In the early 1940s Sergei Eisenstein wrote a series of articles on the animated cartoons and films of Walt Disney, (published as Eisenstein on Disney) admiring and envying the protean nature of the animation media – the ability of the animator to draw (or create in whatever medium) whatever came into his or her imagination, and to express that directly in their films, often more-or-less single-handedly. In the period that Eisenstein was writing of (1930s-1940s) this total freedom was of course denied the live-action film-maker, who was limited to a palette of cinematography, in-camera effects, optical special effects, editing – and of course the essential métiers of fictional film-making – the production design, costume, make-up, styling, editing and (later) sound, music, colour, etc.
In animation, of course all these skills could be, and often are, under the control of a singular creative artist-animator, or at most a small team of animators who handled the in-betweening – the drawing of the frames that ensured smooth animation between master frames drawn by the chief animator. Other artists might be deployed painting backgrounds, making the sound-track, voice-recording, music and sound effects, etc.
For example, looking at the work of the most famous animators of the period 1920-1940, we have a plethora of examples, including Disney, of the total freedom of the animator. Of course, the pioneer of this form was Emile Cohl, working as early as 1908 with little masterpieces of animation like his Fantasmagorie:
But at this period (1920s-1930s) it wasn’t just the animators who were exploring the seemingly infinite potential of drawing. New insights had come from the artist Paul Klee, based on his teaching practice at the Bauhaus c1920-1930. Klee published his ideas on drawing in two books: The Thinking Eye (covering 1921-22) and The Pedagogical Sketchbook. He annunciates the idea later deployed by the Surrealists of ‘taking a line for a walk’ – the Surrealists called this psychic automatism and invented randomised drawing games like the Exquisite Corpse to exploit this creativity. But other influences emerged from popular culture, notably in the then very young art of the newspaper comic strip, and in this metier, it is the drawing art of George Herriman and his remarkable series Krazy Kat that spring to the fore.
The freedom of the cel-animator and claymation animator to seamlessly change a shape from one thing into another – to metamorphose or just ‘morph’ objects – is one the characteristics of animation that particularly impressed Eisenstein. Dave Fleischer – the animator who pioneered rotoscoping (more on this later) in 1917 was an exemplar of animation. One of my favourites is his Betty Boop series, especially this one:
While drawing a morph from one character to another was easy, creating credible, photo-realist transmutations or morphs was difficult, and it was an aspect of film-making that several directors played with before digitalisation – movies based on upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) such as the 1912 version directed by Lucius Henderson, for example:
Live-action film-makers utilised animation techniques of course, using stop-motion to gradually expose sequences that animated otherwise inanimate objects, or that ‘animate’ still photographs in a similar way. Or artists could paint, draw or scratch marks straight onto the film-stock, creating a camera-less animation technique. The Canadian Norman McLaren and New Zealander Len Lye excel at these kinds of animation (we’ll look at their work in a future post). Godley and Creme use the early portrait-photography head-rest in their 1985 promo-video Cry.
Of course, from about 1991-2 onwards, software companies like Gryphon had developed desktop versions of morphing tools (Gryphon’s Morph (c1992). This enabled the user to input two images, and control an automatic morph between them, controlling reference points for each image, specifying the number of in-between frames, and the output resolution and format.
By the mid 1990s, the digital-film revolution was already underway on desktop computers like the Mac. We had software for non-linear editing (Adobe Premiere 1991) for compression (MPEG-2 1994, and Quicktime (1991). And with Gryphon’s Morph, we could make high-resolution animations from still images. Digital media has in the last twenty years or so, given us the tools by which we can successfully marry live-action cinematography with the effects taken for granted by hand-animators (cel and claymation animators) over the previous century. Another important step on the road to the development of Total Cinema.
To be continued….