Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
I am a creative practitioner working in the creative industry as a Director, Producer, Animator, Illustrator, Model-maker, Instructor and Instructional designer (amongst other labels), and in addition to all of this, I have an active experimental arts practice in which I explore personal interests and preoccupations.
Research is at the heart of everything I create. I find that the research process roots my work both practically and theoretically. This approach keeps my work fresh and interesting while keeping connected to shifts and changes in academic, industrial, technological, political, cultural and environmental discourse.
My current academic research project is two fold. That is to say that I am investigating two questions concurrently.
What is the tension I experience when I interact with CGI Software as a stopmotion animator working in the animation industry and the visual arts?
How can I communicate my practice-based research to others in Academia and the wider research community?
So, Why these questions and not something else?
Well, these questions originate in my practice and resonate with other practitioner’s experience in the animation community. This can be in either commercial practice or in independent artist animation as I work as an artist-animator and commercial creative director. The way in which my practice straddles art and industry while also allowing for an ‘insider’ view, arguably provides a valuable research perspective in what is essentially a practical discipline.
What do I mean by formal? All practitioners conduct research in the process of their everyday work, so what exactly is formal research? I have been researching in my creative work for over twenty years (although it has been said that I have been engaged in this topic of enquiry all of my life), and so what is academic research? This can depend on the community in which the research is conducted but in Academia it can best be defined by a credible methodology. Art Schools generally define practice research as either practice-based or practice-led research. The AHRC provides a sound definition.
But why is my research of value? The field of animation studies is a young one. It is a field that is heavily theorised by non-practitioners working in academia who are necessarily writers, reporters and observers of practice. This is problematic for the field of animation studies as it supports a very strong ‘outsider’ view of Animation. As research informs industry, education, innovation and of course economic decisions, it steers the discipline and informs new practitioners entering the field.
When I began my formal research there was very little practice research in the academy. I wanted to improve my own practice by better understanding the tensions within it and I wanted to help improve the life of other practitioners, giving voice to their experience aswell as my own.
I initially spent a year reading philosophy and literature. I engaged in academic combat with others in the research community and listened to general discourse in the field. I located my research in the field of Animation Studies and other disciplines at the periphery of my research interests. I conducted practical research (literally in the field) to test my ontological and epistemological models. This process would go on to inform my methodology and the methods I would apply in the investigation of my research project. My early experiments had helped to define my ontological and epistemological questions in my practice. That is to say, the process of experimentation helped me to better understand what the world was and how I think I come to know what I think I know.
So, how did I discover the topic of my practice-based research enquiry? My topic of enquiry began on the same way one might try to start an old rotary lawn mower. Tugging on the string with all ones might only to end up with a disappointing non-starter. Twice. Then one day, while sitting in a supervision session I was asked, ‘What do you do in practice?’ Or rather, ‘What does your practice do?’. Opposite to me sat a theoretician and a visual artist, neither of which had first hand experience of making animation.
And so I began to recall my work. I described my creative process, my research track to date and the products of my practice. Although I was able to eloquently verbalise a description of my practice, I grew increasingly frustrated as I fumbled around trying to find the ‘right’ terms to describe my work. I began to borrow words and contort meanings to describe how I worked in practice. It became clear that I needed to describe my work in the language of Academia, or at least I needed to use the philosophical terminology of the Art School if I was to effectively communicate my practice research within this arena. I simple didn’t have the words, I couldn’t show them the ‘images’ in my head and they didn’t have access to the common experience that came so easily in the studio.
I could easily pinpoint the point of tension (the thing that really irked me) as I connected the dots, or rather pinpoints that exploded like tiny bubbles of dye along my own messy research track. I knew that I could learn new software easily but my interaction with CG tools was very difficult. My experience seemed common to others working in the stopmotion animation community, some in the industry and others in the visual arts. It also had roots in my formative biography in which my father trained as a precision engineer and worked in the motor industry while I experienced the home computing revolution, coding graphics at the age of 10.
While attempting to answer questions relating to the field of animation studies such as, What Is animation? What is practice-based research? and How does one claim authority to ones own knowledge? the main focus of my enquiry was evaluating the tension I experienced when I use CGI Software. A tension that I could only describe at that point, as a sense of disconnection. I asked what was, ‘disconnected’? What did other animators think? What did other researchers think? How could I go about finding out? Could I relieve the tension? and, could I reconnect the disconnect?
There was much discussion in the field about what Animation actually was, how it was defined or whether it needed defining at all. I had read the theoretical discourse and felt I needed to define animation for myself. The view of Animation practice proposed by theoreticians simply did not hold for me. Although I could understand many counter positions, I could not relate to the theoreticians perspective as it just wasn’t how I experienced animation in practice. There are many reasons for this and it would take a very big coffee, a comfy chair and cake to explain.
I worked through many of the assumptions held about Animation in my ‘nature’ experiments. I discovered that theories defining Animation had roots in ontological and epistemological models constructed on assumptions drawn from a material, mechanistic, western, post enlightenment perspectives, supported by ancient philosophy mainly analytic dialectic philosophy. This model of world simply did not hold for me. It was a model that did not consider the implications of ecology, quantum physics or practitioner knowledge.
Early essential texts were,
- The Ecological Self
- The Web of Life
- Steps to an Ecology of Mind
Quantum Physics became central to my world model early in my Animation practice. It was a model that had uncertainty at its heart. To me, the world was an uncertain, shifting dynamic one that could only be filtered through my limited senses, filtered through my personal values and influenced by social notions of truth. At this time my model was informed by William James’ Pragmatism.
My emerging methodology was a difficult one to navigate as ontological, epistemological, physiological, psychological and neurological uncertainties were highly problematic in the certainty of Academic enquiry.
In these early years, I produced puppets, props and sets for stop motion Animation. this gave me valuable access to the experiences of other practitioners and allowed for many informal, animated discussions to take place. I was also able to align these with theoretical discourse in Academia.
By placing myself as a practitioner within the investigation and openly disclosing personal and cultural values and beliefs I could access communities of practice in the industry, arts and Academia. I could set about answering my research questions and proceed as an action researcher drawing from the methods Action research , documenting my research as a living thesis.
I began my research project by first identifying a set of assumptions which were drawn from the fields of Animation, Visual Art and Product Design. This investigation prompted me to ask whether the disconnection was one of social/cultural embedded values and beliefs, one of materiality, one of haptic/tactile feedback, one of embedded behaviour, one of peripheral device design, software interface design, of cognitive load in the learning process or something else.
By slowly working through the set of assumptions, by pushing the investigation further in practice, by going deeper and deeper, by questioning personal and cultural world models and the evolution of a sound methodology; I was able to define my conclusions some of which are relevant to the field of animation studies, others to interaction design and some to visual communication generally.
The outcomes of my research project are yet to be published however I can confirm that they are applicable to the fields of Contemporary 3D Animation and Interaction Design. I have also partly developed a design prototype for a Mobile Application that would assist the practioner researcher to capture, categorise, organise, present and disseminate practice-based/Action research while also allowing access to the ‘gubbings’ of the design architecture. This requires further development and investigation.
As I turn to my creative practice, I continue to critique and reflect on my practice as is my habit. I feel that I have scratched the itch that defines my practice and places it in the world and I am very grateful to those that have supported my journey. I am just as grateful to those who didn’t support my research as this in itself had been very valuable in challenging my preconceptions while deepening my understanding other theoretical perceptions.
In redefining my creative identity as Artist, Illustrator, Instructor and Animator to include that of Interaction Designer with a research interest in Ethical Interaction and Contemporary 3D Animation Practice and processes; I continue to seek out opportunities to produce work and advance my research in whatever context I find myself in.
And, as I turn my focus to the world, I discover more about human-technological evolution, humans impact on the natural environment and the emergence of conflict between social groups that leads to mass migration and war. I am motivated to discover how to counter or improve these vital interactions while also engaging with the ethical implications of this very human interaction.
But first i’m off to make a cup of tea…