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An animated film with an accompanying analysis of its relationship to the theory and practice of art and animation.

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The focus of this practice-based PhD study is the production of an experimental, 2D animated short film of 10 minutes, 27 seconds, titled Big Man. The animated film is a retelling of several episodes that are found in chapters two and four of The Book of Daniel from the Old Testament in which Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, has troubled dreams that can only be interpreted by the Hebrew prophet Daniel. In the film, this biblical story is re-imagined using the former South African Prime Minister, Mr Balthazar Johannes (BJ) Vorster as the character of Nebuchadnezzar, thus linking the narrative directly to South African history. This is done using a variety of animation techniques, including stop-motion paper cut-out animation, digital and traditional hand-drawn frame-by-frame and cel animation, digital puppet animation and paint-on-glass animation. The written component of this research provides a detailed explanation of the conceptual, technical and creative approaches used in the making of the film prior to, during and post production, and locates the film within the contexts of animation and fine arts practice in South Africa. In addition, the theoretical component discusses the concept of the ‘Big Man’, the particular literary, theoretical and visual influences at work in the film, and the adaptation of the biblical narrative from its origins to its re-imagining as a fictional, South African narrative explored through the medium of experimental animation. Practice-based research is essentially interdisciplinary, as one is approaching a study through both practice and theory (Elkins 2009). Thus research methods and aims can be applied to both aspects of the study and can differ quite radically, as textual research is clearly not the same as research through creative practice. This makes it impossible to come up with a single research question. Research that originates through practice involves a complexity of technical, conceptual, visual and aesthetic areas of exploration and approaches specific to creative practice, whereas the associated written component critically and cognitively engages with and supports the practice through theory. In terms of assessment the PhD project comprises a 50/50 split between practice and theory. The following questions cover the scope of my exploration in both the practice and textual components of my study: Does the film represent the theme of the “Big Man” in such a way as to make it relevant to both the South African context and to a broader international audience? At the outset the objective of this project was to use the theme of the “Big Man” to explore notions of power, and, in particular, to comment on the present political climate in South Africa with an emphasis on the rising conception of President Jacob Zuma as South Africa's most recent “Big Man”. The intention was to explore this idea implicitly, through the guise of the past, using former apartheid Prime Minister BJ Vorster as the central character of the film. A motivation for casting BJ Vorster as the biblical character of Nebuchadnezzar is that the biblical king is a famous, archetypal Big Man, whereas BJ Vorster is not necessarily widely known outside South Africa. Also, using The Book of Daniel from the Old Testament as the overarching narrative was intended to place the narrative within a broader understanding, beyond the South African context. The primary intention was for the film to convey this theme and narrative to its audience in a visually, conceptually and aesthetically coherent way. The textual component aims to reflect critically on the various visual, aesthetic and conceptual methods the film uses to engage with both the theme of the Big Man and the biblical narrative. This component also aims to engage with the relevance of the notion of the “Big Man” in terms of notable precedents in the creative and performing arts in South Africa. What are the interdisciplinary and research potentials of the experimental animation platform? While my film uses a narrative form associated with orthodox animation, the use of a multiplicity of styles and approaches is more commonly associated with the experimental tradition (Wells 2002: 42). One objective in creating this film was to extend my creative and conceptual knowledge of art-making and animation by creating an independent, experimental animated film. I chose to make an experimental film due to my interest in learning, using and integrating a variety of creative processes within a filmic medium. My methods and aims included using and extending my skills and interest in the fine arts, digital image-making and 2D digital animation. The film's identity within the experimental tradition, and the successful use and integration of a variety of creative processes is hopefully evident in the artwork itself. The methods of researching and applying these diverse approaches are illuminated in the course of the textual component. How can the digital platform act as both a medium and a tool for the animation process? A significant objective of this project was to explore the digital platform on the one hand as a tool for facilitating the animation process, and on the other hand as a medium for creating digital animation. The film accessed the traditional stop-motion animation processes of paper cut-out animation and paint-on-glass animation. As these are labour-intensive processes, I aimed to find ways of using the digital platform as tool to facilitate and speed up this process. I also had to find ways of integrating diverse traditional and digital styles and approaches. In order to do this, while I had previous knowledge of digital cinema technology, I had to learn to process and integrate these hybrid techniques in film editing and production suites at a more advanced level than I had previously used. In terms of accessing the digital platform as a medium with which to create animation, I aimed to develop my skills in digital, hand-drawn, frame-by-frame animation and learn 2D puppet animation using the Flash animation platform. To what extent do the visual conceptualisation, planning and preparation for the film represent valid research methods? The general consensus within practice-based research is that the practice forms a significant part of the research (Elkins 2009). While to some extent the investigation is seen to be made visible in the culminating creative work, other modes of investigation applied during the practice may not be apparent in the end product. These include storyboarding the narrative, the initial visual and aesthetic conceptualisation, and the technical planning. Some commentators suggest that these processes can be recorded in the form of a diary (Frayling 1994). I have chosen to incorporate them into the written component. In this way the textual component aims to elucidate and document the visual methods of investigation applied during the creative process. The objective is to clarify this visual exploration as valid research, without which there would be no film. It is important to note that while such visual processes are major aspects of the research, other forms of non-visual investigation also apply and are an essential part of the planning process as well. The theme of the “Big Man”, for example, required both visual and theoretical exploration. However, for the sake of clarity, these aspects of the research are dealt with separately to the visual research process.


Doctor of Philosophy in Media and Cultural Studies. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2016.


Theses - Media, Visual Arts and Drama.