Flip-books – More than child’s play – Page 2

From The Flipbook of Revelations by Ruth Hayes.

From the California Institute of the Arts, where she is currently studying film, Hayes told me by phone how she came to concentrate on flip books. After graduating from Harvard in 1978, where she studied with George Griffin, Hayes put two of her short animated films on the festival circuit. They made the rounds and then sat on the shelf, since shorts are rarely shown in movie theatres or on television in the USA. So she turned to flip books as a way of getting her artwork to the public. Beginning in 1979, she sold Xeroxed (and therefore rather inexact) copies of her flip books, marketing them through a Christmas store that specialised in artists’ works. Later she moved to offset printing (an improvement because even a sixteenth of an inch deviation can destroy the smooth flow of movement in a flip book) and distributed her books on consignment to stores that sell artists’ books in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.

As buyers for other stores saw her work and readers wrote to the address on the back of each volume, her business grew. A three year job with The Real Comet Press taught her more about the book industry, and by 1987 she was selling 10,000 copies a year of her various flip books. In 1988, she licensed six titles to The Real Comet Press (they print them while she holds the copyright) and contracted to produce two flip books per year for them.

I’ve told the business side of Hayes biography because I find it relevant to her creative work. Her earlier flip books reveal her training in animation, for they obey the standard rules: make the action simple and provide enough images to make the movement smooth and easy to perceive. A sensuous and traditionally female mouth extends a tongue in Hot Licks (1980). Into space? More likely into the reader’s or viewer’s mouth. A tongue on a television set makes a similar outward motion and snatches up a child in T.V. Dinner (1981). Both books end with a small, discreet smile of satisfaction one sensuous and the other gluttonous. In Gluttony (1985), two humans repeatedly unroll their long tongues in each other’s direction until one swallows the other’s head. (Short animated films often have a surprise ending, like many a short story.)

But Hayes’ experience in book publishing led, I think, to her perception of flip books as more than animation on paper. Her later work exploits some of the possibilities presented by the print medium. In 1988, she published Birthrite, a flip book with a text culled from sources as diverse as The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. From that date, most of her works pack the frame with so much information that they must be paged as well as flipped. It’s this breaking of the usual fixed categories – and the cross¬breeding that results – that I admire most about her creativity.

Hayes explained her method well in a lecture given to the Society for Animation Studies conference in Ottawa in 1990: “Birthrite, which I made in 1988, has two lines of writing that move above and below the drawings. You can’t read the texts and look at the animation simultaneously. You have to go back and read each text by itself at a slower pace. When you read the texts, the artwork moves on the periphery of your vision. If you stop to look at a single image, the text fragments on that page become captions. When you look at the animation after reading the texts, your memory synthesises the three elements into a complete experience of the book.”

This reliance on memory can be seen in her later works, which make less use of the most obvious and frequent marker of the book – the printed word. My eyes could not catch what was happening in Paranoia (1989), even with repeated fast flips. I had to “read” slowly to see that the little yellow flying monsters that a mad-looking military man is shooting at grow out of his head. You can blame this on my thumb, the thickness of the paper, or the small number of in-betweens. Or you can say that this isn’t my fault or the book’s but an invitation to find a new way of handling a bound stack of paper. In Paranoia, an open book falls toward the brown-shirted figure. Your fast-flipping thumb must adjust its motion to satisfy your mind’s curiosity about the book’s title and author (Democracy in America, by de Tocqueville). Hayes’ work cautions the modern reader against imitating the regularity of a projector.

Hayes exploits other advantages of the flip book format. While film is confined to images of invariable dimensions because it must fit through standardised projectors, the flip book frame can be fluid and shifting. In Paranoia, the upper edge of the rectangular image expands and then breaks open, allowing bullets out and objects, like de Tocqueville’s book, in. In Leash Law (1989), a woman Hayes’ self-portrait sketches in one corner, jettisoning blotches of colour that become the curved border of a world. But when a cat, dog and man in that world lean over and lick their genitals (Ibis is another of Hayes’ works about active tongues), both the illustrator and her male character are yanked from the picture. In short, the “off-frame” illustrator turns out to be onstage -implicated in and guilty of the breaking of a societal taboo.

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