On Animation

‘Animation studies’ is a relatively new area of scholarship. The Society of Animation Studies has existed only since 1987 and the peer-reviewed journal Animation Studies was started in 1991. My own investigations into the theory of animation are even more recent having begun during the undertaking of a graduate degree at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2011-13.

Within the field there seems to be a general acceptance of animation as either a corollary of, or genre within, cinema. Originally strengthened by decades of production and presentation methods common to other celluloid-based motion picture art forms, the argument that animation is a derivative or offshoot of cinema is less tenable in the digital age. While stop-motion animation is bound to the camera, and therefore implicated in the process of cinematography, other forms of animation are not. Vector-based graphics animation software and the variety of programs that allow paper drawings to be digitized and displayed sequentially without the need for camera or film stock harken back to the origins of animation as a hand-made, camera-less medium. As mentioned earlier, there are sufficient historical devices in existence, such as the zoetrope and the praxinoscope, to show that animation precedes photochemical photography, and therefore celluloid-based cinematography as well. As for the notion that animation is a genre of cinema, Daniel Goldmark states in Tunes for ‘toons that, “Animation is not a genre; it is a technological process that creates a particular (highly idiosyncratic) means of visual representation” (Goldmark 3). His statement is one that I agree with but Goldmark’s emphasis on the technological, one that is common in animation studies, is fraught with the assumption that only matters of technique separate animation from other forms of cinema. In the course of writing this paper, my aim is to explore the idea that there are fundamental philosophical and epistemological differences between animation and cinematography.

One definition of animation is that it is the illusion of motion created in the differences among a sequence of still images. Unlike cinematography, which records motion, the art of animation is to generate motion. This view is widely held in the field of animation studies, as stated by scholar Charles Solomon in Toward a Definition of Animation:

“…two factors … serve as a basis for a workable definition of animation: (1) the imagery is recorded frame-by-frame and (2) the illusion of motion is created, rather than recorded”. (Solomon 10)

This definition is founded in the mechanism of animation and it doesn’t help in shaping a philosophical stance. From philosopher Roland Barthes comes the proposition that photography, and by extension, cinematography “attests to that which has existed” (Barthes 82). If so, then animation shows motion that has never existed and motion that cannot exist. To extrapolate on this, if documentaries and dramatic films record movements that depict actual or possible events, then animation generates motion depicting impossible events that have never existed. An existential distinction such as this suggests that in defining animation, there is more at stake than the technological differences between it and cinematography.

A second defining property of animation can be extrapolated from Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. In describing the early resistance of cinematography by the nineteenth-century chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey, Doane explains that Marey condemned the motion-picture camera for they way in which it freezes the continuum of real time into separate images. This technological limitation was antithetical to Marey’s single image exposures of long duration in which continuous movements were captured on one photographic surface. Doane also relates a similar distinction between photography and cinematography when commenting on Bergson’s theory that the import of a selected pose or “attitude” in the still photograph of a galloping horse is undermined by the indiscriminate selection of poses or “attitudes” captured by the motion-picture camera:

“Time, in effect, becomes banal and meaningless. Any moment is as “exemplary” as any other and hence none provides that privileged “flash” or spark of knowledge.” (Doane 66)

In these two brief sentences, Doane provides the antithesis of the essence of animation. For the classical animator, and similarly for the non-objective ‘direct’ animator, it is commonplace to devise first those images that will be emphasized in a movement and to imbue them with special attitude that makes them more significant in the image sequence than those that fall in between. If cinema is unselective in its recording of time, then animation is about creating, manipulating and controlling the “spark of knowledge” in time.

[2012. Revised 2015.]


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Pbk. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Goldmark, Daniel. Tunes for ’Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.

Solomon, Charles. “Toward a Definition of Animation.” The Art of Animation: An Anthology. Ed. Solomon, Charles and Canemaker, John. Vol. 1. Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1988. Print.

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