animation (1)

The OED defines “animation” as “the act of producing ‘moving pictures’; the technique, by means of which movement is given, on film, to a series of drawings (esp. for an animated cartoon)” [1] In his 1985 Glossary of Filmographic Terms, Jan Gartenberg defines animation as “the arts, techniques and processes involved in giving apparent movement and life to inanimate objects by means of cinematography.” [2] The word also refers to the “sequence of drawings made to create the movement, and for the movement itself when seen on the screen.” [3]

This understanding of animation remains informed by its etymology. The OED quotes Hobbes’ 1681 description of animation as “that expression which makes us seem to see the thing before our eyes.” [4] The possibility for a thing to express animation is predicated upon the capacity of another to induce vitality into its image and requires an acceptance of the idea that things may be represented “as alive.” [5] Its roots “anima” and “animus” are Latin for breath, soul, and mind.” [6] In the popular imagination, the animator, and especially the computer graphics operator, posses the technological power to implant spirits within inanimate objects; like Dr. Frankenstein, they are “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” [7] By definition, animation imparts motion. Its earlier use as “the imparting of any physical quality or virtue” and “the action of inspiring or filling with any impulse,” became the process of “quickening, vitalizing,” a ritual of “encouragement,” “enlivening,” as well as the quality itself–”liveliness…vivacity, sprightliness, brightness.” [8]

While these definitions inform theories of painting, performance, and gesture, the issues intersecting media theory more generally can be addressed through cartooning and contemporary film animation. Additionally, these forms provide many valuable comparisons for generating a media taxonomy. Although Understanding Media does not directly address the concept of animation, McLuhan’s thoughts on the visual information conveyed through cartooning and television are relevant. Cool media cartoons and comic books “provide very little data about any particular moment in time , or aspect in space, of an object.” [9] Animation fills in these gaps, but continues to demand user involvement in televised cartoons. [10] The cartoon experience, in fact, “has developed an ever more vigorous life as the electric age advanced.” [11] Comics contain print-like qualities of the crude woodcut, which then “reappear in the mosaic mesh of the TV image.” [12] Animated cartoons seem to have anticipated the Einsteinian electronic age in their “fantasia of discontinuous space-and-time.” [13] While animation shorts originally preceded feature-length films, the techniques now supply special-effects imagery for the features themselves. As television obsolesced aspects of sound-only radio the print cartoon, which had originally been displaced by radio, resurfaced in the form of the animated cartoon. [14]

Technical definitions within the discipline of animation studies raise interesting questions about production and perception. As technology changes the animation process, should the time , effort, and perhaps obsession formerly necessary to create animated works remain part of its definition? Should computer animation, which is increasingly difficult to differentiate from live-action film, even be considered “animation”? What does it mean for the illusion of motion to be “created, rather than recorded?” [15] Can the results of a computer “configured as a filmmaking machine to make decisions regarding image, time , and motion” be considered animation? “If a non-living thing creates something, is it brought to life?” [16]

The animation of a picture originally required a large number of separate drawings . In film animation, small changes in position, recorded frame by frame , create the illusion of movement. Although shooting single-frame exposures is particular to the animation process, as the Gartenberg points out, “animation is simply an exaggerated version of the practice of all film-making. Literally it gives life (or the illusion of life) to representations of objects, people and animals by recording them on film and then projecting them at such a speed as to give a sense of real movement.” [17]

Discussions of animation often involve concepts of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, transmogrification, fantasy, mimesis , the polymorphous perversity of bodies, its oddness and absurdity. Cartoon animation has an amorphous, elastic quality that allows forms the freedom to move and change–ordinary objects transform magically, movement is synchronized to music, and inanimate objects become humanized. Metamorphosis was a founding concept of animation, beginning with early French animator Emile Cohl, and is commonly used for fantastic or comic effect. Likewise, transmogrification is one of the advantages of working in animation rather than in live action. Animated figures are not grounded in actual physicality–they transform at the whim of the animator. [18]

By the time the animation industry began to congeal in the early 1900s, there were already a few well known animators, characters, and studios: Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur , Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat, Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz who began their careers at John Bray Studio, and of course, Mickey Mouse of Walt Disney Studios.

The technical processes and choice of material for the originals to be photographed delineates the branches of animation. Drawings, cut-outs, models, dolls, puppets, clay, projected silhouettes, and real objects, including fluids, colored gases and smoke, are among the mo re commonly animated mediums. [19] Hand-drawn animation films are made by drawing, etching, scratching, painting or attaching items directly onto a film’s surface without the use of a camera. Object Animation manipulates three dimensional objects “either still at the time of camera exposure (three-dimensional [stop-motion] animation) or in motion during the exposure of each frame (totalized [go-motion] animation).” [20] Pixilation animates the movement of live actors photographed a frame at a time in continuous action at varying camera speeds–footage later modified by stop- or step-frame, or optical printing techniques [21] The cartoon film is an animated film in which different phases of two-dimensional movement are drawn on paper or multiple transparent “animation” cells (often as part of the Disney-developed multiplane system), and then filmed using stop motion or special animation camera. [22] While cartoon films may give a sense of depth or achieve sophisticated three-dimensional simulation, films that reproduce filmic qualities (such as perspective, lighting, or grain conventions) through computer technology are more properly termed “computer generated imagery ” (CGI) animation, or according to their particular technology.

Presently, animation cameras (designed for single-frame photography and photographing at continuous speeds) and the animation stand (which secures the camera positions above the table on which the artwork is placed) have been entirely computerized. Computer animation is achieved by photographing in stop-motion the illumination of a cathode ray tube (CRT), in accordance with signals fed to the CRT by a computer. [23] Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) was the first animated feature created entirely via computer. Computer generated images have not only created a separate branch of animation, but have also profoundly affected other kinds of animation. First used in abstract films or as part of educational films, computer animation continues to produce increasingly sophisticated methods of generating and integrating computer animation into the filmmaking process. As digital processes evolve, the animation process becomes more overtly discontinuous, while the resulting films become nearly seamless. Films are digitally encoded as pixels and stored in computers; their images are available for infinite electronic manipulation.

The animated feature demonstrates industrial authorship to a greater extent than even large-scale live-action Hollywood productions. Historically, the authorship of animated cartoons has been attributed to the production company, which developed and owned the technology necessary for the project, despite the common misconception that Walt Disney was the sole producer of his company’s films. Potential authors of contemporary features include large animators staffs and CGI team members, technical directors, voice actors, lyricists, orchestrators, and musical performers. In an example of unlikely authorship, after openly gay Disney animator Andreas Deja acknowledged the effect his sexuality had on his creations of several characters, his voice emerged amidst the formal overseers of the entire project to be the primary creator of “his” characters, and producer of the film’s (mostly subtextual) meaning. [24] Similarly, the general acceptance of an AIDS analogy in Beauty and the Beast was legitimated by proposing that Howard Ashman, the film’s lyricist and music producer who had recently died as a result of the AIDS virus, was the film’s auteur. [25]

According to Walter Benjamin, popular animation is a realistic, but not naturalistic, expression of alienation in modern life; “the cartoons make clear that even our bodies do not belong to us…what parades as civilization is actually barbarism. [26] In the early 1930′s the Mickey Mouse character was targeted by reform groups and banned by several state censor boards. Soon after, the bawdy sexual humor and aggressiveness of Disney’s shorts gave way to calmer morality, and “the studio began to alter not just its carnivalesque subject matter, but also its animation style.” [27] Non-Disney characters like Popeye and Betty Boop underwent similar processes of refinement. [28] Eisenstein valued the “plasmatic” quality of cartoon animation, characterized by a “rejection of once and forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form.” [29] In order to experience ecstasy in the plasmaticness’ of existence, “man searches for a n image with traits capable of resembling this state and sensation.” The polyformic capabilities of instability, inconsistency of form and the fluidity and suddenness of formation are “brought to the viewer…by these seemingly strange traits which permeate folktales, cartoons, the spineless circus performer and the seemingly groundless scattering of extremities in Disney’s drawings.” [30] According to Tom Gunning, this concept of a “lost changeability” is closely connected to Eisenstein’s own concept of inner speech, primitive language and mimesis: “For Eisenstien, primitive language represents a stage in which language was less abstract, more descriptive of physical reality, of actions, where signifier and signified were closely bound together.” [31] It signaled a return to totemism by imaging the rebirth of universal animism.

Eisenstein worked with the following definition of “animation”: “belief that all objects possess a natural life or vital force or that they are endowed with an indwelling spirit .” [32] These possibilities are realized during the uprising of Delacroix’s black collectibles in Bamboozled and their haunting yet tender aftermath in the credits. Eisenstein loved the Three Little Pigs 1933 Silly Symphony, but harshly criticized Bambi (1942), comparing it to Chinese landscape painting. [33]

Much of animation’s future becomes increasingly intertwined with its adjacent industries as computer-generated imagery plays a greater role in special effects for live-action features (e.g. Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1992). Hybrid live-action and animation movies, from the extremely successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Zemeckis, 1980) to Cool World (Bakshi, 1992) and Space Jam (Pytka, 1996), are often promoted as the inauguration of a novel medium, but many early forays into film animation combined traditional film and hand-drawn animation techniques. In fact, all the major studios have all made regular excursions into this format. These seemingly exclusive styles, though, are often subtly braided. Computer programs paint colors onto cells (or, as in Waking Life (Linklater, 2001), onto photographed f rames) and efficiently and consistently join the multiple layers of an image. Digital technology is often used to simulate the look of traditional cell animation, and Toy Story’s figures, for example, resembled plasticine models. Similarly, The Mask (Russel, 1994) used CGI to rework many classic Warner gags in live-action format. The technical developments that have made these films possible have simultaneously leveled the animation field.

Flash Frame is a simple animation method that has been made widely available through the i nternet and allows a broader range of people to become animators and have their work seen. Todd Rundgren compares Flash to silkscreen, pencil, and traditional cartooning. [34] Many of these programs intended to promote music video style and culture in an online instant. Interestingly, MTV has consistently taken responsibility for mainstreaming underground animation techniques into cutting edge television graphics, and developed cartoon series’ of its own. Its Celebrity Death Match (recently released as a Playstation2 video game ) might be considered the contemporary claymation version of Duck Amuck (1953)–Chuck Jones’s noteworthy exploration of cell animation techniques. [35]

The term “animation school of violence” wryly describes the “spectacle of punishment” in animated cartoons, in which characters are flattened, blown out, and distorted in all sorts of ways from all sorts of physical abuse, often at the hand of another cartoon figure. [36] Animation’s importance in Japanese popular culture is well known, and the medium functions as its primary vehicle for participation in global culture. While its visual heritage dates back to at least the 17th century, many of Japan’s pioneer animators admired Disney animation, Japanese anime often appeals to Americans in its rejection or resistance to the cultural and production values dominated by Disney. [37] The pictoral history it shares with manga (graphic novels) diverges in anime’s distinctive cuts, format, time limits, and other “strictures of film inevitably lead to significant changes between the texts.” [38] One particular anime genre explores the cyborg/robotic body, and metamorphosis is central to Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira.

Like Max Renn in Videodrome, protagonists may equally resist physical transformation and nihilistically reel in its splendor, denying the transforming body in a quest for normality and asserting their monstrous identities. [39]

The term “animation” has a particularly complex relationship to the concept of “media,” and its connections to other classes of media are similarly convoluted. A medium is animated when it comes to life for the viewer, but animation itself is a medium, as well as a process that accommodates a variety of other mediums. The definition of “animation” and animated works themselves inform theories of media in their relationships to time and space, creation and life, nature and magic, the body and its possibilities.

Margo Miller
Winter 2003


[1] OED “animation” definition 8. Cinemat .
[2] Gartenberg, 84.
[3] Halas and Manvell 1959 OED
[4] OED “animation” definition 3.
[5] OED “animation” definition 3.
[6] Leslie, 175.
[7] OED “animation” definition 2.
[8] OED “animation” definition 2.
[9] McLuhan, 160.
[10] McLuhan, 161.
[11] McLuhan, 168.
[12] McLuhan, 164.
[13] McLuhan, 162.
[14] Levinson, 16.
[15] Furniss, 5.
[16]Reader , 4.
[17] Gartenberg, 87.
[18] Griffin
[19] Gartenberg, 86.
[20] Koningsberg, 66.
[21] Gartenberg, 86.
[22] Koningsberg, 62.
[23] Konigsberg, 66.
[24] Jafar in Aladdin , Triton in The Little Mermaid and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast , Griffin, 142.
[25] Griffin, 138.
[26] Leslie, 83.
[27] Leslie, 81.
[28] Leslie, 174.
[29] Eisenstein, 21.
[30] Eisenstein, 21.
[31] Gunning 40.
[32] Leslie, 235.
[33] The color, drawings, and shading were inappropriate; it was not synchronized, musical, or lyrical. Leslie, 247.
[34]Flash Frames, 5.
[35] Bordwell and Thompson, 147.
[36 The Hollywood studios of the 1940's and 1950's influenced by Tex Avery's Tom and Jerry and Road Runner , satirized in The Simpson's Itchy and Scratchy.
[37]Napier, 40, 249.
[38] Napier, 88, 16.
[39] Napier, 20.


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