Animation and Live Action: Bringing Plasmatics to the Silver Screen

It was Sergei Eisenstein, in a series of essays written in the early 1940s (later published as Eisenstein on Disney, and as Sergei Eisenstein: Disney – edited by Oksana Bulgakowa and Dietmar Hochmuth, Potemkin Press 2013), who described Disney’s films (and by extension all animated cartoons) as having the quality of plasmaticness:

“The rejection of the constraint of form, fixed once and for all, freedom from ossification, an ability to take on any form dynamically. An ability which I would call ‘plasmaticity,’ for here a being, represented in a drawing, a being of a given form, a being that has achieved a particular appearance, behaves itself like primordial protoplasm, not yet having a stable form, but capable of taking on any and all forms of animal life on the ladder of evolution.”


Walt Disney + Ub Iwerks: Steamboat Willy 1928. This was the short animated film that launched Disney’s most famous anthropomorphic character, Mickey Mouse. Eisenstein would have been thoroughly familiar with cartoons from Disney, Fleischer, Hannah-Barbera and other animators of this period.

Eisenstein envied the animator the freedom of the mythological shape-shifter – the ability to change the forms of his character to illustrate their evanescent identity, their dual or multiple nature, or to illustrate and express metaphorically their change in temperament or mood. Potemkin Press describe Eisenstein’s objective in the blurb for Sergei Eisenstein: Disney:

“His essay on Walt Disney was part of his unfinished book METHOD, a study of the relationship between archaic thought and art practice. Disney becomes the central subject of analysis, because in his work the synesthetic affects of sound and color, and the perfect visual rhythm unite with animism, totemism and the plasmatic qualities of form. Eisenstein discovered in these distinctive characteristics of form a long genealogical ancestry and a deep yearning for the freedom that could allow one to imagine and even represent differently the relations of man and nature.”



Walt Disney: Fantasia 1940. Disneys rather self-conscious masterpiece of this early period was of course Fantasia (1940), which drew upon the talents of his astonishing team of animators, the Philadelphia Orchestra, several classical compositions, and the arrangement and conducting skills of Leopold Stokowski. Thjis cel is from the section The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – one of eight animated sections in Fantasia.


Walt Disney: Three Little Pigs 1935 (from Silly Symphonies (1930-1940).

Eisenstein was so impressed with Disney’s work that in 1935, when he was a judge at the Cannes Film Festival, he insisted that Disney’s Three Little Pigs should get first prize. But it was the general ability of animators to create with total artistic (and ‘plasmatic’) freedom that was entrancing Eisenstein. Of course the possible synergies between animation and live-action cinematography had surprisingly been realised almost from the very beginnings of Film. As early as 1900,  James Stuart Blackton had been employed as an artist on one of Thomas Edison’s shorts The Enchanted Drawing (1900) that illustrated this potential synergy.


James Stuart Blackton/Thomas Edison: The Enchanted Drawing 1900. Using stop-motion, the filming of an artist drawing where the drawing is made to animate in response to the artist’s drawing, was a major innovation in the history of film, pointing the way to the invention of rotoscoping by Max Fleischer in 1917, and flagging the potential of special effects.


Dave Fleischer + Max Fleischer: Mechanical Doll 1922. The Fleischer brothers invented a rostrum rig for creating rotoscoped animations in 1917. Rotoscoping involved back-projecting live action cine frames, one frame at a time, onto a translucent drawing board so that animators could trace-over the live-action image and convert the live-action to animation. Here, 5 years later the Fleischer’s explore the natural outcome of their rotoscoping process in this short animation integrating live-action and animation.

Dave and Max Fleischer: Mechanical Doll (1922)

For 1922, this is really innovative. Fleischer had invented a rotoscoping rig in 1917, and I guess that the use of this rig would suggest this delightful synthesis of live-action and cel animation – a practice made world famous some 60 years later by Disney in his Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


Bob Sabiston/Flat Back Films: Rotoshop 2001. Sabiston’s Flat Back Films made quite a stir with this semi-automatic rotoscoping software. Experiments in computerised cartooning stem from at least 1990 (see Barlow, Blakemore, Weston-Smith: Images and Understanding (1990)), but Sabiston’s software is state of the art, vastly reducing time spent on the human interpretation of source material and manual rotoscoping.


Autoscope 2014 – this app is being developed right now in 2014, and is only available as a prototype. It follows Bob Sabiston’s clever Rotoshop (2001) as an automatic rotoscoping tool – rather successfully as far as the examples illustrate.

The modest developer of Autoscope (identified on his website as Paul, describes his Autoscope software:

“I turn normal videos into cartoons through the process of rotoscoping, or, to be more precise, autoscoping (don’t look it up; it won’t be in the dictionary … yet). My project, Autoscope, is the result of years of research, experimentation, trials, errors and correcting those errors. The videos I am putting up here show what Autoscope can do. These are just short clips but you could, if you wanted to, remake an entire feature film or an entire TV series in cartoon form.”


Richard Linklater: A Scanner Darkly 2006. From Philip K. Dicks ominous 1976 novella about surveillance, Linklater uses rotoscoping (Rotoshop) to semi-automate this high-budget, very successful animated feature. The advantage of rotoscope is that you can combine the best of live-action with the total control of the hand-drawn cel animation.

The most famous movies to benefit from automatic or semi-automated rotoscoping tools are of course Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly (2006), and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008). You need to look at these award winning movies.

to be continued…. see following post

Bob Cotton: Zeiteye 2010

Bob Cotton: Zeiteye 2010

This is a short film I made 2009-2010. It was a way of dramatising an archive database – a database film as Lev Manovitch called it. Its intent was to illustrate the changing zeitgeist of the previous 11 decades of new media innovation:
ZeitEYE is a film about innovation in media and the arts since 1900. It is in the form of a rapid montage of stills featuring all the principle media and art innovations of the last eleven decades. It is punctuated and contextualised by the inclusion of keynote artists and celebrities of each decade, and is framed by closeups of the eyes of these zeitgeist figures. It is a kind of back-story of our contemporary broadband networked media, and it is a film about the evolving spirit of the age. It is eleven decades of media-arts innovation in eleven minutes.”

The avant garde music is Ballet Mecanique, composed by George Antheil between 1923-24 originally for the film Ballet Mecanique made by Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy and Man Ray in 1924. Used with permission of the George Antheil estate.  This recording is conducted by Daniel Spalding and played by the Philadelpia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. CD available at


Raoul Grimoin-Sanson: Cineorama 1900

Raoul Grmoin-Sanson: Cineorama 1900

Grimoin-Sanson’s Cineorama fuzes two media technologies to create a new experience: immersive cinema. The media-art-form of the early 19th century, invented by Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, the diorama – a circular building in which was hung a 360-degree painted canvas depicting views, great battles, etc – is combined with a very modern and recent 19th century invention, the cinematograph, in a bravado tour de force of new media experimentation worthy of the Paris World Exposition of 1900.


Grimoin-Sanson’s 10-camera panoroamic camera rig for shooting content for his Cineorama of 1900. Using synchronised cameras with slightly overlapping frame coverage of the entire 360-degree scene from an ascending balloon over Paris, Grimoin-Sanson then projects these linked films to create a simulated balloon ride for visitors to the Expo.

It is entirely appropriate that the new 20th century should be celebrated by a marriage of old and new media, and of course that the content of this new marriage should be the experience of flight. So three years before the first powered aeroplane flight, Raoul Grimoin-Sanson celebrates the experience of flying in this stimulation of a balloon-flight over Paris. Filmed using a set of synchronised 70 mm movie cameras, projected using a similarly synchronised set of 10 projectors, Cineorama provided the first taste of 20th century immersive entertainment.


Poster for the Cineorama – a foretaste of theme-park rides and subsequent world expo installations, Cineorama begins a long strand of innovation exploring immersive experience and simulation that culminates with the invention of virtual reality and augmented reality, iMax theatres and immersive-art installations towards the end of the century.

Storm de Hirsch: Peyote Queen 1965

Storm de Hirsch: Peyote Queen 1965

Storm de Hirsch was a mature artist when she made her first feature – Goodbye in the Mirror, shot on 16mm – in 1963. Born in 1912, she was five years older than the doyenne of the American avant garde, Maya Deren. And de Hirsch, like Deren, was an experimentalist, with a background as a painter and a poet. Many of her short films she made are abstract, some are made without a camera – with de Hirsch scratching, painting and etching directly onto film, sometimes using multi-screen prints, some with in-camera masking or matting.
The best biography of this under-appreciated film-maker is at

What makes artists and film-makers like Storm de Hirsch important in the back-story of 21st century media? Because the avant garde were the first to seize the opportunity of new media to explore new ways of communicating and expressing their ideas. There is a techno-aesthetic exploring the areas of synaesthesia, immersion, interactivity, and multi-sensory communication that permeates the recent history of our culture, from the Phantasmagoria of the early 19th century to the immersive, multi-sensory, multi-media forms of the Happening and Dance Rave culture of the 1990s, but this desire of artists to enrapture their audience must be traced back to the neolithic – to the primordial dance-ritual, storytelling, oral culture of pre-history.

Peyote Queen was made when abstract expressionism was just giving way to pop art as the dominant fine-art form. De Hirsch nods towards both styles, but is suffused throughout by a celebration of the primitive – of percussion, abstraction, symbolism (the ankh, the cross, the crescent, the yin-yang) as well as simple punched holes, scratched graffito of lips, tits, hearts, eyes, flowers, and the evocative kaleidoscopic effects of distorting mirrors, dimpled glass, prisms, and the organic distorted close-ups of faces, hands, drumming. The sound track is jazzy, percussive, Caribbean, burlesque, and the movie is cut on the beat (or having that effect).

Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Ben Hardaway: Bugs Bunny 1940

Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Ben Hardaway: Bugs Bunny 1940

This fabulously anarchic cartoon character, invented by a team of outstanding artists through 1939-1940, has become a cult favourite of the counter-culture in the US, famously appearing in Robert Anton Wilson’s fantasy conspiracy-theory Illuminatus. Wilson points out that “Although few people remember this, Bugs Bunny was the first UFO “abductee” in a 1952 cartoon called “Hasty Hare.” A masterpiece of cartoon art, Bug’s character development, his manic enthusiasms and hilarious cynicism appealed to the love of chaos and subversion – attributes of the mythical Trickster – in all of us..

Ray and Charles Eames: A Communications Primer 1953

Ray and Charles Eames: A Communications Primer 1953

This is a seminal film. It is the work of a leading International design team, and it is the first attempt to create a primer or introduction to modern communication theory (ie it is based on the work of Claud Shannon – A Mathematical Theory of Communication, 1948) – it is a multimedia work by two designers at the height of their ideas, and ready to hone their skills using film, graphics, typography and voice-over monologue. An inspirational film that still looks ‘contemporary’ today. The Eames (Charles’ wife Ray was the film-maker) use a variety of media and a range of perspectives to introduce Shannon’s basic theory – the idea of signal and noise in the transmission of any signal from its source to its recipient – clearly to a general public, and without using any complex mathematics. They make Shannon’s then rather obscure theory relevant to everyday communications – only 5 years after Shannon and Weiner (Cybernetics – Control and Communication in Man and Machine, 1948) had established the theoretical and mathematical basis of modern telecommunications.


Godfrey Reggio: Koyaanisqatsi – Life Out of Balance 1983

Godfrey Reggio: Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance 1983

Reggio assembles a documentary-style chronological montage reflecting the impact of industrialisation and population-growth on our planet. It’s like looking at the Earth through the elapsed time vision of an alien watcher, at once beautiful and shocking, like looking into an ant colony as it goes about its business. Philip Glass has produced the mesmeric, iterative score. Ron Fricke is the cinematographer. (ten years later, Fricke went on to produce Baraka (1992). Reggio uses elapsed time, stop motion, slow motion, and other techniques to tell this story. It has a script comprising just one word. It is at once a prayer, a mantra, a meditation and a plea. It is a cool and stylish appraisal of where we are at. It reminded me of the ethos of the Whole Earth Catalog – ‘We are as Gods. We might as well get good at it.’. And it reminded me of Buckminster Fuller’s An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

Commenting on the almost script-less approach to Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio said:

“it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live”



Charlie Chaplin: Modern Times 1936

Charlie Chaplin: Modern Times 1936

This was a significant film for Chaplin, and is regarded generally as one of his best films. It is significant because it is his first sound movie – although he did not use synchronised ‘lip-synch’ sound, but experimented with all kinds of ‘machine-mediated’ synchronised tracks. It was the last film to feature his Tramp character (Chaplin was convinced that the Tramp should never be heard talking); and it was the most politically cogent of his films – the implied critique of an over-industrialised culture careless of the needs and even the lives of the workers necessary to feed the insatiable production lines – production lines that in one sequence keep going faster and faster with Chaplin forever hurrying to catch up. This particular scene had featured in Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte, and the French company sued Chaplin twice for breach of copyright, later settling out of court. (Clair was a fan of Chaplin’s anyway, and flattered by his ‘homage’).

Carl Dreyer: Vampyr 1932

Carl Dreyer: Vampyr 1932

This is Dreyer’s masterpiece in the horror genre: a beautiful hybrid of silent and sound film (Dreyer uses both narrative placards and lip-synch, and of course, very atmospheric music), in a film that seems purposely over-exposed, creating the effect of a dreamscape painted in watercolour. Vampyr has several of the signifiers of the Vampire/Dracula genre, but both Dreyer’s direction, and Rudolf Mate’s cinematography, ensure it’s singularity. Shot in this curious transition from silent to sound (Dreyer filmed dialogue scenes in three language versions), with lots of rich symbolism – death (the reaper, the momento mori skulls), dream-time (the pendulum, the soldier’s shadow is out of synch with the soldier), the extensive use of shadows and silhouettes, vignette-shots, mirrors, Vampyr is an exceptional, poetic, seminal exploration of the gothic genre.
Vampyr is rare and sometimes hard to find classic. It has received high praised in a number of critical circles, with some even considering it one of the greatest horror films ever made. For all that Vampyr was not a success when it was released – indeed it resulted in the collapse of director Carl Dreyer’s production company, causing him to have a nervous breakdown and not return to filmmaking for an entire decade. Vampyr was not seen in the USA until 1948, nearly two decades after its release, where it was retitled Castle of Doom and much of its slow pace trimmed and the long periods of silence replaced by dubbed explanation. In modern times, at least up until the video revolution, Vampyr was only seen via film society screenings. But even the video revolution has only provided a version that is extremely poor in quality – the print faded, unevenly edited and with most copies being released in a form that has been severely letterboxed and run over with thick Gothic subtitling. If there was any list of films most worthy of a digital restoration, then Vampyr should be right at the top of the list.

Vampyr however has an unmistakeable atmosphere that is hard to shake. But it should also come with stringent warnings to the cursory genre sampler – the film is slowly paced and has an almost entire lack of incident. An appreciation of its merit is often difficult to impart to today’s young horror audience. Vampyr is, if one likes, an exclusively acquired taste. Certainly people are often fooled by the title Vampyr. The film does make somewhat spurious claim to being based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s oft-filmed lesbian vampire tale Carmilla (1872) about a teenage girl being seduced by a mysterious female companion – but other than the vague connection of a vampire woman trying to seduce another girl at one point, there is no connection between Vampyr and Carmilla whatsoever. Indeed the vampires in Carmilla and Vampyr are almost entirely the opposite of one another – while both are female, Carmilla’s title character appeared in her teens/early twenties, while the vampire here is an old woman. On a pure plot-to-plot point, a reading of Vampyr might make it sound like a standard B vampire movie, but this is not the case either. Indeed the narrative is a rather weak one, stringing characters and incidents together in a way that is not satisfactorily explained, even in the film’s recourse to dream logic. The real effect of Vampyr comes not in what we would recognize as any genre horror elements but rather in the sense of dissociated off-centeredness that permeates the film.

There are varying stories as to how director Carl Dreyer achieved the look of the film – one that he hit upon the effect by accident when cinematographer Rudolf Maté accidentally overexposed a can of film and then decided the shoot the entire film that way, using a gauze wrap placed across the lens; other claims that he shot the entire film during the hours of dawnrise. Whatever the case, Dreyer has created a unique effect – where the b/w camerawork has been washed out into a misty white-on-white, achieving a quite dream-like effect. Dreyer was also reported to have directed his cast to keep movement to a minimum and especially avoid any sharp moves. Another part of the effect is that Vampyr is almost entirely a silent film – the action moves in silence, with little dialogue and the only sound coming from the brooding score. Vampyr was made just after Hollywood had discovered sound and indeed Carl Dreyer originally started out shooting Vampyr as a silent film, only adding dialogue later. The result is a film of slow, somnolent atmosphere. You are drawn right into Dreyer’s shadow-world, a place where rational explanations seem off-centred and the supernatural hovers just beyond the ken of reason. A constant ambience of dread lurks in the film – Julian West’s entrance into the village is intercut with shots of a hooded farmer carrying a sickle, ringing a bell as he waits for a ferry, seeming as though he is Death tolling a harbinger of what is to come; even the angular arrangement of a set of vanes seems something cabalistic; there’s an incredibly long and drawn-out shot of a door opening into a room that holds a dread apprehension of what could be about to happen, before being anti-climactically revealed to be something mundane. The only other film to have such an unsettlingly atmospheric effect is David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

The film contains many of the effects that people remember and others try to copy – the shadow of the soldier that gets up and walks away from its still seated owner; the moment when the calm, innocent face of vampirized Sybille Schmitz suddenly opens in an evil, lascivious smile and she turns toward her sister with clear intent; the death of the doctor as he is pursued to the flour mill, where the machines start operating on their own, burying him in a torrent of white-on-white flour; the shooting of the lord of the manor – with the shotgun and hands holding it suddenly seen illuminated from underneath against the roof in a strange flash of light as the deed is done. But the scene that is particularly well-remembered is Julian West’s dream of his own death – with the parting of his spirit from his body seen in double-exposure, the camera turning to look up from the inside of the coffin as the glass lid is screwed down, and the sinister face of the witch looking down at the curiously blank face of West (who bears an uncanny resemblance to horror writer H.P. Lovecraft) eerily lit within.

Danish director Carl Dreyer (1889-1968) is one of the least well-known highly acclaimed directors. Dreyer’s career was sporadic – he made only 14 films between 1919 and 1964. Although one of these was The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which many consider one of the greatest of all silent films. A good deal of Carl Dreyer’s films are religious in nature. Many of Dreyer’s films feature women whose driving force comes from spiritual matters or a sense of purity that is beyond this understanding – Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc; Lisbeth Movin in Day of Wrath (1943) whose love and passion is seen as something that exists on a saintly plane beyond the cruel repressiveness of the society around her; Birgitte Federspiel in Ordet (1955), who is eventually rewarded with her wholesomeness of faith with the manifestation of a genuine miracle – and whose purity often seems at threat or corruption from the forces of society. They are heroines whose vision regards this world as ephemeral and whose focus lies on the spiritual. (Even Nina Pens Rode, the heroine of Dreyer’s final film, the non-fantastic Gertrud (1964), seems to be in search of an idealized love). Dreyer frequently ends his films with their transcendental catharsis – the ending of Joan of Arc where Joan goes to the stake on a suggestion of saintly resurrection, Birgitte Federspiel resurrection in Ordet.

Coming after the cinematic power of Joan of Arc, contemporary critics regarded Vampyr as cheap Gothic shock effect, but in truth Vampyr is really just another facet of Carl Dreyer’s religious vision. If the heroines of his other films are people who seem merely to regard this world as a struggle to maintain their purity against corruption and/or a dutiful wait that ends in the transcendental apotheosis – then Vampyr can perhaps be seen as Dreyer’s anti-transcendental film. It is one where the religious catharsis has been replaced by a sense of Gothic dread. The world in Vampyr is constantly seen as a dissociative one – people’s shadows detach from their bodies, the hero has a long fevre dream where he becomes a disembodied soul witnessing his own death, and there is the sense right throughout that the hero is more like a passive observer merely viewing events rather than participating in them. If Joan of Arc, Ordet et al show us heroines who have such spiritual certainty that they regard the physical world as a shadow, then Vampyr is a literal manifestation of such a state of mind – but one that comes without the overriding sense of any comforting faith. It is a film where both we and the hero seem stuck in a spiritual limbo between Heaven and Hell, where the heroine’s innocence is at threat from corruption by the evil of the vampire, and where the only eventual deliverance – watching Julian West and Rena Mandel passing across the mist-covered lake in the boat, an image that seems to hold a sense of passover and the promise of delivery from this world that Dreyer has transplanted us into – is one that comes through the eventual banishment of purely physical evil – the corrupting influence of the vampire.

The other films in Carl Dreyer’s oeuvre of genre note are:– the silent Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919), a multi-episode cross-historical drama concerning The Devil’s activities through the ages; Day of Wrath (1943), an ambiguous film about witchcraft and witch persecution in 17th Century Denmark; and Ordet (1955), a film about two troubled extended families that questions issues of religious faith before culminating in a seemingly genuine miracle.

Vampyr was remade as Bruce G. Hallenbeck’s low-budget Vampyre (1990), wherein Hallenbeck loosely replicated the original, although with little of Carl Dreyer’s atmosphere, and added gore and topless women. Many effects in Vampyr – especially the burial alive fevre dream scene – have been borrowed by other films such as Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn (1961) and Roger Corman’s Premature Burial (1962).

Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon 1943

Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon

Daughter of an emigre Ukrainian psychiatrist, Maya Deren was a talented dancer, choreographer, poet and photographer who became a leading proponent of an avant garde genre of film-making (dubbed Trance films by some) that used the camera as a tool for psycho-sexual self-investigation. Christened Eleanora Derenkowski, she adopted the name Maya Deren in 1943, the same year she made her first and best-known film Meshes of the Afternoon with her second husband, the photographer Alexander Hammid.
With this, and the other films she made in the 1940s, in which she often acted, scripted, and choreographed (as well as conceiving and directing) Maya Deren established herself as a pioneer of the American Avant-Garde, with her Trance films sub-genre influencing a string of counter-culture film-makers including Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising 1964), Curtis Harrington (Fragment of Seeking 1946), and Stan Brakhage (Dog Star Man 1961).