I Also Am Formed Out of the Clay: Animated Putty (1911)

Decades before Gumby rode Pokey and Wallace petted Gromit, tendrils of clay writhed with agency on a dim screen. Ernst Haeckel once fantasized about Urschleim, a kind of primeval sludge from which all biological beings arose; Animated Putty (1911), considered Britain’s first stop-motion clay animation film, imagines a pliable material giving rise to manifold forms. While the substance used is likely synthetic — as is the case in almost all “clay” animation — the putty seems to gather associations from its medium’s tellurian precursor. An inverted plant pot, devolving back into raw materiality, expels nuggets of clay from its drainage hole, which roll themselves into a primitive snake, and then an eagle’s face. After a rose unfurls from the stuff of earthenware, a windmill raises itself into existence. Next comes a beautiful woman with flowers in her hair. When we blink, her visage dissolves into a demon, which spawns lesser imps from its mouth. It begins to resemble a primordial story, like clay is a primordial substance: an unformed orb evolves into a child’s face and the cycle begins again, with each new viewing.

The pure expressiveness of Animated Putty, absent of any artist’s visible hand — plasticity giving rise to spontaneous orders of ideas — feels indebted to older traditions of imagining the animate: Galatea and Pygmalion; Pinocchio and Geppetto; golems brought to life from inanimate clay, who subsequently escape their animator’s yoke. In this trick film’s seemingly spontaneous generation, however, we catch sight of animation’s depersonalized artistry, recalling James Joyce’s description of the artist who, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (Or here, cleaning the clay embedded under his nails.) Directed by Walter R. Booth, a magician whose pivot to cinema we’ve featured before, Animated Putty (as well as 1909’s Animated Cotton) were collaborations with the naturalist, nature documentarian, microphotograph enthusiast, and animator F. Percy Smith. It is perhaps Smith’s belief in the transformative power of attention that vitalizes Animated Putty. When asked by a colleague about techniques for pest control in her infested barn, he once (rather unhelpfully) replied: “If I think anything is a pest, I make a film about it; then it becomes beautiful.”

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