From Cel to CGI: Animation as the Protean Medium

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:


Emile Cohl: Fantasmagorie 1908. Emile Cohl has been described as the ‘originator of the cartoon film’, and in their classic work The Technique of Film Animation (British Film Academy 1959), John Halas and Roger Manvell describe his work: “The French pioneer Emile Cohl put a series of black-line drawings on sheets of white paper and photographed them. On the screen he used the negative film, and so achieved an action performed by white figures on a black background. It might be claimed in his case that he was less concerned with developing any technical skill than with showing the simple charm possessed by his little match-stick creatures. Even at this primitive stage, the emphasis was artistic rather than technical.” Cohl was the first interesting animator, developing some of the basic techniques (principles) of animation – the idea of shooting a series of drawings and projecting these at a frame-rate fast enough (12 frames/sec) to fool our eyes and brains into seeing movement. At first working in France, he spent some time in the USA, teaching animation techniques. What Halas and Manvell have to say about Cohl is of course quite true, his animations were more a proof of concept than a technical demomnstration of how it could be done, However the illustration above shows that even this ‘humble pioneer’ was able to see how, and invent one of the stock-in-trade techniques that we now call ‘morphing’ (from morphology – study of form and shapes), whereby we gradually change one form into another in a sequence of minor changes) could create fascinating animations, and that animation itself could become not only a mass-cinema medium, but an art-form in itself.


Emile cohl: Un Drame 1908. Cohl’s surreal style of drawing, fully exploiting what Eisenstein called plasmaticness – the ability to change or mutate or transform one object into another at will – illustrates the complete freedom of the artist.

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.


George Herriman: Krazy Kat 1938. Herriman is the great poet-artist of the comic form – a truly unique genius in this medium. His subtle, sardonic, insightful humour, married with his gentle surrealism – and the life with which he endows his tripartite cast of characters, makes this a really exceptional work. Ignatz the mouse hates Krazy Kat, who in turn really loves him, and interprets Ignatz’ incessant brick-throwing as a sign of affection.Krazy hates Offissa Bull Pup who in turn loves Krazy and hates Ignatz. With this slender yet richly fruitful plot-idea, Herriman explores the vagaries and frailties of the human condition and our attempts to relate to others – producing delightfully spare drawings in a series that picture the Jewish Ignatz, the black Kat and the WASP Pupp in a strangely urbanised Arizona Desert (Coccocino County) a landscape that often morphs radically from frame to frame. Herriman drew this strip from 1913 to 1944. I’ve chosen to situate this in 1924 because it was the year that the art critic Gilbert Seldes wrote an appreciative paper on Herriman’s Krazy Kat, that positioned it as ‘serious art’. With his playfully surreal plots, his inventive drawing and experimental frame layouts, Herriman exerted an enormous influence on the development of the comic-form. Herriman epitomises the artist-draftsman, adventurous, innovative, practising Paul Klee’s advice to draw by taking a line for a walk.

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:


Dave Fleischer: Betty Boop in Snow White 1933. Fleischer – always an innovative animator – epitomises the expressive morphing and distortion of characters – here the Evil step-mother is asking her mirror who is the most beautiful one of all? when Betty (Snow White) enters the room.

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:


Lucius Henderson: Jekyll and Hyde (1912). As you can see Henderson relied on just about the simplest possible transition shot – Dr Jykell drinks the potion, bends down, there is a cut, and when he raises his head he is Mr Hyde. Other film-makers used short lap dissolves to achieve the transition – fading out on Jykell, cross-fading in with Hyde – a technique used on the very cusp of digital morphing software by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme in the elegant promo-video for their hit single Cry (1985). The first morph software that I came across was Gryphon Software’s Morph, available for the Mac around 1991-2.

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.


Godley and Creme: Cry 1985 Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were innovative film-makers as well as talented musicians. In their promo-video for the single Cry, they use a head-rest to help pin-register the eyes of several participants as they lap-dissolve between them. I talked to Kevin Godley a few years later about this video, and congratulated them on a successful use of an established optical effects to achieve this.

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.


Fantamorph desktop software. Most desktop morph solutions allowed you to input two resource images, then indicate which features should be retained in the final morph.

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….

Total Cinema and the Phantasmagoria

The blog is about Total Cinema, and like Total Cinema, it is a work-in-progress.

What do I mean by Total Cinema?

I am talking about films in which there appears to be no limit on the imagination of the director/creators in terms of their ability to visualise and illustrate their ideas. The amazing whirlpool battle in Pirates of the Caribbean is an example, the seamless and invisible scaling of Gandalf and the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings another, the low-Earth orbit space sequences in Gravity, – and so on.. Mostly Total Cinema exemplars are those films that rely upon a large component of computer-graphics (CGI) in their production. But they are ‘Total’ also in their potential to integrate – and to illustrate – the many different components of digital art (see later).


Ettiene-Gaspard Robertson: Phantasmagoria – 1802. Robertson’s ‘assembly of phantoms’ was a big hit in London in the very early 19th century. It utilised all the tricks of theatre and stage magician (much as Georges Melies did a century later) to bring ghosts, spirits, and phantoms to his audiences, whose screams and ejaculations would compliment Robertson’s own sound effects (the use of zithers, Chinese cymbals and other strange instruments). Robertson was a pioneer of the use of the new powerful (6-10 Candela) Argand Oil Lamps (invented 1780), used back projection onto theatrical scrim (thin gauze), and smoke and mirrors too…

The essential back-story of Total Cinema can be traced from early 19th century theatrical son et lumiere presentations like those of Ettiene-Gaspard Robertson and Paul Philipdor, called Phantasmagorias (‘assembly of phantoms’, from c1802). Tom Gunning has written an essay about Phantasmagoria (Illusions Past and Future), as theatres of the senses, using  illusions, stage magic, smoke and mirrors and importantly the Argand oil-lamp-powered magic lantern projector, and traces it’s transmutations through the 19th century into Symbolist Theatre d’Art (1891), mentioning the mid-century impact of Wagner’s theories of the Gesamptkunstwerk (1849). By the end of the century of course we have the technologies of the gas-light and electric-light powered magic-lantern slide projectors, and the emergence of various moving-picture systems, culminating in the feast of immersive media technologies at the 1900 Paris Exposition. And the cultural historian Marina Warner examines the Phantasmagoria of Robertson, in her book of the same name examining the mediated products of fantasy.


Paul Philipdor/Ettiene-Gaspard Robertson: Magic-Lantern projections in Phantasmagoria 1802. Robertson and Philipdor mounted their magic lantern on rails so that it could be moved backward and forwards to englarge and reduce the projected image. To an audience unused to large-scale moving images, this had a considerable shock effect.

“The phantasmagoria derived directly from the camera obscura and magic lantern shows and many displays had been staged before Robertson’s struck a chord with the public; but Robertson’s Gothic horror spectacular, and its many brilliant twists and devices, turned any spectator from a cool observer into a willing, excitable victim, Whereas the diorama and panoramas concentrated on battles, modern cityscapes, or exotic scenery, customs and people – they are the forerunners of the wide-screen epic film – the phantasmagoria shadows forth great silent movies like F. W. Murnau’s vampire movie Nosferatu (1919) and Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919).”

Robertson’s ‘brilliant twists and devices’ included the Argand magic-lantern projector, mounting the projector on rails so that the projected image could be ‘zoomed’ in and out, the use of theatrical scrim (see-through muslin), back projection, 

(Marina Warner: Phantasmagoria (2006) pps 147-148


Fura del Baus: Das Rheingold at Houston 2013. Fura del Baus are an adventurous and innovative production company. This is their recent interpretation of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It illustrates in contemporary media some of Wagner’s aspirations for a total (composite) art work, that he called Gesamptkunstwerk in his 1849 paper: The Artwork of the Future Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft.

In 1967, I wrote a very juvenile but well-meaning (unpublished) essay on the Gesamptkunstwerk (Composite Art Work) for my degree year at Portsmouth College of Art. In summary it traced the immersive, multi-sensory and multimedia aspects of the theatrical arts from Greek Theatre through to 19th century music-hall, Richard Wagner, and into the 20th century via Edward Gordon Craig, Brecht, and Antonin Artaud, wrapping up with the then contemporary practitioners of immersive mediated environments, including Stan Vanderbeek (Moviedome 1963), John Cage and Al Hansen (Happenings 1959).


Stan Vanderbeek: MovieDome 1963 Vanderbeek studied at Black Mountain College where he met some of the great experimentalists of the 1960s – John Cage, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers. Vanderbeek was an impressive film-maker, impressing amongst others, Terry Gilliam and Eduardo Paolozzi with his collage-montage animations. The Moviedome was a construction inspired by Buckminter Fuller (the geodesic dome), that housed multi-projection displays of Vanderbeeks films and slide archives.

With the prescience of a 22 year-old, I knew straight away (I will trace some of the sources that inspired me in this essay) that this was the zeitgeist development of the time – the recurring themes of immersion, multi-media, multi-sensoria and synaesthesia (and later, increasingly interactivity), permeated the iterations of avant garde experimental art through the 20th century, culminating in the development of virtual realities, videogames, the internet and web in the millennial decade. Now of course, there are a proliferation of premonitory signals of the new art in what I am calling Total Cinema or the Cinema of Totality (currently characterised by spectacular fantasy and sci-fi movies of the ilk of Avatar (Cameron 2010), Gravity (Cuaron 2014), Pirates of the Caribbean (Verbinski et al 2003- present) and Lord of the Rings (Jackson, 2001-2003) – films where there has been apparently no technical limit to the imagination of the director.)


Edith Sitwell: preparation for Facade-An Entertainment from 1922. With music by William Walton and an improvised loud-hailer, Edith Sitwell performs her zeitgeist work, which received rave reviews for lots of formal innovations and later was made into ballet by Frederick Ashton. This kind of media-art-fusion, made highly contemporary by the improvised PA system, was another signpost on the multifold pathways to the art form of the 21st century.


Gore Verbinski: Pirates of the Caribbean At Worlds End 2007. This was Verbinski’s third triumphant Pirates movie. I loved the way Verbinski compressed almost every possible cliche of the sea (Davy Jones Locker, Pieces of Eight, treasure-islands, ghost ships,) with new mythic hybrids, fusions of marine life and humans, – with all the facility of a great illustrator (see Mervyn Peake: Captain Slaughterboard Weighs Anchor, and Treasure Island). Here’s a binary shot of just one scene, showing the mo-cap performers rigged for motion capture, and the final scene.

I want to wrap this idea up now by saying, along with Tom Gunning, Lev Manovich, and recently Kristen Whissel, that the developments I am going to trace in this series of blogs are the seedlings of a 21st century art form that will draw from these themes and iterate them into a coherent and continually developing series of new art-forms that will be as particular to the 21st century as Cinema, Television and Computing were to the 20th. And all or most of these forms will include moving images of some kind. The cinema may be dead, but the Movies will develop and expand, enveloping us in a new immersive form that will integrate multiple media, incorporate social media, involve interactivity, and provide us with limitless scope for self-expression, for recording the world, for communicating with others, for exploring ideas. This is the media of our time.

Sergei Eisenstein: Eisenstein on Disney (1941,republished 1993)

Tom Gunning: Illusions Past and Future: The Phantasmagoria and its Specters 2004

Marina Warner: Phantasmagoria 2006

Lev Manovich: Software Takes Command 2014

Kristen Whissel: Spectacular Digital Effects – CGI and Contemporary Cinema 2014

Frank Rose: The Art of Immersion 2012

Stephen Keane: Cinetech – Film, Convergence and New Media 2007