Keith Bradbury describes the Tenth Annual Conference of the Society for Animation Studies, which was held at Chapman University from August 12-16, 1998.
The 10th annual Society for Animation Studies conference was a wonderful experience. Although it was my first SAS conference, I felt like I was at home for two reason. Partly because of the similarity, weather wise and in terms of geography, between Los Angeles, California and Brisbane, Australia, and secondly due to the friendliness projected by the conference organizer Maureen Furniss and her assistant Bryan Barker. Their determination to make the conference a success was palpable, fading only when technology inevitably malfunctioned.
While the majority of delegates arrived on August 12 the first official day of the conference, there were quite a few overseas visitors who arrived at various times before that. For them and some locals, the pre-conference program consisted of a welcome party at Maureen Furniss' new home, animation screenings and lectures at the Orange County Museum of Modern Art by Robin Allan on Disney artists, David Williams on U.K. animator Sheila Graber, J.B. Kaufman's "Disney Meets the Golden State" and a screening of Karl Cohen's program of forbidden animation. That was the nighttime activity. During the day, visits were arranged to Warner Bros. archives at USC and on the lot, the Academy Library and, of course, Disneyland. However, after arriving in Los Angeles four hours before I left Sydney, Australia, then taking a connecting flight to Orange County's John Wayne Airport, before finally picking up my hire car to tackle the famous L.A. freeways, in addition to driving to the Jack Ruberg Gallery up in Los Angeles to see the Fischinger exhibition and buy a VHS copy of his films on Friday, attending Maureen's party on Friday night, Karl Cohen' screening Saturday night...I wondered on Sunday if I needed to go to Disneyland! Jet-lag had caught up with me. So, I leisurely headed for Disneyland for the first time ever. Mountains of merchandising, piled high, greeted me in every store. Tempted to buy, I settled for cards with drawings from Steamboat Willie and other early Disney films on the front, and one card which was a take on Pop Art. It featured Minnie laying on a bed à la Roy Lichenstein's Blonde Waiting series. Minnie says, in parody of the Lichenstein, "I wish Mickey were here." Later, I learnt that around the time Disneyland was being planned, Disney was in close correspondence with Salvador Dali. Something of the surreal still lingers if only the sense of carnival.
Busy conference organizers MaureenFurniss, Ph.D and her graduate assistant Bryan Barker. Photo courtesy of Keith Bradbury.
The Conference Program
The paper that in retrospect has helped me shape how the diverse presentations related to the conference theme of "In the beginning...," was Barbara Fleischer Zucker's "Anna Curtis Chandler: A Storyteller Who Could Keep Them from the Movies." Zucker's paper told of Chandler's opposition to cartoons in the 1930s and her active campaign to attract U.S. children to art through her gallery art talks. This paper preceded Gunilla Muhr's, "Aesthetic Strategies of the Disney Studio in the 1930s." Though no direct relationship was posted between Disney's strategies in the 1930s and Chandler's art talks in the same era at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Disney's interest in art and artists in the 1930s, which Robin Allan extensively considered in his talks, and 1930s animation, generally became more fascinating because of this juxtaposition of presentations. It became obvious that thought had been given to where papers were scheduled and that it was anticipated that not all papers would fit neatly into clustered interpretations of the conference theme.
Day one began with two papers on early animation technology. Alan Bryman's "Theorizing the Early Technologies of Animation" argued against the concept of technological determinism - that technology determines certain outcomes. Bryman's paper pointed out that early animation studios were not exact replicas of each other in terms of formulating the role of the director. From this basis he then moved to a more complex model of animation production in which technology was one of five factors that influenced the final outcome. The others were work ideologies (industry, culture, societal beliefs), strategic (and one would add aesthetic) choice, design principles, and organization of work.
In stark contrast Richard Leskosky's paper delved into the history of early animation technology, animation on the outer curve of a cylindrical drum, not the inner surface. The interesting point was that such technology pre-dates the history of cinema and is an instance of non-filmic animation. Let's hope that these talks become articles in animation journals.
Other papers, while tracing the history of individual animators at particular studios, cast a light on questions of authorship. Pierre Floquet's "TEX & Tales: From Tex Avery's Debut to the Beginning of His End (Recurring Theme and Evolving Style)" focused on the evolution and recurring themes of Tex Avery's character 'Red' and how 'Red' became a means for Avery to construct his audience. (Hopefully, we will be able to read more on the subject in Floquet's forthcoming publication on Tex Avery's comic language.) Tarleton Gillespie's "Toy Story and Consumer Culture" gave an account of the cultural construction of computer animation and argued how Pixar's Academy Award-winning film has become emblematic of how CGI will be explored. Gene Walz's "Charlie Thorson and the Twilight of the Fleischer Studio" came from his forthcoming publication Cartoon Charlie :The Life and Times of an Animation Pioneer and detailed the distinctive place Thorson had in anticipating the specialist profession of character designer in animation studios. Susan Ohmer's paper on the re-writing of the history of New York's independent computer animation company Blue Sky Studios since being taken over by Fox had special relevance for any scholar of authorship. Robin Allan's papers on Disney and his connections with and use of European artists and art in the `30s and `40s was a sketch of what to expect in his forthcoming publication on Disney and, as I said before, worked well with the material Gunilla Muhr presented. Rose Bond and Ruth Hayes discussed how cultural provincialism authors films in "Northwest Animation: The Roots of Creative Variance," while David Ehrlich's "The Beginning of the `ASIFA Presents' Collaboration Films: Aesthetic and Political Problem Solving," and Chris Padilla's "The Development of American Animation Festivals" detailed examples of how animation can be authored as `other' to the prevailing socio-economic imperatives of corporate/large studio animation.
A direct correspondence between authorship and animation I found in Tom Klein and J.B. Kaufman's papers in the evening of day one. Tom Klein put Universal cartoons, 1929-30, 'on trial' in an attempt to establish which films could be credited to Tex Avery. The degree to which animation is the product of the studio system/house style or to individual presence is again a question of authorship. The verdict proved inconclusive partly because the audience was being tested at 9.30 p.m. after a long first day and partly because we all wanted more information. J.B. Kaufman, on the other hand, wondered what to make of two versions of Disney's Whoopie Party of 1932. His premise was that unlike theatre productions that can vary with each performance, animated films are a finished product, so circulation of variations of the same film indicate something. His conclusion was that the existence of different versions of Whoopie Party was due to censorship (i.e. government authorship) of such inoffensive cartoons in the 1930s.
Day Two Day two began with Mark Langer's paper "The Freak Show Cultural Tradition in American Animation." Having seen Karl Cohen's program of forbidden animation before the conference started, Langer's paper further underlined the divergent interests of animators in the `20s and `30s. He argued that the representation of the anomalous body (characters as mixtures of humans and animals) and the replication of the corny atmosphere of freak shows in early Fleischer animation was a means to transgress notions of the self. The next three papers were as different from each other as one would want. Vicki Callahan's paper analyzed Space Jam as spectacle, concerned to be uncanny, not magical, involving its audience not in projections of utopia but in an experience of mutation, and thus, effecting a removal of the audience from their social context. Luca Raffaelli's "Death and Animation" on the other hand offered a wide ranging account of the structural and other significances of death from Disney to The Simpsons. Alan Cholodenko's paper set out to topple cause and effect reasoning by proposing that instead of beginnings we should think of circulations of texts and the tropes of discourse. The afternoon papers clustered around experimental animation. Lynn Tomlinson working from primary sources constructed a reading of what was, she had established, an early Quay Brothers film Der Loop der Loop. Rune Kreutz's "Absolute Films and the Consequences of Abstraction" was a defense of abstract animation and traced its lineage from the 1920s to Richard Reeve's Linear Dreams of 1997. Then came a series of papers which prompted a questioning of the boundaries of animation, especially Robert Haller's paper on Jim Davis' films in the Anthology Film Archive in New York, and less so William Moritz's history of Jordan Belson's work and Ying Tan's papers on Belson's latest film Mysterious Journey. When does experimental film become animation? Does it matter? Such questions didn't seem as problematic for the presenters as they did for me. Nonetheless, the viewing of Belson's and Davis' work, along with that of the German Puppet films on day three and George Pal's films on day one were highlights for me.
Papers were more narrative `histories of' on day three, though not entirely. Johann Goethals detailed the difficulties of establishing the Academy of Ghent as a primary agent in the development of European animation. A much longer session, 1.5 hours rather than the usual 30 minutes, was given to Jeanpaul Goergen's "Puppet Animation Film in Germany from 1915-1945." Jeanpaul estimated that between 1915 and 1945, three to four puppet films were released annually in Germany. However, many of these are now lost but what has been restored is fascinating. My paper on Harry Julius followed, suggesting the relevance of an open mind to animation practice. Wendy Jackson next presented "Czechoslovakian Animation Under Soviet Occupation." Her paper worked to reveal how Czech animation could flourish under the rigid political organization of Communism. Marty McNamara discussed the theme of sexual ambivalence in the work of the Russian animator Kovalyov. No discussion was made, or indeed questions asked, about the reception of his films in Russia. Ton Crone gave the history of the beginning of the Netherlands Institute for Animation Film. Asli Tunc followed with the paper she wrote with John Lent on "Women and Animation in Turkey." Who said there is not a need for women's liberation? In addition to the difficulty for women animators in Turkey, what struck me during the presentation was the European modernist style of much of the work. The last two papers, David Williams' talk on UK animator Sheila Graber and Robin Allan's paper on "Make Mine Music: An End and a Beginning," I had heard in some form in the pre-conference sessions and tuned in and out. But I am looking forward to reading Robin Allan's forthcoming book on Disney artists.
A Boom in Animation Publications
Beyond that, the screening of restored animated cartoons from the various archives made the conference unique. The conference also featured and sold the latest animation publications from Maureen Furniss' Art in Motion published by John Libbey and Karl Cohen's Forbidden Animation to publications on the experimental films of John Davis, published by the Anthology Film Archive and edited by Robert Haller. What astounded me was the number of publications about to appear in print on animation. John Libbey is due to release a book on Asian animation, edited by John Lent, Pierre Floquet's book on Tex Avery's comic language is in production, as are books by Gene Walz on Charlie Thorson, J.B. Kaufman and Robin Allan on Disney. Animation seems to be a growth area in terms of publishing. Finally, Chris Padilla is planning a book on the history of animation festivals, that will hopefully be released to coincide with the exhibition of puppets and puppet animation, curated by Chris, that will tour the U.S. and other places to be decided, from next year.
The next SAS conference will be in Brisbane, Australia to coincide with the triennial exhibition of contemporary Asia Pacific art at the Queensland Art Gallery. It will provide not only an opportunity to assess Asia Pacific animation in relation to contemporary Asia Pacific art, but will also be an excellent opportunity to become familiar with Australian and Queensland animation. I intend to screen a program of Asia Pacific animation and would like to have a global student section. As details are finalized they will appear on Animation World Network.
Keith Bradbury lectures in the History and Theory of Art at Griffith University Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Australia.
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