What is Great Animation?
Alternative Points Of View
In the process of researching this paper two people sent me notes that questioned the importance of greatness in animation. Dr. Janeann Dill did her graduate work at Cal Arts (MFA) and European Graduate School (PhD), is a fine artist (painter), experimental animator/animation artist and the authorized biographer of Jules Engel. She wrote, “As a young writer, I asked Jules Engel which of his films was his favorite. He introduced his response by saying ‘I don't know about favorite, but the most important ...’. Ever the positive artist-teacher-mentor, Engel's response taught me to think more critically about my use of language. This conversation reminds me of that conversation. I have grown uncomfortable with language that heightens a subjective and personal hierarchy, such as ‘favorite’ and ‘great,’ although I understand the asking as a way to stimulate discourse, so I want to respond.”
“The compelling qualities of animation that attract my attention and hold my interest are its direct ability to unpack an idea in time and its inherent interdisciplinarity to reach across the boundaries of cinema, technology, literature, dance, music, philosophy, science and art. To experience a particular animation as interesting or more compelling than another, i.e., to elicit a greater or lesser aesthetic experience, means that the animation communicates a consciousness in its creator of being as equally committed to the particular idea of the piece itself as to the inherent qualities of the animation mode. That moment is the moment I walk away and want to share the good news that an intelligent work of art can move one to absolute joy!”
The second person is independent animator George Griffin whose works I’ve admired since the late 1970s when I saw Candy Machine and The Club. More recently his abstract images in Koko capture the essence of the Charlie Parker performance on the film’s soundtrack; his figurative A Little Routine is a loving moment with his daughter and New Fangled is a caustic or cynical moment at an advertising agency meeting. George is a remarkable fine artist whose personal work can not be pigeonholed into a style, school or technique. He creates what is appropriate for the project at hand.
When I asked George to be part of this project he suggested I take into account the avant-garde/experimental films work of Robert Breer (1926 – 2012), an important American artist who for over 50 years worked in many mediums including animation. Breer’s animated works do not fit neatly into this project (about 7 or 8 of them are on YouTube including Fuji, 1974, that was added to the National Film Registry in 2002). They are important abstract kinetic works of art that are extremely personal experiences. He was a part of the East Coast avant-garde art world and his work at various times reflects elements of Abstract Expressionism, the absurdness of Dada, the spirit of fun found in Pop art and the severe boldness of Minimalism. He provided film for early Happenings in NYC and exhibited work with Alexander Calder and other kinetic artists. He was an important part of American art landscape for several decades.
Breer’s work is difficult for the general public to relate to as there is neither a traditional story nor a cast of characters. He works with abstract lines and forms that create their own patterns of movement. There can be themes that may be repeated from time to time (the same or similar images) and his designs may grow and metamorphose into other forms. There may be visual counterpoint to the passage you are seeing and various visual moods can be expressed.
Unlike the abstract films of Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Butte and other pioneers of abstract animation, he used sounds and music sparingly. In A Man And His Dog Out For Air (1957) the only sounds are birds chirping. In Fuji the soundtrack seems to come from the wheels of the train he is on clicking on the rails. In the works of his I’m familiar with, he is not illustrating pieces of music; he is using sound to enhance his kinetic art.
Color is another element he uses sparingly. Instead Breer stays focused on exploring the many ways he can use shapes and lines. In some of his early films like Blazes (1961) his work reminds me of the bold splashy forms of abstraction expressionist paintings from the 1950s, but in A Man and A Dog Out For Air we see no bold forms. Instead we see constantly changing lines that flow in a somewhat lyrical way. In Swiss Army Knife With Rats and Pigeons (1980) forms reminiscent of his early works appear along with drawings that suggest Pop Art subjects (a roll of Scotch Tape, tin cans, etc.) and semi-figurative images of animals that appear and disappear quickly. His films seem to be explorations of new concepts and the result is a rich range of works. You can find his work online and articles about him using Google.
As I reflect on Jules Engel’s comments and the works of George Griffin and Robert Breer I was reminded that some animation exists to please the public and other works are private/personal experiences. If the latter also excite the public, great, but that is not necessary for them to be considered significant works of art.
I thank all who have contributed to this intelligent discussion about animation. An interesting observation in reviewing this research project is how we used the word “great” in slightly different ways based on the way we are related to the art form. When I began this project I told people I expected a wide range of answers as the word’s meaning is actually quite vague. What I didn’t consider at first is that the word is somewhat inappropriate to use when describing the work of some significant artists. We must use other criteria, knowledge and words to express our thoughts and feelings about their work.
It has been a pleasure researching and writing this article and I hope it influences some readers, especially students, to go deeper into their exploration of what animation can be and to not simply and superficially call it great.
Here is a list of links to a number of key short films mentioned in the article.
Luxo Jr, by John Lasseter
Creature Comforts, by Nick Park plat
Ryan, by Chris Landreth
For the Birds, by Pixar
Balance, by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein
Plato, by Leonard Cohen
Madame Tutli Putli, by The National Film Board of Canada
The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frederic Back
Wife of Bath Tale, by Joanna Quinn
The Mighty River, by Frederic Back
A Little Routine, by George Griffin
Fuji, by Robert Breer
Army Knife, by Robert Breer
Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.