became pictograms, and, from pictograms, we began to write. I use references as pictograms. I use them to write while at the same time winking at the works cited, but they are not essential. It’s an extra layer.

I’d like to mention here a text written by Min Tanaka, an 80-year-old dancer, on the occasion of the award ceremony for my film. He wrote:

It highlights the unspeakable, what cannot be said explicitly. In the West, we tend to value what can be said. We need to rationalise. There is the poetic aspect and the prosaic aspect. The poetic is based on the unspeakable.

In the Beatbit site, Zepe, in the way you approach things, it’s something that also involves sensation. You try to analyse the graphic trace and the sensation it provokes, which is also eloquent, which speaks. The question then becomes how to use these sensations to express yourself. And if we manage to speak to people who appreciate the senses (like Asians), do we need to adapt this language for Cartesian Westerners, who need rational, cause-and-effect language rather than abstract, poetic evocations?

Z :  I’ll give you a simple answer. When, for example, I walk into a room and there’s a fly, a dog, fresh paint on the wall, a child or an elderly person, everything happens at the same time. If you approach a situation without any reference, you’re probably in a more realistic and assertive situation. If you think there’s a lot to justify anything in this room, you’ve already lost the plot. But if you discover, without expecting it, a stain, a reflection, a gesture that attracts you, then you’re right in your subconscious. When you tell me that you’re looking for a more efficient and supposedly attractive way of making a film, I think that cuts you off from all possibilities of discovery. So what you really need to do away with is the idea of option. The option is not a credible option. In the quest for efficiency and understanding, you lose a lot. Do you want to do something more communicative or do you want to create something that surprises you?

GS : It’s clear: I’m going to carry on making films as I feel them, for myself and maybe for a few other people (apparently they exist), even if they’re on the other side of the globe. That’s not the most important thing. The question, if you generalise, is whether it’s necessary to take the story to the Cartesian side to make it intelligible or whether you need to introduce more of the sensitive aspect.

When McLaren was making abstract films, he would occasionally put up an umbrella or something recognisable so that people would hold on to it. It’s a concession, if you like. If you talk to someone, it’s better that they understand you. In other words, you have to adapt the language to enable an exchange. Otherwise, it’s a monologue. You stay on your own.


Waiting for the barbarians (film in progress)

Z : I don’t think McLaren makes abstract films, but films that are even very realistic and very concrete. I’m talking of course about his non-figurative films, where he clearly has a modernist attitude to the medium. Even if he said at the time that it was abstract, he played with very concrete elements. Abstraction is something else. Even films like Begone Dull Care have animated textures, rhythms and colours, but they’re not abstract.

The question is how you approach it, not in terms of how the film is received, but in terms of the process itself. You say there’s the rational aspect and the sensitive side. Which is it in An Andalusian Dog? A third way?


Begone Dull Care de Norman McLaren

GS : In An Andalusian Dog, there’s something similar in the way the images are conceived by association of ideas. Something emerges that you can’t necessarily explain. I use the well-known process of automatic writing. You accumulate a series of emerging ideas and afterwards you sort them out, keep some, throw some away and change some. Do I have to concede the viewer a modification so that they can enter the film and, once inside, stay there and continue to listen and watch? Or should I not?

Z : When you give your film to an editor, which is what I’m doing at the moment with a short film, the editor will follow certain threads that have already been built up and edit them differently. Normally, if he’s a good editor, he’ll isolate what’s going to dominate and give a structure and unfortunately leave out a lot of things that are generally sensitive. Either you keep the film as you originally imagined it, a flow of information based on associations of ideas, or you seek efficiency with an outside person. Are you looking for efficiency?

GS : A certain efficiency. I’m questioning the form, a poetic form. In poetry, there are good poems and less good poems, there are effective poems and less effective poems. It all depends on how it is received by the public and the culture in which it is immersed. If you could show Art Brut or Cubist art to an audience from the 18ᵉ century, it would go straight into the bin. But at the same time, within Cubism, there are good works and not so good works.


Waiting for the barbarians (film in progress)

Z : There are works that can fail on certain levels. To create works that touch the viewer, the creator who produced them must do so in a process of distraction. Otherwise, you produce “universal works”. You have to create an object isolated from the rest… and that’s possible.

In his appreciation of works of art, Adorno developed a whole aesthetic theory based on context. He tried to appreciate the work “negatively” (in the sense of negative moulding) through its socio-political context, through its history. For example, if a sculpture is human-sized or ten times larger, like a building, the former is more familiar, the latter creates a feeling of sublimation. This criterion is defined by the context.

As far as the theme is concerned, if I take a melodramatic story for example – an orphaned child who suffers misfortune, etc. – if I emphasise the subjective side, it seems to me that it’s easier for the average viewer to identify with it emotionally. On the other hand, if you evoke a more abstract idea, starting with Socrates for example, it’s much more difficult to expose it to the audience. Nevertheless, there should be ways for difficult ideas, which we know in advance will not work as easily as the little orphan, to create powerful, not to say universal, works.

José Xavier once asked Alexeïeff why he didn’t project the key poses drawn beforehand on a sheet of paper onto the screen of pins, in order to have more control over the animation. Alexeïeff replied that it would be much less funny.

And I get the impression that you want to create laws where they aren’t necessary.

GS : When you create something, the creation isn’t always a selection, in other words, you make a line and wonder whether you’re going to put it more to the right or more to the left.

Z : No, but, for example, when I smoked hashish a long time ago, I was so aware of what I was doing that it became unbearable. If you think about everything you do, it’s unbearable.

GS : The choices you make are not necessarily conscious. You have lots of options and you take one direction. Why, that’s another thing. Making a shape is always about making choices. And now that we’ve got a bit of perspective, I’m trying to examine the criteria we use to make choices.

You can’t get to the end of a journey and know why you did it. It’s an intellectual reconstruction that you do. Buñuel, whom you quoted, said that if he understood his own films, there would be no point, and yet his films are structured.

In universities, researchers analyse separate elements as if they were a collage. If you don’t take a more holistic and less constructive approach, I don’t think you’ll be able to pin down an object. You can describe general functions, but if you’re going to go into specifics, it’s better to take a holistic approach. For example, Pina Bausch’s dancers say that they rarely spoke to her. She smoked cigarettes, they asked her things and she didn’t necessarily answer. She chose dancers who already had something in them. We see this in Wim Wenders’ film Pina. In the end, you don’t talk to us about your creative process.

The Blind Writer

If there is a single correct image among ten other approximate images, the viewer’s perception will capture this image, this correct position, and it will relegate all the other images, all the other positions, to a kind of ‘noise’. Our perception will rank images in order of importance. There are avenues to be explored here.

I’m not going to kid myself: there are both the criteria of the audience’s external context and its ability to perceive, but there’s also the possibility of making mistakes. If I jump from one subject to another when I’m speaking, you won’t understand what I’m saying. So you have to establish a certain consistency if you want to be understood.

Z : I think that the reactions of the viewer are more important than your own starting point. Or perhaps your starting point is already the viewer…


Waiting for the barbarians (film in progress)

I try to see the reaction of those who are not me. I take reactions into account without necessarily changing the project. If someone says to me “put in a little unhappy orphan” or “structure it that way”, or “put in a story”, it doesn’t necessarily go my way. But I take it into account.

An audience with certain precise expectations will more or less stay on the outside. The work will be cut off from a potential audience. It’s not necessarily aimed at them. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. That’s the best thing you can offer others. If we can find each other, so much the better.

WH : I wanted to draw a parallel because there was talk earlier of postmodernism and, to caricature, postmodernism was theorised, initially by Lyotard, as the disappearance of grand narratives in favour of a more fragmented approach to culture and the parallel I’m drawing is that, in The Blind Writer, there is an evacuation of narrative. So ‘evacuation of narrative’ doesn’t mean ‘disappearance of grand narratives’, they’re two different things, but I’m just identifying this parallel around the notion of Postmodernism.

I’m going to digress for a moment to talk about the visual aspect and therefore the technique and the formal device. At the beginning, of course, I knew nothing about the device, as it is revealed at the very end, and so I saw a completely uninhibited, rather crude graphic style that eschews all mannerism. In fact, at certain points, some of the drawings, taken in isolation, could almost be meaningless, or even non-figurative. For example, in the concert scene, you might not necessarily recognise a conductor with a baton, perhaps a vague silhouette, but no more than that. It’s obviously all the drawings and movement that make the figure recognisable and meaningful. It made me think, for example, of the work of Sébastien Laudenbach, who is sometimes extremely suggestive in his drawings, and the scene takes on meaning because there is movement and all these drawings link together to give meaning to the image. And when you see the set-up at the end, with the drawings made blind, you think straight away of certain strategies put in place by drawing teachers to try and take the pressure off the line, such as drawing with the left hand, this kind of exercise, this kind of constraint, which helps to loosen up certain drawing mechanisms, certain drawing tics, a certain mannerism.

The Blind Writer

Z : At the time of modernism, Kimon Nicolaïdes wrote a book, The natural way to draw, which is known throughout the world and taught in art schools. From his point of view, a bad drawing is not a bad drawing. In other words, through a method and hundreds of different exercises, he forces people to index very precise things through drawing with emotions. He’s not interested in academic drawing, in the sense of a body as a fixed model, or detachable parts. There are, for example, 4-hour exercises just with the outline of a line around a face, topographical representations that can’t last a few seconds. Whether you’re doing cartoons or classical drawing, the point is not to standardise drawing, but to differentiate between drawings. It’s really the opposite of what we learnt at the Beaux-Arts, before La Cambre, when you had to do the Venus de Milo and crap like that, and I was obviously fired because I didn’t know how to do the Venus de Milo.

WH : The film here raises the question of drawing, but specifically linked to the question of animation, notably through cinematographic references. There’s an attempt to recreate this movement with this constraint, so it’s possibly related to the concerns of drawing in general, but here articulated to the specific question of animation.


The Blind Writer

GS : You’re right. For years I used this practice of blind animation with my students, to take the pressure off drawing, to unblock very rational drawing. At school, we did this more quickly than I did and we didn’t have a system of reference points. For this film, that corresponded to the subject of The Blind Writer, the man with doubts: the only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know very much. That’s the main idea of the film, which can be extended to today’s ecological and other issues.

As far as Lyotard’s ‘grand narratives’ are concerned, I’m actually going to be presenting a conference on animation and postmodernism in Varna in October. It’s an issue I’m working on. You mentioned quotes earlier. Throughout our lives, we have landmarks that stay with us, emblematic images or emblematic forms that stay with us for longer and become ideograms of something. For example, in Norman McLaren’s The Neighbours, the scene in which two men are fighting with wooden swords is a very simple cinematic ideogram that represents quarrels.


The Blind Writer

Another example, the few notes at the beginning of Beethoven’s 5ᵉ, it’s something unforgettable that marks us. It’s a form that extracts itself. Like the A and B, in the alphabet, they were an ox head and a house at first, before becoming letters. And they evolved, creating the possibility of writing. Today, we have to use new pictograms/ideograms and audiovisuals to express ourselves. Postmodernism works in a similar way with quotations. On the other hand, I’m not going to use A’s and B’s, those are the means. I’m going to use them to talk about something else. What is that something else? That’s the question. But it also comes through this method. The very fact of using a pictographic script rather than an alphabetical one is in itself a statement. You’re swimming in fragments and that creates clusters that mean something. It’s a reflection on the use of references. Artificial intelligence is pushing a lot in this direction, but that’s another debate.


The Blind Writer

WH : I have one more comment on the extremely stylized, even disembodied, way that the actors play. They also sing and, as a spectator, I was really quite distanced from the film. Some actors have a distant way of acting like Jean-Pierre Léaud. We have the impression that he is always a little short of the intentions of the text. We are not among the Dardenne brothers who are trying to reconstruct a naturalist dialogue.

GS :  It’s not Stanislavski. I believe that Zepe earlier suggested that everything comes down to a certain subjectivity. I believe that there are still universal elements. Music for example chosen and based on exceptional notes, exceptional sounds. That is to say, consonances are exceptional moments chosen from a continuous din. Another example: morphogenesis in nature. The figure of the quadruped is available in thousands of specimens. So it’s a principle. There is a theme and variations. In music again, when we talk about high notes and low notes, we associate sounds with a dimension of space. The highs are the sharpest, the lows the lowest. It has to do with Earth’s gravity. A horizontal line represents rest, a diagonal line represents energy when it rises, and instability when it falls. Or an object of human size compared to another, several times human size. The aesthetic appreciation is very different in the two cases. These are shared experiences. Or the example of one minute and 10 billion light years: on the one hand, I can grasp the notion of minute, on the other hand, the magnitude is totally abstract and I cannot appreciate it aesthetically. We therefore have criteria that are a little more universal, more down to earth and I would like to discover them, list them and use them.