University City

UNC Charlotte artists help tell story of animation

Heather Freeman sprung the cap from a bottle of beer and helped the libation escape into plastic cups.

It was 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. She was in the garage workshop of her neighbor and colleague Ryan Buyssens. Classes were finished for the day, and it was time for the two UNC Charlotte professors to talk one about of their favorite subjects: animation.

“Should we go back to the caves?” Freeman asked, referring to the early French drawings found in caves that some believe are the first attempts at animation.

“I haven’t seen any documentation, per se,” said Buyssens. “But I’ve heard that ancient China had a device just like the zoetrope.”

Both artists know plenty about early animation’s history. Freeman, an associate professor of digital media at UNC Charlotte, regularly teaches its evolution to students in her digital media, animation and drawing courses. Her own animation has been shown in numerous exhibits throughout the world.

Buyssens, director of the Digital Fabrication Lab inside UNCC’s School of Architecture, has taught art and design from Detroit to San Francisco, along the way earning a reputation as a renowned kinetic artist.

Both have work featured in GreenHill Gallery’s new exhibit, “Animated!” It’s a collection of works by 24 artists that focuses on the genre’s beginnings, starting with 19th-century animation devices. The show runs Sept. 6-Nov. 9 in Greensboro.

Tracing animation back to the beginning will prove to any cartoon buff just how much it has changed.

In the Victorian era, people often amused themselves with primitive devices called thaumatropes that created the appearance of moving objects.

“It’s a disc with two images, one on either side,” said Buyssens. “The common one is a birdcage on one side and a bird on the other, and as you spin the disc the bird appears to be in the cage.”

Freeman used to assign her students a thaumatrope project every semester, but that was before each batch of fresh students began balking consistently at its simplicity.

“They said it was a little too cute,” she said.

Just like its students, animation has evolved in running leaps during the past few hundred years.

Even so, a few aspects haven’t changed, such as the trials of mastering the art of the animated walk.

“Breaking down the human walk, that’s something that every animation student somewhere down the line has to tackle,” said Freeman. “It’s hard, but it’s one of those things that once you get down, you begin to understand so much about animation.”

Another feature that has stood still is its time-consuming nature. One second of animation is typically created by 24 different drawings.

Buyssens, who’s always been drawn to measured-time art, said for him that’s part of the appeal.

“It’s kind of a Zen place you get into,” he said. “And maybe you’ve only done a second of animation in a day, but it felt like it flew by.”

Most of the students they train go on to careers in advertising and graphic design. Opportunities to work for Disney or Pixar are becoming fewer and fewer, said Freeman, so she works with each senior to widen their understanding of possibilities.

“I had an amazing art teacher who took me aside and told me there’s more to life than unicorns and fairies,” she said. “Thank God.”