More than meets the eye

'Focus On Animation' and 'Magnum In Motion' feature visual artistry and a behind-the-scenes look at the creative impulse.

Two venerable and world-respected institutions, both of which are also well established on the World Wide Web, have recently made significant additions to their online homes. And while the National Film Board of Canada and the Magnum Photos agency (of New York, Paris, London and Tokyo) may have little in common other than the goal of communication through visual media, both are using their new features to not only increase the profile of their work, but also add a bit of understanding about its creation. Focus On Animation and Magnum In Motion demonstrate that even purely visual productions involve much more than meets the eye.

Created by an act of parliament in 1939 to "make and distribute films designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts," the National Film Board has since grown beyond that rather insular - and repetitive - mandate to share the nation's unique perspective with the rest of the planet. Since its creation, the Film Board has won more than 4500 awards worldwide (including eleven Academy Awards), and while it took a few years to add animation to the mix, that studio is now entering its 65th year of operation, and the NFB decided to mark the milestone with the Focus On Animation website.

Using an attractive layout that will nevertheless accommodate anyone still using lower-resolution monitors, Focus first invites visitors to learn a bit about the background of NFB animations with a brief History of the studio, biographies of a handful of Key Filmmakers, and explanations (with a few examples) of the various Techniques used in creating the films. (From drawing and computer animation to pinscreen and clay on glass, you might be surprised at how many ways there are to make a "cartoon.") Links to current activities and a Film Class for grade 9-12 students and their teachers are also available, but the site's main drawing card is naturally the Play Films section.

There are 50 animated shorts available here, which can be browsed by title, director, or production year – from a 2002 computer-rendered interpretation of a Chinese parable, to a 1942 experiment where the animation was drawn directly onto movie film with pen and ink. But since even fans of NFB productions are unlikely to know such details as a favorite film's director or birth date, each production is accompanied by a text synopsis, along with credits and technical notes on how the film was made. (This last bit of information can be especially revealing, when one learns, for example, that the unbelievably intricate and labor-intensive pinscreening process was used to make Mindscape.) Films are available in Flash and QuickTime formats, in file sizes suitable for dial-up and high-speed connections, and in some cases, with closed captioning, descriptive video and large format options.

There is, to use a cliche, something for every taste at Focus. Varieties in presentation include a "live action" encounter with an uncooperative chair, an Inuit legend told using sand as a medium, a story of sand using puppets as a medium, and a lesson in acceptance featuring actors and scenery made from paper. (And trust me, we're not talking South Park here.) Meanwhile, stories range from the domestically surreal "Big Snit" to such universal themes as team loyalty and man's struggle against nature. But be warned, the animations here aren't limited to comic amusement. Subjects explored also include world hunger, child abuse, and, in the case of the Academy Award winning Neighbours (which begins with the feel of Buster Keaton and ends with Heart of Darkness), war.

Born a few years after the NFB, Magnum Photos was created in 1947 by four photographers and survivors of World War II, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Created as a photographic cooperative, where the members own the agency and retain the copyright to all their work, Magnum quickly became – and has remained – the world's most recognizable photographic agency, creating iconic images from Hollywood to Afghanistan to Lebanon.

While the Magnum In Motion feature has been online for a few years, an upgraded interface has been accompanied by more – and more interactive – exhibitions. The site's home page is dominated by a four-panel slideshow which cycles through a series of featured photographic essays (each sample reveals a text introduction on mouseover), while below, the rest of the content is divided into collections of more Essays, Podcasts, and breaking News about the agency.

Essays are delivered in the form of self-running Flash-based slideshows, and cover topics from the Tour de France, to Philip Halsman's (101 Life Magazine covers) unique approach to portrait photography, to the continuing legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. (Like the NFB collection, topics here run from the purely entertaining to the deadly serious.) Reminding us of the action going on behind the camera, each presentation also includes narration by the photographer or an online "curator" for the collection, offering a glimpse of the photographer's personality and experiences as well as his or her technique and intent. Links beside each interactive include access to biographies of, and books and portfolios by, the featured artists. At least one essay (a profile of photographer Steve McCurry) also includes the occasional video clip, but even here, the still images are the elements with the greatest impact. Podcasts presents a subset of the Essays as re-edited QuickTime videos – though without such extras as photo captions, direct access to specific images through a thumbnail index, or related web links.

While the emphasis is clearly on the finished product as released for public consumption, both sites are also engaged in revealing a bit more than the artists originally envisioned. Still, the audience's knowledge of the degree and nature of effort involved in creation is irrelevant to the original aim of these works – and if you choose, you can simply view the NFB animations without perusing the extra information, or turn down the sound while watching the Magnum photo essays, and experience the projects in something closer to their original context. But we're a curious species, and it can be difficult to resist the chance to take a peek behind the curtain – if only to have a greater appreciation of the production onstage.

The National Film Board's Focus On Animation can be found at http://www.nfb.ca/animation/objanim/en/index, with Magnum In Motion at http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/.

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