One of the challenges of teaching an introductory animation history is finding an adequate book. There are plenty of examples of well-researched histories, but most of them have some sort of limitation—for example, being too narrow in scope (maybe focusing only on US animation) or either too encyclopedic (broad but shallow in depth) or ‘coffee table’ in approach (dominated by images). Others touch on a range of overlooked or independent artists who can be perceived as interesting but too specialized for an introduction, and some focus on a particular era or aspect of production, such as sound or genre. To fashion a comprehensive course, students could be required to purchase several books, which might appeal to a graduate student but probably would not be ideal for undergraduates.
Some teachers use compiled readings by different authors. Are course readers, assembled by the instructor (and often quite expensive for photocopies), still being used? What about online readings via links on a course website? Compilations include writing by specialists who focus on their area of expertise, but are the gaps between the chapters problematic for structuring a comprehensive animation history? Classroom lectures can help fill such gaps, if teachers have a broad-based knowledge of the field.
Having laid out some of the problems of existing readings, I am now asking you to imagine the ideal comprehensive animation history text, which for the purposes of this essay, I will simply call ‘the book’. Without question, students across the world are interested in popular works that have been produced by American studios such as Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks. Hayao Miyazaki also enjoys international popularity. It’s hard to imagine the book without reference to these crowd-pleasing works. Yet, it’s also hard to know how much information about them is appropriate. Clearly, these studios can and already do fill books of their own. So, one question is how to delimit the well-known studios to achieve a balance between rehashing details about ‘the classics’ and introducing the reader to significant contextual details or lesser known aspects of the topic.
Since animation is such a large field and students entering it today may go in many directions, another question relates to technical scope: short films, feature films, television series, gaming, web series, phone apps, installations, documentary/educational purposes (including scientific and medical applications), motion graphics, visual effects . . . When we define the topic of the book’s focus as ‘the history of animation’, where do we draw the line and how does our line drawing suggest the privileging of creators and forms? A text that covers all of these topics would be more like a ‘career guide’ than a history, it seems. A somewhat predictable choice would be for the book to focus on features and television series in a number of chapters and include one or more chapters that survey other types of historically significant or unique examples. Another possibility is to specify that the book limit itself to a small number of forms, such as features and television series, perhaps also including short format ‘personal’ films. However, it seems like this approach ignores the reality that for many students, animation is and will be associated with the ‘other contexts’ that historians of the past have not valued and/or focused on in compiling histories. It’s a daunting task for a ‘traditional’ historian to jump into the history of the Internet, for example. How can one even begin to historicize animation in this vast and ever changing realm? So, another question is how to define the borders of the history in terms of exhibition and format, recognizing the way the field has been redefined in the last two decades and remaining relevant for today’s student.
A few weeks ago, I was asked whether a festival should include a screening that would be basically defined as ‘animation by women’. This question posed a conceptual problem for me. I have always been a supporter of promoting work by female artists, and yet I do not believe that one’s status as ‘a woman’ is enough to merit inclusion in a festival, the book, or any other context. My response is that I wished I lived in a society where this question didn’t have to be asked, but I had to say ‘no’, I didn’t believe this sort of screening was a good idea. What I did propose is returning to the selection of works after an initial program had been set and reviewing where diversity of all sorts might be developed. The festival-programmer’s dilemma is also relevant to the book, as one tries to include representations of various sorts, in terms of form, content, creators, and country of origin, for example.
The problem for the book is balancing between the well-known examples of animation history, which have been dominated by such characteristics as 2D (drawn) short and feature-length theatrical productions, humorous narratives, Disney, and Americans—not to mention the creative roles of ‘director’ and ‘animator’. Reflecting their primarily industrial orientation these dominating examples foreground examples of men’s work. How can we balance this orientation, assuming that we should? Do we merely take ‘the opposite’ of the dominant model and insert examples for the sake of diversity? To what extent are we obligated to document production of any sort across the world, perhaps to encourage readers to see themselves as part of the community? Do we include the histories of institutions and animation produced by them—the National Film Board of Canada, Soyuzmultfilm, Zagreb Film, Tallinnfilm, Channel 4, or the BBC? To what extent is the book obligated to include examples by women, artists in South Africa or Singapore, children, amateurs, or the most commercialized television series based around toy lines? How about the history of related contexts, such as festivals and merchandising? As I suggested to the festival director, is it a matter of going back after the initial history has been written and finding ways to ‘stuff’ the content with diverse examples? Does it matter if any of these ‘value added’ examples are not published on DVDs? The Internet is often a valuable resource for finding copies of work not commercially available, but for some—not all—issues of copyright complicate the ‘legitimate’ use of YouTube screenings in class presentations. Many times, image quality also suffers when online examples are shown. If a film cannot be viewed or even illustrated with a photo, is it better to substitute an ‘accessible’ example?
I have posed a lot of questions here and I would welcome your responses to any of them. However, I would also like to know simply what you have not found in film history books but you consider essential to teaching animation history. What are the gaps that still exist, in respect to your classroom? I’m also interested to know how your course has evolved over time to embrace changing materials and the expanding field.
Maureen Furniss is the founding editor of Animation Journal and teaches on the animation faculty at California Institute of the Arts. She is a founding member of the SAS, its past treasurer and president, and currently chairing its board of directors. She can be contacted at email@example.com .