May 2004


The Origins of Image:


When I sit down to write, draw or create an animated story I find the first step is procrastination. There are numerous small and often unnecessary tasks that I feel I must complete before I actually start the creative process. This might include straightening out the desk, getting my tea just right, finding a nice piece of music to fill the air, surrounding myself with the appropriate books and so on. Finally, I dive in and allow myself to start a first draft with all its imperfections. This process or ritual is actually an important part of generating the work that I want to create. My subconscious is already in “high gear” moving mental blocks out of the way for the creative process to come forward. That creative process or bank of ideas that I draw from is very much molded by who I am and what my life experience has been.

Even though we feel a freedom in creating images and ideas, we are actually defined by our place in history, cultures, environments, family and people we know. The ideas we create have to come from our depth of experience and how we choose to interpret, rearrange or redefine those experiences. There are infinite ways to redefine ideas from individual experience and the thought process and this is often what makes a unique expression or piece of creative work. Yet, individuals are still defined by what they have been exposed to either through experience, reading, media or word of mouth. Imagination is a confluence of real experience and much more subconscious thinking which is formed by our early years of life (or early experience and exposure.) I have often thought back to my childhood experiences and wondered if they were real or stories that I applied my own images or just dreams that are vivid in my mind. No matter where that memory came from, it was still influenced by my experience or exposure to the world. There are those who may argue that we are influenced from a previous life or there may be powers (alien or not) that control our thinking from afar. If we have been reincarnated then previous life experience still drives our thinking process. I can’t account for the alien mind control situation. That is an influence that I can’t grasp therefore I feel that it doesn’t influence my creative bank.

There is another aspect of creative image making that broadens the reach of our work. This comes from the eye of the beholder. When I create an image or story, I draw from my own experience and perceptions but when any other person views that work it has the potential to go beyond the original intent. A viewer takes in the image and tries to relate to it. The relationship the viewer has with that image has everything to do with that viewer’s history, experience and perception. That may be very different from the creator’s intent or experience. Many artists dig into their subconscious to create work which allows interpretation to broaden. Other artists dip into the cultural tide pool of ideas that a certain cultural group may easily understand based on similar experiences and exposure. The latter approach tends to be “mainstream” often commercial and more limiting in its scope. This technique is usually associated with a society or nation that wants to homogenize its viewer’s thinking and interpretation. The advantage to this approach is that direct ideas are more easily communicated. The disadvantage is that the possibility of options becomes more limited. We are often led to conclusions and are not given a chance to make our own interpretation.  The most successful approach, in my opinion, is an image or story that forces us to think and interpret but not necessarily conclude. There may be a linear story but we are challenged to fill in the gaps with our interpretations. An animated film that doesn’t give us fodder to feed upon doesn’t nourish the soul. An example of this sort of detail in animation can be seen in the Nick Park film, The Wrong Trousers, a project I was fortunate enough to work on. The film is an entertainment piece with a very clear story line but there still are details that are left for the viewer to fill in. Most notably was the brilliant use of the penguin character. The penguin never spoke. never emoted any facial expression, and its eyes were solid black and glossy. The result was a villainous character that was always thinking and plotting his next move or so I interpreted. The viewer participates and fills in the “missing” information and detail. Nick wanted to have the viewer make this conclusion but didn’t want to spell it out quite so obviously. Other filmmakers like the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer create images that are often so bizarre that they allow the viewer much more interpretation. These creative visionaries may or may not have a particular message in mind but it often doesn’t matter that the viewer be “in-sync” with their vision. In these cases, it’s all about interpretation. The wonderful thing about films created by people like Svankmajer, the Quays and many other visionaries is that they are created in such a fashion that the viewer wants to make some sort of sense from the way the images are presented and it forces the viewer to participate in the interpretation. There are always people who don’t want to participate in the viewing of these kinds of films and don’t care to explore their own minds. There is a freedom lost when this avoidance of participation is practiced.

One of the fascinating results of people drawing from their own experience is seen in the animation of certain studios with a range of animation talent. Animators often carry mirrors in their “kit.” An animator will look at their own personal movement or expression or draw from their own experience of how an action unfolds. The interpretation of that experience put into animation often makes a distinctive signature move that can be associated with that animator. On larger commercial productions this sort of individual animation approach can be discouraged because the animated characters won’t have continuity. But on larger successful productions certain key animators are given main characters to animate throughout a sequence or film. This way, an individual interpretation of movement can be employed consistently. It is often the individual approach to movement (drawn from our experience as creators) that is credible with the viewer or interpreter. It may not be a movement that the viewer understands or has experienced but it is one that the viewer can believe based on their experience as viewers of the wide range of movement in the world.

Recently, I have been sculpting and creating three dimensional images for my own gratification. These are images that I may translate into an animated film at some point. As I look back at these images I try to understand how I came to create them. One striking image is of a dolphin skull that is filled with electronic hardware and has images of scientific pioneers blended onto the surface of the skull. When I analyze how this image came to be, it starts to make sense. While walking on a beach one winter day I found a dolphin skull. My personal experience was that I had access to a beach in the winter and I am fascinated by bones (it’s hard to know where that interest comes from.). I kept the skull for several years eventually cleaned it and put it on my work desk. At about the same time, a kitchen appliance, I owned, broke. The repair man said the “smart board” or circuit board that operated the appliance was “fried.” I had to replace the “smart board” and kept the old one. It was fascinating to me in its architecture so it ended up on my work table. As I sat down at that table later on, my mind started to think about the mind of the dolphin and how, like our minds, it is fairly advanced. With electronics running a lot of our lives these days through computers and faulty “smart boards” I thought it would be interesting to visually match up the electronics with the dolphin skull. Perhaps I would have put the electronics in a human skull, but I didn’t have one available. There was something more fascinating about this beautiful free and thinking animal and the imposed electronic control panel paired together that fascinated me. Once I put it together I started thinking about other minds in history, who may have been fascinated by the same idea. These scientific and creative minds that I found were people I read about and was interested in and their pictures were available to me through my own library. So the whole finished piece was created by my life experience, what was available to me through my environment, what I drew upon from my culture and history and there was something subconscious that I can’t quite put my finger on but I know is a part of my early life experience, like my fascination with bones.

I don’t find this interpretation of the creative image making process limiting in any way. There are infinite possibilities but they are still totally influenced by our personal experience, place in history, culture, environment, family and our exposure to other people. This is what gives our statements and images their unique quality. As interpreters of images, we have the choice of how deep we want to go into our minds and subconscious. I believe the more we are able to dig in a little deeper and participate in image interpretation the richer our lives will be.

Tom Gasek


Published on  in July 2004