As far as CGI sophistication goes, 1990 isn’t exactly the pre-Pixar stone age of The Works, but it might as well be. The now-legendary animation studio had just won their first Oscar for Tin Toy, and were now touring behind their fifth short, Knick Knack. It’s classic Pixar, funny and frothy, but undeniably on the cruder side of things. Part of this was deliberate: parts of Tin Toy were so tough to animate that the decision was made to work geometric shapes rather than approximations of people (i.e. less moving parts = less of a pain in the ass). Hence, a cast of dashboard accessories from a gift shop: palm trees and pyramids with cool-dude shades, a snow globe snowman with a half-dozen rocks for a mouth, a beach babe with a texture-less white smile and literal spheres for breasts. But at this point, Pixar was primarily a hardware company, and they had access to the highest of high-end gear available at the time. Many animators dabbling with CGI did not, resulting in even more abstracted work that verged on the avant-garde. The Mind’s Eye, released a year after Knick Knack, compiled 40 minutes of unrelated CGI animation into a loose narrative about the birth of the Universe and human evolution as told by a cast of spit-shined geometric shapes and solid-coloured anthropomorphic dummies.
The director credited is Jan Nickman, though it’s technically more accurate to say that he was a sequencer, assembling disparate footage into a semi-cogent whole. The first image of the film is a cluster of space grapes that shoot lightning. This gives way to a digital star field that progressively zooms into an Earth where chiffon-paper oceans house all manner of kaleidoscopic cell-beings. And then come the chrome raptors, self-assembling Roman columns, and a bronzed forearm bursting forth from the ground clutching the Earth which, as all spheres apparently must, shoot lightning. Unlike Pixar’s work, most of the shorts sourced for the project were non-narrative; they’re the kind of retro-futurist tone poems you would associate with period production company bumpers or instructional videos. Everything has the distinctive plasticity of an early Windows screensaver. In this respect, The Mind’s Eye is an early landmark of proto-vaporwave cinema: the audio-visual vocabulary of corporate ephemera (demo reels, virtual plazas, commercials, evening news B roll, early 3D modelling, muzak, choir patches, slap bass, a vague sense of “worldliness”) being repurposed and reassembled to comment on habits of creation and consumption. The film starts with the creation of the world, as outlined above, bounces around various cultural and technological achievements of culture and industry (represented by SimCity-esque laser skyscrapers, gliding neon hexagons, and Atlases pushing one-wheeled axles) before casting its gaze outward into the infinite. There’s also one purely narrative interlude where a bird falls in love with a fish inside a giant cosmic eco-orb. For all the primitive animation and uncanny-valley faces, it’s actually very cute.
So this then becomes a surreal CGI take on Koyaanisqatsi, another wordless film about the human race’s transition from the natural to the cultural. At first glance, it’s strange to compare one of the all-time great non-fiction films, a film that makes the power shot enthusiast in me salivate, to a DTV anthology film where crudely-rendered wire-frame skeletons walk in unison on Escher staircases to the tune of 80s plastic funk. But the building blocks of kitsch and avant-garde are often indistinguishable from one another, and often intersect (e.g. Michael Robinson’s 2007 video piece Light Is Waiting, where he turns an episode of Full House into a chopped-’n’-screwed phantasmagoria). So where is the line separating junk and art, and what kind of po-mo alchemy is needed to transmute one into the other? It’s often just a matter of mission statement. Nickman, who has been directing since 1985, has released thirteen DTV anthologies, most of them involving pristine natural vistas, all of them involving some manner of Tangerine Dream sound-alike (or, in the case of his 1987 mood board of the Southwestern U.S. Canyon Dreams, the actual Tangerine Dream). There’s a hippy-dippy New Age quality that pulls Nickman’s into cheeseball territory. A cursory glance at his filmography betrays these leanings: Gift of the Whales (1993), Infinity’s Child (1999), Echoes of Creation (2010). If Robinson is interested in media malaise, and fellow vista enthusiast James Benning focuses on the relationship between time, space, and memory, Nickman is mostly interested in showing you nice, relaxing footage of the Pacific Northwest or the Great White North set to the adult-contemporary equivalent of ambient music.
But hindsight can be kind to the cultural artifacts of the past like The Mind’s Eye, as new sets of aesthetic values develops and new ways of seeing emerge. James Reynolds, while no Philip Glass (who is, though, really), creates an airy soundscape that fits the material like a glove, drawing from synth-pop, New Wave, ambient, soft rock, and yes, New Age. Koyaanisqatsi’s score is an all-timer, a landmark of film composing, but nothing on it is as funky or weird as the Oingo Boingo riff “Technodance.” The shimmering acoustic guitar and lilting sax on “Love Found” wouldn’t seem out of place on an Air album. Over time, what was once cutting edge then became outmoded, and has now circled back to the status of “art object,” fit for remixing and recontextualizing. By abandoning the natural world, and diving deep into the then-nascent world of computer animation while keeping an esotericist’s eye on our place in the cosmos, Jan Nickman cobbled together a singular artistic document about ambition and evolution using the scraps on the fringes of the culture. And it’s vaporwave as hell.
The Mind’s Eye, is currently out of print on home video, but it can be found easily on YouTube, along with its three sequels.
Directed by Jan Nickman; 40 minutes.