Art was in motion on Saturday evening at Giant Robot 2. Instead of simply standing a safe distance from the works, people leaned forward. They pressed a button on one of the boxes artfully displayed on the walls of the West Los Angeles gallery. Once they pushed that button, 24 frames of art spun into cartoon-like action. A lion growled. Ice cream melted. Night turned into day.
“The FlipBooKit Show” showcased more than 40 pieces of art inside animation machines that have become a hit amongst artists and makers. Wendy Marvel and Mark Rosen are the Venice-based artists behind FlipBooKit, the kit used by artists in the show to make the machines.
The inspiration for Rosen and Marvel's work is Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer who created the zoopraxiscope, a precursor to a movie projector, back in the late 1800s. Marvel saw his work at an exhibition in London several years ago and returned to the U.S. wanting to make a similar device. Rosen, she says, suggested that they make, “something completely new, but make it look like it was created back then.”
Marvel and Rosen started making Mechanical Flipbooks, hand-made boxes that would flip through the art to create an animated sequence, similar to the books many had as children. The pieces were often elaborate. There's one that is a birdhouse The images hanging from the bottom show a bird move from branch to branch before taking off in flight.
Marvel notes that although their machines are conceptually similar to old devices found in penny arcades, theirs work differently. Their original contraption is one you crank by hand to operate. These can be upgraded to rely on a motor.
Marvel and Rosen presented their Mechanical Flipbooks at galleries and frequently heard the question, “Can you make a kit?” People wanted to make their own versions of the devices.
Marvel recalls their initial response to the request: “No, we're artists. We don't do that kind of stuff.” Eventually, though, a kit started to sound like a really good idea. It would be a much more affordable option for people who were genuinely interested in what the pair were doing. They began work on the prototype, but needed funds to finish it, which lead them to Kickstarter. In fall of 2012, they asked for a nominal amount of $5,000 to make FlipBooKit a reality. They raised over $130,000.
Marvel says that it takes about ten minutes to build a FlipBooKit. It's a cardboard cube with a spindle used to hold the art cards. The kit comes with the art, but there's also software available online that will help users create their own images using video or photos. That aspect has been crucial to FlipBooKit's popularity.
The kit's success surprised even its creators. “We've been asking friends to help,” says Marvel. “It's growing to the point where we're going to need more than just friends' help.”
FlipBooKit allows for 24 frames of art. That translates into, at most, a couple seconds of action. This presents an extreme limitation for artists working with the tool. “You have to do a loop,” Marvel explains. She talks about how limitations have helped her own artistic process. “If I have a blank piece of paper, I'm so scared,” she says. “If somebody says, you only have these three sheets of paper and this color, then I can do something really great because all of a sudden I have this limitation.”
Marvel says that she saw a similar kind of progress with the artists involved in the show. Their challenge was to create an image that would be compelling in almost no time. “I think it helped their art vision grow a little bit,” says Marvel.
Many of the artists involved in the show don't have an animation background. So the FlipBooKit team brought in pal Heather Cardone, a “motion design” artist who has worked extensively in television, to help. She did the animation for a lot of the pieces seen at the Giant Robot show. Amongst those collaborative projects was I Hope It Will Reach You Eventually from Yoskay Yamamoto. It's based on a painting of a sleeping house by the L.A.-based artist.
“I actually submitted a sketch first, but it didn't work well for them,” says Yamamoto. “They went through my website and picked the image that they liked.” For this piece, the house from the original painting remained the same as the background change from night to day. “It's always kind of cool to see a painting becoming animation,” says Yamamoto.
Some participants in the show do know how to animate. That was the case for Mari Inukai. She designs t-shirts for stores like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 and shows her fine art in galleries like GR 2. However, ten years ago, she was an animation student at California Institute of the Arts. “This thing is a really traditional way to show animation. I needed to animate by myself,” says Inukai of FlipBooKit. “I haven't done that in ten years. It was so fun.”
It was a bittersweet project for Inukai. Her former professor at CalArts passed away recently. “I was crying thinking about him, what I learned from him,” she says. She cites some of his lessons, including “just do what only you can do,” that played in her mind as she drew her 24 panels. Inukai dedicated this piece him.
The results showcased at Saturday night's opening were astounding. It's an old-fashioned idea made modern, which is a big part of FlipBooKit's appeal. “People are missing analog,” says Marvel. “They miss the ability to actually touch art and see how it works.”
Marvel and Rosen are bringing moving pictures back to the basics and making it fun. “When you actually see or touch one of these, it's a completely different experience from staring at a screen,” says Marvel. “That tactile quality, I think people really miss. They want to experience what they're doing. They don't want to just stare and move on to the next thing.”
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