What is Great Animation?
Since the late 1970s I’ve been saying animation is a great, if not the greatest art form of our time. I recently decided to ask students, animation artists, teachers and studio administrators, what is great animation? I wasn’t expecting to find a single answer as a lot has to do with personal taste and how one relates to it in their life. What I hoped to learn was some of the many ways people admire it.
I began by asking my San Francisco State animation history students at the start of the spring semester what they thought was really exciting animation. When the semester was ending they were asked to write a short paper on what they thought was great animation. I was curious to see if their interests and answers had changed since the course had begun. Had the course influenced their thinking?
Comments By Students
On the first day of class I asked what films they expected to study. Most students had relatively little exposure to animation outside of first run features, anime, TV series, music videos and whatever they had discovered on the Internet. When asked what their favorite animated films were they mentioned The Simpsons, Family Guy and other TV shows, Disney features from the 1990s, and several anime titles.
Most were surprised when I told them that I would barely cover most of the works they were familiar with. In fact one year a student was so upset with that news that he dropped out as he thought the course was going to be about anime!
My course exists mainly to inspire animation students, so they see a lot of historical and contemporary shorts from the US and abroad. They are unfamiliar with most of them as they are not easy to see. Most are important works of exceptional artistic or literary merit; ones that advanced the art and technology of animation. There isn’t time to show run-of-the-mill work.
For their final paper I asked them to select and write about three films that they have seen and consider great works. They did not have to be ones seen in class. I was delighted that their papers showed they had given a lot of thought to the assignment.
One student picked silent stars (Wall-E, Gromit and the male star of The Triplets of Belleville). Another wrote about acting by faceless characters (Luxo Jr., a silhouette short by Lotte Reininger and the Oompahs, a UPA short staring musical instruments). The most frequently discussed film was Madame Tutli-Putli from the National Film Board of Canada, followed by UPA’s Tell Tale Heart, Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Nick Park’s “Creature Comforts.” One student wrote about three modern stop-motion horror films, Door by David Anderson, M. Tutli-Putli and Nightmare Before Christmas, while another found M. Tutli-Putli, Chris Landreth’s “Ryan” and Jan Svankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialog” exciting explorations of the human condition.
A few students stressed the storytelling abilities in certain works including films that had no narration (the Pixar short For the Birds and Balance by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein). An Asian student wrote about classic Chinese shorts. Other nice papers were on expressive acting, new directions in animation, things animation can do that can’t be done in live action films and developments in stop-motion work.
Several things surprised me. The only Disney feature mentioned was Fantasia. One paper mentioned the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from it and another discussed the “Night on Bald Mountain.” Nobody wrote about TV animation, features from DreamWorks or shorts by the Fleishers, Disney, Otto Messmer, Winsor McCay, or Tex Avery. Several foreign features that were briefly mentioned but not shown in class were discussed. They included Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, Mary and Max, Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Richard Williams’ unfinished Thief and the Cobbler. I also noticed that many of the films chosen had received Oscar nominations.