The fine art of animation

"There's this idea that animation can't be probing, provocative, and inquiring because it also has to be [entertainment]," says independent film animator Stacey Steers. "My animation is entertaining ... but it is asking questions, trying to investigate visual ideas."

Ms. Steers is an artist, an instructor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an award-winning filmmaker.

The independent films she creates are considered "fine-art animation." It takes her years to complete a single film, which puts commercial animation in perspective. She draws each image, which is colored by colleagues in Italy with watercolor and gouache; then she photographs each drawing.

The technique causes the background to "breathe": Since no two drawings can be exactly alike, the image flutters ever so slightly, giving the entire movie a human, artful texture. Machine-made images are far more precise.

Her drawings are elegant and clean - deceptively simple - and her color palette subtle and earthen. Her new film, "Totem," is a real beauty, but most of us will only be able to catch a glimpse of this exquisite piece at film festivals. The hope is that someday television will be diverse enough to include animated works of art among all its works of pop.

Supple, airy images float across the screen: drawings of endangered animals that gracefully transmute into other animals as if in a dream.

The letters of the alphabet drift through - R (is for) rhinoceros - like a children's film. But "Totem" is not designed just for children. It is a serious work of art, complex and visually stunning. It suggests the very nature of evolution at the mythopoetic level, rather than the literal or scientific.

Steers speaks of the totem animals of tribal people - the connections to the natural world still maintained in these societies. There is a subtle connection drawn in the film between environmental crises and our inability to honor the animal kingdom - underscored without words by Bruce Odland's exquisite score.

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