“Working the Toon”

(A workshop and practice)

Rotoscoping, an innovation in animation invented by Max Schleimer in 1915 used a projection technique to trace the movements of live actors onto paper, thus creating animations that moved with a never before seen fluidity and muscular force. Koko the clown, Betty Boop, (which roto-scoped cab calloway’s dances) and the first animated superman are prime examples. Rotoscoping wrapped the integrity of the moving human body within a fanciful, hyper expressive cartoon skin. This move towards integrity also sapped some of the unpredictable, trembling rhythms seen in more primitive animation types.  

Working the toon is a form of reverse rotoscoping which translates the movements of cartoons back onto the human. We will look closely at early cel animation to discover another body, one that wasn’t compelling for its realism (if we believe that gracefulness, fluidity are the signature qualities of “the real” in human movement) but for its unique rhythms and rubbery undulations. Also in the toon we find a register of emotions that is lurid, distorted, engorged with affect. Evil smiles and frowns (glad for bad!) sadness drips and slumps, there is no happiness but there is unfettered glee. 

From the toon I’m interested in developing a vocabulary of gestures, rhythms, poses and movements that take their physical and affective qualities deep inside the human performer. This work isn’t strictly codified, it is a palette of qualities I found myself wanting to draw out time and time again.

Throbbing: a pneumatic energy that expands and seems to inflate the body in a pulsing rhythm. Throbbing is the core state of working the toon. It’s a constant internal pulse felt inside every limb, the spine, fingers facial features and toes. Importantly, throbbing prefigures an imagined thickness in the atmosphere that creates a sensation all over the skin. Think moving subtly in water, now think of that water congealing into a gel, then mud, then concrete slowly setting into hardness. The adjacent feelings are eagerness, nervousness, sensuality.

Fugue: a repeating cycle of movement. The toon is never truly still there is always something cycling and repeating in the body. In animation this was a matter of efficiency and musicality. For humans, fugue can be a repetition born out of amnesia, getting stuck in a pattern of thinking (obsession) or an erotic repetition. When do we cycle in our daily rituals and routines? Fucking, bathing ourselves / cleaning surfaces.   

Playing with ourselves: manipulating skin, muscle, slapping the thighs, patting the head, rubbing the belly, gripping the ribs, outlining the space between the legs, between the arms and ribs. Closing tightly all those spaces, expanding them. The skeletons play themselves like xylophones. They pluck their ribs like harps. 


So why is exploring the toon compelling? It has to do with unnamable feelings being produced, or I should say, positions for those experiences to transpire. A composer friend of mine in an interview was asked about her use of abstraction in composition and she said that it was because abstraction opened up a territory of feeling that had no name. Not sad, not happy, angry, something else that was deeply, rawly felt but could not be represented through familiar sound-colors or motifs. So one of the questions I have working in these bodies is what comes up emotionally if we stay in toon? What affect-artifacts did those movements source from the collective unconscious of their time and what do those affects feel like now in ours?


I suspect that these cartoons are to the human what drag is to the construct of femininity. Within the massive territory of Drag, an equally large territory of performativity arrives, not out of fealty to what is true about women but what is synthetic about their construction and what was abandoned, is an artefact from gender’s stylizations of another era. Similarly, early cell animation parodies the “natural” and “pedestrian” by exploring everything left outside of acceptable pedestrian movement. Also like Drag, animation resurfaces passe style, affect and entertainment. Vaudeville, mime, silent movie gestures are archived in the cartoon body. If queer weren’t so mainstream and picked over I would say that we’re after a queer movement.  What’s not allowed? The silly, the unnecessary, the mimetic, beleaguered time. In short, the grotesque.

“...When you speak prophetically you speak about many things at the same time, incompatible things... How does one do this? By speaking monstrously, by putting two “incompatible” things together...”  -Federico Campagna, (lecture, 2019 Verbier Art Summit) 

a slobbering wolf and a crooked Jim Carey