Society for Animation Studies: 8th Annual Conference

Philippe Moins takes a look at one of the oldest and most respected animation schools in continental European.

I find that the annual conferences of the Society for Animation Studies (SAS) is one of those necessities of life that refreshes both the mind and the spirit. While they may often lack the scale and frenetic energy that one encounters at festivals (although their second conference was held in conjunction with Ottawa '90) or even at a conference of the 1200-member Society for Cinema Studies (SCS), that's not the point. SAS is still a fairly modest-sized organization, whose membership generally lurks under 150. However, if you want to know what's going on in animation history, theory and criticism, SAS is the place to go. But then I'm biased, since I started SAS back in 1987 and was its president for several years.

This year's event, which focused on "Japanese Animation and Global Media" and was held at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, September 25-29, had a special meaning for me. Back in 1984, I had come to Madison to present my first conference paper at an SCS conference. Originally, I was to be part of a panel on animation, but it did not make and I and another panelist were placed elsewhere.

The idea that there were only two acceptable proposals seemed absurd, as I knew there were a lot more animation scholars out there. But somehow the Society for Cinema Studies, for all its power and prestige, was unable to draw them out of the woodwork. It was an incident that eventually led me, with the help of other like-minded people, to start SAS. (One of those like-minded people was Russell Merritt, who helped run the 1984 conference!) And sure enough, when the first SAS conference was held at UCLA in 1989, some 40 (academic and independent) scholars and filmmakers showed up from around the world to participate. (Total attendance at the three day event was over 100.)

Since then, schools in the US, Canada and England have played host to SAS each year, sometimes in conjunction with local film archives and festivals. As a result, other organizations, including SCS and the Asian Cinema Studies Society, have opened their arms wider to animation, as have mainstream academic journals.

The organizer for this year's event was Donald Crafton, whose pioneering history of silent animation, Before Mickey (1982), helped provide a solid academic footing to the field. While the conference was not the biggest in SAS history, Crafton did bring in a large number of mainstream cinema studies superstars, most of whom inevitably spoke with considerable passion on anime!

What It's All About

After a half day of screenings and a tour of Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, the conference proper began on Thursday, September 26, with a panel on Animation Technology, featuring papers by Richard Leskosky and Carolyn Shaffer on the history of the Mutoscope and the technology of puppet animation respectively. Both presentations were embellished by a constant interchange in which the audience seemed to collaborate with the panelists in the process of their historical research. This, after all, is what academic conferences are really all about, as researchers test their findings and hunches with their colleagues before going public.

With the exception of Brian Camp (who spoke on "The Evolution of Street Fighter: From Video Game to Spiritual Quest"), the anime papers were mostly given by people who were not specialists in Japanese animation. However, many were expert in Japanese live-action films and helped put the development of anime in a different perspective. This was especially evident in David Bordwell's "Stylistic Transformations Between Live-Action and Animation in Japanese Cinema," as well as David Dresser's "Why Anime?," which dealt with anime's rise against the background of the decline of Japanese live-action cinema.

Outside of anime, there were the usual mix of papers exploring the familiar and unveiling the little known. Thus, Mark Langer revealed his researches into the silhouette films of Canada's Bryant Fryer, while John A. Lent provided a historical overview of Korean animation (which, not surprisingly, has been heavily influenced by anime). At the same time, Hank Sartin talked about "Bugs Bunny and the Problem of Stardom" and Christopher Sieving presented "A Social Analysis of MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons."

Lelsie Bishko shared her experiences in using Laban's dance notation system in helping explain to computer animation students what the hell squash and stretch is all about--something which is perhaps not as obvious as it may seem. Sybil DelGaudio explored the almost forgotten training films which gave UPA and John Hubley their start, while Mikhail Gurevich looked at the nature of "Literary Animation" in a series of Russian films based on the drawings and writings of Aleksander Pushkin.

This year's screenings did not offer the rarities provided in years past by the likes of the UCLA Film & TV Archive and the George Eastman House, but some (like the Popeye retrospective) proved useful. The James Whitney Retrospective, though, proved much more than that, especially given William Moritz' thoughtful accompanying lecture.

But above all, the conference once again proved a great place to meet friends, find out what's going on and even do business. (Editors from five academic journals were present, including myself.) In other words, SAS is doing exactly what I was hoping it would do when it began nine years ago.

Next year's conference will be hosted by the Nederlands Institute for Animation Film under the direction of Ton Crone, and will most likely be held in Amsterdam; in 1997, the venue will switch to California's Orange County, up-the-road a bit from Disneyland at Chapman University, under the guidance of Maureen Furniss (editor of Animation Journal).

For more information on SAS check out its home page at: http://www.awn.com/sas/index.html.

Harvey Deneroff, in addition to his duties as Editor of Animation World Magazine, edits and publishes The Animation Report, an industry newsletter, which can be reached at deneroff@pacbell.net. He is also Editor-In-Chief of Animation Review, AWN's new peer reviewed academic journal and serves on the Society for Animation Studies Steering Committee.

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