Features

What is Animation?

What is Animation?

Credits

Feature by: Rumsey Taylor, Leo Goldsmith, Ian Johnston, Jenny Jediny, Teddy Blanks, and Adam Balz

Posted on: 25 June 2007

When Eadweard Muybridge began his series of proto-cinematic studies of movement in the late 1870s, he was already drawing upon science of human perception that had been around for at least forty years—albeit in reverse. Muybridge’s work was based on the notion that the movement of objects in space could be broken down into individual photographic frames, but already by the 1830s the zoetrope and phenakistoscope (whose name means “to deceive the viewer”) proved that flat images assembled linearly viewed rapidly in succession could create the illusion of moving objects. While a photographer like Muybridge used this science to study the movement of animals in single moments in time, mathematicians and physicists like Joseph Plateau and George Horner were already using drawing and painting to create small, narrative illusions.

This is to suggest that not only is animation an important part of what we now call cinema, one that predates and predicts it, but that it is perhaps even the very basis of film. After all, the photographic cinema that has grown more directly out of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope is itself inherently a form of animation in that it takes lifeless light and chemicals and inspires them with the kinetic semblance of an animate reality. The use of photographs instead of drawings is of course a major difference, but not one that obscures the fact that cinema is first and foremost a means of deceiving the eyes of the viewer. From the cinema’s inception, fantasy and reality have been viscerally intertwined, and this is as true in the live-action and animation combinations of Charley Bowers as it still is in the plastic CGI worlds of nearly every modern Hollywood epic.

But what seems to have begun as an amusing scientific parlor trick, a simple optical illusion, now amounts to a vast range of technical possibilities, visual aesthetics, genres and subgenres in cel, stop-motion, and digital animation. This means that while we often use it to refer to a genre, the term “animation” encompasses an unimaginably large spectrum of films that may have substantively little in common. The limitless variety in animation is in this way both its greatest strength and its Achilles heel. On the one hand, even between animators working in very narrow, rarefied hinterlands of animation there is very little overlap. (Compare the emulsion-scratching of Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren, and Len Lye: even among relatively similar films like Rage Net, Blinkety Blank, and Free Radicals, each maker’s film is wholly distinctive.) But on the other hand, because this variety naturally demands that animation’s practitioners test its horizons, perpetually seeking out new and more outlandish imaginative possibilities, it is all too readily associated with the child-like, at least in the West.

This also accounts for the difficulty or reluctance many have to write about animation: it’s either kid’s stuff or fanboy fodder. The long and complex association of animated cinema and children’s entertainment aside, however, the formal and technical challenges of animating a film demand the skills and intelligence that are not at all child-like. Because it exploits the flatness of film and is essentially about finding creative ways of deceiving the eye’s sense of depth through movement, animation has naturally drawn the interest of the avant-garde, beginning with dadaists and surrealists like Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Hans Richter, and followed quite differently by later figures like Harry Smith, Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits, and hosts of others.

The project of animation is, unavoidably and by definition, a formalist undertaking. It is a medium in which the questions of pacing and composition are answered at the outset. But curiously, while film critics and historians often labor to form narratives out of the many widely disparate films of a particular director, writer, star, genre, or putative national consciousness, the style of the films of a single animator, animation studio, or even regional animation culture is far more distinctive and, even at a glance, easily recognizable. How quickly can you spot a Disney film versus one by Cassavetes? Anime versus film noir? Looney Tune versus Hammer Horror? The National Film Board of Canada versus Taiwanese New Cinema? And this easy recognition is still more surprising in light of industrial filmmaking practices, in which the films are nearly always made by a large staff of seemingly interchangeable drawers, colorists, and craftsmen.

This feature does not hazard to cover animation in all of its myriad forms or even to offer anything more than a glimpse of the immense variety of animation throughout the world. What it does attempt is to look at individual cases – single films, animators and their studios, niches and subgenres – in order to suggest the narrative possibilities and particular aesthetic applications of animation in film. For animation – whatever it is in itself and wherever we might find it – is always something different, persistently seeking out new representative possibilities and drawing the eye into new and different modes of looking.

Introduction by Leo Goldsmith


Magic Kingdoms 1937—2004
The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka 1945—1965
Fantastic Planet 1973
The Animation of Jirí Barta 1978—1989
Zbigniew Rybczynski: The Reluctant Animator 1980—1992
In Praise of Pixar 1986—2007
Don Hertzfeldt’s Bitter Films 1995—2007
Don Hertzfeldt Interview 2007
The Triplets of Belleville 2003
A Cinema of Living Puppets 1947—2004
Ten Years of South Park 1997—2007
Lucid Dreaming in the films of Richard Linklater 2001, 2006

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