Molten magic in storytelling

The Canberra Glassworks' new exhibition uses reflective, fluid and breakable glass to inject charm into the world of animation

Flameworker Mark Elliot speaks about his chosen medium, red-hot molten glass, with a dreamy kind of relish.

''It's quite a delicious material,'' he says. ''To experience working with glass soft, it varies in consistency from honey to toffee, glistening and shining like a liquid gemstone. It's got this incredible elasticity - it can expand and stretch and morph and change. It's very, very challenging. Quite often glassblowers are fanatical people because it's such a difficult medium to work with. It has [the] sense you can never quite be in control of it.''

Glass artist Mark Eliott pictured with his collaborative work with Jack McGrath, <i>Slow Growth Improvisation #2</i>, on ...
Glass artist Mark Eliott pictured with his collaborative work with Jack McGrath, Slow Growth Improvisation #2, on display as part of Glassimations at the Canberra Glassworks. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Having blown a suite of fishy forms in glass, his collaborator Jack McGrath has filmed them for a ''glassimation''. Doctor Mermaid and the Abovemarine, a whimsical six-minute flick that comments on the harm humans do to sea-life, was made using stop-motion techniques to bring to life the glass creatures and caring mermaid.

The movie involves Nerida, a mermaid when underwater and Bondi babe on land, who starts up a fish hospital.

<i>Slow Growth Improvisation #2</i> by Mark Eliott and Jack McGrath.
Slow Growth Improvisation #2 by Mark Eliott and Jack McGrath. Photo: Rohan Thomson

This film is one of many works on show at Glassimations, an exhibition celebrating the interplay of glass and animation, on show at the Canberra Glassworks until mid-January. Besides the film, storyboards and other objects associated with its making will be on show.

The other artists featured in Glassimations are Lee Whitmore who paints on glass to achieve an animated image; Tom Moore who animates his blown glass creations; Deirdre Feeney who uses glass architectural forms; and collaborators Lienors Torre and Alastair Boell who create films that become objects of glass and furniture.

Elliot and McGrath met while studying. They had a discussion about the animating of molten glass and wanted to experiment with this idea. McGrath, who had a background in stop-motion animation (that is, filmmaking by taking a picture, making a small change to whatever it is that's being captured, taking another still and so on, then playing the frames as a sequence), was familiar with claymation, the rather more accessible and famous kind of animation used to make Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.

The duo began to experiment by melting forms and photographing them incrementally. The glassworker blew bubbles in front of a green screen, the filmmaker took pictures and generated animation sequences using software.

<i>Slow Growth Improvisation #1</i> by Mark Eliott and Jack McGrath.
Slow Growth Improvisation #1 by Mark Eliott and Jack McGrath. Photo: Rohan Thomson

A marine theme emerged partly because of the glass's fluid nature, and because both men like water stories. McGrath is a fan of Jules Verne and the surrealists; Elliot has lived in Bondi in Sydney.

Elliot is a jazz musician among other things and so there was an improvisational aspect in the mix, much more so than is usually found in animation. He dreamed up the narrative, which McGrath storyboarded.

Puppetry methods were also part of the process. The men dangled the glass sea creatures in a fish tank and photographed them through handmade glass to distort the image. The stop-motion footage was combined with live footage of a real beach.

The next step for the duo who will exhibit in Denmark in March next year is to seek funding for production work. While neither McGrath nor Elliot has production expertise, they nonetheless pulled together the ''zero budget'' film that went on to win an award for the originality of its aesthetic.

Glass animation is out on the fringes compared with claymation as glass artistry is relatively specialist compared with the modelling of clay.

''The craft of the making … creates an extra narrative dimension to the work,'' Elliot says.

''[That] is a big part of what attracts people to the work - the love of the process.

''It's like playing a musical instrument. Just the intrinsic process [of glassmaking] is very pleasurable: an exciting dance full of precariousness and accidents. Glass[making] has many things in common with [music-making].''

Curator Lienors Torre, also featured in Glassimations as an artist, has a skill-set that spans the worlds of animation and of glass. She is an animation lecturer at Deakin University, Melbourne who has also studied glass-engraving and coldworking.

Explaining the interplay of glass and animation, she says, ''Glass is a material you can see through. It's used in telescopes, it's used in optical fibre, it's used in all sorts of things to do with vision.

''The way the glass is made changes the way you see and visualise whatever you're looking at through it.

''Animation is about light through screens, so there's an interplay of different things that work with the materials.''

Torre says McGrath and Elliot's work is so unusual the last time it was tackled was the 1940s or '50s when a Czech animator tried it. The added layer of digital manipulation made their work more advanced.

Torre is also riveted by Deirdre Feeney's work, which explores the overlapping of architecture and memory. It was influenced by the death of a friend and the artist's subsequent thoughts about death.

The curator says Lee Whitmore, who comes from the animation side rather than the glass side, has work that ''metamorphs'' thanks to the way it incorporates glass.

Whitmore's film The Safe House, which is about the Petrov spy affair of 1954, is a paint-on-glass movie. The way the image metamorphs is because of glass's special properties.

''When you paint on glass it's different from when you draw on paper,'' Torre says.

''Essentially [Whitmore] takes a plate of glass, paints on the glass, takes a frame, alters it, takes another frame, alters it, and at the end of the day she has an animation, but because of the way paint falls on glass and the way you smear it and the way the light comes through it, it has its own luminosity and way of moving.''

For Torre, glass has a magic about it other materials do not have. She has wondered why artists do not work with plastic as an alternative as it's lighter and easier to work with, but glass transmits light differently in the way it reflects, refracts and distorts. The frequency at which light goes through glass is different from plastic.

That said, glass work has its own challenges. In Torre's own glass practice, she must contend with a lot of mistakes, breakages, bubbles where no bubbles should be and the danger of silicosis, a lung disease.

Back to the artists of Glassimations. Tom Moore, who blows whimsical, odd creatures, employs painted cardboard cut-out sets and sands. Sometimes he animates the glass with his hands, just moving it around on a screen in a loose way, sometimes he's a shade more high-tech and uses digital techniques. In the exhibition, he presents a hill scene, a city scene and a moth city.

Torre's own work in partnership with woodworker and furniture-maker Alastair Boell involves ways of enabling a viewer to live with animated works in their home. For example, one piece is a drawer with two glasshouses atop it. Two people eating soup can be seen through the houses. Now and then they pause. The reason why becomes apparent when you open the drawer: a magpie is calling and the people are pausing to listen to it sing.

''It's about making animation accessible and making it into a crafted object,'' Torre says. ''In other ways, it's about storytelling in space because you see different parts of the story but you have to move the parts to see the whole story.''

Torre wants artists to think philosophically about glass and animation. ''Hopefully by bringing such diverse materials together people will think more interesting thoughts and that will spur work forward.''

She would like viewers to respond to the works as they like and find some interest in the link between animation and glass.

As for the future of glass and animation, Torre thinks the next step is to do away with screens, which she sees as almost passe by now as they're so accessible.

''The next step is to really think about glass as way of looking at the world and animating the world, maybe sometimes without the screen.''

Glassimations runs until January 18 at the Canberra Glassworks (11 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston). Entry is free.