Philip Stapp
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  photo by Barinda Samra, 1999

View Philip Stapp's Homage à François Couperin (Butterflies) ,  Picture in Your Mind , and  Symmetry  on the Internet Archive

One of the most original and creative animators
to work in the academic film genre, Philip Stapp was born in Madison, Indiana on 13 April, 1908.  After studying music and fine arts, he was awarded a traveling scholarship for European study by the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts.  While in Europe, he worked briefly with designer Jules Bouy.  Stapp then evidenced an avocation for furniture design, contributing drawings for an international competition in Germany in the early 1930s, resulting in the crafting of several pieces which were displayed as part of the exhibition (in 1987, Stapp would design a table and chair made specifically to view his scrolls.) Also in the 1930s, he began teaching art at the prestigious Greenwich (CT) Country Day School, where he remembers making a small, hand-drawn picture book of Chaucer's Tales for a little boy who had fallen ill (that boy, future president George H.W. Bush, still has the book). 

wpe3.jpg (9930 bytes)In the 1940s, Stapp worked briefly at Bennington College, Vermont, with dancer Martha Graham, where he designed the set for her "Every Soul is a Circus" performance.  In 1946, Stapp, increasingly drawn to film, free-lanced at Julien Bryan's International Film Foundation, where he made his first film, Boundary Lines, an abstract study of the physical and cultural limitations placed on individuals by political and social forces.  Stapp's contribution to animated film involved designing "a consecutive flow of drawn images calculated to be photographed in strict counterpoint to musical score", often contributed  by composer Gene Forrell. 

   Stapp-designed scroll-viewing table with chair  

Such films, with assistance from Alfred Barr of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and dancer Graham, helped Stapp win a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1949, he was invited to join the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) Information Division of the Marshall Plan Organization, under Stuart Schulberg and Lothar Wolff, along with noted filmmakers such as John Ferno, Arne Suksdorff and Victor Vicas. Stapp served essentially as an Executive Producer, helping train animators in ECA's film studio in Paris.  While little has been documented from this period, it is known that he was involved in the process of making three 'Hugo' films for Marten Toonder's film studio.  In 1953, he contributed animation to the John Halas/Joy Batchelor award-winning film version of George Orwell's Animal Farm.  Returning to the States in 1956, he would, over the next two decades, contribute finely-crafted elements to many films in the IFF catalogue, from illustrated maps and titles to more complex animated sequences, thereby setting the standard for creativity in animating the educational film. 

Stapp's importance as an animator is underestimated due to both his relatively low film output and school, rather than commercial distribution. He was influenced by the work of  his friend, Scot-Canadian animator Norman McLaren, Japanese Ukiyo-e "floating world" paintings, and dancers such as Graham.  As opposed to the static animation style inherent in many contemporary educational films, Stapp’s figures instead float, split apart, dissolve, spin, and vaporize in a constant state of metamorphosis.  In addition to animating the films of others, he also occasionally directed films, and his First Americans: Some Indians of the Southlands (1976) is a good indicator of his highly stylized technique, resplendent with oriental/geometrical elements (Stapp’s most inventive film may have been his abstract-yet-geometrical Symmetry, distributed in 1966 by Contemporary Films). 

In addition to his film work, Stapp's graphic output included a series of five three-part panels defining musical structure as embodied by abstract dancing figures representing melody, harmony, and meter.  The figures evolve, diminish, and soar in a "milky-way" like background; as opposed to being seen from a distance as individual large pieces, the works are meant to be seen as the viewer, barely two feet away from the panels, tracks the movement horizontally, moving from left-to-right.   Created painstakingly on transparent paper and transferred via a reversal charcoal process, they are precursors to the more intimate scrolls made by Stapp in the 1980s, and were generously donated to ciné16, which hopes to display them publicly in a future gallery program dedicated to the films and graphic work of the artist.

Today, we can see two distinct phases to Stapp's style.  In the Representational phase, lasting until roughly 1960, Stapp's figures are often highly stylized, but still retain recognizable human facial characteristics.   They often exist on Tanguy-like watercolor-washed plains containing surrealistic elements, changing states through shifting line, color, and shape.  In the Abstract style occurring from approximately 1960 onward, Stapp's characters are anthropomorphic dance-like figures, often pointillist, as are the seas and spaces through which they float, dance, and cavort.  Unlike the figures of the earlier era, Stapp's images are now in a constant state of transformation, whether lying in a stationary plane, or evolving through forward movement.  Inspired by dance and music, these latter figures often climb and descend contrapuntally, often splitting into several figures to represent various voices in the musical score itself. 

In his final years, Stapp was engaged in designing mammoth scrolls based on geometrical abstracts and musical structures, such as the 30-foot long scroll "Homage to Matthew Shepard", and a 70-foot scroll displayed at New York's Cathedral of St. John.  Intensely personal in nature, the scrolls are designed to be seen by one viewer at a time, the "action" unfolding, then disappearing in segments approximately 18 inches in length.  Stapp designed a specialized table (above) on which to view the scrolls, and dedicated the last several years to this vision of a very personal art which, through its slow unfolding in the hands of the viewer, can truly be experienced to its greatest extent solely by the person engaged in unrolling the artifact.  Philip passed away at the age of 95 on October 2, 2003.

The Academic Film Archive of North America's ciné16 Film Series held an evening dedicated to his work and films on July 27, 2000. View Stapp's filmography.  

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