Animating the body

25 October 2016

We recently held a weekend of hands-on creative activities and thoughtful conversations exploring how we communicate through posture, gesture and facial expression. One of these activities included re-animating a film from Wellcome’s archive of moving images, featuring a range of body language.

When I was asked to develop a drop-in activity for the Bloomsbury Festival ‘Speaking With Your Body‘ weekend, it didn’t take me long to decide on how it might work. The process of rotoscoping came to mind, as it’s one that many people can get involved in and would allow for a highly collaborative outcome.

The idea

Rotoscoping has been around since about 1915 and was said to be first used by Max Fleischer on his animated series Out Of The Inkwell. Fleischer projected footage of his brother on to frosted glass and drew around the image frame by frame, creating an animation that was much smoother and moved in a more human way.

I wanted this project to be accessible to as many people as possible. Because of this, a slightly different approach was taken: we printed out stills from a film for visitors to colour and collage directly onto, before photographing the images in sequence with the iPad so that a new rotoscoped version of the film could come to life.


Participants get stuck into “animating the body” while the screen shows the work in progress.

The film

In order to get an original film to rotoscope, I was keen to explore the archives at Wellcome. I asked for films that might relate to the theme of body language and was recommended five items from the moving image archives:

These fascinating films provided some great clips relating to the theme and really appealed to me: the disapproving look from mother when the girl accidentally drops her plate; the intimidating surgeon looming over; the simplicity of the two hands connecting. Each clip, however short, communicates so much about the person, their relationship to others and the situation they are in.

The edit

I edited sections of these films together to create a new piece focussing on facial expressions, communication, posture and language. I took inspiration from the music videos of American band The Books: they often used found footage and archive material to show little moments between people. Their videos make me feel joyous because they have an element of anticipation; there’s no straightforward narrative so you’re not sure what you’re going to see next.

Another inspiration for me was the work of British artist Vicki Bennett (People Like Us), recognised as an influential and pioneering figure in the sampling, appropriation and cutting up of found footage and archives. I’d recently shown two of her films at the Horniman Museum & Gardens Magic Late event, so her work was clear in my mind when approaching the edit.

I added spoken word and music to bring the material to life and then exported the film as a PDF at 8 frames per second so I could print it out. The final edit comes in just under 4 minutes: that’s a massive 1782 pages! We only printed out a fraction of these to use over the weekend.

Watch the original video edited by Mash Cinema:

The workshop

Over the course of two days, 261 pages were individually coloured in and collaged onto by visitors to Wellcome Collection. A wide range of people took part, from professional illustrators and designers to young children and their families.

It was lovely to sit with people and explain the project. Everyone picked it up quickly and people were excited to see their designs added to the sequence, which was projected onto a screen in the space during the activity.

Watch the final animated sequence created by Mash Cinema and our visitors:

I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who contributed.

Read about Dan’s Saturday Studio workshop at Wellcome Collection.

Dan is the founder of Mash Cinema and a visual artist who creates films, animations and installations; performs live visuals for bands; and programmes film screenings and events in a variety of settings. Dan is also a trained youth worker and qualified teacher who delivers training and workshops on moving image production and exhibition.