Check it out.
Nashville Zoo paint to help pass the time. Apparently it keeps them happy. I thumbed through a selection of original pieces at the zoo's gift shop and I was really taken aback at how cool some of the pieces were. I should have taken pictures.
But if that weren't cool enough, apparently they have elephants in Thailand that also paint- and several of them are quite accomplished. Check out this painting.
It's done by an elephant named SriSiam. You can check out a gallery of paintings by several different elephants here. Here's a video clip of the animals at work that is actually pretty cool...
And in case you think it's all rigged, nope.
So why am I going on about this? If you read up on how they paint it's pretty clear that they are following through on a good deal of training. It does seem like they enjoy it, though. But a quick look through the gallery linked above shows that different elephants made the same kind of paintings with the same tone and motive appear over and over. A pattern emerges and we can see the trainer's hand at work. The animals were given certain 'principles' of how to achieve a given subject and then through positive reinforcement learned to repeat the results. Sweeping lines for an elephant, vertical green lines and orange pokes for flowers, etc. I still think it's really cool (my cat can't do this), but I just can't make the jump to say that the elephants are expressing something artistic in themselves. Maybe they are, but it seems to me to be the product of a lot of training to make paintings for people to buy and like.
But how is that much different than us and our 'principles' and 'rules'? Modern western animators might not be that far removed from approaching their work like these trained elephants. The hegemony of the classic 'west coast film style' of animation (Disney in 2d, Pixar in CG, et al.) can be suffocating in it's near soviet insistence on conformity. We need to guard against letting our definition of what makes 'good' animation grow smaller and smaller. Watch a film like John Canemaker's "The Moon and the Son" and you'll see a fantastic example of expressive animation that is nothing at all like the dominant west coast film style. That style is good and has a place, but to me it's not terribly personal. It sells DVD's, though, and so we learn it (and in my case, teach it) to make a living. But I like stuff that possesses a personal voice for expression that is not leather bound by the strict adherence to a list of rules and principles. And more than any other medium CG suffers from a built in level of conformity that crushes independent style. Overcoming that oppression in CG takes far more effort than any other form of animation, in my opinion. Marc Craste is an example of a CG animator who has crafted his own style- one that doesn't thumb its nose at principles, but at the same time isn't stifled or bound by them. It would be good if more of us would find a way to rise above the overtly produced results that aren't that much more expressive than what a trained elephant can accomplish - yours truly included.