Paul Glabicki

By Annapurna Kumar

glabicki-7Animation frame from Under the Sea by Paul Glabicki, 1989, 28’00 min

Paul Glabicki is an American filmmaker who has shown film, animation, painting, and installation internationally, including at MoMA, the National Gallery of Art, Cannes, the New York Film Festival, the Whitney Biennial, and the Venice Biennial. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Glabicki was a longtime professor of art at the University of Pittsburgh, from which he recently retired.

Excerpt from Under the Sea by Paul Glabicki, 1989, 28’00 min

Perhaps the best known of Glabicki’s films are his hand-drawn animations. These were created over more than a decade, but are remarkably cohesive in their vision. Drawing upon a complex web of influences, from space-time relativity and metaphysics to semiotics and formalist criticism, Glabicki’s drawn films are unmistakably his own, and communicate via a highly individual language. After finishing the last of these films in 1989, Glabicki became increasingly interested in installation and CGI. Those interests grew side-by-side, resulting in several later films and video installations.

Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul through email to satisfy a research paper requirement, and he was extremely generous with his answers (shared below). He also sent me a giant box of original animation frames and motion templates from Under The Sea (1989) and Film-Wipe-Film (1984), which I scanned, and which are also shared below. He has also graciously allowed me to upload excerpts of several of his films which have not been available online until now. The physical animation frames he sent have been donated to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the aid of preservationist Mark Toscano. The physical films on VHS have been donated to the CalArts film library with the aid of visual arts librarian Karen Baxter, and were digitized by Eric Otto.

LINK – 66 animation frames from Paul Glabicki’s Under the Sea, 1989

LINK – 81 animation frames from Paul Glabicki’s Film-Wipe-Film, 1984

Excerpt from Diagram Film by Paul Glabicki, 1978, 13’00 min

AK: Can you speak about your use of architectural and engineering forms in Diagram Trilogy (Diagram Film, Five Improvisations and Film-Wipe-Film) and Object Conversation? There seems to be an attraction to heavy objects which glide as if weightless – cars, trains, planes – as well as cultural symbols, such as billboards and bridges. What draws you to these forms and these created spaces? Are they visual metaphors for inner landscapes, or attempts to recreate real places?

PG: I’ve always seen cinema as an artificial construct of time and space, and have sought to impose that artificial construct on reality, or to reveal aspects of artificiality that exist in actual environments. So much of this process is filtered through perception as well. The camera and microphone are filters as well, so too is the picture plane on a sheet of paper. I often isolate objects or sounds to provide a sense of scale or orientation for the viewer, while reconstructing fragments of visual information into new configurations that put those references into new contexts. Diagram Film (1977) is perhaps the perfect primer into my process, and at the time, was a major personal breakthrough in creating my own animation language. I used an optical printer and rotoscope to literally extract elements directly from each film frame shot by the camera. As the film progresses, each successive diagram becomes increasingly separated from recorded reality and enters a language of personal thought, memory, association and perception. At times, the sound of the optical printer replaces the sounds of the street. My wristwatch becomes a rhythmic device. Sounds from various environments are shifted into new relationships with other places (including Hitchcock films and the world of Eisenstein). Spaces are also subjected to semiotic and structural analysis. Images become language, and language becomes image. By the end of Diagram Film, the viewer is ready to be propelled into the complete (and single) diagram world of Five Improvisations (1979), and into complex conceptual and perceptual world of Film-Wipe-Film. Figurative and abstract imagery collide, morph, or tumble from one domain into another. Architecture, objects, or concrete sounds (a doorbell, a knock on a door, shattered glass, voices), or music provide elements of access or entry to the viewer – entry into what is essentially a visualization and expression of personal perception and thought.

Excerpt from Five Improvisations by Paul Glabicki, 1979, 4’30 min

AK: In your hand-drawn films, there seems to be an interest in finding ways to divide the frame into spaces, and to divide the film into segments of time. I know you are interested in things such as quantum theory and relativity, which relate to the ideas of discreet chunks of time and space. Can you talk about the relationship of these inquiries to the medium of film and animation? To what extent are your films experiments in this direction, and at what point in the process does the theory fall away and the aesthetics of the film become the primary concern?

PG: It’s important to realize that I’m a completely self-taught animator, and that my earliest experiments with film were a concurrent activity to my work and experience in painting, photography, and drawing (I eventually earned two MFA degrees – first in Painting, then in Film). I devised a pictorial approach to animation that framed the spaces in a fixed stage space – much like viewing a painting or diorama. I never used camera moves or zooms. I preferred to choreograph movement spatially: layering successive planes of cyclical motion from foreground to background. My first entries into reading about Relativity often included concepts focused on relative viewpoint – usually illustrated by diagrams and observations of viewpoints within a moving vehicle, most often by viewers on trains. A train’s windows become a viewing portal, with the rider/viewer in a static or moving train observing parallel trains or phenomena through those windows (something that I have directly experienced). My animation spaces are indeed like being in a train car in motion, with the layers of motion experienced from a viewpoint that only seems fixed. Some of my animation sequences have an apparently “fixed” foreground with an opening to another space. That space might be a huge flat rotating wheel successively traced in minute frame-by-frame increments from behind (on a light table), creating the illusion of a moving panorama (a device often used in silent films before composite processing was possible). Many of my animation devices resemble something Méliès might have contrived if he abandoned physical sets and decided to draw and animate his spaces on paper. As a painter, I also applied the mechanics of linear perspective, overlap, or aerial perspective to some sequences.

In regard to theory, I first became obsessed with Eisenstein’s Film Form and Film Sense books. In graduate school, I was introduced to Semiotics, which perfectly aligned with my process of breaking down reality into discrete fragments and units of information. Signs and signifiers seem embedded in my way of processing reality. I never adopted or followed theories, but loved when I discovered theorists or concepts that seemed to be speaking my language or made sense of my own perceptions and experience. I also insisted in being true to my own sensibilities, preferences, and thinking process. Being keenly aware of perceptual experience from a personal, objective, and subjective point of view is intimately tied to my work. I often illustrate my “aesthetic” by the story of sitting in a restaurant and hearing ambient sound, with my attention focused on the menu or anticipating or visualizing my meal, while also speaking to a friend at my table. As this time frame unfolds, I hear a conversation behind me and begin to concurrently become engaged in what I’m overhearing. Another time frame and set of mental images now becomes layered into my temporal environment. Suddenly, someone drops a glass, and I’m jarred away from my overlapping input and directed to the specific location of the sound. That kind of drifting and layering within a single experience/place is much like the space and experience I construct in my films.


glabicki_motiontemplate_01 Motion Templates by Paul Glabicki

AK: Can you describe the process and subject matter in Memory Spaces? The title suggests that this is an illustration of an inner space. I don’t know much about this piece as there is little documentation available, but the still images in Robert Russett’s book Hyperanimation look beautiful and like an interesting progression from your hand-drawn films and installation work.

PG: Like my experience in hand drawn/film animation, I was completely self -taught in digital media. I started in 1989 – just after completing my last hand drawn film Under the Sea. In that film, so much time (5 years of drawing to sound editing – I worked completely alone on every detail of each film) was devoted to color and detail (and adding unique drawing information to each frame), that I sought some new method to animate (beyond hand, paper, and collage). I was interested in emerging technology. Software was in a very early stage of development in 1989, and it was very difficult to get access to equipment. I started with still images and pixel-by-pixel electronic drawing, and through some grants, developed 60 to 100 frame animation cycles (each using the capacity of a single floppy disk as my storage space and temporal canvas), which eventually became the Computer Animation Studies – transferred to video and displayed in gallery installations. I eventually had access to Lightwave modeling software, but no means to render or store complex 3D modeled animation. Memory Spaces became a means to create detailed single frame spaces. I figured out how to render a left eye and right eye rendering of a single space, photograph the rendered images with a camera directly from the video monitor screen and create 3D dioramas (using 2 carousel projectors, 35mm slides, polarized filters, and a silver lenticular screen). So, instead of animated images, I used these static 3D dioramas as a means to explore new spatial configurations that created often radical relationships of scale and location of objects (for example, tiny objects placed close to the eye, and huge versions of the same object placed off in the extreme distance). I liked the illusion of 3D, but also the fact I could also create impossible spaces and spatial relationships (counter to the photo realist design and purpose of the software). The Memory Spaces were storage spaces of objects and light remembered and reconstructed in my virtual world. Installations often displayed several spaces in the same dark gallery. It recalled childhood experiences of walking through a natural history museum to view animals placed in artificially simulated environments. However, my dioramas were metaphors of the mind and how the mind might organize and store memories.

Excerpt from Computer Animation Studies by Paul Glabicki, 1991

AK: It is extremely hard to find copies of your CGI work. Do you have plans to release them in the future, and if so, in what form?

PG: In 2001, when I became overwhelmed with the problems of preservation of decades of work in multiple media (some now obsolete), I had to decide what to keep or destroy or, worse, afford to maintain. I began to donate my work to organizations and archives in exchange for storage and preservation. Original animation artwork and/or prints, negatives and tapes went to Japan, Germany, the Anthology Film Archives in New York, and the iotaCenter and Academy Film Archives in Los Angeles. Work also went to other artists, collectors, or people interested in the work, around the world. I no longer distribute or provide my animation work. Much of the CGI work is still on tape, while fragile film material is awaiting restoration or conversion to other platforms. It’s not something I can afford to manage on my own. As I prepare to retire from the university in April 2016, I’m also in the process of finding a new studio, and homes for decades of stored 2D work. A collection of material was just sent to Canyon Cinema. I recently uncovered the Memory Spaces slides and equipment – which still work and look terrific after 20 years, and boxes of hundreds of Computer Animation Studies floppy disks, which will probably be discarded. So, availability to my time-based material is in the hands of others, and I haven’t seen much of it in years. I’m at work on a new drawing series titled The Light, and will adapt and change as time and circumstances permit.

Excerpt from Red Fence by Paul Glabicki, 1999, 62’00 min.

AK: Were there any contemporary animators during the 70s and 80s whose work you found inspiring, or considered to illustrate similar interests as your own? As I try to place your hand-drawn films into a historical context for my paper, the animation I find to be interesting visual comparisons are Al Jarnow’s Tondo and Autosong, and Robert Breer’s 69. I also see possible similarities with works by other animators, such as Larry Cuba, Pat O’Neill, and Takashi Ito. I would love to hear from you which animators or artists you are influenced by and how you would situate your early work within the animation world at the time.

PG: I went through a self-taught and rather isolated introduction to animation generated by examining actual strips of 8mm film (“home movie” cameras and film), and curiosity generated by memories of childhood encounters with Disney classics.  In an era when film and film study (or even photography) didn’t exist in art schools, I experimented  with film as a parallel interest with painting and drawing, entirely on my own.  I became aware of experimental film through museum screenings of Brakhage, John Whitney, and Harry Smith and other avant-garde  filmmakers during that time.  I was very interested in Eisenstein and Vertov, Leger and Ruttman, Fischinger and Eggeling.

I was fortunate to find a very fertile environment for cross-disciplinary experimentation during graduate school at Ohio University.  While earning my first MFA in Painting, other instructors in other departments (Photography, Music, and Film) provided open doors and opportunities.  When people saw my work, they simply said “welcome and do whatever you wish.”  After my first MFA, I went on to work on a second MFA – in Film.  There was a very unique and dedicated body of students in the Film Department at that time – very independent, all genres of film practice, and I was the only animator.

Students created a superb annual Film Festival, that brought everyone from Godard, Howard Hawks, Herzog, and Vincente Minnelli, to Robert Breer, George Griffin, and Larry Cuba (and many more) to the campus.  It was great to meet, see, or share work with so many independent animators that emerged at that time – and the first time I saw my work in some sort of context.  Attention to my films also brought travel opportunities, and meetings with many more animators of the 70s and 80s – including in Europe and Japan.  It was a rich and exciting time for independent work.  I was more influenced by the overall energy and synergy of that period rather than a specific filmmaker. My core interest in early Russian cinema and formalist criticism, joined with later studies in Semiotics, had the most impact on my work.  Also, I was interested in cinema and cinematic discourse as a whole – not only in animation.

Excerpt from Object Conversation by Paul Glabicki, 1985, 10’00 min

AK: The most recent in-depth interview I’ve found with you is from December 2002 with Robert Russett. What has your artistic life been like since then? What films have you made and what are they about?

PG: After a decade of working in digital media, I began to become frustrated with constant changes in formats, constant grant writing, and worse, preservation of decades of film, video, and digital work. Although I often worked in painting, drawing, and photography concurrent to my animation work, I decided to take some time to synthesize the experiences of earlier decades, but bring it back to hand and paper. A series of drawing projects began in 2001. I began constructing my drawing spaces on a large light table that revisited my hand drawn animation process. I had also developed a broad perspective on construction and composition of spaces expanded by years of evolving digital experiments. The drawing projects brought all of this into play. I felt that I hadn’t abandoned animation, but evolved into a new expression informed and shaped by all that came before. The drawing projects received immediate attention – sometimes by people who had no idea I did film and video work. I received representation, and a series of solo shows at Kim Foster Gallery in New York, that brought critical acclaim and a new audience. I’ve been as busy as ever, and through it all, also managed 40 years as a university professor.

The Light #1 by Paul Glabicki 2015

the-light-2The Light #1 by Paul Glabicki 2015

studioPaul Glabicki’s studio at University of Pittsburgh

© 2016 Annapurna Kumar

Paul Galbicki
Annapurna Kumar