Paint On Glass Animation

Alt Title: Every Frame IS a Painting (Not Clickbait)

The Man and the Sea (1999), dir. Aleksandr Petrov

Paint-on-Glass is an animation technique where an artist pushes/ modifies a wet medium (typically paint) on a smooth surface, taking a photo with each modification that, when played in succession, creates the illusion of the image moving/ animation (1). Paint-on-glass animators utilize a variety of paints recorded under-the-camera, including acrylic, pastel, oil, watercolors, etc.— with artists favoring oil and gouache mixed with glycerine remain the most commonly used types of paint due to their slow drying nature. Moreover, artists paint onto a smooth surface— either glass or a similarly glossily-textured material (whiteboards, etc.)— to allow them better ease in pushing the paint; and to ensure the painting material does not absorb into the surface. Forsooth, the process of creating paint-on-glass animation shares many similarities to stop-motion animation; seeing as how both techniques require a methodical straight-ahead approach where the artists reposition the material in a linear series of photographs— of course, trading frame-by-frame photographs of puppets/dolls for pictures of an increasingly intricate painting. For further explanation: here is indie, paint-on-glass animator Patrick Jenkins giving an overview of his process.

Many early examples of paint-on-glass animation come from independent artists in eastern Europe, with Polish animator Witold Giersz’s 1960 film Mały Western (A Little Western) acting as the first short to utilize the technique. Certainly, Giersz’s approach to paint-on-glass bases its foundation on the fundamentals of traditional 2D animation both in how it uses multiple layered drawings/paintings at a time and leans more into solid/thick brushstrokes; however, the film does exhibit some of the early advantages of the technique. For starters, whereas traditional 2D animation would require animators to draw the frames onto paper before later inking and coloring each frame, paint-on-glass relied more so on the spontaneity of the animator— as if the animators were to have painted on the celluloid right away rather than on paper first. Moreover, Giersz occasionally purposefully smudges his paint, particularly to create the negative space of his character’s mouths and for the quick motions of the action scenes. In effect, the implementation of smudging highlights the foremost distinction of paint-on-glass as an animation technique— that the paint on the glass exists as malleable and lively as it builds upon each subsequent frame through metaphorizing the previous one.

Indeed, presumably because of the complexity necessitated by the technique, paint-on-glass animation largely remains in the filmographies of only a handful of independent animators— even into the current day. Understandably, considering the level of planning and skill needed to effectuate this typically single-layered (without compositing) animation technique, let alone the amount of space and supplies required. This considerable barrier to entry has made paint-on-glass animation a relative rarity in film— the technique primarily exhibited by individual independent animators for short films, with the first (and as of writing this, only) feature length paint-on-glass animated film, The Crossing, premiering in 2021. However, that is not to sell short the accomplishments of the artists in this field; although notably inaccessible, the work of the artists who have mastered this art form stands as nothing short of incredible. The fluidity of the paint allows the film plenty of organisms and spiritedness, and, furthermore, it establishes its own dialect within cinematic language; this is to say, paint-on-glass animations utilize the limitations of the medium to constitute a variety of new filmmaking tricks that would be difficult or otherwise impossible to do. For example, what would usually be an ordinary fade in a traditionally animated film now exists as a motion where everything in the frame morphs to the next scene. The liveliness elicited by line-flickering traditional 2D animation could now permeate across   every blending stroke of paint in the movie. Likewise, the sophistication of fine-arts-painting (specifically, impressionism and post-impressionism-inspired painting) could now exist in— what is in effect— a mesmerizing literal translation of those styles into the medium of film. 

For an excellent example of the paint-on-glass animation, let’s look at Aleksandr Petrov’s 1999 short film The Old Man and the Sea. Aleksandr Petrov serves as a golden child of paint-on-glass animation— with the success of this film particularly boosting the knowledge of the technique in America; although, this film is Petrov’s fourth paint-on-glass film and fifth directorial work overall. An adaption of the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, The Old Man and the Sea follows our titular old man as he sails into our titular sea on one last fishing expedition, with the film animated by Petrov (assisted by his son, Dimitri) using pastel oil paints on glass. The immediate and overwhelming impression I got from this film remains how impressive and masterful Petrov’s painting and animation skills present themselves— his style of romantic-realism creates such captivating and breathtaking stills that evolve into an otherworldly and mesmerizingly beautiful piece of animation. Furthermore, despite some clunky dialogue— the implementation of the paint that expertly conveys the narrative— especially underscoring the film’s more spiritual aspects with stunning impressionism and punctuating the action scenes with an added sense of chaos and fluidity. 

Additionally, I want to give special mention to my personal favorite paint-on-glass animator, Miyo Sato. After graduating from the Tokyo University of Arts, Miyo Sato began her career by producing several short films before transitioning into working on guest animations in television anime series. Her first piece of television animation came in the first season of the 2016 anime adaption of Mob Psycho 100 by Studio Bones, where Sato completed paint-on-glass animations for the ghost characters, select dramatic scenes, and the show’s end credits sequence. Sato has continued her career in television, both for other series like Pop Team Epic and the subsequent seasons of Mob Psycho 100; however, I would like to highlight her 2015 short film Fox Fears. Of course I love the spectacle and bombast Sato brings to Mob Psycho 100 (and, in general, Mob Psycho 100 is a show I love to pieces and had to cut a full paragraph for here of me gushing from here)— but I appreciate the understated tenderness of Fox Fears— a folklore-inspired story that shines best through its expressionistic animation and compassionately gentle tone. As a result, the film feels like a warm hug after a long day, with its rich emotionally captured perfectly by Sato’s brush. 

Although rare to find and arduous to accomplish, paint-on-glass remains a beautiful technique in animation that allows animators to translate the elegance and sophistication of fine art film. Paint-on-glass animations, not in spite of but through their complexities, capture a high level of emotionality; in such a sense, it acts as both an extension of the legacy of impressionist-styled painting and a captivating interpretation of animation conventions. 

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