The Animation Studies Reader
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The Animation Studies Reader

Nichola Dobson, Annabelle Honess Roe, Amy Ratelle, Caroline Ruddell

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eBook - ePub

The Animation Studies Reader

Nichola Dobson, Annabelle Honess Roe, Amy Ratelle, Caroline Ruddell

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About This Book

The Animation Studies Reader brings together both key writings within animation studies and new material in emerging areas of the field. The collection provides readers with seminal texts that ground animation studies within the contexts of theory and aesthetics, form and genre, and issues of representation. The first section collates key readings on animation theory, on how we might conceptualise animation, and on some of the fundamental qualities of animation. New material is also introduced in this section specifically addressing questions raised by the nature, style and materiality of animation. The second section outlines some of the main forms that animation takes, which includes discussions of genre. Although this section cannot be exhaustive, the material chosen is particularly useful as it provides samples of analysis that can illuminate some of the issues the first section of the book raises. The third section focuses on issues of representation and how the medium of animation might have an impact on how bodies, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity are represented. These representations can only be read through an understanding of the questions that the first two sections of the book raise; we can only decode these representations if we take into account form and genre, and theoretical conceptualisations such as visual pleasure, spectacle, the uncanny, realism etc.

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Theory, Philosophy and Concepts
While animation has never cohered around the pursuit of a single theoretical line of enquiry or a ‘grand theory’, as Husbands and Ruddell explore in the opening chapter of this part, there are nonetheless several theoretical concepts and questions that have emerged as central to understanding animation. These include the fundamental ‘spectacle’ or appeal of animation’s visuality (Gunning), its relationship with reality (Bode and Mihailova) and explorations of animation’s various ‘unique’ capacities in comparison to live-action, in particular its construction of space (Wood) and its relationship with memory (Walden) and performance (Honess Roe). In addition, animation theory has always enjoyed a particularly close and mutually informative relationship with animation practice, as articulated in Paul Ward’s chapter.
Approaching Animation and Animation Studies
Lilly Husbands and Caroline Ruddell
Animation encompasses an extraordinarily wide-ranging set of techniques and practices and thus constitutes an equally diverse field of study. Because of this diversity, animation presents particular challenges in terms of agreeing on a single definition, and similarly it defies a unified theoretical approach to studying it. This chapter seeks to explore these issues and to outline exactly why animation is difficult to define, and why interdisciplinary theoretical approaches to studying it are necessary. We will outline some of the main ways that we might think about animation, in terms of how (or even whether) it can be defined and what some of its unique features and expressive capacities are. In doing so, this chapter offers an introduction to some of the key theoretical building blocks of animation studies.
What is animation?
What is useful when thinking about animation is to ask oneself, and to continue to ask oneself, some fairly simple questions. For example, ‘what is animation?’, and ‘what can it do?’ ‘How is it different or similar to live-action?’ On the surface these are simple enough questions, but ones that also prove surprisingly elusive. Consider the first question – ‘what is animation?’ One way to approach this is to consider different types of animation and we could try to answer the question by listing many examples and techniques, including scratch film, lightning sketches, stop motion, 2D cel animation, 3D computer animation, motion and performance capture. But simply listing different techniques of animation does not help us to define its ontology, or its fundamental nature, beyond basic material terms – i.e. the process and material of its construction.1 We might instead consider key studios, directors or animators, all of whom have different styles and techniques, for example the stylized realism of Disney and Pixar, the scratch films of Len Lye, the silhouette cut outs of Lotte Reiniger and the sand or ink on glass of Caroline Leaf. Again, however, simply listing those involved in creating animation does not sufficiently provide an understanding of what animation is.
If listing techniques, animators or studios does not provide much in the way of answers, then it might help to consider what makes animation different from live-action. First, animation is produced frame-by-frame or in computer-animated increments, whereas live-action cinema is filmed in real time. Secondly, animation is entirely constructed, whereas live-action has a ‘profilmic world’ that exists in front of the camera. These two key differences between live-action and animation are at the heart of attempts to define animation.
Philip Denslow, after acknowledging that there is no single definition of animation, writes that ‘the reason we are examining this issue is that no matter what definition you choose, it faces challenges from new developments in the technology used to produce and distribute animation’ (1997: 1). Denslow goes on to outline a number of instances where the uses of various technologies problematize a single definition of animation; Denslow’s examples, where he wonders whether virtual reality or ‘computer generated lifeform simulation’ can be considered animation, are almost certainly accepted as examples of animated texts today (1997). Unlike Denslow, who is reluctant to settle on one definition of animation, Brian Wells has argued that one definition should be possible and once outlined should be adopted by all in the academic community. For Wells, a series of properties define animation such as movement and ‘aliveness’ (2011), and he also prioritizes its construction frame-by-frame. Raz Greenberg is keen to differentiate animation from film and insists they must be defined separately, arguing that animation can be defined according to the presence or absence of objects when he says ‘an initial definition for the animated text is “the process of movement or change, performed by an artificially-created text-specific object”’ (2011: 6). The construction of movement is key for Greenberg.
Despite Greenberg’s and Wells’s separate attempts to ‘lock down’ a definition of animation these have for the most part not been taken up. This is probably because (despite Brian Wells’s frustration about such arguments) animation is extremely wide-ranging, exists across different media and genres, and is produced with so many different and continually changing technologies, that it is likely that few scholars see much value in having a one-size-fits-all definition. Nichola Dobson takes this view in her Historical Dictionary of Animation and Cartoons, suggesting that due to the very ‘fluid nature of the form’ single definitions are problematic (2009: xxxvii–xxxviii). While such definitions have not taken hold, the notion that animation is an entirely constructed form has become a central tenet of animation studies.
If we cannot define animation in any one meaningful way, we can consider how we recognize it visually, particularly alongside live-action. It is simple enough to distinguish between the animated and live-action components of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis 1988), for example, but sometimes difficult to identify the use of animation techniques to ‘doctor’, alter or enhance live-action images, as is standard in contemporary mainstream commercial Hollywood cinema. An interesting example is the film Gladiator (Ridley Scott 2000) where a computer-generated version of Oliver Reed had to be used to finish his scenes because he died during shooting. Here, such unprecedented events during filming led to the use of animation to ‘fix’ the problem. In this context, the differences between animation and live-action are often, and increasingly, difficult to discern. Even in 1997, Denslow noted the ‘problem’: that it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some examples of animation and live-action, most notably with regard to compositing techniques (1997: 2). The potential confusion between what might be animated and what might be live-action has grown exponentially in the decades since Denslow’s writing. Compositing techniques (the combination of animated images and live-action images into one single image) in particular complicate the recognition of animation. While Roger Rabbit is clearly animated and Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is clearly live-action, in a special effects–heavy superhero/action film such as Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins 2017), we may not always recognize what elements of the images are traditionally shot on film, or what has been enhanced or altered through animation techniques. Darley would call this a ‘hybrid medium’, in a similar way to how Mark Langer refers to a ‘collapse of […] boundary’ between live-action and animation (quoted in Darley 2007: 69).
In contemporary cinema this ‘collapse of boundary’ is often apparent. A memorable example is The Life of Pi (Ang Lee 2012), which depicts a tiger in the same diegetic space – a small lifeboat – as Pi; we know that a tiger was not in the same spatial field as actor Suraj Sharma on filming, and we are aware that this is a case of compositing (whether we are familiar with the term or not). Two things are likely to happen on such viewing: first that we might try to understand how such images were achieved (or if we know the techniques involved we will look for evidence of them), and secondly, this does not distract from our enjoyment of the scene because a certain ‘realism’ is achieved (see Mihailova in this volume). Where we may be distracted is where, for example, animation, without live-action footage, is used to depict the human; Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara 2001) and Beowulf’s (Robert Zemeckis 2007) photorealistic depiction of their characters is distracting. We are aware this it is animation but it is striving too hard to be live-action/photorealistic to the extent that it is unsettling to the viewer (see Sobchack 2006, and Bode in this volume).
Given the lack of consensus on a definition of animation, and the fact that in themselves definitions do not tend to be overly useful (something which most animation scholars agree on), it might be more constructive to consider some of animation’s unique qualities, particularly in relation to what it has the capacity to do visually. All animation techniques share the capacity for plasticity and for depicting life and movement. Indeed, there are two unique properties that have deeply informed the study of animation and could be considered as distinctive qualities of animation: the illusion of life and metamorphosis.
Animation’s unique properties: The illusion of life and metamorphosis
Esther Leslie argues that ‘animation is understood to be the inputting of life, or the inputting of the illusion of life, into that which is flat or inert or a model or an image’ (2014: 28). This ‘illusion of life’ is a feature that pervades animation studies and is often claimed as central to what animation is.2 Animation’s illusion of life comes in part from the creation of movement, because movement suggests life as opposed to the stillness of death. Movement in animation, because it is created frame-by-frame, is an illusion, unlike in live-action film where it is captured in/on camera. Indeed, movement is stressed in several authors’ definitions of animation, including Norman McLaren’s oft-quoted notion that ‘animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn’ (quoted in Furniss 1998: 5). However, the creation of movement does not always entail the illusion of life. While the illusion of life is readily apparent in animation that creates a character, such as Mickey Mouse, who appears ‘alive’ by virtue of his movement, it would be less apparent in abstract animated shapes that are animated to move in time to music, or an animated company logo that may well depict movement without creating any sense of ‘life’. This distinction indicates what is problematic about understanding the ‘illusion of life’ as a central feature of animation: while it is applicable to a huge proportion of animated examples (including all character animation), it is not a property of all animation.
Because animation is completely constructed and produced incrementally, it has the capacity for depicting metamorphoses. Paul Wells defines this as ‘the ability for an image to literally change into another completely different image, for example, through the evolution of the line, the shift in formations of clay, or the manipulation of objects or environments’ and he notes that metamorphoses is ‘unique to the animated form’ (1998: 69). Aylish Wood’s work on animated space (reprinted in this volume) provides a very useful example of how thinking about metamorphosis can illuminate the study of animation (2006). Wood’s arguments are about particular kinds of animation, such as sand and ink on glass, that highlight the fluidity of animation particularly through the ways that space is imagined and produced in the films she analyses. For Wood, because we can see ‘in between’ the frames, and because we can see ‘the sustained metamorphoses of resolving transitions’, space becomes an expressive element in its own right (2006: 150).
Although Wood is discussing particular kinds of animation, metamorphosis is central to how we might think about animation more generally. It captures the constructed nature of animation in a very visible way; it forces us to think about frame by frame construction or creation of incremental movement as we can see the sand/ink transforming between frames. Metamorphosis also raises the question of how we might engage with such images and their transition from one thing into another; for Wood, the movement of the sand/ink is a further element of the text that the viewer might engage with.
Both metamorphoses and the illusion of life can be thought of in terms of movement, but even this can be considered problematic if applied to all animation. Many examples of animated texts tend to foreground their ‘animatedness’, or medium specificity, and to call attention to themselves through unconventional techniques and uses of technology. For instance, works by experimental animators such as Robert Breer or Jodie Mack that make use of dissimilar images in consecutive frames offer radically different experiences that are not based on the continuity of movement across frames (thus effectively disrupting habitual expectations of animation’s presentation of the illusion of life). Karen Beckman, discussing McLaren’s and Peter Kubelka’s writings on animation, observes that their thoughts reveal that an illusion of movement ‘is not a given in animation’; only visual change between frames is necessary (2014: 3).
Animation aesthetics and spectatorship
Considering how difficult it is to establish a single definition of animation or even to identify its unique, yet universal, properties, other approaches to the study of animation instead shift the emphasis from the animation itself to the audience by investigating the diverse ways we perceive and experience it in its multifarious forms. Indeed, examining animation in spectatorial terms opens up opportunities to explore not only what animation is but also what it can do – what it can show us and enable us to feel.
One of the greatest philosophical conundrums of moving images in general, and animation in particular, lies in the complex relation between its ontology (what it is in material terms) and our phenomenological engagement with it (how we perceive and experience it). Building on McLaren’s emphasis on the interstices between frames, Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler note in their contribution to Cholodenko’s The Illusion of Life that ‘what we see, but what cannot be seen, is two images and no image – the space between images – at once’ (1991: 271). Animation, as we experience it, is in a constant state of becoming, and when it is arrested for definition or analysis it ceases to be fully what it is while in motion. Our access to animation’s illusionistic spectacle is necessarily filtered through our sensorial experience of it. This perceptual paradox is one of the reasons that animation spectatorship is an important aspect of animation studies. As an art form, animation has the potential to produce and manipulate imagery in myriad graphical ways. Thus, studying it often requires taking into consideration the particular ways in which it presents itself, or its formal aesthetics (e.g. the interrelationship between its audiovisual style, technique, medium). Aspects of spectatorial experience, accounted for by means of aesthetic analysis, often inform broader historical, cultural or conceptual analyses and interpretations of the art form.
Animation as a technical process offers artists extraordinary potential for formal experimentation and expressive freedom. It has a remarkable capacity for imaginative visualization, and the diversity of experiences that can arise out of that creative potential is part of what makes animation such a fascinating object of study. Throughout its history, animation’s capacity to visualize virtually anything has been put to many different uses. Many scholars have remarked on its limitless artistic potential for the creation of fictional worlds and characters, its ability to recreate events or evoke subjective ‘ideas, feelings and sensibilities’ in documentary (Honess Roe 2011: 227), and its aptness for the visualization of data, concepts and supra-sensible natural phenomena in s...

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