June 2001


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Written by
David R. Eltz

Glabicki Unframed

The computer animation of studio arts chair Paul Glabicki is a study in exquisite intricacy

Pitt studio arts professor Paul Glabicki, an experimental animator, is an experiment—in just how far one man can go.

The soft glow from an oriental lamp on the desk cannot begin to illuminate Paul Glabicki’s entire studio. As it is, the light barely reveals Glabicki, the chair of Pitt’s studio arts department, who sits at his computer, leaning forward, shoulders hunched, eyes peering at the screen before him. Glabicki, an experimental artist working in computer animation, has been known to sit here like this, on the second floor of the Frick Fine Arts Building, hovering over his work, in the semidarkness, losing track of time for a dozen hours on end.

Glabicki loads an image on the screen from his newest piece of computer animation, Full Moon. The project, for which he has finished perhaps a dozen minutes’ worth of sequences, explores the relationship of celestial bodies and astronomical charts and gravitational pull. A year-and-a-half in the making, the piece will run about an hour.

“For some, when they get started in computer animation, this is a huge turnoff,” he says, shrugging, “because they expect it to be easy.” But even if it were easy, Glabicki is the kind of artist who would need to find a way to complicate it, to make it edgy. Glabicki is one of those people who push the envelope, who poke at the edge of the known. He’s looking for an opening to the other side.

Growing up in the late 1950s in Pittsburgh, Glabicki started out drawing and painting what he calls “imaginary Oriental locations.” (To this day, he still draws and paints, though the work has taken on the appearance of cuneiform.) But once he discovered Disney, around age 8, Glabicki, fascinated with the movement, the sound, the color of Disney films, knew he wanted to be an animator.

His parents encouraged his interest; they would take him to see everything Disney. Yet, despite his youth, Glabicki didn’t like Disney’s stories. He wasn’t enamored, either, with cartoon characters and their development, though he did like the “simple geometry” of their design. He wanted to learn about special effects, how the animation was actually produced.

Glabicki would come home from a Disney film and pore over Bob Thomas’ book, Walt Disney: The Art of Animation. Thick and richly illustrated, the book—his Christmas present one year—taught Glabicki about storyboards, pencil drawings, filmstrips. When Sleeping Beauty was released, he wanted to know everything about how it was made. The film was the first wide-screen animation and a fine example of emerging techniques in color and sound. The curious 8-year-old started writing to Walt Disney.

He asked good questions. How did Disney get so much color in his films? Why did his scenes move so fluidly? And Disney always wrote back—sort of. “At first the replies from Disney studios were actually job descriptions and information on preparing portfolios,” Glabicki says. “Later, I would receive postcards on upcoming releases. Eventually, they realized I was a kid and would send photos of Walt Disney.” Not at all discouraged, Glabicki found more books about animation and bought art supplies and learned on his own to make flipbooks, teaching himself rudimentary animation.

Even later, as a Carnegie Mellon art student in the late ’60s, Glabicki made animation without guidance. Taking the Super 8 camera his parents had bought in 1967, he composed films in his basement. One, Windows, took the viewer from urban environments to sequences of birth, disaster, and the cosmos. Principally made with clippings from Time and Newsweek, it was a collage of images, such as the moon landing and Vietnam, filtered through a colored lens. It became what Glabicki calls the “ultimate ’60s trip” because of the film’s psychedelic stream-of-consciousness imagery.

Naturally, he showed Windows to a counterculture audience. Glabicki himself wasn’t hip to the audience’s social awareness and mind-altering experiments. They were tie-dyed and longhaired. He wore polo shirts and had his hair clipped short. “Everyone thought I had some strange vision,” Glabicki says. Still looking straightlaced today, dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks, his hair thinner but his face still boyish, Glabicki smiles, quietly amused even now.

Watching Glabicki’s art is like standing in a Pentium processor, algorithms zipping by so fast they screech with the timbre of a billion howler monkeys. It’s an assault on the senses and psyche, a fierce overload.

Take, for instance, Glabicki’s Diagram Film (1978), his fifth animated film. Made long before he began to work by computer—his first 10 films were drawn by hand—the images, identifiable at the start, quickly dissolve into shapes and figures. In one, a parked car becomes a physical phenomenon in motion. The wheels disengage from their axles and roll in opposite directions. The body flies upward and disintegrates into lines and angles that flutter about as if they were a squadron of balsa airplanes caught in a hurricane. Then, without warning, the pieces sommersault and melt together into, well, a parked car.

It’s a glimpse into the way Glabicki sees the world. He takes the ordinary, splits it into geometry—circles and angles and lines—and reassembles it into his own system of order, or disorder. Says William Judson, curator of film and video at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum: “Paul is somebody whose sense of sight is really connected to the physical world around him. He sees things very intently. Some people see things in their head, and they’re sort of oblivious to what’s going on around them. Paul sees the world and sees it through a particular structure of references and meanings of his own.”

Glabicki’s work is about as far from Walt Disney as you can get. His work explores the essence of objects and their relationships to the physical world. In fact, Glabicki once described watching his work as “stepping into an alien environment and trying to orient yourself.” Gameshow (1975) is a satire on TV game shows. Diagram Film considers fields of wild grass and airplanes. His subjects, from one film to the next, often have little to do with each other outside of one defining thread: Glabicki is telling a story in his own language, one he needs to pull from his mind and see on screen. It’s a story of the rhythm and sound of motion. It’s a story of compulsion.

As a kid, Glabicki wandered the Carnegie Museum by himself for hours after Saturday morning art classes, pondering the pop art of Warhol, the girth of dinosaur bones, the luster of the gem collection. “Everybody knew me, even the guards. I had free rein,” he says. It was as if the museum were Glabicki’s personal playground, as if it were the place where he best fit in. Grad school at Ohio University was no different.

It was the mid-1970s. Glabicki was curious about everything. Though he was studying painting, he wormed his way into photography classes. Then he studied under Joseph Anderson, head of the film department, a “kind of guru figure,” who told Glabicki: “Do whatever you want.” Under the tutelage of Anderson, a former Hollywood screenwriter, Glabicki had his first formal instruction in film. Anderson, not known as a one-on-one teacher, sat down next to Glabicki one day and showed him how to edit 16-mm film. Glabicki even took an electronic music class to learn to play the Moog synthesizer, though he’d never had formal music instruction before; he thought the instrument would help him compose “strange surrealist soundscape” soundtracks.

Experimental animation, around since the dawn of film in the early 1900s, became especially popular in the ’70s. Film festivals cropped up at schools across the country. The Athens Film Festival turned the Ohio U campus into an art studio each spring, and Glabicki was astonished by his first taste of early abstract filmmakers such as Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger. Richter, an avant-garde artist whose work had detailed magic, cruelty, and pre-Nazi Germany’s economic turmoil, taught in the 1940s and ’50s at New York’s Institute of Film Technique, one of the most influential film schools during his tenure. Fischinger, who’d briefly worked on the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence for Disney’s Fantasia before quitting, claiming the film a “most inartistic product of a factory,” had made silhouette animation by spreading wax and clay on glass. The resurgent interest in the old films also brought out new filmmakers like Scott Bartlett, whose 1968 film Offon is considered by many scholars to be the first to merge film and video color distortions.

Glabicki sat for hours, days even, absorbing it all. “You would watch film 24 hours a day,” he says. He has called the period a “revelation.” He was finding kindred spirits, making connections with the experimental filmmakers of the present and past. The Athens festivals also gave Glabicki his first reference beyond Disney, and beyond his own work, establishing a framework from which he could learn and upon which he could expand. It was the greatest period of influence of his life. The art world had sidled up to his and invited him along for a ride.

He didn’t hesitate to take his seat.

Glabicki came to Pitt in 1976 to teach. It was a perfect fit. He brought his passion for teaching and a concept of art as personal endeavor (he’d already made three experimental animation films) to the University. Pitt gave him space to work on his projects, and a salary. Not long after, Glabicki started to earn fellowships and grants for his work, including a prestigious Guggenheim in 1986.

For years, he sat in his studio at Pitt, alone in the dark, obsessively hand-drawing his films. He would sometimes become so engaged in a project, hunched over a table drawing the same figure over and over, he would look up and realize he’d been at it for 12 hours. His films were getting longer, from three to seven to 14 minutes. And it was taking more time to make them. After churning out six films between 1975 and 1979, it took Glabicki four years to make Film-Wipe-Film (1983), a piece in which he drew the same circle thousands of times. His last hand-drawn film, Under the Sea (1989), also took four years to finish, partly because of its complicated subject matter. It’s an abstract adaptation of five classic novels, Frankenstein and Gulliver’s Travels among them, about travel and adjusting to environments. But mostly Glabicki’s work, done without any apprentices, was labor intensive. (Each animation frame equals one drawing; each second of film requires 24 frames; he estimates that Under the Sea, though only 23 minutes long, is roughly 10,000 drawings.) Glabicki hadn’t cut a single corner.

Then there was the intricacy of the work itself. When Glabicki showed a film, someone never failed to ask what computer program he used. (His older work is so seamless, it appears to have been computer generated.) Glabicki would say the film was drawn by hand. Then he would tell the person how many drawings. “As soon as you say 10,000, people think you’re insane,” Glabicki says. He spins in his chair and points to a row of boxes along a wall, waving his hands as if to dismiss them. The boxes contain thousands of drawings from his early films.

“I don’t want to count them,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I don’t care. I just have to do what I can to make the film.” Glabicki made art for art’s sake. It didn’t matter to him that some people wouldn’t get it. He just wanted to do what he did best.

The attitude paid off. Glabicki’s work has picked up countless prestigious awards—at the New York Filmmakers Exposition, the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Black Maria Film Festival, to name a few.

And yet, by 1990, Glabicki knew his art process had to change. His films were becoming so complicated and so intense—and taking so long to make—it was time to enlist a computer in the animation process. The original computer animation programs were difficult to master. But as he’d always done, Glabicki spent months teaching himself, learning how to use several animation programs. Bored by commercial photorealist animation (such as what can be seen today in film’s like Toy Story and Jurassic Park), Glabicki wanted to be different. He wanted to create lines that rotated and orbited, three-dimensional spaces that appeared to be two-dimensional to the naked eye.

And just as he taught himself, for the most part, how to be a filmmaker, Glabicki taught himself to be a computer animator through trial and error. He would spend days, weeks, sometimes months, creating images, just to delete them and start again, all because he didn’t think they were interesting. By 1992 he had enough control over the medium to make tapes for his first computer art exhibit.

In 1999, Glabicki released his first major computer animation. Red Fence, a 62-minute film colored by Glabicki’s travels to Japan (he calls Red Fence an autobiography), has earned Glabicki the 2001 Pittsburgh Artist of the Year and the 2000 Director’s Choice award at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival in New Jersey. The piece was even displayed last summer on a four-story screen in the heart of London.

Ironically, Glabicki’s early computer animation, created on a now-obsolete operating system, suffers the same fate as the drawings from his films—it’s stuffed in a box. This is a temporary medium, often focused on the next animation program to hit the market—just as painting and drawing techniques change. Glabicki would rather spend time seeing what he can create tomorrow than worry about what happens to the art he made yesterday.

“I guess it’s sort of the compulsion to make art,” Glabicki says. He laughs. “What else can you do?”

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