I like to start my animation history class by telling the students that I am going to show them the very first animated film ever made. I then proceed by showing Pauvre Pierrot (1892, by Émile Reynaud) without further comments.
After watching the film, I tell them that something should be bothering them about what they just saw. Quite often the students react to the fact that the film is in color, contrary to what they have come to expect from “old” movies. Rarely do they pick up on the 1892 date of the film.
After I have encouraged my class to search for the date of the creation of cinema, they realize we are three years off. So I ask them: “How can we have a film if cinema has not been invented yet?” One answer is simply that Reynaud’s work is technically not cinema as traditionally defined. As Alan Cholodenko remarks in his 2008 article “The Animation of Cinema”, Reynaud “is positioned in the pre-history of cinema, […] he and his Praxinoscope are merely included in a list of proto-cinematic optical devices” (Cholodenko 2008).
Indeed, it should be noted that “cinema”, short for “cinematograph”, originally refers to the technical apparatus used to record and project moving pictures, and only later was extended to the actual works produced with the aforementioned apparatus. This metonymy, mistaking the apparatus for the works produced with it, gave birth to what Cholodenko calls “a teleology that makes cinema, that is, the photographic film, not only the goal but the measure” (Cholodenko 2008). Therefore, for many film historians/theorists, anything not made with that apparatus is not cinema and does not really count.
Viewing Reynaud’s work helps me to engage my student to rethink this standard view of what is or is not film and/or animation. In a classic case of Simpsons already did it , it should be noted that most of that rethinking has already been done by Cholodenko and a couple others before him. In his aforementioned article Chlondenko, citing the likes of Stephenson (1973) and Alexeïef (1994), claims that Reynaud’s work is in fact animation and that therefore animation takes precedence over the cinematograph, going as far as to claim that cinema is only a special case of animation. (Cholodenko 2008)
While I agree with the general idea, I would personally argue for a more nuanced definition claiming than “it’s all cinema regardless of the technique”. But most importantly, for me as a teacher, more than a “who came first” type of debate, this discussion allows me to embark my students on a series of reflections about the very definition of cinema and the nature of animation.
In 2001 Manovich claimed that
the manual construction of images in digital cinema represents a return to the pro-cinematic practices of the nineteenth century, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated. At the turn of the twentieth century, cinema was to delegate these manual techniques to animation and define itself as a recording medium. As cinema enters the digital age, these techniques are again becoming commonplace in the filmmaking process. Consequently, cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation(Manovich 2001, 2002: 295) (in Cholodenko 2008).
This allows me to offer to my students the idea that, before all, we need to reconsider how we define cinema. Traditionally, cinema proper includes a camera, film and being projected on a screen. At least two of those elements are absent in today’s CGI cinema, and when one comes to think of it, since the advent of television, personal computers and smartphones, the big projection screen is absent as well. Reynaud’s work therefore allows me to open my students’ minds and have them re-evaluate their definition of “cinema”. Clearly the technical, cinematograph-based definition is obsolete. I therefore encourage the class to take more of a reception-based approach. Indeed, what is important here is not really how the film is made, as much as what you end up seeing and feeling. This thought process allows me to help them understand that what really matters is the audience’s experience and that, as future practitioners, expressing themselves in the most pertinent way, regardless of the technique, should be at the heart of their preoccupations.
However, let’s not disregard the technique all together quite yet. We know that Reynaud was an inventor of the Praxinoscope first, and then of the Théâtre Optique (Bendazzi 1994: 3-5). These all demonstrate what I call a “tinkerer” mentality which I believe is at the very heart of any animated practice. It is clear that Reynaud was not a man content to merely exploit the existing technology. He envisioned a spectacle of projected moving images and built the tools enabling him to produce the results he desired to achieve. As I continue my lecture discussing Blackton, Cohl and the other pioneers of animation, I put forward the idea that the history of animation is not a linear one starting with Reynaud to the works of today, but rather that animation keeps being “born and reborn” here and there as tinkerers encounter the desire to bring movement to images. And as Reynaud did not satisfy himself with what the available technology offered, so should the students think first not about what the technology allows them to do, but about what they want to achieve. I encourage them to be the new Reynauds and tinker, and build, and come up with solutions. If you want to be an animator, you’d better enjoy “de mettre vos mains dedans” as we say in French (i.e. get your hands dirty).
Choldolenko, Alan (2008), “The Animation of Cinema”, in The Semiotic Review of Books, v. 18.2.
Bendazzi, Giannalberto (1994) Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, John Libbey Publishing; republished in 2006.
Dr Stéphane Collignon has been lecturing on animation theory, art history, image analysis, and transmedia as well as teaching a couple writing workshops at Europe’s largest graphic design school: Haute École Albert Jacquard, in Namur, Belgium. He has a background in Journalism, Film Studies and Film Writing, and his PhD dissertation focused on animation aesthetics and its ties to print cartoon, caricature and the uncanny valley theory. His research interests include phenomenology of cinema, empirical aesthetics, genres, visual narration (including cartoons, comics, etc.), transmedia and pro wrestling (cuz it’s awesome!).
 In the episode 7 of South Park’s season 6, “Simpsons already did it”, Butters trying to pull a prank is confronted to the fact that anything he can think of has already been done in the Simpsons.
 A claim he has been making since 1991 in his introduction for The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation.
 An idea I first encountered in Dick Tomasovic’s lectures on animation at the Université de Liège some 13 years ago.