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What Does Cave Art Have To Do With Animation

Could the paleolithic men and women who created rock wall paintings have been the prehistoric ancestors of current animation artists?

Image from the Chauvet cave

Cave art images always bring up the same question - what was the purpose of these rock wall paintings.

My fascination with prehistoric art goes back a long time, but what most recently drew my attention to it is Paul Johnson's overview tome, Art: A New History.

His short chapter on prehistoric art is succinct and informative, and sensibly focuses on the few facts we can deduce about these images without speculation as to their purpose. 

But I can't help revisiting the images in light of this fresh information and, peering through the lens of animation, naively adding my voice to the litany of hypotheses regarding what motivated their creation.

What strikes me first is the location of the works. They were, for the most part, painted on the walls of caves located deep beneath the earth's surface. These were not residential locations. We know because of what isn't in the caves, i.e. the archeological remains normally associated with dwelling places. 

We do know that these vast interior caves were naturally protected spaces, and that the artists who painted the images were highly trained and probably professional. Their work required the assistance of teams to help build scaffolds, mix pigment, provide lighting.

Students and researchers of these artworks can't seem to agree on any one community function that they served though. Were they part of some religious ceremony? Were they a plea for a successful hunt? Did they serve the community as a whole, or just a powerful few?

The first thing that strikes me when looking at the many reproductions (I have yet to see an original) is that there are no stories, at least so far as I understand a graphic story to be. Instead what appears are images of local fauna in full view, mid-view, and close-up.

Even though these paintings were created more than 10,000 years ago, the drawing style is highly accomplished. There's a strong sense of 3D form translated onto a 2D surface, the coloration is finely tuned, and the animals breathe life. So these artists could have told a story if they had chosen to.

But nothing is chronicled in the way that we structure narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead the artists have chosen to present these huge images (the bulls at Lascaux are 20 feet wide) singly or sequentially, on the rock wall deep inside these safe chambers well below the earth's surface.

Sequentially? What are sequential images doing on a cave wall painted tens of thousands of years ago? As an animator I recognize them immediately to be like the key frames of an animation.

It's one thing to enter a cave and be confronted with a huge still image, but how much more dramatic would be an image that reads as an animal in motion.

What finer way than this to present shock and awe from a safe vantage point. Perhaps the artists were seeking to recreate and thereby control these near overwhelming sensations, feelings certainly experienced above ground and probably often in dangerous if not deadly circumstances.

Did these artists want to recreate them in a controlled way so that while the audience's experience was akin to the real thing, the real dangers remained above ground and well outside the cave?

Think of experiencing a huge thunderstorm from the safety of a cozy cottage, or watching a horror film from the security of a movie theater. There's something deeply satisfying about being awed or terrified while knowing one is safe.

Were these paleolithic men and women our film artist ancestors?

To see superb images from the Chauvet Cave, follow