An interview with animator James Duesing.

Susan Brown: The question I am most frequently asked as a curator is, “How long would it take to make something like that?” In trying to think of a contemporary form that is comparably labor intensive, animation came to mind. Like studio animation, a panel like this one would be made by a team of professional embroiderers, mostly male, with specialized skills: one for the hand-painted silk backgrounds, one for the raised metallic embroidery, one for the needle-lace leaves, etc.

James Duesing: In terms of industry animation, there is usually a pretty clear division of duties. Some might argue it (since there aren’t many women animation directors in industry) but the division of labor is not as much along gender lines as it was before there was an animation union. In that case men were animators, women did ink and paint, men operated the camera, women organized the cell layers. But now there are many different types of divisions of labor in the process: modeling, mapping, animation, rendering…

SB: Generally speaking, animals in textile designs of the 17th century are conventionalized and static, while these seem coiled with energy. Partly that’s showmanship on the part of the embroiderers—the highly dimensional forms and the textured stitching in the metallic embroidery combine to give a very life-like feeling to the salamander and the snakes. But the rendering of their forms also feels tensed.

JD: The point about the animals positioning and shape opposed to the fluidity of the trees is interesting too. The animated part of the embroidery has life yet the animals would be oddly shaped if they were realized in 3-D. Animating an animal that is not traditionally designed would require a lot of hand work, since there is no data that could easily be applied to the lizard character.  There are many components to making a character that can be animated in 3-D. After a character is designed it has to be built in the computer, frequently as a polygonal mesh. Once the mesh is built a “rig” is constructed that is embedded in the mesh. The rig consists of skeleton-like bones and joints along with other controllers, which allow the mesh to move and bend. Each rig is unique to the character, and the more complicated the character’s movements the more complicated the rig. The lizard in this piece, for example would move on four legs, have a tail that moves and probably a tongue so all those elements have to be built into the rig. Once the mesh is finished a surface texture has to be applied to the model, this is a digital painting that is made so that each of the critical points in the painting line up with correlating points on the mesh. It depends on the size of the production, but in large commercial projects each aspect of this character construction would be done by different people, much like what you described in the production of the embroidery. That is why when you see a Hollywood blockbuster the list of animators in the credits can be so voluminous. I assume there is not a list of credits on the back of the tapestry?

SB: Sadly no—anonymously made, like most textiles. The tree is also strikingly real, with each branch articulated and every leaf a separate, detached needle-lace object, delicately suspended. They seem designed to rustle in the breeze. How does animation deal with creation and coordinated movement of things like leaves, grass, hair…

JD: The most time-intensive part of the piece, the leaves, if they were done in 3-D animation would be “grown” by using software to generate them. Artists would tweak the color and the forces that were applied to them to create colors, texture, breeze or wind, which would be the time consuming part, but making the individual leaves would be less labor intensive than other parts of the process.

SB: The salamander is said to not only endure, but to thrive in the flames, and is a symbol of regeneration. Hanging from the tree we see abandoned crutches and a wax leg. All this movement and energy seems well-suited to the spiritual themes of the piece, too.

JD: I particularly respond to the fact that, even though the tapestry itself is a technical tour de force, there is a conceptual aspect to the piece that is of equal weight. There is a long history of artists trying to depict movement. This piece is unique because it actually moves, some earlier attempts at portraying movement are more related to sequential narrative or comics. The Egyptian Book of the Dead for example, particularly the Papyrus of Hunefer. In it Hunefer is seen multiple times in the same frame as he traverses the various tests to the afterlife. There are monumental examples as well. Trajan’s Column and The Bayeux Tapestry are dedicated to military victories and extrapolate the actions of many individuals, some of whom are repeated multiple times in a long sequence of events. Like the Papyrus of Hunefer they both function with motion in bands of action that layer symbols on top of each other. This is similar to the panel we are looking at, where the central image is framed by narrative elements that also depict motion or growth and expand the story. One of my favorite historic examples of animated motion is Apollo and Daphne the life-sized marble by Bernini that portrays the exact moment Daphne turns into a Bay Laurel. It would be odd to characterize Bernini as the first animator, but he certainly captures the sense of metamorphosis that has interested many contemporary animators, and he did it in marble.

SB: It’s completely amazing as it, but what would it take to animate it a little? Have the leaves move in a slight breeze, the salamander whip his tail and blink his eye, the snakes flick their tongues?

JD: As far as animating it, if it was to be turned into a 3-D model with simulated textures from the textile, that could be a time consuming process, depending on the accuracy of the model to the original object. Building and rigging a model is the most time consuming part of the process. If the animation used the image of the object to manipulate selected elements in 2-D, it would be less daunting of an undertaking, but would take a little bit of time particularly if individual leaves were animated in 2-D.

One thought on “Building Movement

Yes, definitely there would have been an Entire workshop of specialists to make the applique bits. With a team of 50 or more men, who were no longer apprentice or Journeyman level that would have been done in a matter of month rather than a matter of years for a single embroiderer. The modern crafters are often totally aware of the misconception that embroidery is cheap, easy and could be done in kindergarten classrooms, especially American crafters. Many of us are often quite guilty of assuming that an embroiderer (singular) could just whip some shiny thing up and sell it just as cheaply, totally ignoring the fact that all of the materials used in that piece were of the highest quality back then, and to use those same materials (assuming you could find them) would be thrice the cost in today’s money and markets.

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