Long has the iconography of the “Hand of the Artist” been used as a storytelling motif in animation, emerging in the early 20th century from roots in vaudevillian ‘lightning sketches’ such as James Stuart Blackton’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900). A magical brush, pen, hand, or cursor reaches into the frame and draws forth life from nothingness (Crafton 1979, 413). Although in many instances the motif is used to set up a – frequently quarrelsome – narrative relationship between creator and creation, this iconography might be intentionally reframed to engage an audience. This post argues that revealing the fiction of an animated landscape facilitates a conscious “contrivance connection”, making the author’s traditionally subtextual commentary clear. Leading this argument will be a discussion of my film Urbanality (2019), in which black and white cut-outs of the author’s hand reach into the fictional space to make fantastical changes. Analysis of Urbanality will focus largely on the use of the hand as a trope and as a representation of the author, and on the role of the audience as both empathic observer and participant.
I consider Urbanality a true auteurist piece. The film was conceived and produced entirely independently and thus exists as a direct distillation of my directorial vision, as auteur theory stipulates. Even the sound design (executed by Mark Hooper) was supervised closely by me. Urbanality explores a fictional facsimile of mundane urban life, using a blend of illustration and collaged photographic cut-outs to ground the viewer in a hybridized, yet believable world. Plausible reality is quickly disrupted as the “Hand of the Artist” shifts the very fabric of the environment, exposing the material construction of the animation and reinforcing the auteur’s dominion over the fictional world.
With its semi-realistic setting, the animation makes explicit the parallels between fictional representation and our lived experiences. The characters are relatable in their familiar routines, and the scenarios are poignant, drawing both visually and thematically on accessible experience. In one scene, the hand of the artist rips away an office building roof, scattering papers from a character’s desk into the wind (Figure 1). Later, that same character obliviously re-prints those papers in a roofless room. This scene is simultaneously relatable and absurd, and the audience is positioned to respond both empathically and critically. While intellectually connecting with the exposed materiality of the medium, the audience becomes emotionally engaged by their parallels with the character. This is what Wijers (2018, 48) calls the ‘closeness effect’, a contrasting and complementary accompaniment to Brecht’s distancing effect (Brecht & Willett 1964, 91-99). Wijers argues that empathic connection and Brecht’s goal of intellectual connection are not mutually exclusive in fourth wall breaks. She states that “once you have overcome the ‘shock’ of the breaking itself, a new dimension emerges in which you are even more included” and that enhanced engagement with a medium, by definition cannot result in a separation from it (Wijers 2018, 48).
Our inevitable emotional connection with a narrative is inextricably connected to our engagement with it. One emotional focal point in Urbanality is the character of the child in the opening scene. Only the child recognizes the hand’s interference when an urban obstruction is removed, sunlight streams in, and a leaf ‘magically’ appears on a presumably dead tree. The child is thrilled and curiously leans in. Although both child and accompanying adult remain unaware of the hand itself, the adult blindly ignores all effects of the hand’s alterations, and in fact, the child’s acknowledgment of it. Here, the child embodies the curious, exploratory experience of the audience as they attempt to engage with this new world. To cement the audience’s sympathetic response, the child is then unceremoniously dragged face-down across the pavement, and out of shot (Figure 2).
The actions of the hand in the aforementioned scene shed light literally and extra-diegetically on my socio-political intent and provide context for the rest of the animation. While the child (a future custodian of the planet) acknowledged the impact, the adult remained oblivious. In breaking the fourth wall, the hand elicits the distancing effect, manipulating the audience into critical reflection. Meanwhile, the closeness effect is engaged by our connection to the child, immediately harnessing the audience’s sympathetic, empathic response, while planting the seeds of the socio-political messages to follow. In this way, I established from the outset audience engagement with my artist’s commentary and emotional engagement with the characters.
The film was also created with careful attention to tone. The hand’s manipulations are grand, yet never destructive, largely preserving the emotional connection one inevitably makes with characters in a story (Taylor 2017, 156-157). The hand is a source of conflict, but not an antagonist, interfering with characters primarily to draw audience attention to their blind adherence to routine and material trappings. It is suggestive, not demanding. In the final scene, the hand plucks a moving tram from its tracks to softly place it by a scenic beach (Figure 3). The tram passengers remain lost in their mobile phones until one looks up with a start, curiously exits the tram, and sits at the oceanside in quiet contemplation, uninterrupted by technological distractions. Both the character and the audience are gently maneuvered towards reflection. As the closeness effect is engaged, the audience’s empathetic identification with the character invites critical reflection just as much as the fourth wall break (Wijers 2018, 48-53).
Despite the fourth wall breaks, the characters always remain oblivious to the hand, and thus, the exposed contrivance of the world remains as a privileged dialogue between the audience and auteur. Even the child, though inquisitive, remains ignorant of the author’s interference. This dramatic irony also enhances our empathic connection to the character (Hayes 2013, 10). In a divergence from animation tradition, the hand is employed as a communication tool that enhances our engagement with the narrative.
Historically, the “Hand of the Artist” has been largely used as an introductory element or instigator of conflict for narrative progression. With my film I tried to show how shifting the use of the iconography might also stimulate critical audience engagement and tried to establish a new possible approach to using the “Hand of the Artist” motif in animation. By not directly interfering with characters and only altering the materiality of the world around them, the hand simultaneously interrupts immersion and elicits dramatic irony, resulting in Wijer’s closeness effect, the attraction one feels when characters feel relatable. The audience consciously connects to the animation on both an intellectual and empathic level. As such, in my view, the audience understands the pure expression of the auteur’s commentary and is successfully connected with their meaning. While I cannot anticipate how changing contexts will influence a viewer’s interpretation of the auteur’s meaning, through this approach I can hopefully minimize obfuscation.
Brecht, B. & Willett, J. (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, New York, Hill and Wang.
Crafton, D. (1979), “Animation Iconography: The ‘Hand of the Artist'”. Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4, pp. 409-428.
Hayes, D. & Webster, C. (2013), Acting and Performance for Animation, Burlington, Massachusetts & Oxfordshire, Focal Press.
Taylor, N. (2017), “Co-creating Characters with Empathy: Fontane’s Unwiederbringlich”, German Life and Letters, 70, pp. 155-173.
Wijers, E. (2018), “Emersive Storytelling: An Exploration of Animation and the Fourth Wall as a Tool for Critical Thinking”, Animation Practice, Process & Production, 7, pp. 41-65.
Evan McInnes is an animator, director, and designer currently based in Melbourne. He has independently written, directed, and animated two internationally successful short films. His most recent film, Urbanality, received numerous awards internationally and in Australia, including selection for the 2020 St Kilda Film Festival’s Top 100 Shorts and the prestigious Hiroshima International Animation Festival in their Stars of Students category.