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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
I’ve chosen to build my class using Bendazzi’s Cartoons 100 years of animation history as a backbone. Then I’ve tried to come up with “chapters” so that I could focus on 1 subject per 3-4h class session (screenings included). For instance: 1) The pioneers and early studios, 2) Disney, 3) US cartoon golden Age, 4) European masters… etc… I try to keep a balance between commercial and independent but I do tend to focus on US, Europe (east and west) and Canada. I do briefly mention Japanese animation but as this is pretty much all my students watch on their own I’ve decided to allot class time to material they are less susceptible to have seen. For the same reason I don’t really show feature film in class (eventually trailers of significant ones).
So it’s far from being a complete approach but I try to show them what I feel is most significant (acknowledging my own “northern hemisphere” biases) while and this is perhaps the most important for me trying to expand their horizons. To me showing them stuff they’ve never seen is, at this stage, perhaps more important than a full complete history.
(I should mention that I’m teaching at a 3 year trade school, not at a university)
I like the idea of using screenings to show the diversity of work out there. I think it also demonstrates that there isnt enough time to cover everything! I wish we all had the luxury of undergrad courses on animation which had enough space for a good lot of theory and history!
Bendazzi is a great resource. I’ve also used these a lot:
Donald Crafton. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. MIT Press, 1984
Harold Edgerton, Gus Kayafas (ed), Estelle Jussim. Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton. Harry N Abrams, 2000
Peter Hames, ed. Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer. Greenwood Press, 1995
Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, ed. Art In Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell, 1992.
Chuck Jones. Chuck Amuck: The Life And Times Of An Animated Cartoonist. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989
Leonard Maltin. Of Mice And Magic: A History Of American Animated Cartoons. New American Library, 1980
Mark Crispin Miller, ed. Seeing Through Movies. Pantheon, 1990
Eadweard Muybridge. The Human Figure in Motion. Dover, 1955
Eric Smoodin, ed. Disney Discourse: Producing The Magic Kingdom. Routledge, 1994
I think this is a really interesting topic, thanks Maureen. I wonder though if this is a problem specific to animation studies and how much ‘hasn’t’ been published yet, or simply trying to cram too much history into one course/lecture series? How does film studies deal with this issue? Or any other discipline for that matter? I know that’s not really what you are getting at, but I do think its a genuine problem for academics, especially with the cost of text books and the issues of library holdings. Not to mention the issue of actually getting students to do the readings….
Well as a former film studies student, I can at least answer with regards to the classes I had. And the answer is pretty simple really. We had a lot more classes.
I started with two roughly 30h classes on world cinema history from an encyclopaedic point of view. Very broad but shallow approach. The aim being to mention as much as possible.
That was accompanied by two 30h classes with narrower but deeper focus (one was on the US studio system, esp Warner, the other was on modernity in France, UK, Italy and US)
Then on top of that I had specific classes on Belgian Cinema, Documentary Film, Italian Cinema and Eastern European Film… (each roughly 30h)
And that’s just for history, I had a series of theory class on top of that.
So how do film studies do it? They just don’t try to cramm it all up into 1 class. The best solution would be to do a full animation undergrad (they start to do it for comics) which would allow us to do a class on US cartoons, a class on abstract/art animation, a class on theory, etc… but as long as Animation will be studied as a genre of cinema, we have to resort to not being as exhaustive as we’d like.
Ah Stephane, that’s the dream – to have a full animation studies degree! We all know how much there is going on in the subject (which is obviously Maureen’s point) and I hope that the more we bang on about it the more we can come out of the ‘genre’ allocation? That’s one of the ideas of the blog – to get more people talking and thinking about it all.
Thank you, Nichola, for raising the subject of how much has not been published yet. I think we have two problems in one. First and paramount, good reasearch is badly needed. The quantity of facts and opinions that’s waiting to be explored is unimaginable. On the other hand, we need serious spread of knowledge, for students and for beginners of any kind. I wrote Cartoons in 1988 thinking of specialists, not students; it became an awkward textbook. Now I am publishing the completely remade and expanded version, still for specialists. I begged my publisher to make, just after the publication of the latter, and abridged version for students. He promised he will. I am doing my bit and I hope it is good.
Giannalberto, it is wonderful to hear that you are publishing a remade and expanded edition of your seminal text, and equally exciting news to hear that you plan to release an abridged version aimed at undergrad students alongside this. I for one will certainly make use of both editions, and the student-focused text may well become the course reader.
[…] Cholodenko et al in 1991 and 2007) are trying to present and yet as Maureen Furniss suggested in her recent blog post – we don’t have any perfectly complete accounts in one […]