18 Jun

A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins

In her biography, Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins, Mary F. McVicker traces Breton’s life from her birth in 1849 to affluent, upper-class parents in Bath, England, to her death from dysentery, at the age of seventy-four, in Rio de Janeiro. However, it is primarily the last thirty years of her subject’s life that concerns McVicker. During these years, Breton left her comfortable home in England for extended periods while she pursued a difficult, and often dangerous, career as a Mesoamerican archeologist. It is an engaging story, and McVicker tells it lucidly in a readable style.


As McVicker states at the outset of her book, Breton was not educated to pursue a career. Rather, she mastered the accomplishments deemed suitable for a Victorian lady–singing, dancing and piano, modern languages, riding, drawing, and painting–all intended to increase her desirability as a wife. She did not marry, however, but lived a quiet life caring for her aging parents until first her mother, then her father died, leaving her wealthy and at loose ends at the age of thirty-eight. Almost immediately, she began to travel. She journeyed extensively through Canada, the United States, and Mexico before embarking on a two-year Mexican “grand tour” in 1893, accompanied only by her Mexican guide, Pablo Solorio.

Breton probably began traveling for pleasure, and to escape what she considered to be the stultifying atmosphere of English society. However, as the letters and diary entries McVicker cites in her studiously researched book reveal, Breton had a sharp and restless intellect and a deep-seated desire to be productive. She described the long years of her father’s retirement in Bath as useless. She had no intention of being similarly unoccupied herself. Struck by the Pre-Columbian ruins she encountered and painted during her tour, she approached the English archeologist Alfred P. Maudsley and offered her services as a copyist which similar to famous art reproductions. Maudsley sent her to the ruined Mayan city of Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan jungle, to make copies in color of the murals in the Temple of Jaguars. This was the first of many copying projects Breton carried out in Mexico over the course of the next ten years. While Chichen Itza absorbed most of her attention, she also worked in Acanceh and Teotihuacan.

In the days before reliable color film, Breton’s carefully measured and painted copies provided invaluable records of rapidly deteriorating ancient artworks. However, her engagement with Mesoamerican archeology was not confined to copying. As McVicker notes, Breton found a niche and she exploited it. Realizing that she possessed a useful skill, she used it as a point of entry into a male-dominated discipline that she had long found fascinating. While working in the field, Breton threw herself into the study of Pre-Columbian languages and cultures. Fascinatingly, McVicker reveals that she also served as an informal mentor to the American archeologist Alfred Tozzer, who came to Chichen Itza in 1902 at the outset of his career. In that same year, Breton made her “professional debut” at the Thirteenth International Congress of Americanists in New York City. She was active in this organization for the rest of her life, delivering papers regularly and serving periodically as an officer. She organized the 1912 Congress of Americanists in London and edited its proceedings. Breton also published articles on Mayan art in several scientific journals, including Nature and MAN.

Despite her successes, Breton’s career as an archeologist was limited in many ways. Her commitment to making herself useful as a copyist–the very skill that won her acceptance among her Americanist peers–ultimately curtailed her own scholarly interests. For instance, although she was keenly interested in the unexcavated mounds at Ake, she had neither the personal nor the institutional resources at her disposal to dig there herself, and her attempts to stir up interest among her colleagues fell largely on deaf ears. Without projects of her own, she was left to assist others in their research. Even after the Revolution in Mexico and the First World War put an end to her fieldwork, her time was taken up with copying Mayan codices in European libraries–copies she made as favors for other scholars. Finally, as McVicker notes sadly in her conclusion, Breton’s contributions to the field of Mesoamerican archeology were quickly forgotten after her death in 1923. Her career had unfolded during a period when the line between amateur and professional was still fluid–particularly in the relatively neglected field of Mesoamerican archeology. By the 1920s, this was changing. In their struggle to promote their own professionalism, a new generation of Mesoamerican archeologists shied away from anything that smacked of amateurism. As a woman without a university education or an institutional affiliation, Breton seemed too much like a dilettante for her work to be publicly acknowledged, even though her copies were, in many cases, the only accurate records of artworks whose colors had faded away completely.

Breton’s career has many parallels to those of American and English women artists who were similarly struggling for professional status around the turn of the last century. Like these women, she had to find a balance between the freedom and mobility she needed to do her work, and the restraints of decorum. She also had to fight to establish herself as a respected peer among (sometimes resentful) male colleagues, and she used her friendships with other women in her field to strengthen both her own position and theirs. Playing up this point, McVicker makes much of the fact that Breton knew and liked the so-called Red Rose Girls of Philadelphia. This group included Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley, who met at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went on to study together with the American illustrator Howard Pyle. In 1900, they established an unconventional household in which a fourth female friend kept house while the three artists pursued highly successful careers. Breton knew the Red Rose Girls through her cousin, who lived in Philadelphia. It is very likely that she admired their courage and creativity, and that she respected them as fellow professionals. It is unlikely, however, that she considered herself their colleague. An obvious criticism of McVicker’s worthy project is that, by working so hard to frame Breton as a fine artist, the author is simply mis-categorizing her. Breton was a technical artist. Her paintings, though beautifully made, were not intended as fine art, nor were they exhibited as such during her lifetime. Rather, they are precisely measured and colored renderings of Mayan art, which Breton considered part of her scientific research.


Breton’s paintings, a number of which are illustrated in color by McVicker, can be instructively compared to the prints of Frederick Catherwood, the British illustrator who accompanied the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens on his travels through Mexico in the late 1830s and early 1840s. His pictures of Mayan art and architecture, while accurate, are imbued with a thoroughly romantic sensibility. In them, ruins and figures often emerge from jungle foliage, half-shrouded in .dramatic shadows that add to their aura of mystery and sublimity. Breton’s goals were quite different. She sought to document her subjects scientifically rather than to interpret them artistically. Even when landscape features appear in her paintings, these elements are kept to a minimum, and the light falls evenly, elucidating rather than obscuring her subjects. Breton’s paintings, like her scholarly articles, are essentially descriptive. Clearly, she had a sense of herself as a pioneer in a burgeoning field, and she was aware that her work–both written and painted–could serve as the groundwork for later studies.

McVicker might have fruitfully compared Breton’s career to those of other late-nineteenth-century women who worked as scientific illustrators, most notably the English botanical painter Marianne North. Although McVicker does mention North, it is only in passing. In fact, the parallels between North’s career and Breton’s are striking. Like Breton, North was a wealthy, unmarried woman who found her vocation after the death of her parents, when she was forty years old. Also like Breton, she offered her services as a copyist to prominent scientists, including Sir Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin. Over the course of thirteen years, North traveled to every continent as well as several Caribbean and Pacific islands, making precise and beautiful paintings of local flora. In the process, she discovered several new species. In the early 1880s, North installed more than eight hundred of her paintings in a special gallery at Kew Gardens in London. Breton may have seen them there. It is even more likely that she read North’s autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1892. Significantly, this was just two years before Breton embarked on her own career as a copyist.

Despite minor flaws, McVicker has written a thorough and very interesting study. The importance of her book lies in what it has to say, not only about Adela Breton, but about women’s place in the historiography of both Mesoamerican archeology and scientific illustration. Like Breton herself, McVicker offers her readers a beautifully crafted, descriptive work. It will no doubt serve as a basis for more extensive studies that explore the foundational roles women played in these fields.

02 Jun

New media literacy

A Multimedia Bargain?

Animation is the illusion of motion. Animation makes exploded diagrams explode, procedures proceed, and working models work — all in front of the user’s eyes. And, in the world of multimedia, animation is a bargain. On the “bang-for-the-Buck-Mark-or-Yen” scale, animation is right up there with video for effectiveness but at half the cost or less. It’s definitely worth looking into.

Use Animation for What it Does Well

No medium is a bargain unless it is used effectively. Use animation for what it does well. Use it to convey change, movement, and progress. Use animation to

* Show things that move and change. Use animation to

explain a complex me chanical device with many

moving parts, such as a laser printer.

* Analyze processes. Use animation to reveal repeated

patterns of action, bottlenecks, and the relative speed

of processes, by giving viewers a new frame of


* Explain abstract concepts. Animation may be the

only way to show ideas and abstractions present only

in the mind.

* Improve comprehension. One study showed that for

improving the comprehension of business

presentations, animation (without transitions)

outperformed text, static graphics, transitions, and

their combination (3M Meeting Management Institute


* Increase interest. Animation increased interest and

was strongly preferred by computer-science students

studying algorithms (Stasko, Badre, and Lewis 1993).

In business presentations, animations combined with

transitions increased audience attention and the

presenter’s persuasiveness (3M Meeting Management

Institute 1992).

* Focus the viewer’s attention. Use animation to

emphasize important aspects of a graphic or display.

* Handle sensitive subjects. Animated characters are

better than videotaped real characters for sensitive

subjects like sex education, ethnic relations, and other

subjects where the animated characters let the viewers

concentrate on the idea and not on the identity or

appearance of the actors.

* Show dangerous subjects. Animation lets you create

a world of hazards without danger to the user or to

the cameraman. Wiley Coyote fell from cliffs, was run

over by cars and trucks, and was blown up many

times in pursuit of the Roadrunner. Yet he sprang

back to life to continue the chase. Beep. Beep.

Use the Right Type of Animation

There are several different ways to create animation, each with its own costs and benefits. The first step in bargain-hunting is picking the right type.

Cel animation. In classic cel animation you produce a separate drawing for each frame of the animation. (Cel is short for cellophane, the material early animations were drawn on.) Each drawing differs slightly from the Previous one (Shapiro and Rubin 1988), as in this sequence for turning pages.

The file consists of a simple series of static images. Several industry-standard formats are defined for such a sequence of images: PICS, Video for Windows (Audio-Video Interleaved), or QuickTime. But because each frame requires the storage of a whole image, cel animation can consume storage space as well as processing power. However, if there is relatively little difference between subsequent frames, compression algorithms can often reduce the storage size.

Sprite animation. Sprites are two-dimensional images that move in front of a fixed background. These sprites can change their appearance to simulate movement within the sprite. Sprite animation is probably the most common form of computer animation because it is simple and economical. With sprite animation, the book with the turning pages would look the same, but the page that turned would be a sprite in front of a background drawing of the other pages of the book. Here is the background:

Storage and processing requirements are moderate because the unchanged part (background) is stored only once. File formats, however, are proprietary: Macromedia Director and Animator Pro, for example.

Color cycling animation. Color cycling creates an illusion of motion by repeatedly redefining the colors in a static graphic. Color cycling is easier to do than to understand. It relies on the fact that computer colors are just numeric codes. A palette or color look-up table specifies what color each numeric code actually represents. With color cycling you draw one picture that shows the moving object in successive positions. In each position you draw the moving object in the color of a different numeric code. In the palette, however, all of the codes used by the moving object are defined as the same color as the background, except the one that shows the object in its starting position. For example, in this endview of a book, all of the page positions are defined as different numbers. All but one of these numbers is defined as the background color.

To simulate motion, the codes for successive positions of the moving object are redefined as the visible color while all others are the background color. Here’s how the animation appears to the user at various stages.

Color cycling is especially effective for animating repetitive movement in an enclosed area as long as successive positions of the moving object do not overlap. It works well for showing flames or flowing liquid. Because it does not require storing and displaying many separate drawings, color cycling is economical. There are, alas, no industry-standard formats for color-cycling animation.

3D model animation. Three-dimensional models are sometimes used to create animations. First, the designer builds a detailed model of the objects to be shown in the animation. The computer then calculates what the scene would look like from a particular viewpoint and with particular lighting conditions. This is called rendering the scene. The model or the viewpoint is shifted slightly and the process repeated to generate the next frame of animation.

Rendering richly detailed 3D scenes requires vast computer resources. Creating the models for a one-minute 3D animation can take three to five days (Apple Computer 1993). Rendering one second of ray-traced animation at 600×480 pixels can take one hour on a 86040 Macintosh. As a result, 3D modeling is seldom used for real-time animation. It is almost always used to generate the individual frames for cel animation. Furthermore, if the subsequent images are highly detailed or differ greatly, compression algorithms will have little effect.

Stop-motion. In stop-motion animation, you photograph real objects, shifting or modifying them slightly between photographs. Stop-motion animation can show the assembly or disassembly of a complex piece of machinery. It has a magic, comical feel as inanimate objects spring to life.

Stop-motion is really digital video, albeit minus intervening frames, and is a storage and processing hog. The file formats, however, follow industry standards, such as Quicktime and Video for Windows.

To recap the trade-offs among the various animation techniques:

Keep Animation Cost Low

Regardless of what type of animation you use, you can take steps to keep costs in check. As always, good design leads the way.

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. To reap the bargain of animation, you’ve got to keep it simple and design for low-cost production and play back. Fortunately, you can do so without compromising communication effectiveness.

Don’t overload the viewer with meaningless animation by showing too much too fast (3M Meeting Management Institute 1992). The display becomes distracting when we try to show too much spatially by crowding the display, or too much temporally by changing too rapidly or abruptly (Baecker and Small 1990). Remember that users can pay attention to only one moving object at a time. If the animation includes simultaneous movements by separate objects, let the user cycle or repeat the scene.

Do not put a busy background behind animated characters. Leave large areas with a plain background on which animated characters can move. Avoid intricate details, bright colors, high-contrast figures, or anything else that will draw attention away from the animated character.

Also, users cannot attend to intricate details in moving objects. In animation, pay more attention to the overall contours of shapes. If these are right, few interior lines win be needed. Make all critical events clear from outline contours alone. Do not disguise pertinent information in a tangle of lines. Remember that single pixel lines may not display correctly after the image has been compressed and decompressed (Apple Computer 1993).

For animation, you seldom need more than a dozen colors. Use flat color as in cartoons and on the comic pages.

Create Reusable Components. Make your animations modular and reusable. Design elemental animations that you can combine to compose more complex scenes. One way is to draw your animation components in paralline perspective rather than true perspective. In this way, when the components are combined, they can be placed anywhere in the display without having to worry about vanishing points.

Make your animation sequences reusable. For example, create an animation showing a screwdriver removing a screw and you can use that module in every procedure that requires removing a screw.

By choosing the right type of animation and designing it carefully, you can communicate some tough messages effectively and economically.

01 Jun

Computer animation

Animation currently has a high profile after Nick Park won an Oscar for his (clay-mation) ‘Creature Comforts’ shown on Channel 4 recently. This form of animation seems to be a reaction against computer animation. Chrome logos have been replaced with clay models, as in the British Gas advertisements, for example.

Current Trends

One of the strangest things about computer animation and graphics is how little the language is understood by ‘the public’, including artists. Television/video graphics is surely the most popular visual language today, and the way that computer animation imagery is created should be explained. The watching audience ought to understand the ease with which photographic illusion is fabricated, the extent of the illusion, and how this magic is performed. Some would argue that it is so complex that it would not be understood by those not conversant with the technology and terminology. I think it could and should be explained, complexity not withstanding.

We are now less aware when computer animation is being used because of the integration of the technology. In the beginning the animator’s main tools would have been cel painting, eg Disney, or models, latex dinosaurs. As the technology progressed the animator might then have used ‘computer assisted’ methods, and then perhaps chosen to use 3D computer animation. Still further on it became possible to use a mixture of 3D and 2D computer animation, and a dash of live action with rotoscoped animation added on the computer. Now the name of the game is INTEGRATION, which used to be refered to as MULTI MEDIA when it wasn’t quite integrated enough. The plethora of methods and effects available to the animator/designer means that the animator must understand the basics of each method necessary to achieve the required effect. Take the Radio Times advertisement shown recently on BBC television. It included motion control filming (a rostrum camera controlled by a computer), 3D computer animation, Paintbox, all edited together on Harry (‘a digital recording, processing, compositing and editing system’). Five years ago there were companies that only provided computer animation facilities. Now increasingly facilities houses have to provide a full-service, computer graphics/animation, alongside video and sound editing.


Computer animation systems used today for 3D graphics include the Silicon Graphics Iris with a variety of software. For 2D graphics, animation and paint systems are merged with Paintbox, Harriet, and Harry. (1) Meanwhile, the distance between video editing (image manipulation) machines and graphics (image creation) machines continues to close. These systems are not easy to get access to outside the commercial environment and are very expensive to use, with or without an operator.


The Artist versus the Designer

Most computer animation on television is commissioned by production companies for presentation or for advertising. Like most areas of design this is, or rather, has become, a client-led industry. The client comes first. There was a time not so long ago when clients could be so seduced by the scarcity of the kit, and the skill of the designer, that the designer could give a realistic estimate of time and cost. It was short lived, though these factors still make the difference now as to where clients choose to go. State of the art kit can still keep a facilities house in business, bur in this year of recession the big have gone down with the small.

Spaces for the non-commercial use of computer animation are too few. The work produced by artists who do manage to get access to facilities often shows a lack of understanding of the capabilities of the machine, not surprisingly perhaps. Some have seemed to use a limited range of effects, while others are so overcome by the seemingly limitless possibilities they use everything at once. You cannot really imagine or create effectively before you know the possibilities.

Channel 4, sometimes in collaboration with the Museum of the Moving Image, has provided sponsorship for animation, and BBC2’s ‘Late Show’ slot has provided a showcase for videographics. Sonia Boyce is currently being funded by the Impressions Gallery, York, to work at ARTEC with a still video camera and use the Apple Mac. to alter and animate her images.

Artists will have more and more access to computers. As computers become easier to use it means that it is not necessary to know how to write programmes, or deal with operating systems that seem to have been designed by Computer Science Phd.s from Harvard for use by other Computer Science Phd.s from Harvard. Most people leaving art school now get some access, and many more are training specifically in this area. The artist still needs to understand, not just the program menu, but the whole range of what the computer, software and additional editing equipment is best for. And that means a lot of work with, and access to, computers. This is made easier with the development of desktop computers, such as the Apple Mac, and relevant software for animation.

A friend of mine said he believes that the desktop computer is an unsociable instrument. He used to have a good relationship with a typographer, now he talks to his computer; be used to have a good relationship with a video editor, now he talks to his computer. And the trouble is the typographer and the editor knew what they were about. The animator too.

Let’s recall traditional methods of animation, as computer animators like to refer to them. You had cel animation and model animation. Cel animation has traditionally been full of people apprenticing, before becoming animators. Model animation has employed sculptors, working in the special effect model-making studios, or model studios for animation, such as Henson’s. There are model builders and animators. The skill of modelling in 3D using computers is not that different from that of sculpture/3D design, but, within the 3D computer animation programme used to build the computer model you have to set up lights and then to animate, ie you have to be both a lighting cameraperson, and an animator.

In a way the computer is the least of your problems. It is all the skills like animation and lighting, that you are apparently supposed to pick up from reading a 3D animation package manual. And then there is output to video (or film). A small additional problem: you can’t just understand computers and animation. You have to know about video too, or you’re like a painter who doesn’t understand how to prepare a surface for painting. You can start off learning ‘a bit’ about video, then you realise you have to understand at least three quarters of a video engineer’s job.

The Designer versus the Operator.

Although someone who has not used a computer can pick up a Paintbox pen and use the machine in a few days, it is only six months later that they realise they knew nothing then, nothing but the menu items, not how to use them. The amount you have to learn to use computers.

Can an animator really design animation without knowing how to use animation tools? Yes, bur it may lead to inappropriate design or storyboarding. If you think you know what you want, and you don’t want to use the computer yourself, use an ‘operator’. Convey through them what you want to achieve.


Women working in computer animation and video

In conventional animation studios there are many women assistants, few women animators. And with computer animation there seems to be an imbalance of another sort. In Paintbox there is more or less an equal ratio of women to men, but in the area of 3D animation there are more men than women. Why? It is not to do with the hours, although the hours I know that most women in this area work would make an MP’s look favourable. Paintbox/Harriet designers work round the clock, blinding themselves with electro magnetic radiation with carefree abandon. Can you take a break for 10 minutes, as union regulations suggest you should, when the client is pacing across the room?. Harry operators/animators/editors tend to be male, mainly because they begin their careers in the area of video editing which seems, judging by ‘Televisual’s Top 50 Editors for 1990’, in which out of 50 4 were women, predominately to be a male preserve. 3D computer animation is similar. Is it that fewer women are attracted to computer animation? No, I think not, and nor is it children. Plenty of women do not have children.

Women working in the television graphics industry are aware that they form a minority, and why. Nevertheless, women’s involvement as designers within the industry has grown. I even believe it is noticeable from recent computer animation that more women are involved at the design stage. Somehow I do not believe many of those flashy chrome logo animations of 5 years ago had storyboards designed or approved by women.

Computer animation will continue to become more interesting because o f the greater use and understanding of the technology by artists whose prime intention is to experiment, to comment and to be critical, not to please clients. That depends on funding, and, to an extent, on how much artists decide to involve themselves with the technology, at the expense of the time they spend creating images.

I continue to hope that more women will work with computers, in either commercial or funded animation. Women have traditionally stayed away from computers, from fear of number-crunching technology. But the computer is a wonderful tool and more and more easy to be friendly with. Number crunching is the least of your worries. The diversity of skills required in computer animation is far harder to achieve. As to whether there are any ill effects of this compulsion. I don’t do enough drawing. And computers probably ruin your eyesight …

01 Jun

The Flip animation festival

There is a perception that the Flip animation festival, organised by Wolverhampton’s Light House Media Centre, is hoping to change. As festival director Peter McLuskie puts it, ‘The original thought behind the festival was to raise the profile of the animation work that goes on in the West Midlands and to generate interest in the region. An animation festival helps to celebrate the range of talent in the region and persuade animation graduates to develop their careers in the West Midlands.’

Consequently, McLuskie has helped put together a programme for the two- year-old, three-day event, which features international screenings, including the mesmerising Howl’s Moving Castle by Spirited Away director Hayao Miyazaki, a showcase from the National Film School of Denmark, plus an exclusive preview of this year’s animate! TV commissions, co-funded by the Arts Council and Channel 4. There are also talks, forums, workshops, and industry panels, including an interesting one looking at non-traditional media delivery routes for animators, such as mobiles and gaming.

But the focus will be firmly on local talent, of which there is plenty, McLuskie believes. ‘All of the main universities or art schools (Wolverhampton University, Staffordshire and University of Central England) in the region provide animation degrees,’ he says. ‘It is very easy for animators, studios and agencies to work in isolation and to gravitate towards London to source commissions, talent and networks. We often come across situations here where companies in the region go to London to source animation, not realising that these services are available locally.’

The London creative drain described by McLuskie is, of course, nothing new. It’s a frustrating situation for many regions, which could take inspiration from Flip’s fightback initiative – a region-centric event that aims to offer something for everyone. Local interest is addressed by festival attractions, which include work entered though open submission by professional animators living or working in the West Midlands region, and the SE3D animation scheme, which features a showcase in the festival and offered access for 12 groups of animators to the powerful HP Labs’ experimental Maya Rendering Service from their home or office. There is also an industry panel offering the Animators Survival Guide to the Midlands, and, for innocent Nick Park fans, rather than world-weary South Park ones, the chance to see the work of five Wolverhampton Primary Schools, which worked with animators to produce short films. As McLuskie says, ‘We recognise that talent has to be developed at an early age and that working with schools and young people can foster long-term interest in animation.’

Best of all, for anyone who’s ever tried to ‘do’ the London Film Festival and ended up humbled and exhausted, McLuskie promises Flip will be ‘small but focused, friendly and welcoming, with a programme that’s easy to understand, but not too many parallel activities, which frustrate festival-goers’. Which all sounds attractive enough to make a trip to Birmingham’s Custard Factory worthwhile.

the Flip animation festival