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