Chapter 2: Animation -- What The Heck is It?
I like things to be clear, so just to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing, I decided to work out a bullet-proof definition of animation; something that covers all forms and fashions of frame-by-frame endeavors. See if you agree with me. If not, we’re off to a rocky start.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who know what they're talking about, called it "The Illusion of Life." But how do you do that? To do it, you really have to think about what it is. When you know what it is, you can master it.
In 1978 John Halas asked me to submit a definition of animation for consideration by ASIFA (International Association of Film Animation.)
This was an interesting puzzle: how to come up with a technical definition without limiting it to a specific technology, that might become obsolete; to try to come up with a bedrock statement of stop-motion animation's technical essence? This is what I wrote him:
"...my definition carefully says nothing about film, cameras, frames, projection, screens, laser beams, computers, or even drawing. It could cover all of these or any future technology! It is based on what I would consider to be the central core of stop-motion animation: the creation, recording, and retrieving of individual phases of motion."
It should be clear that what I'm writing about in this book is frame-by-frame, phase-by-phase, pose-by-pose animation — whether it's drawn, object-manipulated, or computer generated. I’m not talking about so-called "real-time" animation, live performances by string or hand puppeteers, or by pantomime actors dressed in electronic suits. “Real-time” animation is actually live puppetry. Live puppeteers, working in puppet theaters with marionettes, call themselves "animators." But that is clearly outside the definition required for entrance into animation festivals. Real-time animation may perhaps save time and money, but it can never achieve the precision or graphic exaggeration of frame-by-frame animation. Likewise, frame-by-frame animation is weakest when it tries to imitate real life. Perhaps it can be done, but why? It’s best if the twain never meet.
If we speak of animation in its broadest sense, it derives from the Latin word, anima, "The breath of life." I would use the term "Cinematic animation" for what we do. For want of a better term, it delineates our stop-motion work. For precision, I have omitted reference to any particular technique, medium, or technology. Here is my definition:
"CINEMATIC ANIMATION: The recording of individually created phases of imagined action in such a way as to achieve the illusion of motion when shown at a constant, predetermined rate, exceeding that of human persistence of vision."
Academic? I think it is useful to know what we are doing, and to realize how broad our craft really is. If you look at and think about that definition, you may conjure up a whole new way of doing it and presenting it, that no one has yet thought of. So this definition can suggest vast areas of technical and artistic variations!
To temper my strictly technical definition of animation I would want to quickly point out that animation is much more than technical.
The best and most poetic description I know of what animation is all about was beautifully stated by Steven Millhauser in his book, "Little Kingdoms" (Vintage Books — Random House, page 107).
"...[an] immobile world of inanimate drawings that had been granted the secret of motion, [a] death-world with its hidden gift of life. But that life was a deeply ambiguous life, a conjurer's trick, a crafty illusion based on an accidental property of the retina, which retained an image for a fraction of a second after the image was no longer present. On this frail fact was erected the entire structure of the cinema, that colossal confidence game.
“The animated cartoon was a far more honest expression of the cinematic illusion than the so-called realistic (live-action) film, because the cartoon reveled in its own illusory nature, exulted in the impossible — indeed it claimed the impossible as its own, exalted it as its own highest end, found in impossibility, in the negation of the actual, its profoundest reason for being.
“The animated cartoon was nothing but the poetry of the impossible--therein lay its exhilaration and its secret melancholy. For this willful violation of the actual, while it was an intoxicating release from the constriction of things, was at the same time nothing but a delusion, an attempt to outwit mortality. As such it was doomed to failure. And yet it was desperately important to smash through the constriction of the actual, to unhinge the universe and let the impossible stream in, because otherwise - well otherwise, the world was nothing but an editorial cartoon."