There’s a certain artistic liberation that has spread since the early days of the internet. A global database where any prospective artist can build a cult following and influence other creators? Well it’s bound to nurture its very own cultural personality; a personality that is, perhaps, vastly more abstract, obtuse, surreal and all around strange than anything that could have grown in a pre-internet world. The DIY ethos that came with access to this new tool made it almost inevitable that like-minded freaks would help pick up the torch from the great experimental artists of the 20th century and run with it.
Almost no medium has been as joyfully distorted as animation. From breeding grounds such as Newgrounds and later YouTube, Vimeo, etc., communities of animators who used relatively cheap software and an internet connection to create whatever they damn well pleased without the normal constraints of having to appeal to a mass audience arose. Sometimes humorous, sometimes morbid, more often than not just plain weird for its own sake, underground animation went through something of a renaissance whose impact can still be felt today.
While a small number of these animators have gotten some more widespread attention for their work (most notably David Firth) the movement, if it can even really be called that, has stayed for the large part underground; even more so than similarly countercultural animation movements from the 70s through the 90s. Given this, I felt it would be a disservice to anybody who digs freaky, bizarre content not to give a little exploration into an English animator by the name of Ben Wheele.
Imagine if Terry Gilliam, Vincent Collins and David Firth had gotten together, dropped LSD and animated the results, and you might be some ways to formulate the mindfucking you will receive when watching Ben Wheele’s animations. That being said, there is a fair amount of stylistic variety in amongst the madness ever-present in his body of work. The first short I watched, Henry Eats, had a very Monty Python-esque characteristic; the animation was created in a way that mimicked the movement of cutout animations that were Terry Gilliams staple and carried a similarly nonsensical, rambling nature. On the Other hand a piece like Decoration reminded me a little of an old Aardman short called Next, less in its animation style, but more in its approach to comedy from the standpoint of classical theater. Looking to another piece, Tropical Cake Boutique, one can find some definite inspiration from the work of David Firth whose puppeteering of modified photos of people and skin textures is taken to another level of visual weirdness through trippy uses of colour, constantly moving backgrounds and characters equal parts mesmerizing and horrifying in their designs.
In amongst legions of animators who use their online presence to make vaguely quirky character pieces or an endless onslaught of video game parodies, Ben Wheele and a handful of others like him manage to reach into the darkest recesses of their imagination, add a healthy dose of self-aware humour and put out content that is truly unique, generally bamboozling and always fascinating.