It's time for more CGI symphonics as Judge Bill Gibron explores the realm of Animusic in its second DVD outing. No surprise then that it feels slightly familiar.
More animated instrumental goodness.
When last time we visited the land of Animusic, it was a stirring CGI experiment in sight and sound. Using sophisticated programming techniques, some cutting-edge graphic design, and a love of complicated sound structures, main creator Wayne Lytle brought melody, rhythm, and ambience to stunning, sumptuous life. A little background: In 1996, Lytle created his first combination cartoon, the silly symphony in space Beyond The Walls. Using a visual style influenced by designs as divergent as Metropolis and Japanese anime, the organic mechanical quality of Lytle's imaginative melodic machines matched the spry, spunky New Age bop crafted to suggest both an acoustic as well as scientific form of music-making. Thus Animusic was born. After a successful DVD release in 2001 (and a reissue in 2004), Lytle is back with more beautiful bitmap beats.
The way this visual and sonic artistry is prepared is truly amazing. First, a construct of instrumental groups is conceived. Then a tune is created to utilize this melodic menagerie (though not always—sometimes the song comes first). After that, a computer MIDI file (a harmonic program that triggers tones and tempos in computers and adaptable devices) is created and an animation program implemented. The images are rendered and given a range of appropriate motion. With a lot of skill and some manner of karmic convergence, the MIDI file directs the computer to animate the instruments in the manner in which they've been programmed to perform. The resulting solo-cam cartoon is then lit, accented, set within a scenic backdrop, and filmed by constantly moving virtual cameras to create the mesmerizing music videos featured here. All this effort creates something truly special—a combination of technology and natural elements that coalesce into a miraculous, always amazing visual and audio treat. The new selection of eight short films offered on Animusic 2 represents a wide range of ideas and references. Individually, these mini-movies characterize the following feelings and thoughts:
• "Starship Grooves": a robotic band, floating on an interstellar stage platform, uses complicated instrumentation and tuned body pads to build their cosmic jam.
• "Pogo Sticks": a collection of familiar-looking stringed stick figures moves along a surreal set in a race to put plucked and pulled music in manic motion.
• "Resonant Chamber": A series of spider-like wooden fingers float along a complex wooden fretboard as crane- like armatures strum out a somber, subtle melody.
• "Cathedral Pictures": In a huge vaulted atrium, a multi-instrumented organ delivers its interpretation of excerpts from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
• "Pipe Dream 2": Using steel balls to trigger its tones, a weird organ/string combination provides a bouncy boogie to precision.
• "Fiber Bundles": a series of colored optics trigger various alien-like electronic "spaces" in a funky cavalcade of synthesized sonics.
• "Gyro Drums": several pairs of robotic arms use precise percussive timing to play an ever-growing collection of arcane drums.
• "Heavy Light": on an eerie extraterrestrial plane, a series of light-sensitive ruins refract their music-making beams off columns and crags to deliver an epic entertainment.
Now that it's a PBS Pledge Week shill, appearing as frequently as those moneygrubbing gasps of doo-wop and old '60s rock, Animusic has lost a little of its luster. Before, it felt like a special discovery between computer geeks and sound aficionados, a nerd-tastic peek at how technology and talent can merge and mingle. Now Animusic feels like product, produced in acknowledgement of its own rousing success and utilizing a familiar formula to render its various visions. Where once we had art—albeit driven by the sudden superstardom of CGI cartooning—now we have more than a little artifice. Perhaps it's the use of more "character-driven" elements. The first two sequences rely on instruments as individuals, be they robots or upright stringed figures, to act out the sounds. When they stick to the esoteric (interstellar ruins, liquid light bundles), we sense the presence of the old awe-inspiring ideals. Similarly, this version of Animusic also gives us the project's first cover version, so to speak. With an acknowledged bow to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Lytle (who handles all the musicianship) channels Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, truncating the masterpiece and adding a rock backdrop. Oddly enough, it doesn't work. We get thrown off by the music's familiarity and find ourselves focusing on that far more often than the actual animation.
There is also another aspect of this production that pushes the limits of likeability. When it first arrived on the scene, Animusic was kind of cutting edge. True, it was never at the level of Pixar or Dreamworks, but it did have a certain novelty to it. Now in light of the numerous CGI efforts strewn across all media, Animusic looks a little antiquated. True, the actual movement is fabulous, fluid, and incredibly lifelike. However, since Lytle and company are working within their own proprietary software elements, they seem stuck in a scientific situation from a few years back. Though the backdrops are rendered with a visionary slant, the robotics are routine and somewhat staid. The real cutting-edge material arrives with the acoustic cleverness of "Resonant Chamber." Turning a several-necked guitar-like item into an anthropomorphic entity with alien-esque movement is the direction the artists should be pursuing, instead of overwhelming the space with cluttered complexity, as they do during the uninspired "Gyro Drums." Yet since they are forced to function under a requirement of realism (remember, the MIDI file drives the animation, so the imagery must match the musical acuity of the piece), there are limits to what can be accomplished, thereby mandating a kind of necessary narrowness to the concept's scope. While it's still an amazing piece of effective aural and eye candy, Animusic 2 just doesn't have the zing of the first time around.
Now in control of its own DVD creation and distribution, Animusic steps up and delivers a delicious, detailed disc filled with gorgeous visuals, amazing aural aspects, and an unrealistic amount of bonus features. Each individual segment here has a commentary track, a chance to walk through the production process (with dozens of sketches and stills), multi-angle Solo-cams—allowing you to look at the apparatus at play from any vantage point offered—and a nice bit of time-lapse rendering where the entire "instrument" is created and shaded before your eyes. Each segment is viewable either in a 1.33:1 full-screen image or a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that really expands the understanding of the animation art. The widescreen visuals tend to show all the components in motion at one time, indicating the intricacy and complexity of this work. Lytle goes into a lot of this detail during his alternate narrative tracks. Not quite as heavy on the technical side as he was on the original Animusic disc, he is more anecdotal (discussing reviews and feedback he received) as well as bringing in his eight-year-old son in to make a few quick remarks.
As technology seems to increase exponentially on a daily basis, it's important to note that it's not the medium at the artist's disposal, but rather how well he or she takes advantage of it that will accentuate its viability as a partner in the creative process. Animusic 2 shows what skill and vision can do with mere megabites and hard drive space. Yet it also argues for the restriction of imagination when the computer becomes a crutch, not a completely complementary element.
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