«Jeff Malpas – Tasmania/LaTrobe ABSTRACT: Animation has never been a subject that has attracted much interest from philosophers, except perhaps from ...»
With a philosopher's eye: A 'naïve' look at animation
Jeff Malpas – Tasmania/LaTrobe
ABSTRACT: Animation has never been a subject that has attracted much interest from philosophers, except
perhaps from a very few interested in the philosophy of film or perhaps in visual aesthetics. Aspects of
philosophical thinking may well be relevant to animation, however, and animators and theorists of animation
have certainly shown an interest in philosophy: most often in time, movement, and process. But it is one thing to draw on philosophy in working within a field, and another thing to try to think philosophically about that field. In this admittedly naive view of animation – naive because it comes from philosophy to animation rather than the other way around – I intend to explore some of the philosophical issues that animation may be thought to raise. In part, that means exploring the relevance of animation to philosophy as much as of philosophy to animation.
On first viewing Martin Scorcese's 2011 movie, Hugo, based on Brian Selznick's illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret from 2007, I was struck by the way it drew together themes from both animation and film. Although clearly a homage to the early history of cinema, and a celebration of the wonder and enchantment of film, Hugo is no less an homage to, and celebration of, animation.
Indeed, the film could be viewed as coming close to an endorsement of the claim by some animation theorists that film has its origins in animation, while demonstrating that this is also where film is surely heading back. In Hugo, the beginning of film is drawn together with its contemporary endpoint, and at the same time, is thereby drawn into an intimate engagement with animation in all its variety.
Scorcese's movie includes a range of quite specific animation references and techniques, from stopmotion and flip-book animation, time-lapse, morphing, and transition, the use of miniatures and, inevitably, computer generated graphics. But the movie is also replete with other forms of animation, perhaps most obviously in the form of the automaton, the truly animated ‘machine’, who is a central focus for much of the early part of the movie, as well as in the constant presence of other forms of clockwork machines and mechanisms from the station clock Hugo himself tends, to the toys in Meliès' small shop, to the old-fashioned film projector itself. Here animation, even the animation exhibited by a clockwork mouse, appears as something wondrous and magical – a connection reinforced by the magic tricks, especially card tricks (that themselves evoke a certain mode of animation, of movement, of appearance and disappearance), that are also part of Meliès' stock-intrade.
The breadth of animation that appears in Scorcese's movie, and that is also exhibited, if to a lesser extent, in Selznick's original book, is indicative of the fact that, although animation does have a special relationship with film, it is not restricted to the cinematic alone. Indeed, as Scorcese's film also shows, animation is not only a means of enabling the presentation of what might be thought as the fantastical and dream-like, as are so many of Meliès' own cinematic creations, but animation also plays a role in the everyday world, both in enabling that world through the machines and mechanisms that are ubiquitous throughout it, but also through enabling us to see into and explore the reality of that world, and the possibilities it contains. In this respect, animation itself functions as a machine that enables such seeing, as well as encompassing various animational devices or contrivances – various animational ‘machines’.
In this respect, Scorcese's use of computer animation and computer graphics, to take one salient example, belongs to a domain of animation practice that is not exclusive to the cinema or even to the entertainment industry. The same animation and graphic techniques that are deployed in a movie such as Hugo, as well as in computer gaming, have also taken on a huge role in, amongst other areas, design and architectural practice, in education, and in training and simulation environments, as well as in heritage and curatorial contexts. The ‘animation machine’ is thus capable of diverse instantiations.
Animation is literally a "making move", and it is this that underpins the enormous variety in animated form and practice. Of course, just as not every occurrence of marks – even those marks that seem to fit a recognised language – count as a meaningful text, neither does just any occurrence of movements count as animation. Animation is a form of unitary movement, where the unity of the movement reflects the unity of that which moves. This unity has two aspects to it.
The first aspect is the unity that derives from the way in which the animated figure relates to a larger 'animational' context. That is, the character of the animated figure as animated depends on the way the figure appears in relation to other such figures, and a larger socio-cultural framework, a framework in which animation appears as animation. The presence of the animator alone does not determine this. This is because the character of the animator as animator is dependent on the same animational context. This reflects the more generally holistic constitution of the 'artifactual' and the contentful: artefactuality and content both depend on their locatedness within a larger horizontal context that encompasses agents, objects (including artefacts), and world.1 The second and perhaps more immediate sense in which animation is a form of unitary movement is a sense that attaches to the character of the movement as such, and so concerns the unity of that very movement. In this latter respect, the movement of an animated cartoon figure counts as animation because of the way in which the movement of the figure is related to the unity of its parts.
The figure moves as one, which means that the different parts of the figure move in a way that is partially determined by the movements of the other parts. This is so even though the cartoon figure, a moving figure whose movement is present only in the figure as seen, moves as a result of a causal process that is based in the successive projection of images onto a screen and, prior to that, in image construction and design undertaken by an animator. Even in cases of what might be understand as 'abstract' animation, where no obvious figurative elements are present, still the animation can be said to have a unity that belongs to it.
The sort of animation at issue here can be counterposed to the movement that belongs, not to what is immediately seen to move, but to something that is itself seen to move in the movement that is immediately presented – as the movement of the wind is seen in the movement of the leaves, or See my discussion of this issue in eg. ‘The weave of meaning: holism and contextuality’, Language and Communication 22 (2002), pp.403-19.
even as the movement of the puppeteer is seen in the movement of the marionette. The difference at issue here might be understood as a difference in the locus of movement – which is not the same as the question about the cause of movement – but it can also be understood as a difference in the relation between the movement that causes and the movement that appears. The cause of movement in the case of the marionette or the leaves is what is more or less immediately apparent in the moving of the marionette or the leaves (even though we can, and often do, dissociate the one from the other). One might characterise the two forms of movement that appear here, and of which the first is properly 'animation', in terms of the notion of transformation. In the case of the leaves or the marionette, the movement that appears has the same form, even when the movement is exaggerated or diminished, as the movement that is the cause. Thus the leaves move as the wind moves, and the marionette moves, more or less in congruity, with the body of the puppeteer. In the case of the animated figure, however, the movement of the figure does not directly replicate or mirror the movement that is its cause, and so one might say that whereas the movement of the marionette is unified in its relation to the movement of the puppeteer, the movement of the animated figure is unified in relation to the movement of the figure itself. Taking note of the idea of a transformation in movement that is operative here, coupled with the idea that such transformation requires something akin to a device that accomplishes such transformation and that stands between the movements that cause and the movements that appear, one can say that this is just what is at issue in the idea of animation as a ‘machine’ — namely a device or contrivance that achieves some effect. What is achieves is a making move that is also a transformation of and in movement.
It is worth noting that something like this analysis can also be applied, not only to visual animation, but also to animation in sound, for instance, to the acoustic animations of Norman McLaren. These involve the production of sound through markings made directly onto film. The sounds are movements, and one finds the same transformation of one form of movement into another – the movements that produce the sounds, McLaren's markings, are transformed, through their projection, into sounds which have a character of their own, and, one might argue, a movement that belongs to them.
The difference between animation and mere movement is thus a difference found both in the way the animated figure appears within an 'animational' context and in the unity that belongs to the movement of the figure that is animated. On this basis, I would claim that it is movement that is at the heart of animation as such. Moreover, the movement that is at issue is not merely the illusion of movement either, but its reality. Even the cartoon image can properly be said to move – and it is indeed the image that moves, with the movement located in the image and belonging to it – which is one reason why, as I argued above, the image can be said to be animated.
The original Latin term from the word 'animation' and its cognates derive, anima, usually translated as 'soul', originally had associations of air, wind, or breath, as does the Greek anemos, from which anima comes (a term meaning 'wind'), as well as the Greek term psyche, of which anima is the Latin translation, and which is translated into English as 'soul', but also as 'mind', but which also refers to that creature that floats on the air, the 'butterfly'. Here the focus on the 'aerey', on breath and wind, should be understood, not in terms that treat these as metaphors for 'life', or for that which is the basis of life, namely the soul, but more literally as referring to a pervading capacity for movement that is characteristically exemplified in the movement of air, and which is itself the basis for the understanding of life – the latter thus being understood as a certain fundamental capacity for movement.
The focus on movement ought to be absolutely central in any attempt to think seriously about animation – and it seems to me implicit in the idea of the ‘animation machine’ that is our theme.
Indeed, I would argue that movement is a much more important notion here than are many of the other concepts that often tend to figure in discussions within animation theory – whether they be, not just 'life', but 'process', or even 'time' – and that the prioritisation of these other notions can obscure the understanding of movement itself, and so also of animation. This is an issue to which I shall return, but first, I want to consider the way the focus on movement allows us to reconstruct a certain history, or perhaps prehistory, of animation and even animation 'theory' — a history that stretches back, in the case of European thought and culture, to the Greeks.
If animation is indeed a 'making move', and with the emphasis on the 'making' here (on what the Greeks termed techne understood as a form of poiesis), on a certain art of movement, then animation can be said to begin, naturally enough, with the gods, and especially with Hephaestus, who in his workshop fashioned ‘self-moving machines’ or automata of brass, silver, and gold. Yet it is perhaps Daedalus, the Athenian master craftsman who used his art in the service of the Cretan King Minos, who should warrant most attention as the one who stands closest to the very beginnings of animation, at least to its mythic European origins, since it is Daedalus who is the first mortal credited with the creation of statues that had the power of movement. Thus, in the 4th Century, the Greek rhetorician Callistratus compared the work of the sculptor Praxiteles to that of Daedalus, writing that "as I gazed on this work of art, the belief came over me that Daidalos had indeed wrought a dancing group in motion and had bestowed sensation upon gold."2 Aristotle reports Daedalus as having constructed a wooden figure of Aphrodite that was moved by quicksilver within it.3 It is Aristotle, in fact, who provides us with what may be viewed as the very first writing on animation, perhaps the first work in animation theory, namely the treatise De Motu Animalium – On Animal Movement. This small book, which draws on ideas which Aristotle also sets out in other works, notably De Anima and De Partibus Animalium, focuses specifically on the nature of movement or kinesis (which can also refer to change in a broader sense). Aristotle argues that motion is impossible in that which lacks differentiation, and that in anything that moves there must be at least two parts, one of which is active and the other passive, as well as a resisting surface outside of that which moves, and which, relative to what moves, is itself unmoved. The account Aristotle gives of motion, which also leads from an examination of animal motion to that of the heavens, is significant from the point of view of animation in that it provides a structural analysis of movement and its preconditions, while also connecting movement directly to the understanding of the unity of bodies (or of 'figures', understood in a very general sense), and more specifically of living bodies, and their relation to their surroundings. There is an echo of Aristotle's discussion in my earlier comments about the nature of animation. Moreover, the general claim that motion requires differentiation can be seen to underpin more recent discussions of animation in terms of notions, typically derived from writers such as Deleuze (but, I would argue, already elaborated in Heidegger), in terms of difference, or better, of difference and identity.