Skip to content

History of Animation: Gumbasia – Gumby and the Avant Guard

Here’s an excerpt from a great little essay by Animation Obsessive:

By the time Art Clokey met him, Vorkapich was one of Hollywood’s most influential film artists. His specialty was montage: collapsing time, overlaying images, cutting in unreal ways. These techniques came from the avant-garde, but Vorkapich had used them in films as mainstream as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where Frank Capra had him oversee the tour sequence.

In the end, avant-garde does mean vanguard. The middle guard and rearguard get to the same place — it just takes a bit more time.

In the late ‘40s, Vorkapich became a teacher at the University of Southern California. He was as eloquent, persuasive and passionate about film as ever — he’d developed a whole philosophy about it, which had a big influence on the school. Clokey, a seminary dropout who’d moved into film studies, became one of his key disciples.

Clokey was especially taken by Vorkapich’s theory of kinesthetic filmmaking — the idea that moving images have simple, visceral impacts on the body. That we internalize the motion we see happening on screen. Vorkapich wrote

We react bodily, kinesthetically, to any visual change. As a rule the bigger the change the stronger the reaction. For example, in a sudden cut from a long view of an object to a very close view of it there is, always, an inevitable optical and kinesthetic impact, an explosive magnification, a sudden leap forward.

That was one of the many “kinesthetic” effects Vorkapich outlined. Clokey tested the theory in Gumbasia (1953), a piece of abstract claymation set to jazz. It’s a student’s attempt at a totally kinesthetic film — where “the distraction of recognizable forms” is removed, and only the sensations of motion remain. Gumbasia was, Clokey wrote, “an experiment in pure movement.”

Animation Obsessive: The Avant-Garde Origins of ‘Gumby’

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...