Early cinema, in particular silent film, has often been linked to the train as a symbol of modernity in the early twentieth century. However, depictions of trains in animation open opportunities for the modern and the traditional to engage in dialogue. Where modernism is slick and futuristic, postmodernism embraces anachronistic and ad-hoc recombinations laced with playful irony (Gabardi 2000, p. 4). By exploring animated films about trains, and the ways trains act like films, modern and postmodern sensibilities blend, linked by metaphors of technology and art (Lamarre 2009, p. xiii). While it may be tempting to imagine animation as tied to the fantastical and futuristic, both the train and the animated medium can alter the ways the viewers perceive the spectacle.
The emergence of the locomotive obliterated any sense of ordinary time and space, stripping away the ordinary world through sheer velocity (Schivelbusch 2014, p. 53). At the time, passengers described the experience as becoming a projectile, losing control of one’s senses as one hurtles through space. The passenger cannot see ahead, rather they are locked into a view perpendicular to their car. Mechanizing the perception of the passengers like a conveyor belt, the train’s vista emphasized the size, shape, and motion of forms over local sounds and smells. People become unrecognizable when traveling at such speeds, objects in the foreground fly by too quickly to be seen, instead the eyes must rest on the midground. The glance, once a messenger of discrete forms, instead presents a panoramic mode of vision, in which an entire region unrolls before one’s eyes as a living world devoid of detail. Depth gives way to particles that stretch and bend, a blurring moving surface.
While the train may represent a break from traditional perspectives on space and time reflective on an emerging modernity, Robert Breer’s Fuji (1974) embraces this panoramic vision with the use of traditional materials. Breer’s film focuses on motion, speeding up, inverting, and repeating subjects. Combining ink, paint, motion picture clips, and photography, he traces some footage via rotoscoping. Using this process to isolate the size, shape, and motion of the objects as they fly by the train window, rotoscoping becomes less of a shortcut and more a mode of perception (Eagan 2010, p. 714). Lacking a narrative, Fuji presents a series of images for the audience to decode: a pair of cups pulsate to the rhythm of the train riding along the tracks, roughly rendered human forms appear, while flashes of the photographic burst through the hand drawn. The local intrudes occasionally as reflections of the interior or as a bespectacled person’s face occluding part of the windowpane. A succession of planes suggests rooftops while other forms resist interpretation entirely. As the objects in the midground flit by, materials in the foreground are rendered with an airbrush, all particles and color. In the far background, Mount Fuji remains unmoving, eventually turning into a single, solid triangle as other forms flit by (see figure 1).
Breer’s film embraces the modern panoramic vision embodied by the train, but adheres to traditional watercolor and printmaking techniques, refusing to be wholly modernized. Instead, the film bridges the gaps between the two modes of perception in a postmodern recombination. Fuji depicts the experience of rail travel as a passenger perceives it with naive eyes, presenting a landscape reduced to blocks and frames. Unlike the modern conception of a train ride, flying forward as a ballistic missile, this film circles a mountain before returning to the place it started. While modern animation may embrace a play of light and shadows, Breer adheres to physical media, demonstrating that flashing blocks and scribbled figures can induce panoramic modes of perception while remaining in dialogue with traditional media as a postmodern mélange.
Eagan, Daniel. America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
Gabardi, Wayne. Negotiating Postmodernism. United Kingdom, University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
LaMarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. United Kingdom, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. United States, University of California Press, 2014.
Dr. Colin Wheeler’s research centers around creative discourse in media industries, with a focus on the animation studios in the United States. After completing an MFA in Animation at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he earned a Doctorate in Communication at Georgia State University. As a passionate creator and critic of animated media, he makes short experimental films that incorporate animation, puppetry, and live action. This allows him to explore the industry as a practitioner, and use his perspective as an partitioner to inform higher theories on production cultures and the creative class. When he is not researching media, he is teaching storyboarding and animation history at Kennesaw State University.