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Architectures of Illusion
From Motion Pictures to Navigable Interactive Environments
By Maureen Thomas, François Penz
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2003 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Animation, Art and Digitality
From Termite Terrace to Motion Painting
1. The Escape from Termite Terrace
From being something of a commercial and artistic ghetto, and virtually synonymous (at least in the public mind) with children's cartoons, animation has become, in the 21st century, an essential production tool in the broadcasting, cinema, games and Internet industries. This is largely due to the development of digital technologies, which have facilitated the creation and manipulation of images, making moving-image language accessible to a wider range of practitioners than ever before. It also confirms the profound shift in our culture from the literary to the audio-visual, which had been underway since the middle – perhaps even the beginning – of the 20th century.
Digital technologies enable the transformation of images in real time, and not just in response to predetermined programs; they can respond to the spectator. Digitality thus makes possible new forms of art and entertainment that are genuinely interactive – as the broadcasting and games industries were quick to realise. It unites a wide range of converging technologies – video, film, 3D audio, the Internet and many others – in a way which actively engages the spectator, often outside traditional contexts such as art galleries or cinemas, and creates not only new art forms but new audiences. The possibilities for artists are staggering: suddenly they have within their grasp techniques which could combine the emotional power of narrative forms like cinema, the architectural and spatial possibilities of installation art and sculpture, with the possibilities of music, painting, animation, dance and theatre – and, above all, the capacity for interaction between spectator and the work, or between spectator and spectator within the work, made possible by technologies such as the Internet and video-conferencing systems.
An instance of some of this potential is the work of Paul Sermon, which uses blue-screen technology (once the exclusive province of broadcasting organisations and film studios) to enable members of the 'audience' to interact with one another, their images being 'cut and pasted' together in startling combinations by cameras hidden in what seems at first like an ordinary domestic environment. Sermon's installation , There's No Simulation Like Home (Figure 1), displayed at the Fabrica Gallery, Brighton, in 1999 is:
... dependent on electronic technology, and is also, in a sense about electronic technology; but its interest is not limited to technology. Unlike a great deal of multi-media art, it goes beyond mere research to make a penetrating inquiry into our perception of self and others. Our everyday sense of inhabiting a body is replaced with the uncanny realisation of our bodies as simultaneously real and virtual – as real or unreal as the remote other person with whom one is able to interact, through the monitor. (Ashbee, 2000)
Sermon has spoken of his fascination with being able to perceive the self from outside – to put, as he expressed it, our eyes elsewhere. Electronic technology is being used to make possible a kind of self-scrutiny which is not so very different from Rembrandt's, though he used the technology of his day – namely oil paint, costumes and a mirror. But the major difference here is the role of the audience. Sermon's piece is not about the artist: it places the audience centre stage. As the artist has remarked: 'The piece, in a very real sense, is the audience. They are absolutely central to the work .' The work is in effect an open-ended piece of performance art, performed not by the artist but by the spectator. It is public art that captures the public imagination quite differently from the dismal street furniture whose only function seems to be to attract pigeon droppings and local outrage in equal measure. It blurs the boundary between art and entertainment, and as such it is undoubtedly the shape of things to come in the third millennium.
Much multimedia art, like Sermon's, offers elements of interactivity as a means of breaking down the barrier between art and everyday life, between artist and audience, which has been eroding steadily since the 1960s. Outside the sphere of art, interactivity has been the Holy Grail of the broadcasting and the games industries for some time. It is, of course, a defining feature of the Internet. As all of these technologies converge, art, entertainment and indeed much of our daily lives will doubtless continue to change in ways the 20th century would have found hard to imagine.
The meltdown of the barriers that traditionally separated the different art forms, and which separated different media, continues, fuelled by the converging technologies of digitality. Animation is at the heart of this process, because of its protean nature and its ability to absorb all other artistic forms and make them its own. Animation, or the construction of new realities frame by frame, is no longer the exclusive province of a few eccentric draughtsmen but the goal of professionals and enthusiasts across a wide range of disciplines and industries. As a result, animation has experienced the most rapid technical development, transforming both its production processes and bringing into question many of its underlying aesthetic values.
Technological progress has undoubtedly been of benefit to animators, bringing them tools to take much of the drudgery out of the production process, such as programs to colour cells and carry out the 'in-betweening' between key frames, and software to automate perfect lip-synch in any language. Motion-capture technology (magnetic or optical devices that can 'read' and record sensors attached to the moving human body) places the depiction of movement on a new and scientific basis – rendering, it is suggested, the intuitive command of movement which is the hallmark of the great masters of animation increasingly redundant. Such a suggestion is surely excessive. Mechanical devices need not replace the creative artist, although they can provide him with additional tools. And, interestingly, the arguments surrounding the use of such technology are not new. Similar controversy surrounded the use in the 1930s of the rotoscope, a device for transcribing movement filmed by a cine camera, refined (like so many other innovations) by Disney. And there are other echoes of the past: the current aesthetic trend toward computer-generated 3D photorealism, which marks a significant shift away from the graphical inventiveness and economy of 2D animation, could be seen as a resurfacing of the old conflict between realism and fantasy that Disney exemplified so clearly in the middle of the 20th century.
The meaning of the term 'animation' underwent a massive change at the turn of the millennium, as it began to be used commonly to denote incorporating moving-image sequences programmed in Flash for the Web, 3D graphics for broadcasting, and computer-generated synthetic imaging for interactive games. In the continuing dissolution of the barriers that once separated the different art forms and the different media, the traditional art of animation must inevitably undergo rapid transformation. The ability to construct reality frame by frame is a cornerstone of the forms of art and entertainment of the 21st-century digital crucible, whose ultimate shape can only be guessed at. But the novelty of developments will never render the traditional skills of animators redundant; on the contrary, they will be needed more urgently than ever.
Most of the developers and users of animation software have not had a training in basic traditional animation skills; they come from a wide range of backgrounds and are often motivated by a problem-solving approach whose goal seems often to be a digitally-constructed world predicated on naive notions of photo-realism. But this approach all too often fails in the basic goal of the traditional painter's art and that of cinema: that of making images come alive on a two-dimensional surface.
The clearest example of what can be achieved is provided by John Lasseter, whose short films, such as Knick Knack (US, 1989) (Figure 2), and later features Toy Story and Toy Story 2 (US, 1995 and 1999) demonstrate the vital part that traditional character animation and storytelling skills continue to play in this brave new digital world. They also suggest that a more fruitful aesthetic for 3D animation may be hyperrealism rather than photorealism: the world of Toy Story is one in which colour, texture, movement and form are so perfectly observed and imaginatively recreated as to transform mere fact into poetry. Lasseter is both the guiding spirit behind the production company Pixar, which has led the way in computer animation, and a traditional animator of great skill, trained at the Disney Studios. His example demonstrates that the process of 'giving life', or animating in the strict sense of the term, is still as much a magical process as it was for George Méliès at the beginning of the 20th century. It is not likely that any amount of software development will change that.
The Revival of Animation
Thanks in part to the digital revolution, at the end of the 20th century animation emerged from its ghetto. Unlike the animators of the 1940s, buried away in Termite Terrace – the self-deprecating name the Warner Bros. animators gave to their cramped corner of the studio lot – today's animators are more likely to work in an environment devoted to digital imaging. In Angoulême, in France, for example, animators work in what is becoming a city of the digital image, surrounded by companies representing a vast range of technologies, from the most traditional, such as graphic novels and printing, to those of Internet and software developers.
So suddenly, at the beginning of the 21st century, animation came into fashion. Learned journals were founded devoted entirely to its study; international conferences are organised, drawing devotees from all corners of the globe to pick over the disinterred remains of half-forgotten animators. Academics and intellectuals, who for decades have considered animation beneath their notice, have begun to take it seriously. Animators who worked in virtual anonymity for the entirety of their careers within the Hollywood studio system have emerged as 'auteurs' like Hitchcock or Bergman; Tex Avery is compared to Bertold Brecht and the Fleischers to Dali and Buñuel.
Such reassessment was long overdue. But the reasons for the long-standing neglect of animation are not without interest. As evidence of animation's previous marginalisation, one need look no further than the British Film Institute's own book about the cinema, what it describes in its foreword as a 'history of debates in British film culture', The Cinema Book (ed. Pam Cook, 1985-1989). Animation does not even appear in its copious index. Walt Disney, who is surely one of the most significant figures in the cultural history of the 20th century and a film producer of some note – he did win more Oscars than any other producer/director of the century – receives just two brief mentions. One is for his early acquisition of Technicolor's three-colour process in the early 1930s, and the second is in connection with ex-Disney employee and live-action film director Frank Tashlin.
This neglect of Disney is not mere perversity on the part of the BFI; it reflects a long-standing blindness on the part of film theorists. Animation has simply not been a part of the main debate over the nature of cinema, which has raged throughout the century. As Gerald Mast has pointed out, in one of the few theoretical studies to give proper centrality to animation (Mast, 1977, 4), animation has simply not been part of the main debate over the nature of cinema, which has raged throughout the century: André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, for example, maintain that the essence of film lies in its relationship with reality – its function as a recording medium, its capacity to register the objective, visible world. In this conceptual scheme, animation clearly has no role; animators routinely construct alternative worlds, and whatever animation is, it is not an automatic registering of reality.
But as Mast goes on to show, Bazin and Kracauer are not alone. Film theorists Rudolf Arnheim, Stanley Cavell, Sergei Eisenstein, Christian Metz, Hugo Munsterberg, Erwin Panofsky, Gene Youngblood and others have failed to include animation as a form of cinema and, in order to define cinema, they have developed categories and criteria which are quite incompatible with animation.
There may be more than one explanation for this neglect. It may be that, for most of these theorists, as for Bazin and Kracauer, animation simply did not fit into their conception of cinema. It was an exception. But it might also be the case that animation was simply beyond the pale; film theorists have had a long struggle to show that cinema, which is indisputably a form of popular entertainment, was as worthy of consideration as literature, music and painting – a struggle to show that it is an art, in fact, as well as a business. Even as late as the 1960s, Film Studies in Britain was treated with deep suspicion by the academic establishment, still under the influence of F. R. Leavis, for whom films involve 'surrender, under conditions of hypnotic receptivity, to the cheapest emotional appeals, appeals the more insidious because they are associated with a compellingly vivid illusion of actual life' (FR Leavis, Storey, 1994). According to this view, cinema was 'largely masturbatory' in its appeal, 'cheapening, debasing, distorting' (Q. D. Leavis, 1932:,165). But such sweeping dismissal of what we have come to describe as film culture (to the Leavises, a contradiction in terms) was not characteristic of the political right alone; the left-wing intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, in particular Max Horkeimer and Theodor Adorno, were equally contemptuous: 'film, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part ... all mass culture is identical' (Adorno and Horkeimer, 1972, 122-3). However, whereas the Leavises feared that film, and popular culture in general, represented a threat to the cultural authority of 'high art', the Frankfurt School argued that they produced the opposite effect: they maintain social authority by keeping the masses entertained, distracting them from the realities of the class struggle.
Film theorists naturally aspired to academic respectability, and so wished to rescue film from this blanket dismissal as part of a hopelessly debased and corrupted mass culture. And if film as a whole was academically suspect, then animation – or rather, the 'cartoon' – was even more tainted, having been connected since the earliest days of 'trick-film' with commerce and entertainment.
Some gifted animators have fought to raise the status of their art, such as Windsor McCay in the second decade of the 20th century, and Walt Disney in the third. But, paradoxically, Disney was to achieve such an unprecedented level of popular and commercial success with his short films in the 1930s, and his subsequent features, that he forged in the popular and academic minds alike an indissoluble link between animation and kitsch, from which it has never quite recovered. Disney would be mortified to learn that the term 'Mickey Mouse' has become a synonym for cheap, shoddy, mass-produced items. And Disney would not be altogether wrong, since the Mickey Mouse of the 1930s was the fruit of a decade of the most intense technical and artistic development the animation industry has ever seen, at least until the computer-related developments of the 1980s. So Disney, despite his efforts to make animation respectable, must remain in part responsible for the academic neglect from which animation continued to suffer up until the 1980s. Too readily identified as a popular, debased form of commercial entertainment – the fodder of children's television – animation only began to receive the attention it deserves with the breakdown of academic hierarchies separating 'high' and 'low' arts, which coincided with post-structuralist theories of culture.
Within a post-modernist framework, animation was no longer marginalised or excluded from the canons of cinema; on the contrary, it became central to it. Thanks largely to the digital revolution, animation could now be seen to be right at the centre, not just of film practice but of the development of the moving-image language on which depend the multimedia arts and communications industries.
Excerpted from Architectures of Illusion by Maureen Thomas, François Penz. Copyright © 2003 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Maureen Thomas,
Animation, Art and Digitality From Termite Terrace to Motion Painting Brian Ashbee,
1) The Escape from Termite Terrace,
2) A Lexicon of Babel: The Multiple Languages of Animation,
3) The Genie in the Lamp: Realism and Fantasy in the Animated Film,
4) Animation and Documentary,
5) Motion Painting,
Beyond Digitality: Cinema, Console Games and Screen Language The Spatial Organisation of Narrative Maureen Thomas,
1) Console Games and Storytelling,
2) Tradition and Innovation – Drama, Narrative and Narration on the Film, TV and Interactive Screen,
3) Big Screen/Small Screen – Cross Fertilization Between Film and Interactive Games,
4) Narrative, Narration and Engagement in Adventure Gamestories,
5) Storyscapes, Storyseekers and Storymakers – Dramatic Narrative in Navigable Expressive Space,
Architecture and the Screen from Photography to Synthetic Imaging Capturing and Building Space, Time and Motion François Penz,
2) Architects' Perspectives on Film,
3) Film-Makers' Perspectives on Architecture,
4) Location Shooting in City Films,
5) Toward the Digital Representation of Architecture and the City: Narrating 3D Spaces,
The 'Creative Treatment of Actuality' Visions and Revisions in Representing Truth Terence Wright,
1) Theory and Practice,
2) High and Low Control,
3) The Motivation Behind the Camera,
4) Ethnographic Movies – The 'Avant-Garde' of Documentary?,
5) The Interactive Documentary,