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”