Film Histories, Part 2: Animation and TV in Context

Several years ago, I did a posting which promised to be the “first in a series of posts in which I would evaluate some of the one-volume histories of film in English.” For various reasons, I neglected to follow through on it, though I never stopped thinking about it. For instance, I recently wanted to write about the importance of Mark Cousin’s documentary series for Britain’s Channel 4, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which is something of a game changer. Right now, though I want to comment on “the way [film histories] deal with (or ignore) animation and television.”

William Moritz

 

 

 

 

Among the assignments I give my graduate animation students is to write critical analyses of papers on film and animation history and theory; this is part of their preparation to do the written part of their MFA thesis (the other part is their thesis film). Basically, it’s part of an effort to shift their thinking out of term paper mode to original, scholarly research.) One article I recently assigned was William Moritz’s “Concerning the Aesthetic Autonomy of Animation and Why the Short Film is Not Just a Shorter Feature,” which he presented as a keynote address at the 1995 Filmfest Dresden. It is  something of a rant on the problems faced by independent animation filmmakers, especially in getting their works seen. It is also, at heart, a tirade against the conventional feature film (live action or animated) and in favor of “artists’ Animations.”

He begins by noting:

For the last thirty years, at least, the live-action feature film has been considered an artform—joining written Literature in College curricula, becoming sections of Art Museums, and celebrated in thousands of books, most of which have little to do with Art, and a great deal to do with Sociology. Since the live-action feature, by and large, is a representation of some particular social reality, critics can easily decipher the symbolism of Ingmar Bergman, dissect the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, decode the syntax of Robert Bresson, dismantle the narrative strategies of Orson Welles, or dismember Alfred Hitchcock’s intricate plots to find behavioral patterns, prejudices and assumptions, struggles between races, classes, creeds and sexes. For the Marxist, the Feminist or the Semiotician it is almost irrelevant that cinema happens to be the current vehicle, for the same proofs of conviction can be found in novels, opera, television series, MTV video clips, comic books, or any other medium with a social-based narrative structure.

Animation has been almost completely neglected by film critics, and when it has been treated, only the industrial cartoon and feature-length animations (from Snow White to the hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) have been considered, precisely because they also yield to analysis for sexism, racism, excessive violence, and audience demographics.

One might be tempted to dismiss this tirade as a rather naïve piece of special pleading on behalf of some of his favorite independent filmmakers, including Oskar Fischinger, whose biographer he was. However, despite all this, Moritz does bring up an important issue: why do the standard film histories largely ignore animation? (Similarly, I would also ask why they also ignore television, but more about that later.)

Moritz’s focus on short animations may actually be a good part of the reason animated films have often been marginalized. From a conventional film historian’s point of view, though, this makes perfect sense. After all, aside from pre-World War I era, the comedy shorts of such comedians as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, early Disney, and experimental films, the history of cinema is the history of feature films; no,  let me amend that, it’s the history of the theatrical features. It doesn’t matter that some of those who write these histories don’t like animation (some have even written quite eloquently about it in other contexts), it just doesn’t fit into their discourse (or their publisher’s expectations).

Moritz’s article strongly resonates with my students, who eager to make short animations; this sort of enthusiasm is not uncommon in animation, especially  as seen in their glorification by the major animation festivals such as Annecy, Ottawa and Hiroshima, as well as the nostalgia for the Golden Age of American Animation when Looney Tunes and Silly Symphonies were in flower.

The Situation in Television
The situation with television is, in a way, more serious. Though the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the central organization of film scholars is “dedicated to the study of film, television, video & new media,” television is treated as a separate discourse from movies. Though some critics love to point out the superiority of their favorite TV shows over the current cinema and the technological breach that historically seemed to divide film from TV seems no longer relevant, film histories continue to ignore the tube unless a bona fide auteur, such as Ingmar Bergman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, worked in TV.

This is compounded by the fact that there doesn’t really seem to be a good international history of television. Instead, we have the likes of Gary Edgerton’s The Columbia History of American Television, whose focus seems rather different than say Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film History. Even if Thompson and Bordwell wanted to expand their 780-page tome to include TV on the same terms they treat film, they would easily end up with a 2-volume book, which I suspect their publishers wouldn’t like. (Both are not unsympathetic to TV matters, as seen in Thompson’s book, Storytelling in Film and Television.)

While some animation histories, such Giannalberto Bendazzi’s Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, may have consciously ignored television, more recent efforts (including the forthcoming second English-language edition of Bendazzi’s book) have attempted to remedy this oversight. However, animation histories, at least in English, mirror some of the errors of the standard film histories by often marginalizing live action cinema and television. That, though, is not a mistake Moritz did not make.

Photo: Center for Visual Music.

 

The Case of Brenda Chapman

Director Brenda Chapman has her photo taken on April 1, 2008 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., when she was directing Brave.

Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar.

On August 14th, Brenda Chapman wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times,  “Stand Up for Yourself, and Mentor Others,” which starts off by asking, “How can we get more women in positions of power in Hollywood?” The piece was the result of Chapman being fired during the production of Brave, certainly the best film from Pixar in some time.

Needless to say, there’s something very wrong with the whole situation. Maybe I’m being a bit naïve, but here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and women still have to fight for recognition in what still remains an male-dominated industry?

Let’s see, in 1926 Lotte Reiniger finished The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a feature-length film which still inspires filmmakers around the world (including Michel Ocelet), that was certainly more sophisticated than what the Disney Studio was doing at the time. In the mid-1930s, Mary Ellen Bute began making her pioneering abstract shorts. In 1933, Lillian Friedman became the first woman animator at Fleischer Studios, until she was forced out of the business in 1939 because of her sex and pro-union views (Hicks Lokey called her a “crackerjack animator,” and Harry Lampert, who would go on to help create The Flash for DC Comics, said, “she was such a talent, you know! She was really excellent!”).

When I asked Dori Littell Herrick about her memories of working in an animator  before becoming an academic, she pointed out that she and other women were essentially invisible.

Which brings me to the time I was an Annie Awards juror back in the 1990s.  One of the categories I was to judge was that of animated TV show. The committee was ushered into a room piled high with VHS tapes for our consideration. There simply was no way any of the committee was going to be able to go through all these tapes in time and make anything like a reasoned judgment. Then fellow juror Becky Bristow came to the rescue. (At the time, I believe she was Acting Chair of CalArts’ Character Animation Program.) She insisted that we pick one or more episodes with a woman director. In going through the list of entries, she spotted what may have been an episode of Animaniacs, looked at the opening which featured an hilarious parody of the The Lion King opening, and it became one of the nominees. That clip was screened at the Annie Awards ceremony and was a big hit. I don’t recall whether it won an Annie that night, but it doesn’t really matter. Obviously, what we need today is to put someone like Becky Bristow in charge of a major feature animation studio with instructions to use women directors; I suspect we would be at least no worse off than we are now, and perhaps we might even be a bit better off.

Tangled

Tangled

Despite the unexpected critical admiration Byron Howard and Nathan Greno’s Tangled seems to have gained, I was somewhat neutral in approaching the film. In the end, though, I found much to admire in it, especially its use of lighting.

The film, which is inspired by the Brothers Grimm version of Rapunzel, is not without its problems. The story does not really gain traction until towards the end and its efforts to harken back to earlier Disney films  is a bit too self conscious. (For example, the scene in the boat pictured above seems to rather deliberately evoke a scene from The Little Mermaid.) Similarly, one could sometimes hear quotes from Beauty and the Beast’s music in Alan Menken’s score.

But the boat scene, however corny it may seem, does reflect the filmmakers’ use of lighting to invigorate a sometimes weak story. In the film, Rapunzel is kidnapped by Gothel, an elderly woman who covets the child’s magical hair, which can keep her eternally young (the hair glows when it performs its magic). Each year on Rapunzel’s birthday, the king and queen (and their subjects) send lighted lanterns floating into the sky looking for the lost princess.

In addition to light being central to the film’s narrative, the filmmakers have also used it to strengthen its dramatic and comedic impact; unfortunately, the stills available barely hint at what art director David Goetz and look and lighting director Mohit Kallianpur were trying to do.

Tangled

The use of a spotlight is an old trick that dates back to the early silent films of Cecil B. DeMille and is associated with his use of Lasky/Rembrandt lighting in movies such as The Cheat (1915) and Carmen (1915).  In the shot above,  the “spotlight” highlight’s our hero, Flynn Rider’s comic predicament. Below, similar spots are used to highlight Flynn’s more serious predicament after being arrested.

Tangled

Perhaps more interesting is the scene where Rapunzel discovers Flynn after he has climbed into her tower. Sunlight creates another spotlight which shines on him, but initially she’s in the dark; she then slowly walks into the light, as if to mirror her sense of discovery. Again, this sort of staging and lighting is old hat in live-action films, but I don’t recall other animated film doing anything quite like it.

What is so exciting about Tangled’s use of lighting is the sense of discovery in being able to use digital technology to expand the animation filmmaker’s palette. As such, it is a reminder of the fact that the possibilities of computer animation have barely been touched. Credit must be given David Goetz and especially to Mohit Kallianpur, whose job as and lighting director seems somewhat akin to that of a cinematographer.

Credit, of course, should also go to the film’s directors. It’s interesting to note that in commenting on Bryon Howard’s previous effort, Bolt, which he co-directed with Chris Williams, I praised the film for  its use of 3D stereo “technology to evoke some very credible environments ,” especially its impressive “recreation of the streets of New York and Los Angeles.” The use of stereo in Tangled is also helpful in similar ways, and shows that the folks at Disney seem to understand how to utilize stereo more effectively than their cousins at Pixar.