[t.shirt pic]

Presented at the Fourth Society for Animation Studies Conference
on October 10, 1992 at CalArts

Published as part of A Reader in Animation Studies, edited by Jayne Pilling, 1997, John Libbey & Co., Ltd., London, England (fax:+44(0)181-947-2664, email:

What is Animation and Who Needs to Know?

by Phil Denslow

Videotape exerpts shown:
Terminator-2 (Industrial Light & Magic),
Eurhythmy (Susan Amkrout & Michael Girard, Ohio State),
Rose from the Dead (Crawford Design),
Primordial Dance (Karl Sims),
Michelob "Evolution " and
Reebock "Cowardly Baskets " (Rhythm & Hues),
Ottomatik Film work-in-progress (Phil Denslow)

There are many definitions of animation. The most obvious source of one, Webster, says "a: a motion picture made by photographing successive positions of inanimate objects (as puppets or mechanical parts), b: Animated Cartoon, a motion picture made from a series of drawings simulating motion by means of slight progressive changes." This is a fairly common understanding of the term animation, but it reflects a limited exposure to what the artform has to offer. Whether one agrees with it or not, Webster's definition is useful because one can learn something about who is doing the defining. In this case, the folks at G. & C. Merriam should be encouraged to attend an animation festival.

In the international animation community, many definitions have become established by various organizations and entities. We at this conference of scholars, teachers and filmmakers would probably not be able to agree on a precise definition, but we would be able to compile a nice list of them. Definitions of animation vary from each other for many reasons, including historical development, production and marketing requirements, and aesthetic preference.

The reason we are examining this issue is that no matter what definition you chose, it faces challenges from new developments in the technology used to produce and distribute animation. Is Virtual Reality a form of animation? Does computer generated lifeform simulation qualify? What about computerized recording of a mime's movements that are later attached to a character which is rendered a frame at a time? Do digital post-production techniques allowing for undetectable compositing and manipulation of live-action scenes reduce the shooting of actors onto film to merely an image aquisition phase of the overall production? Is that production then in reality an animated film? Even a narrow definition of animation that excludes all but classic Disney character animation, and the consequent deification of gallery art from those films, is threatened by the computerized ink and paint process with its "created cels" for the collector. All definitions of animation have to be rethought in the context of changing technology.

ASIFA uses a definition that may be summed up as "not live-action." This definition allows as much of the diverse international cormmunity of professionals, independents, amateurs, and audiences to participate. The purpose of organizations like ASIFA is to gain membership so as to sponsor activity. The more the merrier, as long as the identity of the group, the "not 1ive-action" makers and fans, is not threatened. This bodes well for ASIFA's ability to absorb people interested in new technology, but the ASIFA sponsored festivals, like Annecy, will need to open new categories of competition if full inclusion is desired. ASIFA's name, the ASsociation of International Film Animation, (to crudely translate the French),includes the technological restriction of the word Film, which is becoming increasingly anachronistic as electronic and digital media replace chemical-based forms of production and distribution. For the audience, ASIFA's definition of animation is also becoming less useful as compsositing techniques continue to improve, leaving less and less margin of separation between the live-action and the not-live-action parts of a production.

Hollywood, or the industry, by which I mean production companies that produce theatrical and television material in a factory-like method, has to define an animator by function. Union contracts, command hierarchy, and end title credits all determine whether a worker is performing a task that is defined as animation. But when is an animator not an animator? The studio that produced the first seasons of The Simpsons television series declined to use the job title Animator as part of the process, preferring the term Character Layout for a worker that drew key poses of a scene. Perhaps this was done to discourage ideas of grandeur and improved wages. The marketing of a studio's services can also influence the naming of that service. Computer animation studios use the term Technical Director for the person who actually creates the animation on the computer system. Separating them from the traditional studio animator because of the tools used serves to highlight the uniqueness of the process for the benefit of clients, and may be a carryover from the days when the systems used were too crude to create what could be marketed as animation. Most of these Technical Directors still think of themselves as animators, however.

Special Effects, a blurrily defined area of activity within a live-action production, can include many methods that resemble animation in every way but by title. A feature film producer may feel more comfortable purchasing something with a name like special effects, which still sounds like filmmaking, and is something whose name is not associated with cute forest creatures, like animation. Nonetheless, films such as Terminator-2 and Death Becomes Her are very much like Tom & Jerry cartoons, where animation is used to show a character being brutally clobbered and deformed, followed by the resumption of normal appearance. In Hollywood, marketing or thinking about a film as animation automatically throws it into the sphere of influence of the Walt Disney Company. Disney, and now perhaps Turner's cartoon channel on cable, control how most audiences define animation. It is this perceived definition that studios gravitate toward or avoid when they choose whether to use the word animation to describe their product. It will be interesting to see if Disney markets collectible artwork from its current co-production with PIXAR, a completely computer animated feature. 0bviously Disney, and now Turner, have a vested interest in controlling the public's ideas about what animation is and who the public should look to as a source of it.

Academia uses definitions, like "created performance," that are carefully worded to establish validity and secure resources for an animation program or class. These definitions function within an environment where animation is often an element that helps flesh out a school's curriculum. If the animation faculty let their guard down and animation's definition as Film Art is diminished to the status of Cartoons in the minds of the other more numerous funds-hungry faculty, a program can gradually disappear through reallocation and reorganization. Although academia has some need to maintain a stable definition of animation, this definition is usually adjusted to include anything on the technological horizon that can be included without stepping on the toes of other curricular programs. The inclusion of advances in new technology within the purview of animation impresses departmental administrations. Since donations are usually the only way these things can be made available to students, it can be helpful for an animation program to publicize itself as the repository of forward thinking corporate support.

In my own recent work, I have been experimenting with the idea of removing myself as much as possible from the creation of the animation. My goal is to see what happens when I allow a computer that has been configured as a filmmaking machine to make decisions regarding image, time, and motion. Motivated by a combination of laziness and curiosity, my initial tests have been encouraging, because I enjoy watching the resulting animation. I bring this up here because I am also curious as to whether this animation is really animation, or is it something else? My dilemma over the definition has to do with the concept at the heart of animation, that of bringing something to life. If a non-living thing creates something, is it brought to life? Did creation take place? If I set up a situation that allows this to happen, did I also then really create the film? How much credit do the developers of the hardware and software used by me deserve? Although I did put myself into the role of machine operator, since I had no idea beforehand how the animation would look or move, I hesitate to take too much credit.

When considering the impact of new technology on our ideas about animation, it may be instructive to ponder the changes already brought about by the use of electronic media in distribution. Over the last forty years animation became a television mainstay, with studios gradually changing over to producing material primarily for home viewing, Disney being the most recent with their afternoon packages for syndication and the distribution of past works on videotape. Cartoons changed from adult theatrical throwaways, requiring constant generation of new product, to children's home toys requiring only new generations of viewers. The placement of a somewhat permanent collection of animated video in most households may tend to steer development of innovative methods of production into ways of replicating those collections, spurred on by the economic advantages of having consumers buy everything all over again, with minimal cost to the producer. Witness the transition from analog to digita1 in the audio recording market. Aesthetic innovation might be viewed by consumers and producers with suspicion, as it could be seen as posing a threat to the prior investment in product. This implies an ideology of tradition and a more rigid code of what passes for entertainment. Or, everyone will perhaps get sick of seeing the Disney (to pick on them again) catalog, over and over again, and there will be a great demand for something else.

Technology does hold out hope for independent artists to gain access to sophisticated tools as computers and digital reproduction become more and more economical. Visions of small scale investment leading to large scale access to markets using telecommunication networks, the aesthetic possibilities of replication and manipulation of existing or created material in the digital realm, and the popularization of an animator's personal vision are all parts of an optimistic scenario. Although digital imagery is leading us to a preoccupation with the realistic representation of ideas, at the same time these images are less fixed and more malleable than ever before. The ability to edit, combine, and reproduce animation or live- action in undetectable ways not only blurs any distinctions between those elements, but also changes what value we can attach to it. If there is no discernible difference between an original and a copy, even one many generations away from the first, can we still maintain our current ideas about copyright, royalties, and artistic originality?

So what is the real issue in defining something as Animation? Is it the time needed to create it? How many films have been touted as the product of many years of dedicated labor? Is the determining factor the actual existence of separate frames? If a computer is dealing with separate images internally but to the artist or viewer these frames are always seen as part of constant motion, can this still be animation? Is another issue the use of real-time or non-real-time performance control? If it is easy to create quickly, will it be considered animation, or something else, like electronic puppetry? One common theme within these issues is the amount of precise careful work involved in the creation of the product. Animators, and those who study animation, are traditionally fascinated with the processes involved. Definitions of animation usually incorporate some consideration of those processes. Those who make and study animation are drawn to the unique nature of the artform, with its requirements for obsessive, repetitive, and socially isolated behavior on the part of those who make it. This compulsive nature of production methods is often used as a criteria to define whether a new way of working should qualify as animation. To turn to Webster again, compulsion is defined as: "an irresistible impulse to perform an irrational act." This could also serve as a definition of animation, for what is animation if not the desire to make real that which exists in the imagination ?

A basic challenge to traditional definitions of animation is the appearance of new technological procedures that do not contain this compulsive aspect. Computer driven interactive real time displays of created imagery will seem like animation to the average user of such media, but, will the traditional animation community allow inclusion of such production methods into its self image? With the future digitalization of all media, all forms of production will perhaps be as much animation as anything else. The makers and studiers of live-action film will face similar definitional dilemmas. On page nine of the catalog titled Motion Pictures from the Library ofCongress Paper Print Collection 1894-1912 by Kemp R. Niver, UC Press"1967, within the category of comedy, there is a short description of the film Animated Picture Studio, 1903, which notes: "Before motion pictures got the name as such, they were called 'animated' pictures." We may realize this condition again.

The Society for Animation Studies.