Why animation deserves to be seen as a medium, not a genre
Written by Will Tebo
Photography by Ashley Fritsche
At the 94th Academy Awards in March of this year, the presenters of Best Animated Feature (which went to Encanto) joked that parents have to deal with their kids watching such films “over and over and over and over,” et cetera, essentially stating that animation is entirely for children. This attempt at humor is misrepresentative at best, but especially unfortunate given that one of this year’s nominees was the adult-oriented Flee, a documentary that chooses to portray its true story in animation, and incidentally, was also nominated for Documentary Feature and International Feature. If we are to gain a proper understanding of animation as a culture, we must appreciate its capability to tell stories that live-action film cannot do as well, or even at all.
In early 20th century America, hand-drawn, or 2D, animation was pioneered by the experimental short films of Winsor McKay (best known for his comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland) and Max Fleischer (creator of Betty Boop). McKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur was created as an interactive part of a vaudeville act, in which McKay would shout commands at the onscreen Gertie, a playful and sensitive brontosaurus. The surreal, often macabre films of Fleischer (whose motto was, “If it can be done in real life, it isn’t animation”) had visual gags at every opportunity, contrasting with the more realistic style of rival Walt Disney.
Although Disney’s ambitious Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is often credited as the first animated feature film, the oldest surviving animated feature was made in stop-motion, in which staged objects are incrementally moved and photographed. More specifically, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is silhouette animation, a technique inspired by shadow puppets and pioneered by Reiniger herself, in which cardboard cutouts are backlit to dramatic effect.
Bringing fantasy worlds to believable life is one of animation’s most enduring qualities, but it can also bring a unique perspective to more realistic stories. The 2016 stop-motion drama My Life as a Zucchini has a childlike aesthetic that deliberately contrasts with its themes of orphanhood and domestic abuse, allowing you to see a troubled adult world through the eyes of its all-too-innocent child protagonists. Flee uses an un-ironic, simple style of 2D animation to recreate a true story of which there is limited live-action footage, whereas many other documentaries use brief segments of animation for purposes of dramatization.
Additionally, animation is inherently a tool for visual metaphor. In the French 2D short Aplasie, a man confined to a hospital bed observes a nearby restaurant through his window. As laughing customers engorge themselves, the hospital’s mechanical arms serve him platters of medicine-filled syringes. Taking utensils in hand, the man then proceeds to cut the syringes into slices, like sausages, and eat them.
“Bringing fantasy worlds to believable life is one of animation’s most enduring qualities, but it can also bring a unique perspective to more realistic stories.”
Jiří Trnka’s stop-motion short The Hand is an allegory for the artist’s own struggles under Communist rule, in which a potter encounters a giant white-gloved hand who wants him to make statues of itself instead. When he refuses, the once-amiable hand ties strings to the potter and literally puppets him into carving the statue.
Today, digital technologies have streamlined the process of animation, and made the tools for its creation more easily accessible to artists around the world. Boise has its own growing community of animators, including Boise State alumni Ben Konkol, who primarily uses digital software to create his illustrative style of 2D animation, and whose client list includes musician Willie Nelson and The Wall Street Journal. Boise State’s GIMM (Games, Interactive Media, and Mobile) program offers classes focusing on the creation of 3D computer-generated animation for video games and short films, and with the university’s Film program quickly expanding, more of these types of classes are potentially in its future.
Simply put, animation deserves to be seen as a medium, rather than a genre, for everything it is capable of. In the words of director Alberto Mielgo, winner of Best Animated Short at this year’s Oscars, “Animation is an art that includes every single art that you can imagine… I’m very honored because this is just the beginning of what we can do with animation.”