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On-the-Spot Animation 

Two men create an animated movie and an original soundtrack while you watch

Wednesday, Sep 15 2004
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Canadian filmmaker Pierre Hébert and San Francisco new-music composer Bob Ostertag, performing together under the name Living Cinema, could pass for the ingenious progeny of 20th-century director and special-effects master George Meliés. Their live shows, in which they create an animated movie and an original soundtrack on the spot, evoke a world as complex as our own, using only low-tech props, first-rate drawing skills, and, well, a few hundred million bytes of computing capacity. The duo looks to the future of moviemaking as well as to its roots, honing an approach that is spontaneous, portable, timely, and deliciously ephemeral.

Hébert and Ostertag's new work, Endangered Species, which receives its U.S. premiere this week, draws on themes of "disappearance, panic, witness and humor," according to press materials. Unlike traditional pictures, whose plots are fixed (at least until the director's cut or the DVD release with alternate endings), each Living Cinema performance is improvised. Seated at a table laid out with various electronics, Hébert sketches and manipulates images on an illuminated surface while Ostertag generates a pulsating sound design using magic electro-musician toys. Instantaneously, the images are projected on a screen over their heads. As a result, the pair can -- and assuredly will -- comment on such current events as the war in Iraq and the presidential election. But because they rely on evocative rather than photorealistic tools, the effect is completely different from, say, watching a documentary. By converting the whimsy of animation into cutting satire, Hébert and Ostertag achieve a subversive and disconcerting power.

Between Science and Garbage, the team's previous piece, developed during a 1999 residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (and revised after 9/11 and again in performances in European cities during the run-up to the Iraq War), incorporated the front pages of local newspapers. Those and windup toys are essentially the only "real" objects the duo employs. For the lion's share of his palette, Hébert utilizes a breathtaking litany of artistic reference points, from watercolors to stop-motion animation, Etch A Sketch to collage, experimental film, video games, puppet shows, charcoal drawings, and Photoshop. It's his way of keeping the mix familiar and accessible, and inviting us to share the jokes.

Ultimately, a Living Cinema performance is as experiential, intangible, and memorable as a concert. Ostertag's sound design rumbles and rings, and the viewer's mind makes a thousand rapid associations as Hébert builds sumptuous textures out of drawings and frame grabs. While the screen jumps with color and movement, the mad chefs du cinema remain expressionless, mimicking Buster Keaton's stone face. Perhaps someday soon we'll go to nightclubs to catch the best "IJs" (image jockeys), technically adept artists capable of crafting personal, impressionistic works that go far beyond light-show psychedelia. Until then, Hébert and Ostertag are the aces of the form.

About The Author

Michael Fox

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