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Animation — What The Heck is It?

Animation -- What The Heck is It?

I like things to be clear, so just to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing, I decided to work out a bullet-proof definition of the art of cinema animation; something that covers all forms and fashions of frame-by-frame endeavors. See if you agree with me. If not, let’s talk about it!

What I’m talking about is how to make drawings or lifeless objects seem to live. How do you do that? To do it, you really have to think about yourself as an actor, and by extension your drawing or thing is an actor. Think of it as being alive, and it will be alive!

In 1978 John Halas asked me to submit a definition of cinema animation for consideration by ASIFA (International Association of Film Animation.)

That was an interesting puzzle: How to come up with a technical definition without limiting it to a specific technology that might become obsolete; to try to come up with a bedrock statement of stop-motion animation’s technical essence? This is what I wrote him:

“…my definition carefully says nothing about film, cameras, frames, projection, screens, laser beams, computers, or drawings. It covers all of these, or any future technology!  It’s based on what I consider to be the central core of 
stop-motion animation: the creation, recording, and retrieving of individual phases of imagined action.”

It should be clear that what I’m writing about in this document is frame-by-frame, phase-by-phase, pose-by-pose animation — whether it’s drawn, object-manipulated, or computer generated. I’m not talking about so-called “real-time animation,” which now has the fancy title, “Motion Capture,” or stripped down: “mo-cap,” in which human actors dressed in tights having electronic buttons at key points on their bodies, pantomime performances in real time, which are recorded onto computers. Drawings can then be matched to the recorded points. to follow the motion as performed by the actors. I hold that this technology is clearly outside the definition required for entrance into animation festivals. Real-time animation may perhaps be more “realistic” but unless realism is your goal, it can never achieve the magic or graphic exaggeration of frame-by-frame imagined action! 

Likewise, frame-by-frame hand animation is weakest when it tries to imitate realism. It may be called for in special effects, when perhaps you don’t want to risk your star’s life if the script requires her to be hit by speeding car! But for comedy or fairy tales, realism is rarely your goal. Perhaps it can be done, but why? It’s best if the twain never meet. As it negates fantasy that is the heart of cinema animation!

If we speak of animation in its broadest sense, it derives from the Latin word, anima, “The breath of life.” I would use the term “Cinematic animation” for what we do. For want of a better term, it delineates our stop-motion work. For precision, I have omitted reference to any particular technique, medium, or technology. Here is my definition:

“CINEMATIC ANIMATION: The recording of individually created phases of imagined action in such a way as to achieve the illusion of motion when shown at a constant, predetermined rate, exceeding that of human persistence of vision.”

Academic? I think it is useful to know what we are doing, and to realize how broad our craft really is. If you look at and think about that definition, you may conjure up a whole new way of doing it and presenting it, that no one has yet thought of. So this definition can suggest vast areas of technical and artistic variations! The two key words are “imagined action!”

To temper my strictly technical definition of animation I would want to quickly point out that animation is much more than technical.

The best and most poetic description I know of what animation is all about was beautifully stated by Steven Millhauser in his book, “Little Kingdoms” (Vintage Books — Random House, page 107).

“…[an] immobile world of inanimate drawings that had been granted the secret of motion, [a] death-world with its hidden gift of life. But that life was a deeply ambiguous life, a conjurer’s trick, a crafty illusion based on an accidental property of the retina, which retained an image for a fraction of a second after the image was no longer present. On this frail fact was erected the entire structure of the cinema, that colossal confidence game.
“The animated cartoon was a far more honest expression of the cinematic illusion than the so-called realistic (live-action) film, because the cartoon reveled in its own illusory nature, exulted in the impossible — indeed it claimed the impossible as its own, exalted it as its own highest end, found in impossibility, in the negation of the actual, its profoundest reason for being.

“The animated cartoon was nothing but the poetry of the impossible–therein lay its exhilaration and its secret melancholy. For this willful violation of the actual, while it was an intoxicating release from the constriction of things, was at the same time nothing but a delusion, an attempt to outwit mortality. As such it was doomed to failure. And yet it was desperately important to smash through the constriction of the actual, to unhinge the universe and let the impossible stream in, because otherwise – well otherwise, the world was nothing but an editorial cartoon.”

Beautifully stated, but it needn’t be in the past tense! My feeling is that for anyone to really achieve anything in the medium, they must feel its basics in their bones. I tried to formulate my technical definition of animation without using any terms that indicate it must be on film, or any other specific medium or technology for storing and retrieving individual phases of action. It all comes down to creating and registering imagined action in the form of individual motionless increments.

I think I can tell you in a few words the basic difference between live-action films and animation films. Here it is:

In live-action, a camera records action taking place before its lens. In animation, only still images are recorded, and the “illusion of action” only takes place at the moment of projecting it on a screen, or playing it back on a visual device.

I like to point out that animation, as with music, is an art form that exists only in the dimension of time. If you press the pause button while playing recorded music, the music suddenly ceases to exist. It must have uninterrupted movement through time to exist, and that is exactly the same with animation! To animate, one must understand time. Time goes along at inexorable rate. Everything we do is in counterpoint to the relentless rate of time. So you see that our cinematic attempt to create movement is exactly that! 

In a TV interview, the moderator asked me if I could choose what I’d want to be if born again, I answered, “a musician!” I worship musicians, as the true cultural magicians. I can do a lot of things, but I cannot sing on key, and I cannot play any musical instrument except hand drums. We are all living within various rhythms, from our heartbeat, breathing, walking. I am especially sensitive to rhythm, and I do play hand drums. I drum all the time. People think I am nervous if I tap my fingers on the table, but no, I am listening to and playing rhythms all the time! 

I hear everything in music, and I’ve had a hand in the composition of innumerable scores for my films and songs. I try to get across my ideas to the musicians I work with. I even attempt to hum to them the melodies I hear. They inevitably say, “But Gene, there are no such notes!” Frustrating! Oh, how I wish I were a musician! (But I am at least a music lover!)

I will not comment on the various styles and superficial modes and fads of animation. My point is that the basic medium is absolutely unlimited, and can contain anyone’s personal vision. Animation technology is analogous to a painter’s blank canvas – you can lay anything onto it, shit or shine. But I must say that the principles of animation, the technical principles, certainly not the cloying, baby-doll Disney style, mainly developed at the studio during one incredible decade — from 1930 to 1940 —apply to any frame-by-frame technique, be it classic cel animation, paper cut-outs, stop-motion puppets, computer generated images — whatever. But don’t conform! Do it your way! 

©Gene Deitch

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