The World is a Cartoon: Stray Notes on Animation
I belong to an online group associated with Maureen Furniss' Animation Journal. I've not posted anything (yet), but I get the group's postings several times per week. It isn't usually a site for debating or developing ideas — it seems to function mostly as a clearing house for information, a way to track down people, films, and facts. Recently though, a problem came along that sparked a sustained and thoughtful debate: what is "experimental animation"?
A frequent — and certainly reasonable — assertion in the online debate was that in order to discuss or conceptualize a thing, it had to be defined. After all, what is a concept but its mental image, its definition? The act of setting up disciplinary / genre / definitional /categorical boundaries was seen as a necessary, preparatory task — a clearing of the ground. But I must admit I have no interest in such a thing. Some preparatory tasks are endless, unproductive, futile. Categorical boundaries shift, fold, interpenetrate, making any clearing of the ground a task which might just self-perpetuate, leading nowhere. For instance: "documentary." As a discipline, documentary scholarship seems as if it will be forever mired in "fundamental" questions. Luckily, perhaps, the stakes seem lower for animation scholarship. There is, at this time, less of a moral imperative to define animation's relationship to the world, or to truth.
I want to explore the nature of animation, the possibilities contained within the animated image; to establish, after Bazin, something like an ontology of the animated image. Yet, I will exert no effort to define "animation" (let alone "experimental animation"). I run the risk that my refusal is perverse rather than productive. Still, I have some good company. For instance, Lev Manovich's highly influential redefinition of animation is entirely circular, as we'll see below. In fact, some of the most interesting writers on animation provide, at best, partial or inconsistent definitions of animation. Instead, they use animation, or the difference between animation and live-action, to develop particular concepts: Sean Cubitt's vector, Vilem Flusser's imaginal thought, Jean-Francois Lyotard and D. N. Rodowick's figural. It is through such concepts that it becomes possible to claim that animation is now and will continue in becoming the driving force of new media and the moving image: the sharpest point.
In this essay then, this collection of stray notes, I will pursue my vague and, I think, still mysterious question through the work of various theorists, critics, and artists.
Lev Manovich: Myth of Prodigal Return
The most influential recent work which undertakes to redefine animation in this age of digital technology is Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, particularly "Chapter 6: What is Cinema." It is no accident that his project, which begins by investigating the relations between cinema and new media, resolves itself by making claims about animation. Manovich examines these relations along two trajectories. The first trajectory, which I would characterize as conservative, is historical: Manovich "uses the history and theory of cinema to map out the logic driving the technical and stylistic development of new media."(LNM, 287) The second, potentially more radical, trajectory goes in the opposite direction: from computers to cinema. It asks: "How does computerization affect our very concept of moving images? Does it offer new possibilities for film language? Has it led to the development of totally new forms of cinema?" (LNM, 287)
Manovitch's myth begins with an unassailably reasonable assertion. Cinema has been dominated by the live action film: "unmodified photographic recordings of real events that took place in real, physical space." (LNM, 294) That is, lens-based recordings of reality. Manovich is at his best, I think, when he deploys a kind of hyperbole that is, nonetheless, razor sharp. Here, vanquishing the dominator, he reduces all of non-animated cinema to "an attempt to make art out of a footprint."
According to Manovich, whatever the qualities of the digital image, they are not inherently indexical. When indexicality can no longer be seen as a defining quality of an image, what repercussions are there for the ontology of the image? If we move from a lens- to a computer-based production of images, can there still be representations of the world?
Manovich defines animation through a myth of prodigal return. Pro-cinematic machines (kinetoscope, thaumatrope, etc.) relied on hand-painted or hand-drawn images, loops that were manually animated. The cinema proper combined the automatic generation and projection of images. Once the technology stabilized, cinema cut all references to its origins in artifice. Animation was banished as "cinema's bastard relative, its supplement and shadow." (LNM, 298)
With the burgeoning digital technologies of the 1990s, the prodigal returns: marginalized techniques of animation reclaim their apparent birth-right. Manovich offers a definition of digital film that becomes (morphs into) a re-definition of animation:
There are two trajectories here: cinema and animation. Cinema has three stages: early or pro-cinema, which is allied to animation; the cinema, in which cartoons are ignored and denigrated; and the digital cinema, which is, literally animation. While cinema develops — has a history — animation remains essentially immutable. As the heart of cinema, it seems to be outside of history in Manovich's myth. And despite the fact that Manovich's study is based on an examination of the possibilities engendered by the technological advances of new media, animation's essence as manually-produced artifice also lies outside of any particular technological concerns. He escapes the perniciously teleological myth of paradigm shifts, but just barely. In the end, animation is triumphant, but at the price of an enormous leveling: it becomes everything. It seems to me that both assertions are equally plausible and, perhaps, equally meaningless: Cinema has become one particular case of animation. Animation has become one particular case of cinema. The words "one particular case" may simply function as a rhetorical place-holder to keep his definition from becoming ridiculously bald: Cinema has become animation. Animation has become cinema.
Deleuze: Animation's Banishment
If you're looking for mention of animated film in the Cinema books of Gilles Deleuze, you don't have to look far. The sole mention comes on page five of Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Deleuze begins with theses on movement derived from philosopher Henri Bergson, in particular from two books that straddle the birth of cinema: Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907). Deleuze deploys Bergson to (among other things) tackle a problem which has been central to the theorization of cinema since Andre Bazin's "The Ontology of the Photographic Image": the relationship of cinema to still photography, particularly in terms of movement and time.
Deleuze's (version of Bergson's) thesis is perhaps best explained in relation to one of Zeno's paradoxes (an arrow will never reach its destination as the space it traverses is infinitely divisible), and stands with phenomenology as an attempt to reconceptualize time as immanently experienced rather than unfolding in the transcendent. The thesis separates movement from the space it covers. The space that movement covers is infinitely divisible, but the movement is irreducible — it cannot be divided without being destroyed (becoming another movement altogether). The space Zeno's arrow traverses may be infinitely divisible, but the arrow's motion is not. Every movement has an intrinsic quality a particular, concrete duration [duree].
Therefore it is false to say that cinema works with two complementary givens: the individual frame or still image and movement that is "impersonal, uniform, abstract, invisible, or imperceptible, which is 'in' the apparatus." Cinema may be constructed from photogrammes (individual frames), but it is incorrect to think of it as being immobile sections to which abstract time is added. Cinema is not photography + time/movement. Movement is immediately given; it is part of the filmic apparatus, and not a supplement or addition. "In short, cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image." (C1, 2)
Deleuze, via Bergson, goes on to distinguish between privileged instants and any-instants-whatever. The idea of privileged instants corresponds to the ancient view of movement. "For antiquity, movement refers to intelligible elements, Forms or Ideas which are themselves eternal and immobile." (C1, 4) The any-instant-whatever is a modern concept. "The modern scientific revolution has consisted in relating movement not to privileged instants, but to any-instant-whatever. Although movement was still recomposed, it was no longer recomposed from formal transcendental elements (poses), but from immanent material elements (sections)." (C1, 4, italics in original)
The animated film poses a problem for Deleuze, so much so that he questions whether it might not "belong fully to the cinema." This is because animation has the potential to be constructed from privileged instants rather than any-instants-whatever.
Deleuze's (partial) expulsion of animation from cinema follows from his extremely limited lineage of pro-cinematic technologies. Gone are the magic lanterns and zoetropes in favour of the snapshot. Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908) would be, in the Deleuzian sense, cinematic, while the work of, say, William Kentridge, in which movement is not a continuity of any-instants-whatever but simply bridges the privileged instants of individual drawings, would not be. (It is no coincidence that Rosalind Krauss misreads Deleuze's idea of the cinema as being inclusive of animation in her otherwise brilliant essay on Kentridge below.)
Sean Cubitt: Graphical Film: The Vector
Sean Cubitt seems to have never met an idea he didn't like. It would not be inappropriate to describe his book The Cinema Effect (2004) in terms generally reserved for action movies: it is an exhilarating ride. We'll limit ourselves to a few of the ideas — the key ones, of course, but also a few others — in the chapter which deals most directly with animation: "Graphical Film: The Vector." If there is a proliferation of ideas in this chapter, there is, mercifully, a single object to which they are applied: Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908).
We find in Cubitt, I think, a synthesis of Deleuze and Manovich; animation is no longer banished from cinema, for it is cinema. Yet certain types of animation (the vector-based graphical film, in particular) are privileged cinematically. It is no coincidence, then, that Cubitt's description of the film concludes with the Deleuzian assertion that it is not related to Euclidean, but (presumably) Cartesian, geometry:
Cohl sacrifices editing, story-telling and staging-in-depth in favour of a uniform line which can perform a series of metamorphoses that is potentially infinite. Cubitt describes this as a grammatical structure that is primarily paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic.
It is hard to imagine a film that would be completely based in a paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic, grammar, but it is surely in animation that the possibility is most likely. Fantasmagorie is Cubitt's exemplar of the graphic film as "it is a film within a hair's breadth of being governed by the paradigmatic code of the vector alone." (CE, 77)
There are no key frames in Fantasmagorie. The metamorphoses do not begin in a particular image (privileged instant) and resolve into another particular image. The movement of the line is never complete. Each frame is an any-instant-whatever. Deleuze's distinction between privileged instants and any-instants-whatever provides a background for Cubitt's categories of pixel, cut and vector. The most direct precursors for Cubitt's categories seem to be Pierce's increasingly influential concepts of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness (concepts also deployed by Deleuze in his Cinema books). Pixel corresponds to Firstness, or pure sensation, the referent itself, the Lacanian Real, prior to representation or signification. The cut corresponds to Secondness, the representation of the thing itself, the Lacanian Imaginary, the signified. The vector is Thirdness, the production of meaning, the Lacanian Symbolic, the signifier. The vector is not a representation, it
Cubitt sees the vector as way out of the impasse of representation in a time when the world, as the site of representation's possible referents, has already been negated, lost behind (or within) the Baudrillardian hyperreal. If all is simulation, if the world has been transformed into data, there can be no representation.
That graphical cinema found one of its clearest expressions early in the history of cinema with Fantasmagorie is no surprise. Cubitt radicalizes Manovich's myth of prodigal return. In Manovich, animation's triumphant return, which was marked by a return to manual artifice, has already occurred. For Cubitt, animation is yet to return, but its return is imminent and will be marked by an overthrow of the stupid tyrannies of representation and narrative. Thus Cubitt's engagement with animation also involves the seemingly inevitable return to the pro-cinematic. Here he extends Manovich's claims:
If we move from a lens- to a computer-based production of images, can there still be representations of the world? No. There will be no representations (and no world). Instead there will be vectors that move through representation in a process of endless becoming to produce concepts.
Cubitt also makes some claims regarding animators and authorship that I find provocative. I include them below as they seem to me profound and non-sensical in equal measure. They also, incidentally, bring to mind — or, rather, they seem to describe with an uncanny accuracy — Chris Landreth's Ryan (2004).
A Rabbit, a Goat, a Mosquito
In Jean Renoir's live-action feature film The Rules of the Game (1939) there is a scene in which a rabbit dies. Actually, many rabbits and many pheasants die in the film, mostly in the justly famous hunting scene. But there is one particular rabbit whose death is particularly vivid: it leaps into open meadow, is hit by a bullet, falls, twitches, lies still. So it is that single, particular rabbit — the one whose death is most real — with whom we are concerned. (But perhaps all slaughters are best narrativized as individual deaths.)
The hunting scene in The Rules of the Game brings to mind an equally accomplished and intense hunting scene from a roughly contemporaneous film, Bambi (1942). In Bambi, humans (and not just hunters, all humans) are evil and remain unseen. We see their encampment and their fire (which spreads apocalyptically to the forest in the film's last act) and we see and hear their bullets tearing up the forest. And we see their representatives, the demonic hunting dogs (the only creatures who do not talk in the film), attacking Bambi and his wife. But we see only one death, and that from a distance. (The nervous pheasant, whose panicked flight sets off the slaughter, falls out of the sky.) Otherwise, death is not depicted visually, but through the sound of gunshots and the occasional muffled thud. Still, death is heavy in the film, and traumatic. The film is, of course, notorious for the possibly traumatic effect the death of Bambi's mother has on child viewers. In some ways, hunting and animal death in The Rules of the Game is inverted in Bambi. The off-screen deaths of cartoon characters can pack an incredible wallop as they raise the spectre of symbolic (and actual) maternal death, while the on-screen death of an actual rabbit is likely to cause a much slighter psychic disturbance, even as it more directly raises a complex of moral issues.
The hunting scene in The Rules of the Game occurs roughly in the middle of the film and is a turning point. Up to that point, the film is largely concerned with character exposition, afterward it switches into an increasingly narrative mode. It also marks, if not a change in tone, a deepening of affect, an increase of tonal complexity. It foreshadows a scene (the story's climax) in which one of the human characters — the virtuous, innocent one — dies. As Vivian Sobchack points out in her essay "Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary," the human dies only in the film, while the rabbit dies in the film and in the world.
In this essay, Sobchak is concerned with the ethics of documentary space, using representations of death as a kind of limit case. She establishes two categories: the ethics of making the image and the ethics of looking at the image. Both categories are concerned with the ontological status of the pro-filmic event.
(Ethics is, of course, now that we have dispensed with veracity, the primary concern of discourses of documentary representation. It is, at best, a secondary concern for the live-action feature, where ethics has been limited to the taken-for-granted ground for identity politics. We have yet to develop an ethics of the animated image, apart from issues related to the socialization of children. And an ethics of new media has, so far, been bogged down in a concern all other areas have deemed irrelevant: the veracity of the possibly-no-longer-indexical image.)
Our poor rabbit dies at least two deaths. The first death, and probably the only one to concern the rabbit, is its actual death in the world. We'll call this death pro-filmic. The second death is the one we see depicted onscreen. This death, or this representation, is filmic, or, keeping with Sobchak, cinematic. The man's death is limited to the filmic. It occurs solely in the diegesis of the fictional film. The rabbit's death exceeds the film's diegesis. It occurs within the film's diegesis as a fiction, within the real world as an actual event, within the pro-filmic as documentary and, finally, within the film itself as both fiction and documentary.
If I object to Sobchak's idiosyncratic use of the basic semiotic categories of icon / index / symbol (she seems to reserve "index" for documentary images), I agree with her conclusions.
The rabbit is martyred to fiction. Its death ruptures the fictional space of the film — its diegesis — and allows the larger world and its concerns to bleed in and contaminate it.
While fiction is ruptured by documentary in The Rules of the Game, the opposite happens in Luis Bunuel's Land without Bread (1933). It is no coincidence that it also involves the killing of an animal. The film is a human geography documentary of the poverty-stricken inhabitants in a remote area of Spain. It is a parody of voice-of-God expository documentary, and — as parodies should — it follows its models closely. But the voice-over begins to stray from the necessary and expected humanist, objective point of view. It becomes playful: sadistic and biased. Voice-over is, of course, central to the expository documentary — but in some respects it is also a supplement: it is added in post-production and can be, with some expediency, completely re-written and re-recorded. It is the images themselves that carry the authority of documentary truth. But the filmmakers of Land without Bread find a way to make the images lie, to have fiction intrude into the documentary space.
We see a goat on the edge of a cliff. The voice-over tells us that the land is so treacherous, even sure-footed mountain goats often fall to their deaths. We see a puff of smoke in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, as if a rifle has been discharged, and we see the goat fall off the mountain. Even if we do not notice the smoke, it is clear that the goat did not slip: it simply topples.
The goat's death is unlikely to make us sad. We are more likely to laugh at the audacity of the filmmakers and the clumsily obvious manner in which they flaunt the basic rules of documentary representation (and morality). (But then Bunuel's celebration of cruelty — it is a distinguishing feature of his work — is, perhaps, always just beyond empathy's reach.)
(As I'm writing this, Lars von Trier's Mandalay is premiering at Cannes. The primary "controversy" concerning the film is that Nicole Kidman almost starred in it, but running a close second is the news that the killing of a goat — an old, sick goat we are assured — has been removed from the film in order that the film does not become about a megalomaniac Danish director who revels in goat-killing.)
Both The Rules of the Game and Land without Bread are satirical, and both deploy their ruptures to further their satirical ends. When fiction is ruptured by documentary, the fiction may become more concerned with the world: heavier, broader, deeper. When documentary is ruptured by fiction, the documentary is revealed to be the product of a particular subjectivity whose desires determine the shape of the world and the range of representations we might possibly draw from it. As our desires are horrible and petty and base, the result is likely to be comic.
The animated film exceeds both fiction and documentary. These categories no longer mean anything, apart from retaining a link to non-animated films. When we say that Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania is an animated documentary we mean something like: if the same images were live-action, we would have a documentary.
The rabbit and the goat become, as they exceed their representational regimes, vectors. The rabbit begins as a fictional rabbit, but ends up really dead and only nominally within the fictional diegesis. The goat begins as a real, documentary goat but gets shot and tumbles into a fictional space of desire.
In Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), there is (possibly) a mosquito that becomes a vector through its (possible) death. The film was shot and edited on mini-DV as live-action digital video, but was painted-over (rotoscoped) to look like, if not become, animation. In a literal way, both digital video and computer-aided animation are exactly the same technology and therefore must share the same representational possibilities: a pixel is a pixel, after all. But as representation is rhetorical as well as technical, it also depends on things such as genre in the determination of representational possibilities. If a digital image of, say, a tree appears to be indexical, there remains the strong possibility that it will be read as being an index and we will have received knowledge (whether true or not) of the existence of a particular tree in the world.
The narrative of Waking Life is propelled by questions about indeterminate or liminal states. The protagonist initially struggles to find out if he is awake or asleep and dreaming, later if he is asleep or dead. The film also has an indeterminate state as an extra-diegetical thematic concern: whether it — Waking Life — is essentially indexical (live-action: lens-based) or non-indexical (animation: drawn / painted). One easily discerns the live-action "below" the animation. The animation can seem like an embellishment that does not seriously compromise the live-action origins of the movie, like adding a filter to video to give it film grain. Sure, some things are added that would not have been on the live-action footage — lightning bolts and flashing lights — but these are obvious supplements: they even seem to float in front of the picture plane (lens-based concept), or to be the uppermost layer (digital painting concept). After all, Julie Delpy is still Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is still Ethan Hawke.
In a segment titled "The Holy Moment" (the only segment, if I am not mistaken, to have a title) the protagonist floats into a movie a theatre and watches a film of two men talking about, of all things, Bazin and the ontology of the photographic image.
The character's (flawed) precis of Bazin continues, moving from film as the face of God to a discussion of the holy moment (wherein one looks upon the face of God). The mosquito is an interruption in the discussion that is comical for a number of reasons. First, it simply brings an increasingly lofty, one-sided conversation back down to earth. Reinforcing this fall from the spiritually transcendent to the immanent everyday are the two faces: the face of God becomes the face that gets slapped.
The scene cuts between the protagonist sitting in the movie theatre and the film he is watching, which (until the final moments) is a single medium shot. The camera is hand-held, but relatively static. The mosquito lands on the far side of a head we see only in profile. Barring the insertion of a close-up, we have no way of actually seeing the mosquito. Even within the diegesis of the film-within-the-film, only the Bazin-discoursing character could possibly see the mosquito.
The previous paragraph recounts the scene as if it were part of a live-action, lens-based film. If Waking Life is essentially live-action with the animation merely a kind of stylistic supplement, a particular question arises: Did an actual mosquito exist in the pro-filmic world? If Waking Life is an animated film, the question becomes, if not nonsensical, irrelevant.
The difference in the ontology of the lens-based photographic image of live-action and the graphic possibly-digital image of animation lies at the level of the pro-filmic. But, following Bazin, questions concerning the ontology of images are wrapped up in questions of indexicality. In Waking Life, the mosquito is a vector, which, by raising questions about the ontological / indexical status of the film's representations, exceeds the film's diegesis. It seems to me that Waking Life inhabits an indeterminate, even liminal, realm in which we cannot say what is animated and what is not.
Of course, it has frequently been stated that this is the usual status of digital images. Generally, though, it seems that this uncertainty is resolved too patly. Both Manovich and Cubitt seem to assert that because digital images are not necessarily indexical, all of (digital) cinema has become animation. As Waking Life asserts — ironically through the use of computer animation — lens-based indexical representations have not been so easily eclipsed.
Surface and Line, Line and Letter
Philosopher Vilem Flusser, in a McLuhanesque gambit, divided the world of signs into lines and surfaces, with surfaces becoming ever more predominant over lines. The world of lines, of linear signs, is the world of the alphabet, of language as the printed word. It is a linear world. Each line is a series of points. " . . . lines are discourses of points, and each point is a symbol of something out there in the world (a "concept"). Therefore, the lines represent the world by projecting it as a series of successions, in the form of a process." (W, 21) Surfaces can, and often do, contain (incorporate) lines, but they do so in a way that makes the line something other than a linear process. TV screens, posters, illustrated magazines, photographs, paintings are all surfaces rather than lines. Both sign systems mean the world, though they, necessarily, mean it in different ways.
This division of signs into lines and surfaces gives us a powerful way to think about animation and the moving image (and in particular the unfortunately-named category of motion graphics) not bogged down in questions of photographic indexicality. In his writings, which include Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1984) and the collection Writings (2002), Flusser offers a conception of photography radically different from Bazin's ontology of the photographic image. He claims, for instance, that the apparent indexicality of the photograph is false (or perhaps merely irrelevant), thereby erasing any ontological distinction between lens-based and digital media.
Photographs are simply the first among the posthistorical images. In the case of photographs, the acquisition of the codes, in which the new consciousness articulates itself, is a more difficult task than in the case of more developed images, such as synthetic images. Two aspects of the photograph make it more difficult. First, photos resemble copies more than projections. At first glance, a photo of an airplane does not reveal that, just like a synthetic computer image, it signifies a possible airplane rather than a given one. Second, the photograph seems to be made by a photographer operating the apparatus, rather than by a software specialist programming the apparatus. The projecting and computing nature of the photograph is less evident than in synthetic images. Yet this is precisely why learning to photograph in the sense of a posthistorical projection would be extraordinarily emancipatory. (W,131)
Let this emancipation be called animation. Or, that which we have been calling animation, without precisely defining it, can perhaps now be characterized as the moving image genre best-suited to incorporating line into surface. The line-invested surface has the potential to produce imaginal thought, which seems to me roughly equivalent to Cubitt's vector. As Flusser states in his essay "Line and Surface" (1973), "imaginal thought is becoming capable of thinking concepts." (W, 30) As lines are incorporated into surfaces, images become discursive.
Two categories developed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his Discours, figure (1971), line and letter, seem to me closely related to Flusser's surface and line, despite the fact they use "line" in roughly opposing ways. Where Flusser's line corresponds to the linearity of text-based discourse, Lyotard's line is a plastic, graphic line. Rather than opposing language and image, Lyotard sees them as complementary.
The figural is the force that erodes the difference between line and letter. D. N. Rodowick explains why he finds the "nomadic concept" of the figural central to discussions of digital cinema in his brilliant book Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after New Media (2001).
So: Cubitt's vector, Flusser's imaginal thought, Lyotard / Rodowick's figural. Through these concepts, animation is now and will continue in becoming the driving force behind discovering the discursive possibilities of new media and the moving image.