Death to Animation

I believe it’s time to kill animation. Not the animation we watch, but the word we use to label it.

Everyone out there knows that animation means ‘invented’ characters brought to life on the screen by an animator. But those of us inside the world of the moving image, also use the term ‘animation’ to refer to just about anything that isn’t direct live-action, created by just about any alternative means for just about any aesthetic, narrative or conceptual reason. We lump together all these techniques, forms and ambitions, call them animation and, frankly, to say the least, it’s just not helpful.

Dad’s Dead animate! commission © Chris Shepherd 2003

In the UK the term ‘animation’ seeped into mass consciousness during the second half of the 1960’s. Up to then we mostly had cartoon and it was mostly made for kids. But the arrival of Yellow Submarine in 1968 changed all that, with its psychedelic surrealism and visual references ranging from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol. Not to mention a dozen scintillating song sequences – music videos years before they were invented. This feature film clearly wasn’t a cartoon for children with families in tow. So, in the spirit of that excitable decade, the culture industry deemed that this was a grown-up cartoon, and called it ‘animation’.

Of course, even in the 1960’s, those of us who were serious about film knew there was nothing novel about cartoons for adults. There was already a half-century history of animators and artists making thoughtful, mature, often mixed-media works – Len Lye, Walerian Borowczyk, Stan Brakhage, Saul Bass, Jan Svankmajer and hundreds more. So when I started a British film festival in 1967 to give a UK audience better access to their films, I very deliberately called the event the Cambridge Animation Festival. I wanted to signpost a defiance of Disney’s cultural hegemony and challenge the prevailing popular presumption of funny, gag-rich cartoons for kids.

And here we are in 2005, four decades later, in a world filled with funny ‘cartoon’ characters from Pixar, Aardman and Klasky-Csupo, and guess what, it’s all called animation now! Animation has become the new term for character-based, story-driven, frame-by-frame cartoon family entertainment. Which is fine and fun in itself, but where does it leave those of us who want to use similar tools and processes for less conventional ambitions?

Ferment animate! commission © Tim MacMillan 1999

The Matrix © Warner Brothers Studios & Village Roadshow Pictures 1999

Someone I know well has just been commissioned by a European broadcaster to make a series of short authored films about the social and cultural associations around the hymns we used to sing in school assembly. She will be constructing her visual narrative from old family photographic albums, archive footage, illustrations, stop-frame model and digital cut-out, all treated, layered and melded into a rush of visual memory. Animation? Erm, well yes, there’s no other word to describe it. But it’s one she avoids using at all cost because that immediately requires a lengthy backtracking… “Actually, I won’t be making 24 drawings a second, the films won’t have characters, they won’t be funny…”

The UK-based animate! project is all about questioning received notions of animation practice. The submission guidelines for the annual round of commissions funded by the project could hardly be more provocative. “You do not have to be an animator to apply. Animation is not, and never has been, exclusively driven by frame-by-frame process but by notions of synthesis. Animation can be image re-presentation through spatial or timeline manipulation – or anything that could not be directly recorded in front of a live-action camera. animate! supports innovative content and ‘agenda’ as well as new forms and techniques.” But regardless, every year some submissions blithely assume that animate! might fund Harry the Hedgehog’s depressingly familiar cartoon frolics…

Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring © New Line Productions Inc 2003

However I’m not just proposing a new label for experimental artist practice. There are also epic blockbuster visions like the intensely invented and constructed worlds of Lord of the Rings and Sin City, seminal concepts like (British-born) time-slice that became the climactic bullet-time moments in The Matrix series, the high-energy visual mash-ups for narrative spin in Amelie or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. These all use conceptual boldness and a raft of animator’s tricks & tools to invent and manipulate the image, but the context and agenda is much more complex and thoughtful than making straightforward animation.

Sin City © Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc 2005

So, as I said at the start, ‘animation’ really is not a helpful label any more. Let’s return to ‘cartoon’ to describe regular character-based storytelling, whether it’s The Simpsons, Wallace & Gromit or Toy Story. Death to ‘animation’. It’s time to find a new word for “the extended moving image”.

Dick Arnall

6 Responses to “Death to Animation”

  1. Andrius Says:

    I think it isnt about kill animation, its about kill pre-judgement. Winsor McCay, Norman McLaren a hundred years ago used the term “animation” to define his movies (funny cartoons? a little respect!). Animation its animation (animate stuff bla bla) not a 24 fps or 30fps or 3 fps topic … even not a semiotic prob… instead there are many types of animation: cartoon animation is one of them, other is the experimental. What most of these guys do its non-traditional animation but if u want to, just call it animation fx or post production thats the kind of animation i think u are trying to describe… but if for u it dont work well, it dont care. Maybe its a kind of insecurity trouble – Dick are u sure that you dont pass throw a traumatic situation with those “fuuuunny cartooooons” in your childhood?. Theres no worst styles… theres different kind of artists. I think that all the animation its great, its about experiment, joy, contents, styles and techniques, im not afraid to lose the inbetweens walls. A hog! and i will remember u when people start to use the “moviemagethron” word.

  2. Dick Says:

    Thanx, I’m glad we share a passion for all good animation, whatever we call it! Just for the record, Andrius, some of my best childhood moments started with “Merry Melodies” and ended with “That’s All, Folks”. And I reckon that John Lasseter’s Knick Knack is one of the most perfectly formed (and performed) short films of all time.

    Re your comments, the problem for us is that it’s plainly inadequate to call the profound time-slice (aka. bullet-time) technique an ‘animation fx’. Or to relegate Martin Arnold’s revelatory micro-editing process in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy to ‘post-production’. In both cases the radical concepts are vastly bigger than the form, they preceded the making, and would never have been envisaged by an animator.

    When Winsor McCay moved from creating his newspaper comic strips to Gertie the Dinosaur, he wasn’t an animator making a movie, he was extending his ‘chalk and talk’ live vaudeville act into a novelty two-hander. And I doubt the hardcore creative visionaries and art directors behind Sin City spent a lot of time with animators or post-production operators when they were developing the feature’s concept – they had a much bigger pre-production agenda to invent a complete, coherent space/world as the visual narrative bed of the film.

    Right now, there’s modest funding around in the UK for conventional animation. Our challenge, Andrius, is that we want to support stuff other funders won’t touch, and we believe we state this very clearly. Each proposal we receive for an animate! commission has weeks invested in it by the artist so it really hurts when it’s totally traditional and hence off-target. We wish everybody who applied had your discernment and wisdom in understanding that there are many types of ‘animation’ including cartoon and, especially, real experiment.

    We’re happy you agree that the conventional ‘frame-by-frame’ definition of animation is insufficient or irrelevant. And you’re right, it is about killing pre-judgement or, rather, stereotypical notions. Okay, death to the label ‘animation’ may be an extreme measure, but it just might be more successful than re-stating “animation it’s animation”...?!

  3. Brian Lammas Says:

    I am a teacher in a comprehensive school where we teach a new digital arts course called ‘Mediaonics’. Like your article we have felt all along that animation is not an appropriate word for a lot of current practice. We came up with the idea by combining media as in multimedia and onics as from sonics sound. We prefer the spelling Medionics but we might have some hassle with other websites that deal with medical supplies. We have been runing this course for 4 years now and it is very popular with our students. The whole course is also industry-linked and retains a fine art slant. What do you think out there of this becoming the new word for the broad spectrum of animation practice that is going on?

  4. Francis Lowe Says:

    What is missing from this expanded understanding of the term ‘Animation’ is its original definition and for Animators of the old school it’s the most important one. To animate is to bring to life – not just to move shapes randomly around a screen, but to engineer into a moving image the ‘llusion of life’ as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s book describes it. Traditional Animators (of the Colerase pencil and light disc generation) have long had to accept that they were not the only ones now carrying the moniker of Animator and this has proved hard to swallow at times. But arguments over titles and definitions just get in the way of the bigger picture, which is the creation of innovative and engaging ‘Animation’ in all its forms. It is the bringing to life of an idea, narrative or image that is the magic at the core of all successful Animation. The reliance on digital technology by entrants into the field has pushed Animation into the realm of ‘it’s all done by computers nowadays’. Tell that to The Brothers Quay and the myriad artisans who still utilise craft, hard work and genuine creativity (and digital means of course) to achieve results. It may surprise a lot of people to know that most of the greatest ideas start with the stroke of lead against paper. So, Viva technology! Viva tradition! And long live Animation!

  5. Malcolm Draper Says:

    ex-Yellow Submarine animator thinks ‘Extramation’ would fit all non-traditional animation.

  6. James Says:

    Does it matter anymore what we call it…..It use to matter, when so many other things mattered in life, it seems to me that people don’t want do define anything in absolute terms anymore, it’s all a sign of the times, it’s all a by product of globalisation perhaps, doesn’t the term mixed-media pretty much cover it all, I use to be a full on proud to be known ‘Disney’ fan, grew up thinking that I would one day become a classical animator at the disney studio, but the world is a different place now, people or atleast their mind-sets are different, who has the monopoly on identity anymore, I personally think that humanity is in a crisis, and this is why some people are caught up in the struggle for definition, does the term ‘identity crisis’ come to mind….....It only matters now what we call it because people have lost their identity, everything has become too big, too much, too mixed up…....

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