As Chuck Jones reminds us on the back cover of Norman Klein’s Seven Minutes (for my money, still the best book on the art of cartoonery) – “animation is not an easy thing to pin down”. It’s more or less flat; so although it seems like you ought to be able to stick the thing to a definite place, its defining lines always tend to move beyond your grasp. This fact has repeatedly become a fate for cartoon characters themselves. In Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908), commonly cited as the ‘first ever’ cartoon, a clown figure innocently goes to the cinema, only to find that the world and all its contents have become impossible to define. Within seconds, this cartoon Adam discovers that his very own form cannot be pinned down. Primal powers of animation take up his unprecedentedly fragile ‘body’ in their currents, reducing him to a dot, blowing him up like a bursting balloon, unravelling his own defining lines into those of surrounding objects, turning him inside out, making him swallow all of space, forcing him to spew forth the beginnings of whole new worlds.
There is something visibly provocative in this ‘first cartoon’: something that immediately demands a specific kind of theoretical attention. Strangely, however, until quite recently, the phrase “animation theory” has not often been heard within university film studies departments. The publication of Paul Wells’ Animation: Genre and Authorship, unashamedly offered as an introduction to the serious discipline of animation studies, attests to the fact that the attitudes of academics have slowly begun to metamorphose in this regard. Postgraduate students now increasingly find themselves awake and strangely lucid in the early mornings, watching cartoons with notebooks and weighty references in hand.
There will be quite a few amongst the readership of this website, I suspect, for whom the granting of ‘serious’ academic attention to the art of animation is a new thing. There have always been plenty of erudite individuals willing and able to write about cartoons with sensitivity and respect without ever feeling it necessary to don the heavy mantle of ‘seriousness’ (one immediately thinks, for just one example, of Joe Adamson’s excellent book on Tex Avery). The primary values pursued in these productions are neither gravity of intent nor rigour of definition but enthusiasm and love. Sophisticated even ‘theoretical’ statements are more than merely possible in this genre of film writing, but they are ventured only insofar as writer and reader openly assume the emotional (and informational) commitments of fandom. It is no accident that the joy-destroying ‘scholar of film’ often appears in the prefaces to these books as a derided and disavowed figure. The tone of these popular editions is charged with affection, more or less deliberately anti-academic; style echoes the antic spirit of the cartoons themselves. A serious concern, I believe, motivates this cartoon-like repudiation of explicit definitions in a field defined at the most intuitive level by ‘the giving of life’.
Something about the very metamorphic, animated nature of these particular art works seems to resist any attempt at generalised, fixed, commanding formulations. Animation, paradoxically enough, seems ‘by definition’ to defy definition as such. If this is so, it is not only because its forms reserve the right to reconfigure their own boundaries 24 times a second, but because its pervasive themes seem to anticipate and mock the serious intent of any such controlling aspiration. To paraphrase a definitive Chuck Jones cartoon (One Froggy Evening, ): sure, the frog will sing, but never at the moment the poor guy who thinks he is first to uncover its secrets would like to choose!
From the side of the academy, on the other hand, the problem must have seemed quite the inverse. Animation, especially of the cartoon variety, must have seemed too easy to define, too limited by its short time span, too transparently determined by stock repetitions of form and theme, to be worthy of sustained study or debate at the level of film aesthetics or ideological analysis. Nor does it often seemed to have occurred to those interested in defining the specificity of film that the mere possibility of animation might pose some irreducible questions about the very nature of the medium. Some ‘theorists of film’, indeed, have famously thought it possible to define film in general in terms of ‘photographic ontology’. Others, speaking from quite different rhetorical assumptions, have conceived film exclusively in terms of the alleged fact that photography embodies and perfects the ideological principles of Western perspective.
A few untimely scholars of film and cultural studies, however, may now be retrospectively identified as having played a pioneering role in shifting these theoretical prejudices. Any (necessarily partial and personal) list would have to include the Australians Alan Cholodenko, Philip Brophy, and Richard Thompson; the Americans William Moritz, Donald Crafton, Maureen Furniss, and Norman Klein; and the author of the book currently in question, Britain’s Paul Wells.
The conceptual mission accepted by each of these theorists is indeed a highly serious and specifically challenging one. Animators themselves, as we have already seen with Jones, have often been ready to admit that the nature of their art poses unique problems of definition and description. The core of the problem, appropriately enough, is one of in-betweening. As the renowned art animator, Norman McLaren, and others (including Jones) have reminded us, the art of animation cannot be found at the level of the contents preserved on each individual frame or cel (even if cels are now hotly pursued and valuable collectors items). An animator may happen to be a good draughtsman, a good sculptor, a good manipulator of pixels – maybe even a good cinematographer – yet none of these methods for filling frames with visible stuff will ever define the art of animation. It is, rather, the painstakingly controlled relation between individual images, however they are generated, that gives rise to effects of continuous motion, giving ‘life’ to otherwise immobile figures. Animation, in this sense, as McLaren stressed on more than one occasion always takes place in-between the frames. But it doesn’t just take place ‘in-between’ at the level of the physical film stock; it also takes place ‘in-between’ all other art forms. It is because animation, Borg-like, may assimilate any form to itself (including cinematography) without ever becoming reducible to the norms of any one of them that its own specificity needs to be recognised and clarified within the general field of film studies. Animation, in short, is never definable by content, and this fact has implications for the aesthetic possibilities of film in general. It is also, finally, one of the marked and happy (if not necessarily unique) traits of Wells’ approach to move constantly across and between the extremes defining the spectrum of animation itself; the experimental art work and the commercial cartoon.
Wells strongly insists that animation is a challenge to write and think about at every level, partly because its specificity is inseparable from the way that it operates upon existing arts, existing genres, and existing critical concepts. In particular, his current book asks whether the art form obliges us to recast the very notion of genre itself, as well as the notion of filmic ‘authorship’. Wells begins his interrogation of these concepts by offering a seemingly random review of the multifarious, sometimes contradictory ways in which their implications have traditionally been understood. His interest in doing so, it turns out, lies less in deciding upon the general validity of any particular critical approach than in demonstrating how the special conditions and possibilities of animation both elicit and complicate each one of them in unexpected ways. In these terms, Wells constantly (and, I think, rightly) stresses two of animation’s native capacities: its ability to act as a kind of experimental ‘meta-art’ in relation to the principles it inherits from other arts; its ability to make an image act as an uniquely dynamic ‘signature’ referring to the unseen figure of the auteur/animator (in this he explicitly departs from Crafton’s seminal analysis of ‘self-figuration’ in early cartoons). Like Klein, also, he underlines the peculiar and paradoxical conditions characterising the art form from the perspective of its ‘authors’. Animators face both an unparalleled opportunity for individual control and an unparalleled need for division of labour – both facts, although seemingly contradictory, flow from the basic business of animation: to generate all the content for all the frames of the filmstrip.
Wells concludes his book by testing the ways in which the figure of ‘the auteur’ may be understood in the case of three quite different creative individuals: Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen, and Caroline Leaf. The discussion of Disney, who may be justly described as ‘the most important animator’ and ‘barely an animator at all’, is original and stimulating, refreshingly free of the kind of ideological paranoia (left and right) which polemically hyper-active adults too easily project upon the Magic Kingdom (which is not to say, that Disney the company, or Disney the man, were ever as pure as Snow White!). From the side of animation production, Wells argues, Disney may be validly remembered as an ‘author’ who gave rise to specific forms of creativity, rather than as a tyrant who brutally stifled the ‘genuine’ improvisatory foundations of animated art. He did so precisely by panoptically controlling and defining cartoonery as an industrial process. Disney the man was rarely hands on when it came to the particular arts of animation; he was notoriously ‘interfering’ at every level of the process. Traditionally conceived, cartoonists ‘pull the strings’ of their characters; by pulling the strings of animators themselves, Disney arguably raised his creative activity to a higher level of abstraction. From the side of consumption, on the other hand, Disney may be considered an ‘author’ insofar as he provided a referential guarantee for the perceived aesthetic and moral consistency of the brand.
Where Disney is rediscovered here as a ‘meta-author’, Harryhausen emerges as an ‘intra-author’. Wells convincingly argues that several ‘live action’ films are distinguished far more by the creative presence of this marginal ‘special effects specialist’ than by the cinematographic efforts of their ‘proper’ directors. In an interesting and very instructive final twist, the avant-garde art of Caroline Leaf can easily be made to conform to the terms of traditional notions of authorship, since it depends upon an intimate, tactile, one-to-one relationship between artist and object. Brief interviews with Harryhausen and Leaf, however, may prove illuminating enough for those of us already engaged with the field, but ultimately leave this reader with the feeling of having witnessed two missed-opportunities. Wells is simply too restrained: he fails to excite or provoke his interviewees to the point where they would be forced to say things capable of surprising Wells himself, the reader, or the interviewees themselves. (I have more to say below about the constraints of the narrowly academic ‘angle of attack’ adopted by Wells throughout this book).
In terms of currently received categories, animation emerges in Well’s account as a constantly moving and hybrid creature, one that seems at once to exemplify modernist aestheticism and to typify (and anticipate) the themes of postmodernism. Animation has always been somehow postmodernist insofar as it privileges impurity (it mixes up all the other arts) and self-generating artifice (its ‘bodies’ have ‘never been there’) over purity, presence, and reference. Animation is also and equally ‘still modernist’, however, insofar it has ‘always’ tended to make these, its own constitutive properties, an active subject of reflection and experimentation. Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953), with all the elaborate ‘auto-deconstructions’ of film form which Daffy is made to suffer, may be widely and justifiably judged an exemplary cartoon, but it can easily be made to serve as ‘the example’ of both modernism and postmodernism. Animation, indeed, as Wells is not the first to argue, confounds the assumptions informing more than one commonly reproduced ‘theoretical’ opposition. The prospect of a serious theory of animation becomes simultaneously the prospect of a thorough re-examination of our own inheritances, that is, of the assumptions and distinctions informing a wide range of academic disciplines, including film studies, aesthetics, and cultural studies.
The arguments pursued by Wells are almost without exception incisive, sometimes surprising. He could be accused, however, especially given the ‘introductory’ mission which he affirms for himself, of slipping a little too often into phrasings which are annoyingly ‘academic’ in the bad sense. Three examples:
Animation often reveals its fine art sources by demonstrating the subtextual meaning and process-oriented development of particular art-making, foregrounding its intrinsic modernity. (p. 39)
Consequently, while operating in a similar way to the generic orthodoxies described earlier, this does not significantly comment upon the ways in which animation offers distinctive approaches to genre beyond conventional definitions, except in the way it enunciates its own difference as a form. (p. 55)
What remains is the particularity of animation, and its own conditions of enunciation; conditions which may be understood as deep structures and generic specificities. Inevitably issues arise concerning the applicability of these structures to both feature and short form, but essentially, because of the structural emphasis, it is important to recognise that in any animated form the generic tendency is a matter of emphasis and predominance rather than fixedness. A feature may evidence generic flux because of its structural variousness, for example, but it will remain predominantly in one approach. (p. 66)
The danger that sometimes becomes apparent in Wells’ style, as abstract nouns begin to orbit around each other, is that the reader may lose any sense of contact, a bit like a cartoon character who looks down to see he is already dangling over the abyss. The “particularity of animation” is, indeed, exactly “what remains” most decisively, right now, for the discipline of film theory, which has always been more or less fixated on photographic models. This ‘blind spot’ has always been utterly arbitrary in a purely theoretical sense; the fiction which makes cinematography the norm of all moving images has now become unsustainable in the era of digital imaging, as the boundaries between live action and animation become increasingly difficult to define or discern. In this and other publications, Wells does as much as anyone, and much more than most, to respond to this situation. Whatever the many virtues of Wells’ academically ‘serious’ approach to animation, however, its limitations become apparent when contrasted to Norman Klein’s Seven Minutes (which Wells himself cites as amongst a very few items of ‘essential reading’).
Klein’s indispensable book is both as theoretically sophisticated and finely modulated as any work of academic film theory and as intimately enthusiastic and accessible as the very best work produced by delirious ‘animatophiles’. Almost every page delivers either a surprising new concept or some nuance on an accepted concept; almost every page is also bursting with the kind of one-off gems and just-right evocations of singular moments which any loving, caring animator or fan would be happy to pin to their forehead. Klein’s writing assumes critical distance, but never allows itself to seem superior or smug about the nuances of the cartoons themselves. He assumes, as it were, a critical distance from within. Throughout Seven Minutes, Klein constantly shows he is not at all afraid of abstract concepts; but his abstractions are always themselves animated by the style in which they are presented: “… according to cartoon modernism, there is no pure form, only erasures based on audience memory. Mass culture is alive with a sense of erasure similar to a Tex Avery chase.” (p. 171)
The theoretical sentiments expressed here are quite in accord with those to which Wells gives voice. The voice itself, however, could hardly be more different. Sentences like Klein’s, which seem to poetically mimic the staccato rhythms and fugitive revelations of the cultural forms they address, make this reader want to risk the head spinning leaps from the local to the general, the concrete to the abstract, which theory invites us to undertake. Style here is more than ornamental: it is an inseparable part of the effort of theorisation. Wells’ greatest limitation, as a writer of an introductory work of animation theory, is that he too easily adopts the kind of ‘summary tone’ which instantly deadens enthusiasm – for the films themselves, and for the business of theorising about them. To be blunt, too much of Wells’ book reads like a PhD thesis, as if his driving concern were to prove to an ideal, academically disinterested reader that the field opens up new opportunities for theoretical assertion. Wells should certainly not be expected to project a Stimpy the Cat-like attitude of endless ‘happy, happy, joy, joy’. Nonetheless, he does often seem to forget that most of his likely readers need also to be seduced by the possible joys of theory. Wells only really breaks out of a fixed academic pose and becomes definitely animated himself at the very conclusion, as he tells us ‘that’s not all folks’ and invites us to join him on a unique theoretical adventure. Just for a flash, something like a 24th of a second, the reader feels that Wells himself is moved by animation.
If someone came to me asking for an inspiring introduction to the theoretical complexities of commercial cartoons, I would certainly nominate Klein’s Seven Minutes. If, on the other hand, they were seeking the best way to approach the problems and promises of experimental animation, I would send them first of all to the words of the artists themselves, particularly the simultaneously autobiographical and theoretical reflections offered by Norman McLaren in the video Creative Process: Norman McLaren (Claude Dionne and Donald McWilliams, 1990) (if they were able to find a copy). If they wished to become familiar with the early history of animation, I would have no hesitation in directing them towards Donald Crafton’s Before Mickey. If any of these readers found themselves inspired enough to come back for more, I would surely include Paul Wells’ new book in my own list of essential readings (along with his earlier Understanding Animation, Maureen Furniss’ Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics, and Australia’s The Illusion of Life, edited by Alan Cholodenko).
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Adamson, Joe. Tex Avery: King of Cartoons (New York, Da Capo, 1975).
Crafton, Donald, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
Cholodenko, Alan, ed., The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation (Sydney: Power Publications in association with Australian Film Commission, 1991).
Furniss, M, Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (London: John Libbey, 1998)
Klein, Norman M., Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon (London: Verso, 1993).
Moritz, William, ‘Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-Linear Animation’, Storytelling in Animation, The Art of The Animated Image, Vol. 2, ed. John Canemaker (Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1988).
Wells, Paul, Understanding Animation (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).