The cover of Figure and Force of Animation Aecthetics

Writing about the way elements move in animation proves to be a formidable challenge for any book on the medium, but Ryan Pierson’s Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics (2019) manages to explore philosophical theories related to change while providing a rich description of two-dimensional films from the mid-twentieth century.  Pierson acknowledges this difficulty by providing a companion website, which features videos that analyze key sequences explored in each chapter. One can also access the first chapter as an audiobook read by the author. If following the descriptions proves a challenge, one can easily track down his examples, as most are readily available online. Rather than engaging with this book solely on the textual level, reading should also become a viewing experience. 

Discussing the manner in which animation moves becomes the springboard for exploring animation history and speculating about its future. The book takes seriously animation’s capacity to present sensorial ambiguity; the consistencies of an actor’s body in a film set are not guaranteed in animation but earned by constructing specific relations between elements frame by frame. While others have written on the ways in which animation can ignore the physical laws demanded by live-action film, Pierson scrutinizes how figure and force are composed independent of the film’s narrative, treating animation as an artform consisting of sensory units which coordinate into a viewing experience. Doing so requires utilizing a unique methodology, Gestalt psychology, which argues that images and concepts emerge through understanding relations within a sensory field. One does not need a rich understanding of Gestalt psychology’s theoretical presuppositions to appreciate how Pierson uses it as a mode of inquiry. Exploring the impressions that emerge from perception first, he describes these impressions as figural relations found within perceptual coordinates. In animation, this means that a figure cannot be left as a stable object but must be reliant on forces that can undo it as easily as hold it together. Rather than position form and motion in opposition, as scholars like Sergei Eisenstein (2017) and Scott Bukatman (2012) have already done, Pierson argues that these elements are mutually constitutive.  

Pierson’s methodology uses movement as the starting point for analysis. Rather than exploring animated films as text, he follows the ways in which forces and figures interact. Figures in films are coherent objects that appear to hold themselves together, acted upon by forces around and within it. This proves ideal for reading non-narrative animation, because it can engage with the ways these elements appear to cohere or dissolve. This reveals surprising affinities between animators customarily categorized as ‘representational’ and experimental filmmakers like Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger, and Robert Breer. Norman McLaren in particular features prominently in this book. Engaging with how visual music and Silly Symphonies share a rhythmic language, for example, Figure and Force  is a treat for animation historians looking to shake up the standard models that arrange abstract and popular animation on a spectrum. This work is not a survey of the history of animation techniques, however, focusing primarily on two-dimensional animation from North America and Western Europe from the late 1920’s to the 1970’s.  

Blinkety Blank, Norman McLaren (1955)

Instead of organizing the chapters around films that share common themes or creators, Pierson organizes each around a particular technique and includes one or two films that exemplify it. Chapter 1 meditates on Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker’s Night on Bald Mountain (1933), comparing characters with soft edges to their hard-outlined graphical counterparts. Pierson argues that fuzzier figures risk losing the qualities that make them appear as a coherent ‘thing,’ instead diffusing into a ‘medium.’ This transformation also renders the nature of the character’s movement ambiguous, as diffuse characters cannot convey agency through motion. Chapter 2 continues this exploration of how movement appears to be intentional with the walk cycle technique, with special attention paid to Norman McLaren and Grant Munro’s Canon (1964). The walk cycle may render a character lifelike but can quickly appear mechanical once the viewer becomes aware of the loop. Like an optical illusion that can’t be unseen, noticing the repetition of footage turns a character from autonomous to an automaton. Chapter 3 discusses simulated camera movement in McLaren’s Blinkity Blank (1955) and Caroline Leaf ’s The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), films that convey morphic spaces alterable by the actions of the character, reflecting our own enmeshment in a hypercomplex and multifragmented environment. Arguing that the illusion of the camera remains contingent on elements such as a spatially coherent background and volumetric characters, Pierson contends that flat and graphical animation does not convey the movement of a camera but of different elements sliding on and off the screen.  Lastly, chapter 4 explores rotoscoping, the technique i in which live action footage becomes animated by tracing over it, to define why the drawn outline often takes on a life of its own, vibrating in defiance of the form it is supposed to contain. This can be avoided by tracing the figure as it is acted upon by forces around it, paying attention to line of action or central motion of the form. For example, the lines in Mary Beams’s Going Home Sketchbook (1975) retain autonomy while being articulated by the footage beneath, constructing a relationship between the footage and the drawn line that Pierson defines as love. While narcissistic love reduces the form to a mere outline of what the figure already was, genuine love expresses a bond between these two elements that is at once continuous and transformative. Covering changes of bodily form in the first chapter, Pierson considers lifelike behavior as an open system in the second, explores the malleability of social arrangements in the third, before concluding with the transformative power of love in the fourth. Each of these chapters are concerned with change, arguing that animation doesn’t only offer images in flux but ways of thinking about variation, alteration, and mutation.  

More than animation history, Pierson’s explores animation techniques to construct an account of how films develop problematics not unlike philosophical theories. While many art critics fall for the trap of reading through a text to reach a philosophical argument rather than engaging with its specific sensorial qualities, Pierson challenges these readings by providing a wealth of descriptive resources for interpreting challenging and often inscrutable films. Each chapter reflects on the conditions of the medium, how these examples reinforce and subvert them, and what elements congeal into an aesthetic shock. In this way, Pierson’s project is two-pronged: he constructs a comparative historical account of animation practices and techniques while also exploring how the arrangement of forces and figures inform the conditions of a viewer’s experience. While many texts on film criticism and philosophy provide accounts of why certain works matter, Pierson finds surprising ways to do so. He does this through carefully juxtaposing theoretical speculation with the film’s concrete form, rendered coherent through close reading. This opens new ways to consider changes in life and animated media, expanding the concept from a mere escape from repetition to the revolutionary, vertiginous, and contingent. Change is a subject with which animation has been historically preoccupied, and Pierson’s book sensitizes the reader to variations on the perceptual and organizational level of the medium, providing the tools to truly appreciate the medium’s metamorphic qualities.  


Bukatman, Scott. The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. United Kingdom, University of California Press, 2012. 

Eisenstein, Sergei. On Disney. India, Seagull Books, 2017. 

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 this perspective 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.