Big Water

HD video, stereo, 2019

The basics: 57 erased characters, 92 background plates and one long river snaking through a century of studio animation. Across torrential waters and calm lake scenes, black & white thunderheads and gouache hillscapes, Big Water is a trek from one bedroom in the 1920s to the suburbs of another in the 2010s. The film begins in Mickey’s house, strobing to the flash of a lightning storm. Beyond his backyard, the gradual development of commercial animation production unfolds over the countryside––our river making its way through farmland, recreational boating areas, campgrounds and storm drains en route to the present. For as novel as early-industry cartoons were, our renderings in an age of computer imagery are uncanny and dominant.

Since the beginning of animation production, background plates were used to establish a film’s setting. They were the stage. Situated on the multiplane camera, they rested on the lowermost level, near the floor and were usually panoramic images of an extra wide dimension. They could be panned across during photography, in motion, giving the illusion of space and depth. Creating background plates was a specific skill, quite different from drawing bodies in action. Though the work played second fiddle to the increasingly popular characters of major studio animation, its significance was paramount in establishing the look of decades-defining motion pictures, their lucrative stars, fetishized aesthetics and all-consuming IP.