Pretty Lights, Tender Bodies | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pretty Lights, Tender Bodies 

At least in terms of producing their latest work, Pittsburgh filmmakers Jim Duesing and Jesse McLean occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. But both will be featured on a roster of international artists when the venerable Black Maria Film and Video Festival hits town Feb. 28.


A veteran animator with a host of international festivals to his credit, along with airings on PBS and MTV, Duesing started work on Black Maria prizewinner Tender Bodies in 1997. He completed the disturbing, beautifully surreal eight-minute computer animation just last year -- a testament to the fact that for an artist, "computerized" doesn't necessarily equal "fast."


The Ohio native, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Art, is no newbie: He was among the first wave of artists (as opposed to technicians) to animate by computer, and his short Maxwell's Dream (1990) is considered the first computer animation done on a desktop machine. And unlike most short-form animators, his work has been seen by millions, thanks partly to an Absolut Vodka promo that ended up on film-festival trailers worldwide.


But Tender Bodies was brave new terrain: Not only is it set in a nightmarish world in which hobbyists create genetically altered creatures who run amuck as both predators and prey, but Duesing conceived it as a stylistic departure from his earlier work. For one thing, he didn't want any cuts, those little ruptures in time and space upon which most films depend. Instead, each of his scene settings simply transforms into the next around its bizarre creatures and sinister vignettes, one object becoming another in the animator's alchemy.


Second, Duesing eschewed dialogue, and not just because his double-entendre-heavy scripts were often subject to botched translations into other tongues. He says an absence of verbal cues also fruitfully obscures the difference between the comical and the macabre. In Tender Bodies, Duesing says, "You don't know where I'm coming from."


A typical short computer animation has two or three characters, a few settings and lots of edits; Tender Bodies has 20 characters, at least as many different sets, and no cuts. The film (transferred to 35 mm for exhibition) was rendered with powerful software including Maya for its 3-D pieces, plus Photoshop and Director, but the magical transitions that lend the film its memorable fluidity were still hugely time-consuming. "At one point I had three full-time assistants," says Duesing, whose own contributions demanded a six-month leave of absence from CMU. "That's not an efficient working method," he adds. "I do it because it's my vision, but it doesn't make it fast."


Besides his previous honors -- and upcoming screenings in Stuttgart, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the prestigious Ann Arbor Film Festival -- Duesing has been selected as the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' artist of the year, making him only the second moving-picture artist to receive the honor. (The other was Tony Buba.)


Pittsburgh's other Black Maria prize-winner this year, Jesse McLean, doesn't create a surreal world so much as make abstract (and slightly trippy) what for Pittsburghers is a rather familiar sight: the holiday light display at Hartwood Acres.


McLean shot her Celebration of Lights there in 2002, while her mom drove and McLean stood poking through the car's sunroof with a Super 8 mm camera to capture the red, yellow, blue and green lights passing overhead. She digitized the footage, edited on computer and transferred the finished product back to 16 mm film. Though McLean tweaked and layered her original images digitally, she shot on the humble old home-movie format because "I wanted a sort of sentimental feeling, and I think Super 8, especially color, can induce that."


With its dancing, brightly colored geometric blocks and patterns, all set to music composed by a friend (which he performed on keyboard, with McLean herself on flute and piano), Celebration of Lights at times suggests the 1920s abstracts of German animation pioneer Oskar Fischinger.


McLean, who works at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, says she was motivated partly in the negative: She wanted to get away from making films whose human protagonists she tended to mock. "I kind of just want more simplified motives for making things," she says. "I just wanted to make something I thought was beautiful."



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