It is a shame to only teach one week on animation in an Intro to Film class, but I bowed to departmental tradition when I taught Intro to Film in spring 2015 and devoted only my final week of class to it. My screening for this week included Hummingbird Wars (Janie Geiser, 2014), Adventure Time S1E6, “The Jiggler” (Larry Leichliter, 2010), and The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014).
This lesson preceded that screening, and pursued the following learning objectives: 1) I wanted students to understand that animators can work with individual frames of cinema, which can lead to the illusion of movement, but doesn’t have to. This would prep them for the flicker effects and broken motion of Geiser’s Hummingbird Wars. 2) I wanted to direct student attention to the salient aspects of Eisenstein’s theory of the “plasmatic” potential of animation, which finds expression in the Adventure Time episode. 3) I wanted students to be able to express some key aesthetic differences between hand-drawn and computer generated animation—specifically, that while hand-drawn animation excels at fulfilling Eisenstein’s “plasmatic” potential, CG animation excels at accurately simulating the physics of our everyday world.
If you would like to follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson in motion, it can be found here.
Venn diagrams of the moving image
I start the lesson out by two quotes by prominent 20th century avant-garde filmmakers. They are long, but they are both rich. First, Peter Kubelka:
Cinema is not movement. Cinema is a projection of stills—which means images which do not move—in a very quick rhythm. And you can give the illusion of movement, of course, but this is a special case, and the film was invented originally for this special case. But, as often happens, people invent something, and, then, the create quite a different thing. They have created something else. Cinema is not movement. It can give the illusion of movement. Cinema is the quick projection of light impulses. These light impulses can be shaped when you put the film before the lamp – on the screen you can shape it. … You have the possibility to give light a dimension in time.[i]
Next, Hollis Frampton:
Film is a narrow transparent ribbon of any length you please, uniformly perforated with small holes along its edges so that it may be transported handily by sprocket wheels. At one time, it was sensitive to light.
Now, preserving a faithful record of where that light was, and was not, it modulates our light beam, subtracts from it, makes a vacancy that looks to us like, say, Lana Turner.
Furthermore, that vacancy is doing something: it seems to be moving.
But if we take our ribbon of film in hand and examine it, we find that it consists of a long row of small pictures, which do not move at all.
We are told that the explanation is simple: all explanations are.
The projector accelerates the small still pictures into movement. The single pictures, or frames, are invisible to our failing sense of sight, and nothing that happens on any one of them will strike our eye.
And this is true, so long as all the frames are essentially similar. But if we punch a hole in only one frame of our film, we will surely see it.
And if we put together many dissimilar frames, we will just as surely see all of them separately. Or at least we can learn to see them.[ii]
From here, I move to a point about historical poetics. The assumptions we make about the possibilities of cinema, I point out, tend to be built upon how its technological devices have been used in the past. We’re used to thinking about films as being composed of “shots,” strips of film exposed continuously as they were pulled through a camera. But, as these filmmakers point out, all that really exists is frames. It’s just historical technological precedent that has made us think otherwise.
There are techniques of filmmaking that have the manipulation of individual frames, or the filmstrip, as their primary basis. These techniques usually fall under the umbrella of “animation.” Many times, this manipulation of individual frames eventually conforms to the patterns of what we think of as “shots.” When we watch an average Disney film, we can isolate temporal chunks of time that seem to be continuous, which have a distinct beginning and end, and in which some sort of movement (character, environment, or camera) is framed. But although a lot of animators choose to mimic our normal conception of how cinema works, this is a choice. There are other ways to use the frame, as well.
Here, I shift, and start gesturing toward the Lev Manovich reading that students were assigned in preparation for this class. As technology gradually undergoes change, I point out, new ways of conceiving of the norms of cinema open up.
For instance, as a practical matter, “shots” are no longer continuously-exposed strips of film. We continue using the term, because we’ve found the concept to be useful. But the technological instantiation of what we think of as a “shot” has completely changed, as digital video formats have overtaken film.
“Cuts,” likewise, are no longer where two lengths of film are taped together. This, too, is language that is hanging on as a relic from an earlier technological era. A computer doesn’t think of a cut in the same way an editor, originally trained in film, does.
And, as Manovich points out, digital technologies have not only shifted the technological basis of terms such as “shot” and “cut.” They have also eroded the boundary between “live-action” and “animated” cinema. CGI can be seamlessly integrated into photographic imagery in ways that previous animation technologies never quite could. Photographic imagery captured digitally is manipulable in such ways that make the distinction between “CGI” and “photography” seem academic. Especially at the current moment, dominated by effects-heavy action cinema such as superhero films, “pure” examples of “live-action” cinema are becoming increasingly rare. I turn to Manovich’s famous quote:
Born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its boundary, only to become one particular case of animation in the end.[iii]
Manovich thinks that, from our current perspective, we can see cinema as part of a moving-image tradition that stretches back to non-photograph forms of animation, such as magic lantern phantasmagoria. For Manovich, the succession of discrete photographic images that use incremental change to produce the illusion of motion was just one small stop in the moving image’s grand trajectory. Is motion that has been consistent—the photographic technology of cinema was always just a means for achieving that.
If we think about it, this clashes with Kubelka’s description of cinema. Kubelka has what amounts to the opposite view to that of Manovich’s. Cinema, for Kubelka, isn’t a “particular case” of the animated image. Rather, the animated image is a “special case” of cinema, because the technology of cinema is not based on movement, but on the rapid rhythmic succession of light impulses.
We have two different ideas about cinema’s lineage here, based on two different conceptions of where cinema fits within the realm of technological possibility. I note that although they’re opposed to one another, we can still map them together in a Venn diagram. This gives us a version of cinema that sits between two extremes:
Live-action photographic cinema, in this diagram, sits safely in the overlap between Manovich’s concept of animation (the “art of motion,” achieved through whatever means historically available) and Kubelka’s “quick projection of light impulses.”
Alternatives to live-action cinema, however, is a more “leaky” category. Hand-drawn cartoons and computer-generated imagery sit with live-action cinema in the overlap. Then there are edge cases. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) fits into Kubelka’s “quick succession,” but it doesn’t (consistently) display the “art of motion.” Magic lantern shows, meanwhile, are modes of the “art of motion” that don’t fit Kubelka’s category at all.
A lost changeability, fluidity, suddenness of formations
Having touched upon universalizing ways of thinking about animation’s place within the larger category of rhythmic light, I pull down from the clouds. What are some more specific ways we could conceive of the techniques and styles available to animators?
Here, I turn to Eisenstein’s concept of “plasmaticness.” It is Eisenstein’s way of naming a particular expression of form and movement available in hand-drawn animation, that is not available to makers of live-action photographic cinema. Eisenstein defines plasmaticness as “a rejection of once-and-forever form, freedom from ossification, the ability to assume dynamically any form.”[iv]
I point out to students that Eisenstein wasn’t coming up with these ideas on his own, out of nowhere. If we look to the manuals of Disney animators such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, we can see practical guides to creating the sort of effects Eisenstein marvels over, for instance the principle of squash and stretch.
From here, I segue to clips from two Disney films directed by Burt Gillett, to give students a better idea of what Eisenstein, Thomas, and Johnston are referring to. (Note: In the embedded clips below, you’ll see some “subliminal” reminders to students to fill out their course evaluations. They were a bit of a deadpan joke, one that I didn’t acknowledge at all in class. But they worked! One student even mentioned these subliminal messages in the evals themselves.)
First up, Playful Pan (Burt Gillett, 1930):
Next Moth and the Flame (Burt Gillett, 1938), a film that Eisenstein directly mentions:
From each according to their abilities
For maximum contrast, I transition directly from these clips to a clip of a film we’ve watched previously in the course: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013):
Here, I remind the students of the details of Gravity‘s production, and the fact that nearly everything we’re seeing on the screen in this clip is CG animation. This is, of course, a very different sort of animation than the Gillett Disney films we just saw. I ask: Hand-drawn animation excels at giving us a feeling of the plasmatic. Based on this clip, what would you say that CG animation excels at?
Here, I’m looking for students to not only note the perceptual verisimilitude that CGI offers, but also the way in which it can accurately simulate real-world physics. The physics of Disney are fanciful, playful, plasmatic. The physics of Gravity, by contrast, are direly un-malleable.
Here, I slip back into blending history with aesthetics. Computer generated animation is based on the manipulation of polygons. Basically, I tell my students, computers are “good at making squares.” Originally, this lead to a very “blocky” aesthetic, one that was distinctly different from hand-drawn animation, but completely unsuited to “realism.” Since this aesthetic was bad at hiding its technological origins, it became coded as a way of representing “the computer” itself. I show a clip from TRON (Steven Lisberger, 1982):
Next, I show a clip from Treasure Planet (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2002). Although Disney had been using their Computer Animated Production System (CAPS) since 1989’s The Little Mermaid, with more or less subtlety, Treasure Planet was the first film to fully embrace a “hybrid” aesthetic, heightening the obviousness of its CGI effects, and frequently playing up the distinction between its hand-drawn characters and CGI backgrounds. In the following clip, I tell students to pay attention to the “division of labor” that is going on. By this point, post Toy Story (1996) CGI has proven itself adept at things like modeling the textures of metal and plastic, as well as simulating elaborate dollying camera movements that traditional hand-drawn animation could never hope to achieve. These are precisely the sort of things Treasure Planet uses it for. But the the characters—including the cute sidekick character Morph, one of the purest representations of Eisenstein’s idea of the plasmatic in all of Disney’s cinema—remain hand-drawn:
Finally, I turn to two clips from Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014):
Here, I ask students what they notice about the film’s treatment of physics, and how it effects comic performance and staging. What I’m aiming at here, and what I try to push students towards, is a recognition that the type of physical comedy on display in Big Hero 6 is very different from what we find in Playful Pan or Moth and the Flame. Whereas the comedy of those films was based around bending physics in cartoon ways, the comedy in Big Hero 6 really isn’t. Instead, it’s more based around our recognition of the simulation of real-world physics, which helps to make Baymax’s clumsy inflatable robot character more absurd. Baymax’s brand of physical comedy seems less like an explosion of cartoon logic, and more like the kind of pratfalls a real-life comic performer, decked out in an absurd costume, would be capable of.
The points I’m making here are ones I hope will be salient as students watch the Adventure Time episode “The Jiggler,” followed by The Lego Movie. I, for one, find “The Jiggler” to be just about the most raucous celebrations of the plasmatic in the history of hand-drawn animation:
“The Jiggler” also presents a stark stylistic constrast to The Lego Movie. Following points made by Ryan Pierson, as students approach The Lego Movie, I want to steer them toward and appreciation of the difference between the plasmatic potentials of the drawn line, versus the discrete colored blocks The Lego Movie offers up.[v] In place of the pleasures of transformation, The Lego Movie offers up the pleasures of solidity, inviting us to marvel at the tactile resonances of this rendered plastic:
The pleasures of animation are diverse!
[i]. Mekas, Jonas. “Interview with Peter Kubelka.” In Structural Film Anthology. Edited by Peter Gidal. London: BFI, 1978. Pg 103.
[ii]. Frampton, Hollis. ” Lecture.” In On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton. Edited by Bruce Jenkins. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. Pp 127-128.
[iii]. Manovich, Lev. “What Is Digital Cinema?” In The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media. Edited by Peter Lunenfeld. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. Pg 180. (This quote is, of course, repeated in The Language of New Media. I assigned this essay, though, because it makes some of the same points in a more self-contained manner.)
[iv]. Eisenstein, Sergei. “On Disney.” In The Eisenstein Collection. Edited by Richard Taylor. New York: Seagull Books, 2006. Pg 101. (I assigned selections from this as the second reading assignment for this lesson.)
[v]. Pierson, Ryan. “On the Nonessential Beauty of Legos.” Special Affects Blog. (I assigned this as optional reading for the week.)