“Cinema and media studies in the early twenty-first century needs a better understanding of the relationship between two of the film’s most unwieldy and unstable organizing concepts: ‘animation’ and ‘film theory’. As the increasing digital nature of cinema now forces animation to the forefront of our conversations, it becomes ever clearer that for film theorists, it has really never made sense to ignore animation.”
(Karen Beckham, 2014:1)
Of all the ‘histories’ that one could consider for this month’s blog series, the ‘forgotten’ import of animation within film history seems a significance place to begin. Beckham’s recent edited collection Animating Film Theory is the first extensive review of this issue. While early film theorists acknowledged animation’s role within the field, it is somewhat neglected in critical studies and undergraduate courses today.
Let me begin with two poignant anecdotes: Firstly, I recently had the opportunity to discuss my research with a prolific professor. Concerning my inclusion of animated films within my work, he explained that historically he had always considered the medium well-placed within the visual arts rather than film studies, associating the latter with texts concerned with ‘realism’. Of course, animation has thrown into question assumptions about the definition of cinematic realism, and Annabelle Honess Roes’s book Animated Documentary is an exemplary critique of this matter.
Secondly, this Summer I had the pleasure of visiting the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican Centre, London. Here I encountered a display about the use of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) in Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón,2013). The exhibit expressed the extent to which CGI is fundamental to contemporary popular cinema. While CGI is not fully representative of the breadth of animation techniques, the fact the modern industry relies so heavily upon it suggests that it seems reductive to separate film and animation: to do so, acts against the trends in the industry.
It seems strange then that so few serious film studies courses or academic surveys consider ‘live action’ and ‘animation’ side-by-side. A brief review through the annuals of film theory evidences this was not always the case, Eisenstein and Bálazs for example both offer critical, albeit brief, evaluation of animations or ‘cartoon films’ in their theoretical evaluations of the moving-image. Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler (1991) also make a case for the relevance of Deleuze’s “preconditions for cinema” to animated film. Introductions to the film medium generally include a section about animation (Such as David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s Film Art), but this tends to be presented much like an aside, and animated films are rarely discussed alongside their ‘live action’ counterparts in relation to genre, realism, narrative or micro elements.
Animation and the ‘live action’ film have a shared pre-cinematic site of origin in the form of Muybridge’s photographs, as suggested by many textbooks about both forms. It is important however, to acknowledge that no one instant created either animation or cinema. Several studies suggest influences as far back as cave paintings which express animal movement, but once again, this site could be considered a part of the pre-history of animation as well as film.
When undergraduates are taught about the history of film, it seems imperative that animation plays a major part in this. How can one really discuss the dominance of the Hollywood studios without acknowledging the significance of Disney? How can one explain the development of contemporary special effects and computer game ‘cinematics’ without untangling the significance of animation to the history of film? It is time I think, to seriously re-evaluate animation’s place within film criticism and education.
Victoria Grace Walden is a PhD researcher and graduate
teaching fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Her main research
interests are Holocaust film and the materiality of memory, and she
explores a wide range of moving-image formats (attempting to bring into
question the very meaning of the word ‘film’ in the 21st Century) from
appropriation of archive footage, animation and virtual and physical
image-based exhibitions. She leads the international research forum
‘Holocaust, Contemporary Genocide, Popular Culture and Digital
Beckham, Karen (ed) (2014) Animated Film Theory, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Bálazs, Bela (1952) Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, London: Denis Dobson. pp191-193.
Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin (1979) Film Art: An Introduction, Reading, USA: Addison-Wesley.
Broadfoot, Keith & Butler, Rex (1991) ‘The Illusion of Illusion’ in
Cholodenko, Alan (ed) The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation, Sydney: Power Publication.
Cuarón, Alfonso (2013) Gravity, USA & UK: Warner Bros/ Esperanto Filmoj/ Heyday Films.
Leyda, Jay (ed) (1988) Eisenstein on Disney, London: Methuen.
Roe, Annabelle Honess (2013) Animated Documentary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.