Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Take a Flying Leap!

Anyone who has lived within 100 miles of pop culture in the last twenty years has undoubtedly noticed the prodigious number of action heroes leaping to the rescue. Whether it is in the movies, video games or in illustration the most common aesthetic in art these days is what I call The Heroic Leap.

I think I began to notice the trend about ten years ago with The Matrix. Since then, the "Bullet Time", Slo-Mo, Heroic Leap has gone completely mainstream. In one 30 second movie trailer I watched recently, there were three heroic leaps! That's one every ten seconds! In the past several years the Heroic Leap has become so ubiquitous its hard to open a book or game without seeing it! As an artist working in the fantasy genre it is now a motif I use all the time, and is requested in most art orders.

So I wanted to know, where the Heroic Leap started. And I don't mean with Frazetta or Spiderman, but really far back, when did artists begin depicting heroes as leaping?

Since the beginning of time extraordinary human feats have fascinated us in the form of Dance and Acrobatics. In classical mythology flight has always been reserved for the gods. Nike, Apollo and others were supernatural and thus capable of flight, usually facilitated by the use of wings. But I'm not talking about flying I'm talking about leaping. Gods fly and heroes leap. There is an important distinction. The leap is the hero's brief ability to defy gravity like the gods, but then return to earth safely. The most famous example of course being Icarus, who attempts to fly like the gods, but is quickly put back down again. Ancient athletes were often depicted as god-like in their abilities using multiple poses to translate the stages of motion. This primitive technique was hundreds of years ahead of its time.

After the Renaissance the depiction of leaping in the visual arts art was limited. For centuries artists working in their studios with static models made leaping figures appear either like swimming or floating. The innumerable renderings of The Ascension of Christ repeatedly looks like Jesus standing in the sky.

For artists the great leap forward (pun intended) was in the late nineteenth century and the invention of the camera. For the very first time artists were able to see the invisible world that had eluded them for centuries and it wasn't like anything they had imagined. Motion blurs, lens flares, time lapse, depth of field, multiple exposures, and very importantly, high speed photography revealed motion in a new way. As one reviewer at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair wrote about the Muybridge Locomotion Photographs "...they reveal that everything we had previously understood about motion to be false." By the early twentieth Century artists in all the fields were adopting the revelations of the camera into their work.

The Modernist Movement embraced technology and new concepts. Futurism actually celebrated this new fast-paced world with works like Matisse's "Dance (1909), Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1912), Boccioni's sculpture "Unique Forms in Continuity of Space" (1913) By the end of the first half of the 20th Century the aesthetic of capturing movement in a single image had soaked into the artistic consciousness and was commonplace. By the 1940's Superman was leaping tall buildings in the comics and Flash Gordon was rocketing around film screens.

In the 1990's the advent of CGI and video games made swinging across a chasm in the Death Star look boring. New advances in 3D digital photography revealed motion in ways never seen before and changed visual perception again.
Today our heroes jump more than ever. Defying gravity in 360 degrees, killing aliens, and leaping off high buildings. Just as the camera redefined our understanding of motion so too has the computer. As long as there are stories to tell, and as long as heroes populate those stores, they will be leaping through our imaginations for years to come.

Happy Landings....



  1. I also would like to point to the awesome early work of Phil Hale for incredible depictions of leaps. I feel like that guy's work doesn't get nearly enough shrift when you talk about how far contemporary fantasy/sci-fi tastes have evolved. To me, he and a few others were the Franzetta's of the 90's.

  2. Absolutely-Phil Hale and subsequently Jon Foster are great examples of the Heroic Leap!