Open Access Review |
Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons (2019) by Hannah Frank |
The truly monumental film director Sergei Eisenstein, pioneer of the “montage of attractions,” creator of the intense Russian masterpieces Battleship Potemkin (1925), Strike (1925) and Ivan the Terrible (1944), loved Mickey Mouse. Pre-colour Mickey exemplifies what Eisenstein termed plasmaticness: the protoplasmic ability of a being who can assume whatever form it likes. Gracefully balletic, virtually omnipotent, simultaneously mouse and man, Mickey tests the “limits of representation” (Eisenstein, “On Disney” 95, qtd. in Frank 98).
Mickey can do anything, or even become anything. Particularly the early Mickey Mouse is immune to the laws of physics. One tug of his tail makes it a rope, another tug a crank. His shoes grow of their own accord. If you pull his head, his neck elongates, and can be plucked like a guitar string.Hannah Frank, Frame by Frame, 100-101
An essential mutability is at the core of animation, endowing inanimate lines with apparent life: “We know that these are drawings, and not living beings,” Eisenstein writes of Disney’s characters. “And at the very same time: We sense them as living [….] If it moves, then it’s alive; i.e., moved by an innate, independent, volitional impulse” (Eisenstein, Disney, ed. Bulgakowa, trans. Dustin Condren; see Frank 48).
The spectacle is perhaps, after all, a certain kind of “magic”: a resonance with the infantile, or even the primal animus, the latter stemming, as Eisenstein asserts, from the prenatal unity of thought and action. Not in the trite sense of “the magic of Disney,” unless this phrase itself conveys a psychoanalytic intuition.
What a compelling effect produced by a machine. A series of still images, photographs of drawings, propelled at twenty-four frames per second past a light source, enabling the projection of a single picture that moves. Perhaps to a degree counterintuitively, Frank undertakes in Frame by Frame to disrupt the “magic” through which inanimate lines are brought to life, and to concentrate on individual frames as though each one is a specific document, a unique artwork. One thinks of the opposition Marx draws between a social system’s “mode of production” and the “ideology” and “false consciousness” that it produces—a mesmerizing form of illusion.
An aspect of Frank’s analysis is in line with works such as Henry Giroux’s The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), and Dorfman and Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck (1971), both of which reveal an exploitative (colonialist, racist, sexist) predisposition to exist beneath the Disney hegemony of childhood innocence.
Yet surprisingly, Eisenstein is absolutely smitten. The master’s work, he writes without irony, is “the greatest contribution of the American people to art” (Leyda xiii). Eisenstein swallows the myth of Disney as a single-handed creator, each of his three-hundred workers like “an extension of Walt’s hands and mind” (America Cinematographer, qtd. Frank 84). Surely the Russian couldn’t have realized that, even after being coached by his artists, Disney was unable to draw a single sketch of Mickey Mouse for PR purposes; nor imitate his own famous signature. He was more the entrepreneur.
Cel Animation, Processes and Glitches
Now outmoded by computer, the so-called Golden Era for “cel animation” extended from the late 1920s to the late 60s. The major studios like Disney, MGM and Warner Brothers used it to churn out hundreds of seven-minute cartoons each year: alongside Disney’s classics, Otto Messmer’s and Van Beuren’s Felix the Cat, Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker, Warner Brothers’ Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the cat and Tweety, etc.), Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor and Olive Oyl, Hanna-Barbera’s Rocky and Bulwinkle, Tom and Jerry, and many others.
Cel animation required thousands of images to be transferred from paper onto transparent sheets of celluloid, which were then photographed by a camera, one after the next, frame by frame, to form an individual film. Twenty-four frames per second: that’s a lot of drawing. Which the studios were able to facilitate using an assembly line erected on a Fordist-Taylorist model. (Apparently Disney liked to think of himself as a second Henry Ford.)
A “head animator” and his “assistant artists”—almost exclusively males—created the main sketches delineating a particular action in a film, and “in-betweeners” filled in the gaps. “Non-creative” workers performed the rest of the tedious, repetitive labour of tracing (inking) and colouring (painting).
These latter workers were mostly female, low-paid and with no prospects of promotion: the forgotten, invisible hands, the bulk of the labour that made the films. You can almost hear them whistling while they worked. Well, not exactly. Strikes by animators and below-the-line union labour proliferated in the studios. At Disney, much of the talent whom Walt had attracted with talk of art and high ideals abandoned him when his exclusively capitalist motives became apparent.
From a theoretical point of view, concentrating on the individual, static frame—at the momentary expense of the flow of illusion—produces the grist for understanding the deeper (if less amusing), multifaceted nature of animation, an understanding that at once co-opts and exceeds traditional film studies. The productive forces behind the illusion are foregrounded: the mode of production, the human labour. One becomes aware of the mark of invisible workers, who were absorbed into the illusory identity of a supposed single “artist.”
To orientate us to the idea of what’s to be found in frame-by-frame analysis, let’s glance at an animator’s pencil test.
This 46 frame, 4.6 second (i.e., ten frames/sec) design sketch of the heroine of Disney’s film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is a pencil test drawn by a head animator. Notice how it imparts significantly more a sense of the artist’s hand than does the finished film (see, for example, reproductions of finished cels at the Normal Rockwell Museum), in which the material feel of the drawing materials has disappeared, the images have been painstakingly coloured and the lines smoothed. Indeed, the uniformity of the finished art is a target of the mass production assembly line, and informs the idealized “reality” of the film. A social “commodification of desire” is reflected in this ideal of transcendence over human making—the whole world becoming plastic (see for example, Pfifer).
Paradoxically, the process of tracing the line deadens it, and the pencil test remains more aesthetically pleasing and “alive” than the finished images. Here is a resonance with Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and his discussion of the loss of “aura” suffered by mechanically reproduced works (See Benjamin).
Technical annotations on the pencil test interrupt the flow of illusion, and at the same time foreground the presence of the maker—any trace of whom needs to be eradicated in the final product, to conform with production values. Directions and corrections are momentarily glimpsed, distracting the eye. These are written and drawn on individual cels, endowing each individual cel with the status of being a form of document. Theoretically, any animation can be treated in this way, as though it is an archive of documents. Doing so is to focus on the animation’s epistemological significance: that is, knowledge of factors bearing upon the means of production (such as issues of race, class, and gender.)
Information is as likely to have been inputted accidentally as intentionally:
A cartoon documents and dramatizes India ink, watercolour paints, paper, glass, and stacks of transparent cellulose nitrate or acetate sheets; particles of dust traverse half the screen and fleeting, spectral reflections are cast by the animation stand’s overhead lights; Newton’s rings knit together. And yet animation betrays the graphic of the photographic. A line might be a gesture of ink, a particle of dust on the cel, a hair in the gate of the camera or the contact printer or the projector; the camera lens becomes an element to be photographed, inseparable from the other transparent plates and sheets before it; the image assimilates the various physical and chemical agents that can affect a filmstrip.Frank 72-3
Unintentional factors alter how the cartoon is perceived, as well. Dust particles imprinted on the cels merge with flies swarming around Mickey Mouse; a black, jagged piece of debris appears from nowhere, without reason, to threaten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. As cartoons recede from the production values of our own era, I might add, they are historicized and humanized in the viewer’s perception, a portion of their lost charm restored.
Located in the dusty archive of cels, precious imperfections are to be discovered, such as erroneous brushstrokes, strands of hair, smudges, and “the literal fingerprints of the workers who handled the image” (Frank 2), preserved for posterity.
When the film is projected at proper speed, some of the mistakes barely register—blink and you’ll miss them. But even a mistake in a single frame can quake the world of the film.Frank 57
A mistakenly unpainted cel, causing a minute stutter, might stem from the inattention of an in-betweener, inker, painter or camera operator, bored with a repetitious task. For the one-twenty-fourth of a second duration of a single frame, a character’s head is stuck on backwards, an uncoloured foot crossed out, or a single sketch of Woody Woodpecker inserted in a blank cel, in a cartoon where he has no business to be. Most often the precise reasons behind such anomalies won’t be resurrected, any more than we may merely guess at motives behind doodles made by medieval scribes in the margins of their manuscripts— bums, penises and cross-eyed kings. Maybe some of them felt the urge to “fuck it up” (qtd. Frank 80), simply to put their mark on it.
Cut to Google ScanOps
An analogue to the idea of the cartoon as an epistemological archive is to be found in a contemporary archive par excellence: Google’s undertaking, begun in 2002, to digitalize every book in the world (known unofficially within the Google organization as “ScanOps”) (Ptak). By 2018 they had succeeded in scanning 40 million volumes, though the status of the project has now become top-secret.
Now, scanning a book page by page into a long PDF is actually not all that far from the process of shooting and compiling photographs for an animation. Google’s workers, too, leave traces of their presence, commonly in images of errant, “ghostly” fingers captured by the photocopier—the mark of the anonymous drudge. Just like the human glitches and fingerprints uncovered in frame-by-frame analysis of an animation. The artist Andrew Norman Wilson, who used to work for Google, organized and exhibited a series of photographs of these images. The anomalies “index,” so to speak, the elided human element in the scanning process.
As we will see, human fingers do appear occasionally throughout the cartoon corpus, but intentionally, usually within a “how the animation is made” genre.
Wilson also covertly recorded a 12-minute video entitled Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), an insightful pastiche of Louis Lumière’s 46-second film Workers leaving the Factory (1895), the world’s first documentary. Wilson’s Googleplex video is intended to highlight the unequal conditions of the anonymous scanner operators, who were men and women “predominantly of color” (Frank 65).
Perhaps more than merely being “evocative of” the glitches and disembodied fingers Frank culls in her frame-by-frame viewing of cartoons (Frank 65), Wilson’s project implicates the art of cel animation in the same theoretical schema, one that speaks to the theme of the erasure of human identity in the age of digital reproduction and aesthetic mass production. The animated line already blurs the distinction between image and text, in its mercurial transformation into signifying characters. A digitized book stands at the outer limits of animation; just as a cartoon is a speeded-up archive. If our minds worked fast enough we might directly perceive them as such.
Or something like—I can’t blame Frank for this notion. Less dramatically, she extends the frame-by-frame context into theory and methodology: the reading of a microform journal; the organization of notes for a novel or thesis into index cards. Avant-garde animators have used index cards to make films; writers such as Dickinson, Melville, Barthes used montage-like methods of composition, assembling fragments often recorded on slips or index cards.
Dalmations and Xerox
Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) marks a decisive moment in the history of animation aesthetics. The first major application of Xerox technology, the film heralded the end of classical animation, which was already suffering the repercussions of unionization, high salaries, the rise of television, and the legal blow to the Big Five studios dealt by the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 (aka the Paramount Case).
By integrating xerography into the system, the Ink Department (women), could be largely dispensed with because it now became possible for the artist’s original drawing to be directly transferred and fused onto the cells. Spectators of the time were struck by a particular quality of line in the film, which was sketchy, imperfect, artisanal—”loose and scratchy and spontaneous” (Frank 113).
The line was brought back to life by the technology, in an enhanced, sophisticated style. Walt Peregoy, the background artist and colour stylist for the film, came up with an innovative style to complement the new technique, in which patches of colour could overlap the outlines, after the fashion of the Fauvist artist Raoul Dufy. (See too the UPA short animation The Invisible Mustache of Raoul Dufy .)
The central theme of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which resonates in the title itself, is reproducibility—the very reproducibility inherent in the mode of its production. Dalmatians themselves happen to be black and white—a perfect match for Xerox capabilities. A limitless number of images of Dalmatians could be Xeroxed, easily producing masses of them on screen. All that was needed was to animate:
…eight or nine cycles of action, of dogs running in different ways, then [make] them larger or smaller, using Xerox, knowing that if there are a hundred and one dogs, and if there are eight or nine distinct cycles, and they’re placed at random in this rabble of dogs, no one will know that they all haven’t been animated individually.Frank 135, and see Barrier
It’s reasonable to claim, therefore, that One Hundred and One Dalmatians is in a certain sense “a film about xerography” (113), absorbed as the makers were in the possibilities of the technology. The medium is the message. A self-reflexive trope is found in animation since the early days. Films such as Edison’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900) and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911), showed still drawings “coming to life,” an ostensive aim being to demonstrate the method of animation itself. (When fingers sometimes appear in these—though intentionally—they seem prescient of ScanOps.)
Characters such as Felix the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit are self-reflexive in their very ability to create objects out of their own bodies. Familiar to the millions of us brought up on Golden Era television cartoons, Bugs Bunny, in Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck (1953, Merry Melodies), possesses the power of the animator, which he uses to harass Daffy Duck, drawing and erasing him, as well as objects and scenes around him (“Ain’t I a stinker?”)
Animation and the Avant-garde
The art of animation informs as well as deconstructs cinema, and has currently taken a central position in film studies. Hollywood needed to trivialize and thus “tame the technology” (qtd. Frank 7) because of its inherent potential to disrupt cinematic narrative codes. While emulating photographic cinema, Warner Brothers’ Sniffles Bells the Cat (1941) and Disney’s Cinderella (1950) already managed to exploit narrative effects of deep-focus, in colour, when film directors were limited to black and white (for example, Orson Welles with Citizen Kane ), because of the slowness of Technicolor film stock. Alfred Hitchcock co-opted the animators’ use of Xerography for scenes in The Birds (1963). Ingmar Bergman may be indebted to Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck for the moment when, in Persona (1966), the film itself jams in the projector and burns: a materially embodied spectacle—pyschic trauma manifesting itself in visceral shock.
From the early 1920s, Otto Messmer used stroboscopic effects in his Felix the Cat cartoons, alternating positive and negative images or black and white frames, in sequences simulating phenomena like lightning or shock. Numerous cartoons followed suit: Hanna-Barbara uses a similar idea to electrocute Tom the cat by a string of Christmas lights in The Night Before Christmas (Hanna-Barbera, “Tom and Jerry,” 1941); as does Disney in The Golden Touch (Silly Symphony, 1935) in order to mark the entrances of a leprechaun who grants King Midas’ wishes, and for the climactic collapse of his castle.
Subsequently, avant-gardists such as Peter Kubelka (Arnulf Rainer ) and Tony Conrad (The Flicker (1965) unleashed techniques of “retinal bombardment” (Frank 24) in concentrated form, producing a genre of “flicker films,” causing headaches and eyestrain for some. In his Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976) Paul Sharits aimed
to orchestrate sound and light rhythms in an intimate and proportional space, an ongoing location wherein non-epileptic persons may begin to experience, under ‘controlled conditions’ the majestic potentials of convulsive seizure.Sharits, Light Cone
The New Zealand artist Len Lye was an early experimenter with the potentials of cel animation for abstract art. For A Colour Box (1930) Lye painted directly onto the film (“direct animation”), using a camera only for the titles; he was paid ₤30 to make it as an advertisement for the British General Post Office. Avant-gardists of the 60s and 70s, such as Kubelka, Werner Nekes (e.g., Hynningen ), Robert Breer (Eyewash , Blazes ), Hollis Frampton (Palindrome ) and Ken Jacobs (Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son ) followed with experiments; along with Stan Brakhage (Glaze of Cathexis , Peter Tscherkassky (Outer Space ) and any number of others.
I hope it is not too simplistic to suggest that the avant-garde overlaps traditional animation in terms of elemental techniques and a shared antagonism toward the conventions of cinematic realism—toward André Bazin’s notion of film as “a window to the world.” Frank lays down an aspect of the overlap in broad strokes: one relation moves from animation into the avant-garde; another into microfilm photography (Frank 58). Google ScanOps triangulates the two, in a complex theoretical scenario.
There is nothing so suigeneris as an avant-garde film, but some key works by Robert Breer are close to conventional narrative animation. Breer made a hundred drawings on index cards for A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), shuffling them into various orders to produce the 4,000 pencil line images in the two and a half minute film, dramatizing Paul Klee’s famous saying: “a drawing is simply a line going out for a walk.” It is as though the film progresses through abstract perceptions (infant-like? canine?), before coalescing in an eponymous scene.
To make Fuji (1974), Breer shot a Super-8 film while travelling on the Japanese bullet train that goes past Mount Fuji. He traced selected images onto index cards by hand and rephotographed them as cels. The result is a film that shifts between photographic and animated modes, a further memorable pastiche of a logocentric narrative.
As the footage unfolds, the film tests the iconicity of Mount Fuji: what does it take for it to be identifiable? As it turns out, just a tiny black triangle can be enough, or even an upside-down V.Frank 53-4
But for a sheer reductio ad absurdum of the classical cartoon to its most iconic, aesthetic and perhaps most annoying features, one can’t go past Martin Arnold’s Whistle Stop (2014). A re-envisioning of Duck Amuck, combined with a deconstruction of Draftee Daffy (Loony Tunes, Warner Bros., 1945), in which Daffy ends up in hell, as just deserts for trying to dodge the draft. In contrast, Arnold isolates and incarcerates Daffy Duck throughout, in a repetitious, narrative-less purgatory.
The cartoon is Beckettian in its angst-ridden minimalism, with an unmistakable debt to the play Not I (Samuel Beckett, 1973), where the only character is a frantic, isolated Mouth. Arnold’s deconstructed protagonist is also somehow reminiscent of Pirandello, its fractured elements in a state of perpetual anticipation of some—any—coherent scenario.
Barrier, Michael and Bill Spicer (1971). “An Interview with Chuck Jones,” Reprinted from Funnyworld 13.
Benjamin, Walter (1935). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Arendt, H. ed., Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). PDF (MIT).
Betancourt, Michael (2011). “On Len Lye’s Kinetic Film Theory.” Cinegraphic.
Burges, Anika (2017). “The Strange and Grotesque Doodles in the Margins of Medieval Books.” Atlas Obscura.
Eisenstein, Sergei (2010). Disney, ed. Oksana Bulgakowa, trans. Dustin Condren (Berlin: Potemkin Press). PDF excerpts.
Harmanci, Reyhan (2012). “The Hidden Hands Scanning The World’s Knowledge For Google.” Buzzfeed News: Tech.
Leyda, J. ed. (1986). Eisenstein on Disney (Calcutta: Seagull Books). PDF excerpts available for download.
McCay, Winsor (1912). How a Mosquito Operates. Short film.
Pfifer, Geoff (2017). “The Question of Capitalist Desire: Deleuze and Guattari with Marx Geoff Pfeifer, Continental Thought and Theory: a Journal of Intellectual Freedom 1.4 (Oct). PDF.
Ptak, Laurel (2013). Interview with Andrew Norman Wilson. Aperture Magazine (Feb 26).
Somers, James (2017). “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” The Atlantic.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Frame by Frame
A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons
by HANNAH FRANK
May 2019 | First Edition
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS | OPEN ACCESS | Free from Luminos (EPUB, Mobi, PDF, HTML)
Paperback: US$34.95, £27.00
Categories: Open Access Review