If I’ve heard this question asked once of an animator, I’ve heard it asked a thousand times. Not “When…?”, “Where…?”, or “Why…?”, but “How…?”. Animation often seems to revolve around technology and technique (a consideration of the distinction and relationship between these two must remain for a future post). Interviews with animators focus on their choice of materials and the construction of their films. DVD extras draw our attention to the production process. Animated films are judged on their adoption (or failure to adopt) the latest technological advancements.
The reason for this obsession may appear obvious. As earlier discussions of animated documentary on this blog make clear, the means by which non-animated images appear on screen seem self-evident, while the sources of animated images are not always readily apparent and demand explication. Furthermore, technology and technique are often central to definitions of what this form is: animated films are grouped together not on the basis of shared aesthetic strategies or thematic concerns, but by their mode of production.
As a consequence animation history is often seen as being driven by a series of technological innovations: ‘cinema’ itself in the 1890s, the Bray-Hurd patents, the coming of sound, the multiplane camera etc. etc. Important as these technologies are, the technological determinism inherent in their constant repetition belies the complex range of factors which contributed to the development of animation and the technologies that underpin it.
The Bray-Hurd patents (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3815120) provide an excellent case in point. These patents, filed in 1914 and 1915, described labour saving methods intended to make the production of animated cartoons viable ‘on a commercially practical scale’. The patents coincided with a huge increase in the production of animated cartoons in the United States, and the patents are commonly understood as the ‘cause’ which generated this ‘effect’.
Yet a closer examination suggests a more complex historical moment. There is evidence that regular commercial production of animated cartoons was already increasing before the Bray-Hurd patents were formulated, with Mutt and Jeff, The Newlyweds, and some topical series already in regular production. This growth had a range of causes, but the most important were the increasing attention American producers were paying to the international market and the move towards a factory style production system in Hollywood (Thompson 1985, 1980). These economic changes were also occurring at a time of considerable social and political change in Europe that ultimately resulted in the First World War. The Bray-Hurd patents, and the associated growth in animated cartoon production, can thus be seen as a result of economic and social influences rather than acting as a trigger themselves. We might think of Brian Winston’s concept of ‘supervening social necessity’ which is useful in understanding the degree to which technological invention, diffusion, and suppression are driven by social, economic and other influences (Winston 1998).
Compare this situation in the United States with that in Britain in the same period. Britain equally saw a growth of production in animated cartoons in 1913-1914, and in particular the outbreak of war stimulated considerable activity. Yet British filmmakers did not adopt the techniques described in the Bray-Hurd patents and continued to use other methods, especially adhering more closely to print cartooning and using the lightning cartoon music hall act as a way to add dynamic elements to their images. By not adopting the new technology from the United States British animated cartoons became a vital part of the film programme during the First World War. By using other techniques British wartime films retained single authorship of the films, the strong national associations of the music hall act and political cartooning, and a detailed, textural aesthetic far removed from the stark monochrome of the technologies described by Bray and Hurd. However, towards the end of the war American economic dominance began to take hold and British screens were flooded with animated cartoons which used the new techniques. British cartoons were increasingly criticised for not adopting the standardised model in use in the United States. Later historians, from Rachael Low to Giannalberto Bendazzi, have replicated this technologically-centred view and dismissed British animated films of that period because of it. Not only did the technocentric viewpoint impact production at the time, it has equally distorted our historical understanding. I would argue we need to look again at these histories and ensure they consider the full range of factors which determined historical change, rather than relying upon an overly simplistic view of technology generating change.
Here is an example of the very different tradition present in Britain at this time, Lancelot Speed’s Britain’s Effort (1918).
The challenge to technological determinism I make here is not simply of relevance to our understanding of animation’s distant history. As each new digital technology and technique appears we should ask how animation’s early history both shapes and can help us understand the present changes. We need to ask not only how the technology works, but where it came from, who benefits from it, why it matters to us.
Thompson, Kristin. 1980. Implications of the Cel Animation Technique. In The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by T. d. L. Stephen Heath. London: MacMillan.
Thompson, Kristin. 1985. Exporting entertainment : America in the world film market 1907-34. London: British Film Institute.
Winston, Brian. 1998. Media technology and society. A history: from the telegraph to the Internet. London: Routledge.
Malcolm Cook was recently awarded a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. His research addresses early British animated cartoons prior to the advent of sound cinema, with a particular focus on the relationship between the moving image and the graphic arts and other pre-cinematic entertainments, as well as the neurological processes involved in the perception of these forms. He holds a BA in Film and Literature from the University of Warwick and an MA in History of Art, Film and Visual Media from Birkbeck. http://birkbeck.academia.edu/MalcolmCook
It is not “how it is done” that matters, it is “what it is doing.”
I wonder if the issues are not so much technological as social/cultural. Animated cinema was a new form 100 years ago, so naturally it grew out of what existed before. British animation incorporated music-hall traditions; American animation was closely associated with existing “low culture” forms like vaudeville, circus, & syndicated comics (the drawing style you associate with Bray/Hurd is a direct outgrowth of newspaper comics, optimized for high-contrast, low-quality printing); Eastern European animation grew out of their well-developed puppetry tradition; etc. Winsor McCay started out as a lightning-sketch ‘chalk talker’ and developed Gertie the Dinosaur as a vaudeville stage schtick. There are lots of other examples of this kind of crossover.
The somewhat related question I think worth asking is: why do most people think of animation as a subcategory of cinema, when in fact it’s both bigger and older than cinema? Or to put it another way, when / why / how did live-action, feature-length, narrative fiction cinema become the hegemonic form, with all other forms requiring a qualifying subcategory (like “animation” or “documentary”, etc)?
Luke – thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely correct to draw attention to the role of prior forms, and the Bray-Hurd patents were undoubtedly influenced by newspaper comic strips. However, I would still suggest that they were primarily motivated by economic requirements: Bray’s first patent (filed Jan 9th 1914) explicitly states it was intended to ‘facilitate the rapid and inexpensive production of a large number of pictures’ and makes little reference to the aesthetic effect the techniques produce. Interestingly, his second patent (filed 29th July 1914) has more discussion of creating multiple shades or tones, but this is still restricted to a small range, and the ‘inexpensive manner’ and the re-usability of film prints are emphasised as the primary benefits of a greater tonal range. We might say that Bray and Hurd’s background in newspaper comic strips was a secondary factor, in that they did not see the restricted tonal range of their techniques and technology as a limitation, as it adhered to common practice in newspaper printing.
In contrast Lancelot Speed was an experienced and well known book illustrator. He illustrated several of Andrew Lang’s ‘Fairy’ books which renewed popularity for many classic fairy tales in the late-Victorian period, some of which were used as sources at Disney for their feature films. Accustomed to the range available from the various techniques of image reproduction for books, Speed would have been reluctant to adopt a technology which suddenly restricted his work.
As to your second point, these are huge, important questions, that I suspect can only be answered by us all working together to consider them both theoretically and historically, and will probably always remain controversial. The most I can add is that in the period I’ve studied in Britain (up to the late 1920s) the term ‘animation’ is never used unequivocally. The term ‘Animated cartoons’ emerged during the First World War to describe a particular kind of film, primarily one embedded in the longer history of newspaper and music hall cartooning. I’d be interested to hear other people’s findings in different countries or periods.
The organization of US distribution systems at the time (mid- to late-teens), combined with the impact of WWI on European filmmaking of all kinds, gave the US a boost in terms of its overall productivity that encouraged/necessitated an assembly line approach (fast, economical). I agree with the impact of different traditions on style, but I think industrial conditions also dictated what survived or didn’t in the US. Do you have a comparison of growth in the period from 1915 through, say, 1925? Anyway, interesting points.