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In Memory Of Avant-Garde Animator Robert Breer

The trailblazing animator passed away recently. We look at some of his innovative work.

by Kevin Holmes
Aug 19 2011, 3:38pm

Robert Breer (b. 1926), animator of over 40 short films, and artist credited with being one of the founders of the American avant-garde, passed away last week at the age of 84. His experimental work in the field of animation was revolutionary, and spearheaded the medium away from narratives and cutesy characters into a world of wiggly lines and abstract forms that bombard and entrance the viewer with an onslaught of images—paving the way for today’s generative filmmaking and experimental animation.

Breer’s independent style was derived from his previous career as a painter in Paris in the 1950s, paintings (above) that were inspired by artists like Piet Mondrian. Soon after, he began making films using a 16mm Bolex camera, playing around with stop-motion for his series Form Phases (1954-1956), which gave movement to the compositions explored in his paintings. Before this, Breer studied engineering because his father was an engineer, but he soon tired of it and started experimenting with flip books, using 4" by 6" file cards, which became the standard for all his work. While the brush with engineering was sparse, its effect can be felt in his fascination with the mechanics of the moving image.

Breer was influenced by modern 20th century European art, like the Russian Constructivists and Dadaism, and on returning to the US at the end of the 1950s he met and befriended filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, kindred spirits in avant-garde filmmaking.

One of the first filmmakers to get his work exhibited in a museum, as an animator, he pioneered many different techniques—a constant experimenter he would happen upon different styles just by chance: collages, lines, rotoscoping, and photographic images mix together to create unconstrained, abstract compositions. His film Jamestown Baloos which combined animation and live-action, and Un Miracle which featured witty, absurd imagery, can be felt in Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. His use of textures and techniques to create an interplay of forms and fluid movements led the Harvard Film Archive to call him the “kinetic poet of the avant-garde”. He also created large scale floating sculptures, which move at a very slow speed and upon collision change direction.

Here’s a selection of his experimental animation:

Recreation (1956)

A montage of single-frame images fly at the viewer in quick succession. Sentiments of the Beat culture can be felt in this film, with its non-narrative structure and the rhythm of the intensely flashing images, with nonsensical French uttered over the top.

A Man And His Dog Out For Air (1957)

Shown as a short before Last Year at Marienbad on the film’s New York release, the film showcases his skill as a draftsman and the possibilities of animation. The fluid forms flow into one another, skating around the frame, with bird tweets adding to the idea of being outside. The line drawings change from representational to abstraction in a free-flowing continuity.

Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons (1980)

A mishmash of sketches, line drawings, photographs and rotoscoping (a technique he developed into its modern form). As with A Man And His Dog Out For Air, images shift and change in a free-flowing way from abstract shapes to recognizable forms, fluttering across the screen. To show how powerful an influence he was and still is, a YouTube comment left on this video tellingly remarks “Wow! I’m a 3D Animator and this opens my eyes…”

Screening Room with Robert Breer (1976)

An interview with the man himself, where he talks about his career, which began by making cartoons as a little kid, Breer then goes on to talk about his frustration with painting and the rigidity of the form, and the liberation he found in the medium of animation, along with discussing his film Recreation.