We all know that animation has commonly been used to bring products to life, create dynamic visual aids for educational films, or provide a stimulus or communication tool for scientific experiments. Yet, in scholarly efforts to elevate animation as art or study it as entertainment, useful animation has often been neglected. Recent scholarship on ‘useful cinema’ (Acland & Wasson 2011) or ‘films that work’ (Hediger & Vonderau 2009) provides a new set of research questions and methodologies for addressing this type of work by looking more closely at specific conditions of production (e.g., the commissioners and their purpose) and the knowledge produced by animation in those other contexts. We now encounter examples of useful animation on a daily basis in the form of data visualization and infographics, but to fully understand our present moment, we need to examine the longer history of this broad field of animation production.
In this post, we highlight four key principles that have informed our own investigation of such ‘useful animation’. The first is that practical or applied uses often informed the work of celebrated animation films, artists and studios, and that we should avoid reflexively writing off such ‘applied’ output as somehow tangential to these artists’ more ‘serious’ filmmaking. Secondly, and conversely, there is a vast range of more ‘anonymous’ animation production that has received little or no attention because it was seen as functional or specialized. These examples are often those that most fully embraced the interdisciplinarity and intermediality that is characteristic of animation. Thirdly, animation was not a fixed quantity in these applied fields. It was actively changed and transformed by its application to useful purposes. And finally, animation was not a passive medium for the communication of ideas but reshaped and informed the way the world was seen and understood.
Canonical Useful Animation. In part, the history of useful animation is already highly visible due to its connection to well-known historical animators. This is true especially in the field of advertising. Though once largely forgotten, the advertising work of Lotte Reiniger (see Petter 2019), Walter Ruttman (see Cowan 2014), Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, and others has gained increasing visibility in recent years.
Canonical animators also worked on other types of ‘useful’ cinema, ranging from Hungarian filmmaker Berthold Bartosch’s early work in animated geography films (at the Viennese Institute for Cultural Research) to Hans Richter’s stop motion animation for The New Dwelling (1930, commissioned by the Swiss Werkbund as a showcase for modernist architecture).
Acclaimed British studio Halas and Batchelor produced sponsored educational films like Down a Long Way (1954) for British Petroleum, which offered an informative account of the geology of oil extraction. Indeed, the influential US post-war studio UPA, and John Hubley’s later Storyboard Studios, understood their work to be useful from the start, not only because educational and advertising films were a big part of their portfolio, but because they viewed their art as fundamentally rhetorical and communicative. Influenced by trends in design (see Bashara 2019), they hoped that their animation would be “useful” for society, so their useful animations were never separated from their fictional films in terms of their overall goals.
Examining such work in relation to these artists’ more familiar output can often help us to better comprehend how they understood their own professional identity as innovative filmmakers and why they may have found work in useful animation beneficial, not merely to ‘pay the bills’, but also to hone their craft (e.g., in visual design) and demonstrate its applicability and agency in the world.
Unknown Useful Animation. But alongside links to canonical film history, there is an equal need to incorporate a vast swathe of useful animation that has received little or no attention from animation scholars. If we look beyond the standard film-historical sources, we will find a veritable treasure trove of archival material just waiting to be recovered – from the first experiments in things like animated weather maps to the development of specialized companies such as “Publi-Ciné” (1919) and “Rapid Pubicité” (1924) in France, commissioning bodies such as the Shell Film Unit and the General Post Office or the Ministry of Health in Britain. Archives such as the Imperial War Museum or the Wellcome Collection may not seem at first glance to be the first stop for animation historians, but for those interested in useful animation, they are vital for finding resources that have escaped the usual historiographical dragnet.
All of this material can tell us much about the development both of animation and of the various fields in which it proved so useful and help us understand why people turned to animation when they did. It can also help fill out the missing pre-histories of the types of useful animation that surround us today (data visualization, animated maps, visualizations of the body, and many other forms).
Useful Animation Shaped Animation History. Animation was not simply a passive medium. It was actively changed in its application to useful purposes. A good example can be seen in the history of abstract animation, which arguably did not begin with the well-known avant-garde experiments of the 1920s. In fact, one could trace its lineage back to mathematical films, starting with the geometrical films of Ludwig Münch created shortly after 1910, which anticipate avant-garde work of the 1920s.
While Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling may not have consciously taken inspiration from such films, the connection was noticed in other contexts. In Britain, the educational mathematics films made by Robert Fairthorne and Brian Salt in the mid-1930s not only communicated mathematical concepts but relied upon newly developed techniques and precise calculations in the animation process to achieve the fluid motion and accurate coordination of elements, methods that would later be utilized elsewhere, such as the NFB film Universe (1960).
Another example would be the crossover between fictional cartoons and the technical animations of Bray Studios. Capitalizing on the rage for technical drawing, Bray’s technical animations showed how things work, from the wartime The Aeroplane Machine Gun (October 1917) to How the Telephone Talks (April 1919).
The techniques developed in these useful animations, such as the “sectional” or “cut-away” drawing, which showed the inner workings of a machine, for example, carried over to the studio’s fictional cartoons, as when we see the inside of the homemade panzer in the Bobby Bumps entry Tanks (1917).
Useful Animation Shaped Understanding. Conversely, the dynamic and transformative nature of animation frequently meant viewers of useful animation (experts, students, or consumers) were made to think differently about the world and their relationship with it. In some rare cases, we can find explicit mention of such influence, as in Michael Polanyi’s recognition of the value of motion in understanding the dynamics of economic systems for the film Unemployment and Money (1938/1940). But more generally, we can examine how animation came to provide lasting visual models for conceptualizing areas of knowledge such as the nebular theory of the formation of the solar system, the workings of the circulatory system, or the formation of fossil fuels. In such cases, animation – while certainly drawing on established theories and likely also on established forms of visualization outside of film – helped to establish certain iconographic protocols, which influenced how people thought about processes otherwise impossible to depict, often down to the present day.
Acland, C., and Wasson, H. (eds.) (2011), Useful Cinema, Durham: Duke University Press.
Bashara, D. (2019), Cartoon Vision: UPA Animation and Postwar Aesthetics, Oakland: University of California Press.
Cowan, M. (2014), Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity: Avant-Garde, Advertising, Modernity, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Hediger, V., and Vonderau, P. (eds.) (2009), Films That Work. Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Petter, T. (2019), “Sponsored Silhouettes: Lotte Reiniger’s ‘Useful’ Films in Britain”, in Cook, M., and Thompson, K. M. (eds.), Animation and Advertising, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Malcolm Cook is Associate Professor of Film at the University of Southampton. His monograph Early British Animation: From Page and Stage to Cinema Screens was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018 He is currently researching useful animation, especially within advertising, and he has written several chapters on this topic, which appear in The Animation Studies Reader (2018) and Aardman Animations: Beyond Stop-Motion (2020). He has also co-edited (with Kirsten Moana Thompson) the collection Animation and Advertising (2019).
Michael Cowan is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity, as well as many articles on film and media history, including various areas of useful animation. Currently, he is finishing a book on the evolution of German-language film societies from the 1910s to the 1930s.
Scott Curtis is Associate Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University and in the Communication Program at Northwestern University in Qatar. He is the author of The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (2015) and editor of Animation (2019) on the history of American animation’s modes of production. He has published extensively on scientific and medical uses of motion picture technology.