What is animation?

“I’m interested in animation.”

From childhood through my teens, into my academic studies, and finally now, in my post-academic job hunt, I can’t count how many times I’ve used that sentence. In a recent discussion at a WIA director’s panel, director Lauren Montgomery (Green Lantern: First Flight) commented that she knew animation was her career path when, as other girls were moving on to make up and “adult things,” she was still rushing home to see the latest cartoon on television. This sentiment was echoed not only by the other panelists, but by much of the audience as well; I would imagine that many animation lovers have experienced a similar development of their passion.

For me, my interest in animation kept me watching my ancient Disney and Warner Bros VHS tapes long after my friends had moved on to rom coms and DVDs. Unfortunately lacking any hint of artist talent, I didn’t become an animator (as so many who love animation do), but instead used animation as the foundation of my academic life; from Thomas Edison to Ed Catmull, from shorts to features to television to documentary, from America to Europe and Asia, and from the early painstaking drawings by Windsor McCay to the computer generated images by Pixar, each offered a fascinating glimpse into the wonder of animation as art and entertainment.

Finally, in grad school, I was asked what my focus was. Dutifully repeating the aforementioned phrase, I watched as my professor sat stoney faced, his eyes piercing into me. “What the $*&% does that actually mean?” he asked. Aside from the harsh delivery, my professor had a good point. The animation label is applied to a great range of things, not all of which play well together as a generic category. What I had missed in taking animation as myriad individual points of study was an opportunity to study the idea of animation as a broader concept.


If we think about the many ways that films can be categorized as ‘animated films,’ it initially seems as though ‘animation’ is a flawed generic category. Although animation in the US is often associated with the fantastical — coyotes are blown up and dropped off cliffs, hippos in tutus dance with alligators, and princesses are saved from ferocious step-mothers-turned-dragons — animated films have also been used to create a clear picture of reality, unencumbered by the messiness of real-life images. Both Disney’s Four Methods of Flush Riveting (James Algar, 1942) and Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong and Norman Ferguson, 1941), are “animated films,” despite the glaring differences between them in content, tone, and intended audience.Disney1940s

At its most basic, genre may be defined as an attempt to categorize a product in a way that is understandable to others; it is a way to create expectations about that product, whether done between producer and consumer, between critics and audiences, or between fellow movie-goers. As Steve Neale writes in Genre and Hollywood, “Genres do not consist solely of films. They consist also of specific systems of expectation and hypothesis which spectators bring with them to the cinema and which interact with films themselves during the course of the viewing process. These systems…help render individual films, and the elements within them, intelligible and, therefore, explicable.”

If the purpose of a genre is to create expectations for the viewer before and during the experience of watching the film, it would seem as though using the descriptor ‘animation’ would be ineffective. Yet, if I were to pick a random person off the street in America and tell them that we were going to watch an animated film together, chances are relatively low that any randomly-chosen viewer would picture anything like Four Methods of Flush Riveting or Eastman Medical Films’ Indirect Inguinal Hernia (1929). Instead, there is a good chance that many would picture a similar animated-film prototype: a comedy with drawn figures in which the fantastic and the real playfully interact.

In this respect, animation can create definite expectations for a potential audience. Despite the myriad ways the term has been or could be employed to describe various cinematic works, the term is also employed — by industry insiders, critics, and average movie-goers — in ways that suggest that we have come to some kind of understanding of animation as a generic category as well.

So how, then, are we to reconcile two seemingly disparate ways of talking about animated film? On the one hand, the term ‘animation’ is used in contexts where it is understood as the nominalization of the verb “to animate,” which points us to a recognizable style of production. At the same time, it is a short form of “animated cartoon,” a designation that has become a genre in which the style of production is only one element of many. These two versions — animation-as-genre and animation-as-style — have developed alongside one another, and while the construction of animation-as-style has influenced the how animation has been bounded as a genre, these can still be read as two separate ways of categorizing cinema.

In a subsequent post, I will examine how industry discourse about the animated film has created two separate but interwoven ideas about animation as both a style of filmmaking and a genre of film in itself.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Arlington Short Animation Film Festival and “Notes from Next Door” | 540 Feet

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