Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Tunnels and Flies

Ines Hardtke

If tools are tools,

if craft relates to how well we use the tools,

if art relates to how and why we apply and manifest our craft


is animation,

is visual effects,

is the body of work that was submitted,

is the collective work that was selected for prizes and mentions

a tool, a craft or an art?

The opportunity to view a large and significant body of work is wonderful - often regardless of context. The chance to see where people are in their work, what they are preoccupied with, what they value as important, how far along they are in it is a gift. Creative expression of self in whatever form it is manifest is (obviously from my point of view) what life is all about. In the case of these words, the context is the Prix Ars Electronica 2000 competition and the body of work the submissions for the "Computer Animation" and "Visual Effects" categories.

Mark Dippé, James Duesing, Barbara Robertson and myself, as jury members watched some 260 pieces of work. After three rounds of viewing, decisions, discussions, arguments and eventually consensus, we awarded a Golden Nica, two Awards of Distinction and fifteen Honorable Mentions in both categories. The experience was stimulating and satisfying. The jury process worked. The resulting collective of prize winners and honorable mentions is a definite "must see" for anyone interested in either of these areas.
The various and varying lines between "animation" and "effects" continue to waver and move. We (the jury) ended up moving some submitted work between the "animation" and "effects" categories when we felt that a piece fell under a better light in the "other", but concisely summing up or numerating the criteria for either category is beyond, certainly, me alone. And, oddly enough, equalizing work to the point where an incredibly successful (in all terms) commercial piece can be compared to a student work is actually easier than defining the distinction between "animation" and "effects". In both categories tools, craft (the application of the tools) and art (the how and why of the applied craftsmanship) remain somehow the judging sub-categories. The important qualifiers remain "new-ness" (Has this been done before?) and "excellence" of idea, of execution and of result.

Of course this is all subjective. That is the why of a "jury". And, setting up a jury so that it covers the "whole" of a field, let alone possibly two, is tough work on its own. We (the jury) do think that we selected a diverse group of work showing the range of what is being done with animation and effects. The spectrum went from the commercial to the experimental and from the comic to the macabre.


This year’s Golden Nica winner was a unanimous favourite amongst jury members. "Little Milosh" is a wonderfully stylish and ironic piece with a delightful story, beautifully told. Remarkable was the surfacing of "traditional" Eastern European animation style in the computer medium. "Toy Story 2" is remarkable for its storytelling and technical strength and, although the characters were already invented in the history-making film "Toy Story", they were made even more dimensional in this film. "Zen" deserves recognition for its emotional sensitivity, for its beauty and for its sheer poetry.

There are a lot of ways the animation is being used - from rotoscoping to abstraction to the emulation of traditional materials. The technical level of the work was quite high on average, thereby allowing us to choose work by differentiating the underlying ideas. Perhaps we truly are reaching a point in our industry where "good tools", their availability and their accessibility are solved problems.

Remarkably, most of the animations submitted carried an internal consistency. Very few fell flat after starting well. The stories were better overall than in previous years (although notably quite grim in content), but the approach to narrative animation seemed largely to be the establishment and the resolution of "a story" at breakneck speed. Rather than investing in character complexity or narrative depth, clichés and stereotyping were often used as the means of narrative efficiency. An obvious exception to this is "Au loup". The impact of this work was amplified through the deceptive simplicity of its approach. It is applauded for taking on a challenge much greater than most of the work we saw.

Beyond a general lack in narrative innovation, there also wasn’t much experimentation in the notion of "movement". It felt as though almost all the character driven work was an emulation of physical reality. There is a tradition in animation that explores the ways things can be animated and allows imagination to have the larger say. This understanding of history seems to be lost, since a lot of work was referencing computer animation of the last ten years as if that was the only animation history that was known. "Little Milosh" certainly stands out in this light as well.

Visual Effects

There was a general consensus that we honoured more experimental works. There was a notable lack of entries from the world of commercial cinema. Perhaps there is a direct link between the two. Perhaps not. Violence and blood still seemed to rule the day, but there were some nice surprises from the commercial world using abstract visuals to highlight and create a metaphor for their product.

This year’s Golden Nica winner for Visual Effects is "Maaz" - a piece which took quite a painterly approach its effects. The results were captivating.

The most controversial piece was "Disembodies". The winning arguments for this piece were that its horrific beauty was striking and is the kind of imagery not often seen in this or any other medium. There was obviously a high level of fascination for this within the jury and quite a high level of discussion.

Tunnels and Flies

The body of work brought me, personally, to an "insight" that I now realize I have been wishing for a long time. The jury process itself only served to reinforce it and bring it even more clearly into my plain sight (and feeling and thoughts). The complex truth and nature of "it" - life, who we are, what we express, what we value in what is expressed - all goes together. We all go together. We are truly part of an amazing, complex, vulnerable, strong whole. Each part matters. As does the whole. The whole does not move without the parts. And parts don’t exist independently. And computers, technology, new media are playing an incredible role in all of this.

We are able to do things that we have never been able to do before. We are able to imitate and do "better" things that we have always done. This is likely a mixture of both good and bad - as seen through any one snapshot of time (as is this competition) - but is hopefully, ultimately reflecting to us where we now are and leading us, helping to guide us to where we want to go.

We are pushing on the limits of what we have always accepted as "truth". Our senses - the wonderful discrete packages of "ways in" to our physical selves - are actually being questioned. This is happening in the auditory world in "digital music" and in the visual world in "animation" and "effects". Is sight as discrete and as "unbreakdownable" as we have always been taught? Watching "Unterwerk" makes me doubt this unquestionably. Sight - perhaps better "seeing" - is much more complex than simply what we do with our eyes. Perhaps our eyes are the tool and not the craft nor the art - meaning not the end result in itself that we have always considered it to be. Perhaps we have been developing our tools and now are ready to move onto a new craft, a new art of collective consciousness and affectiveness. I hope so.

Perhaps this is a little more philosophical than would be expected for a jury statement. A jury sits in judgment though. A good jury is one in which each individual’s opinion has room for considered expression. A good jury is one which is able to reach a consensus based on what? A system? Rules? Process? Understanding? Open listening and expression? Each voice being heard and given the weight that this voice "ought" to have in the overall "whole"? Yes, to all of that. This happened this year. The base criteria for judging were commonly held by all. The individual preoccupations were apparent. It is always the weighting of their importance that varies.

This year’s results are a reflection of the weight our overall society currently gives its composing pieces. I, personally, agree that these are the "right" results. I, personally, am disturbed not overall but in some specific cases that this is true. That perhaps, is my "place" on this "jury". This preoccupation still belongs to individuals and not yet society "at large". And, I do wonder about the pieces of work that we (at large) are not seeing because we are seeing these, about the work that we (individually) are not doing because we are doing this. But, back to what it is that we are doing …

Insight - I’d like to write a bit about what I consider to be a "wonderful" insight. It has to do with tunnels … While watching the body of submitted work ,the notion of tunnels was everywhere. It was not necessarily always explicit (in the sense of tunneled decors) but it was prevalent in "sense". The way characters moved, the way the created or imagined world was presented was in a "tunnel". My first thought was the startled and admittedly somewhat aghast thought of "video games. People are learning to animate through video games." I felt and saw the art of animation as I have come to know it, fall by the wayside. That was my first order reaction. So … after the jury decisions, on being asked (too soon I thought) if I could talk about any remarkable themes in this year’s work I answered "Tunnels and flies."

There were many flies and bugs in the submitted work - mainly in the collective of student pieces. Likely this is in part a compliment to recent industry successes and in part an answer to the shared school/student conundrum of necessarily needing to learn tools "first". Our ever-changing tools are complex to learn, to master into a craft, to use "artfully". And flies, bugs or anything that defies or doesn’t make as obvious the natural laws of interaction is easier to make move, to give life to. So, we saw many bugs … a permitted (given the recent very merited applause in the industry) sign of our "complex tools" times. And, as always generalities and themes remain gross simplifications. There are always the exceptions to the "rule". "PAF le moustique" merited an Honorable Mention for its story relying heavily on well crafted mosquitoes. The student work - in general - was surprisingly "conservative" (relying often on imitation) and "practical" (honing the obviously "in demand" job skills). (Perhaps this joins our colleagues' opinions on the .net jury?) And, again, an already noted exception to this rule is the Golden Nica winner for animation "Little Milosh".

The second "theme" is one whose implications only really hit (if that is actually possible to see at this point) during my still "too early", post-jury meeting conversation. I started by speaking out loud my previous thought "People are learning to animate through video games." with its implicit "How sad." still inside me. By the end of this conversation that thankfully I had "too early", I was saying "People are growing up learning that they actually affect the world as they move through it.". Explicitly added to that was a "How wonderful." I will explain.

Artists have always had as part of their role the expressing back out of what they - individually and collectively - "see". (I am using the visual sense here given that this is "animation" and "visual effects" but believe that any and all senses are/could be/should be conceptually interchangeable here). In photography and cinematography, we see and express through a lens: artist <--> lens <--> world. This is no longer the whole truth. Artist and world are now actually meeting in the lens. This is the "tunnel". The artist is no longer detached from what s/he is seeing. S/he is moving - albeit in the confines, the circumference of the lens - in the world that s/he is seeing. This is a huge step forward. This is a radical change. This is no longer reflecting out a vision of the world, this is affecting a vision of the world. I now think that there will be another step, which will be the combination of the largeness of the "old" (the wisdom that comes from detachment maybe?) and the effectiveness of the "new" (the response-ability) into a collective effectiveness as we have never before experienced. This is extraordinary!

This actually points to last year’s Golden Nica winner in the Interactive Art competition - a work where pieces of furniture making up a living room were seen and manipulated through three separate points of views and interfaces. A brilliant piece - whether people "understood" consciously or not. This is the "next" step in our evolution for me: the meeting and overlaying of the tunnels that we all actually function in. Yes, we see. Yes, we affect (when we are so enabled). Yes, all of our actions (when we see, are enabled and so choose to act or not) meet and make up the world we live in. Our world is opening up. Our notion of response-ability and ultimately responsibility is being affected, changed, is evolving. Yes, through technology. And this is what we are seeing in this collective of work - the "was", "is" and perhaps "will be" of our tools, our craft and yes, our art.

Do take the opportunity to see this body of work if you have the chance. Look at where we have taken ourselves and where others are striving to take us. There is movement. There is good movement. There is still more to "do". The movement is always from tool to craft to art and back to tool. We are ultimately only ever that which we express.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at