In Pretty, Dead, Jeff Scher plays with all the stuff film noir dreams are made of: the hardboiled private eye and the femme fatale; the revolver, the slouched hat, the alley brawl, and the twisted corpse; sweat, paranoia, fatalism, destiny. All this is to be found among the nearly 4,000 collages and paintings in watercolor and gouache that compose the work.
But Scher is after more than movie nostalgia. He juxtaposes a surreal montage of scenes from Hollywood crime films of the 1940s and 1950s with images of children in danger. Scher also incorporates home movies of his own sons, snippets of orphaned films rescued from flea markets and trash bins, and, in Pop art fashion, torn scraps of advertising, discarded store receipts, and even a MoMA admission ticket (blink and you’ll miss it). The tremulous line of Scher’s hand-drawn animation contrasts with the innocence of his cheerful colors and the jauntiness of Shay Lynch’s musical score. It seems to contain within it the excited, nervous energy of modern times. In Pretty, Dead, those times happen to be filled with blood, lust, and bloodlust.
To make the film, Scher used a cherished, 100-year-old animation technique called rotoscoping, which involves tracing and painting on paper from projections of sequential frames of live-action film. Rotoscoping was invented and patented by Max Fleischer in 1917 for his Out of the Inkwell series, and has since been used for cartoons and special effects in such classic films as Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), George Dunning and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968), and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Jeff Scher brings to the painstaking process a visual sophistication in everything from color selection to composition, and from the rhythmic editing of image and music to the kinetic interplay of figuration and abstraction.
Pretty, Dead is a recent addition to MoMA’s extraordinary collection of animated films spanning the entire history of cinema. In recent years, the Museum has strengthened its unique holdings of prints, negatives, and original artwork from New York–based independent animation filmmakers and studios. Chief among these are singular collections of Robert Breer, Lou Bunin, John Canemaker, Tissa David, David Ehrlich, George Griffin, John and Faith Hubley, Emily Hubley, Candy Kugel, Richard Protovin, Jeff Scher, and Michael Sporn. In many instances, the artists themselves have generously donated their own work.
This film is among the more than 50 works recently added to MoMA’s collection by the Department of Film. Get updates and behind-the-scenes insights about new acquisitions here and on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter using #MoMAcollects.