ANIMATION AND GENRE

 

By Midhat Ajanović Ajan

University West, Trollhättan, Sweden

Film genres and genre studies

Studying genre began to intensify from the 1960s and over the next decades become one of the most prominent areas of research in film studies. Cinematography took over the term "genre", which specifies a kind, type or category within a particular art discipline, from theatre and literature in order to make it easier to categorise the various ways of production which soon, in commercial filmmaking, became a kind of merchandise. Thus in the first period genres evolved as an expression of the commercial strategies used by particular film studios in the form of repetitions with variations. This presupposes a well-developed film production and distribution, as well as film consumption by mass audiences. Because of this, most genre studies are strongly associated with the Hollywood studio system in which film production almost immediately turned into an industry. Earlier film critics and filmography theoreticians tended to contrast so-called "art" or "auteur” films, which they saw as unique products that possess the integrity of artworks, to "genre” films, which they looked on as industrial products. They also, as formulated by Nikica Gilić, felt a kind of "aversion to genre" (2008: 53), but this is a tradition that contemporary film studies mostly dismiss. Namely, just like the "auteur theory" does not negate genre, so the "anti-genre" attitude is not a trend or a theory but an expression of complete ignorance of the of film medium, which is why serious film studies do not take it into account.

According to the prominent American genre researcher Rick Altman, the genre film can be defined as follows:  “Genre films are the films produced after general identification and consecration of a genre through substantification, during the limited period when shared textual material and structures lead audiences to interpret films not as separate entities but according to generic expectations and against generic norms” (Browne, 1998: 6).

Genres are not irrevocably and completely defined but are constantly evolving in the diversification process that Altman calls "genrification" (Browne, 1998: 186). This process is strongly affected by the relationship between audience expectations and the film industry’s commercial strategy, as well as by certain ideological and ethical value systems, which is more pronounced in film cultures outside the Western civilisation circle. The emergence of genres is, therefore, the result of a deliberate production policy, but sometimes film critics subsequently identify genres (like in the case of the sub-genre of the crime film called film noir) or they even appear spontaneously as a result of a particular distribution practice.[1] ”Genres are not born, they are made,” rightly argues the contemporary genre analyst Barry Langford (2005: 4). Studying genres is therefore a dynamic activity whose main features are incessant expansion and redefinition. According to Langford, genre study has three stages: (1) classification, (2) definition, and finally (3) determining the social function of a genre (2005: 10-11).

The theoretical and historical positions of genre studies also changed over time: genres have been studied from the perspective of production, reception, ideology and cultural context. It is important to note that genre studies mostly addressed fiction films, a film species that has been thoroughly analysed from the genre point of view, as Turković also claims (“when speaking about film, genre usually refers to a sub-species of the fiction film”; 2005: 52). The genres of fiction films are analysed on the basis of production routines and recognisable narrative types or templates (comedy, melodrama), theme (crime films), prominent elements of style (film noir), sound or visual conventions and stereotypes (musical, western), historical periods (period piece, war film, biopic), generic features (SF, fairy tale) and the like.

There is also an approach that starts from the concept of the myth as a universal primeval image and a way of experiencing reality shared by people in a particular society or culture. Langford believes that the myth concept should in the study of film genre be interpreted in the context of “social self-representation, the distillation and enactment of core beliefs and values in reduced, usually personalised and narrative, forms.“ (2005: 18). A different concept of genre research is based on historical, psychological and sociological perspectives. In these cases, genres are interpreted as kinds of systematised and routine social rituals that reflect certain common aesthetic and ideological value systems in a particular society or in a wider cultural and historical context. Thus ideological genre analysis would address the relationship between social norms and historical circumstances to gain understanding of the power relations in a society during a certain historical period. Film genres, seen from the ideological perspective, are perceived as popular fantasy and fiction which are used to create a meaning that serves the ruling ideology. Genre is interpreted as a discourse that influences the way in which the audience perceives and interprets reality, and genre consumption as acceptance of existing power relations.

Because of the constant development and branching of genres, two or more established genres often cross over (musical western, crime comedy ...) or several genres merge into a completely new genre or sub-genres, when several different genre types are formed under the same genre "umbrella". It seems that this kind of perception is very suitable for classifying forms, genres and genre types in animated films, and this can then be applied to digital animation.

 

Stunted “genrification” in cinematic animation

Although today opinions still differ, I have absolutely no doubt that animation is a film form or, depending on viewpoint, that film is an animation form, which I have discussed in other places. [2] But it is a fact that cinematic animation is simply ignored in a predominant number of genre studies or treated as a separate genre.[3] In response to this stand, the renowned Italian film historian Giannalberto Bendazzi begins his essay with a quote from Maureen Furniss on the website of Animation Journal:

On September 11, 2003 the American doctoral student Shana Heinricy wrote a message to the Internet discussion group of the “Animation Journal List” to ask for clarification. She said that the professor advising her for her PhD (!) thesis was making her call animation a “film genre” and she voiced her doubts in this regard. The scholar Maureen Furniss, coordinator of the group, answered sarcastically that if animation is a genre then so is live action cinema (2007: 29).

 

There is no doubt that the misunderstanding reducing a whole film form to a genre lies in the fact that film studios made animated films as a fringe activity. Even in the rare attempts at systematising the genres of film animation we encounter widespread simplification, confusion and contradictions. For example, animated films are traditionally classified as short or long. In his discussion of classical and post-classical film genres, Langford brings to mind the history of early cinema when film distributors tended to classify films under such heterodox (by today’s standards) headings as length (in feet of film) and duration rather than the content-based generic categories that emerged by 1910 (2005: 4).

In a way this classification resulting from screening and distribution practices was retained for the animated film, so the two categories of a short and feature-length animated film still appear as a kind of genre determinant. This categorisation results from the immense influence of the practice of Disney’s and other major American studios that globally, as Paul Wells concludes, " determined how animation should be viewed" (2002: 2). A good example of this is the practice of animated film festivals, such as the best-known in Annecy, at which short films and feature-length films are screened and awarded separately, as well as the case of the best-known film award, because since 2001 the Oscar is also awarded in the category of the animated feature in addition to the already existing award for the short film. Starting in 2005, Animafest introduced a separate biennial animated feature festival, which was for a time held alternately with the traditional short-film form. With exceptions and according to existing standards, the short film should last for about seven minutes, while features are considered to be about seventy minutes long. Under the influence, among other things, of television practice another "genre" was introduced, the medium-length animated film that lasts for about half an hour. In his pioneering exploration of the animated feature, which he explicitly calls a genre, Bruno Edera suggests five basic genres in animated film, and the main criterion is length. These are, according to Edera: (a) a spot or a, usually, commercial and mini gag-film lasting between 10 and 60 seconds; (b) a pocket cartoon, lasting between 50 seconds and 2 minutes, which most commonly takes the form of an animated anecdote or fable, (c) the short, between 2 and 20 minutes, (d) the medium-length film, between 20 and 50 minutes, and (d) full-length animated film (1997: 11).

Theoreticians of animation, who have particularly appeared since the late 1980s, such as William Moritz, often touched on the problems of genre in animation. Researching the ontology of the cinematic image, Moritz took a step further in discussing animation genres suggesting a classification analogous to genres in other, older and more established art forms:

Actually, the various sorts of animation are not really in competition. One should consider them as parallel pursuits, the way one handles genres of music and literature. Long narrative films would be equivalent to novels, plays and operas, while short narrative films would correspond to short stories, narrative poetry, songs or descriptive tone-poems. Abstract and non-objective films function like lyric poetry and non-programmatic music such as string quartets, sonates and concertos. I suppose story cartoons would be equivalent to jokes in literature and parody drag routines in music. (Canemaker, 1988: 24).

Maureen Furniss, on the other hand, advocates the categorisation of all film forms and types on the basis of two opposing formal elements  ̶  mimesis and abstraction, which she defines as follows:

The term ”mimesis” represents the desire to reproduce natural reality (more like live-action work) while the term ”abstraction” describes the use of pure form – a suggestion of a concept rather than an attempt to explicate it in real life terms (more like animation) "(1998: 5-6).

Furniss sets up a graphic structure in which completely "mimetic" films made in real time are on the left, such as Sleep (1963) by Andy Warhol. At the centre of the graphic presentation Furniss places a diagram illustrating the relationship between animation and live footage, with examples of films that combine animation and live action, such as Disney's The Three Caballeros (1943). The animated films closer to the middle of the diagram take the basic narrative and stylistic principles of the classic feature film, for example Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Further from the centre, according to Furniss, lie animated films that are more experimental, such as those by Norman McLaren, while the opposite end from the "mimetic" avant-garde films of the 1920s is still taken by series of works mostly by European authors (Eggeling, Richter, Rutmann, Fischinger, Lye ...) who explored the possibilities of cinema as an alternative form of expression in the field of abstract art. These efforts resulted in the concept of "pure cinema" or "visual music", in other words, films depicting music with moving icons in the same way that music depicts the visible world by using sound "icons",  i. e. tones.

A proposal of a different genre classification came from within animation production. In the very important book The Illusion of Life Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two key figures from among Disney’s group of leading animators known as "The Nine Old Men", preferred to talk about "types of animation" (stylised animation, a combination of live action and animation, the educational animated film and the like), but all this under the aegis of the Disney animation model (1981: 509-530). With the emergence of digital animation, which greatly simplified the production process and brought about new possibilities of rendering the illusionary film space and three-dimensional figures, another division into 2D and 3D animation was imposed, which often serves for genre-based classification in distribution and production practice.

Paul Wells is yet another animation theorist who ambitiously addressed genres, especially in the book Animation: Genre and Authorship, where he tried to define animated film genres emerging from the development of this film form, irrespective of genre classification in fiction or documentary film. According to Wells, the genre principles in films based on live action appear solely as parody or satire in animation " by virtue of their intrinsic difference as a form and as a mode of production " (2002: 44). Wells came up with seven basic genres in film animation, classified on the basis of formal and stylistic parameters, motifs and themes, iconic tradition, narrative structure, aesthetics and ideology. He distinguishes between: (a) formal animation, (b) deconstructic animation, (c) political animation, (d) abstract animation, (e) re-narration, (f) paradigmatic animation, and (g) primal animation (2002: 67-71). Wells's effort, unfortunately, seems too complicated and unclear even on the conceptual and terminological level, so his categorisation has not yet been applied outside the scope of that book.

Another fairly widespread understanding of genres should also be mentioned, which starts from the view that the live action film is in fact only a subtype or genre of the animated image as a much wider concept. This notion was already fervently advocated by the Polish pioneer of film theory Karol Irzykowski, who in the 1920s wrote that "normal film" is only a small "station" on the long path of the animated image.[4]

 

Object animation and image animation

There is, however, a material-technical approach to the problem of genre in animated film that is based on the conditions and criteria of animation practice, and which has spontaneously been accepted in historical and theoretical reflections on its development as a suitable basis for systematising and classifying types and genres of film animation. As a result of this understanding, genres in animation arise as an expression of the interdependence between the "base" (production preconditions, industrial process, material ...) and "superstructure" (style, aesthetic principles, narration, humour ...). A direct relationship between the material and technical foundation (some would say "the medium") and the aesthetic and spiritual superstructure can, of course, be recognised in the development of every kind of art, especially film. Many books on animated films have already been written that support this approach to genre. Thus, for example, Michael Frierson in the book Clay Animation explicitly calls clay or plasticine animation a genre defined by its basic feature - a combination of three-dimensional figuration and metamorphosis (1994: 21-25). Pierre Jouvance, in his analysis of silhouette film, mentions background light, strong contrasts, and contouring of the figures and backgrounds as the fundamental criterion for " what could constitute the silhouette film genre " (2004: 27).

Animated films are, in other words, directly dependent on technical assumptions, and the choice of a particular animation technique pre-supposes an aesthetic result, which Wells, too, acknowledges in his own way: "The generic outcome of the animation process is determined by its technical performance“ (2002: 60). Moreover, the technique of animation, concludes Wells, is a "fundamental principle" independent of the method used to generically systematise the spectrum of animation:

The process involved in making an animated film is dependent upon the technique involved; the ”studio” undertaking the film; the budgetary constraints and the broadcast context. While the process has common elements in every approach, there are significant differences – for example, in the execution of a ”puppet” or ”model” animation from a ”drawn” or ”cel” animation, or a ”clay” animation from a computer generated film. (2002: 15).

Referring to approaches such as Wells's we can already single out two major genre categories of cinematic animation - that based on animation of the image and that based on animation of the object, or stop-motion. Each of them would include a large number of genres, sub-genres and types. For example, stop-motion animation includes the puppet film, clay animation, object animation, ready-made animation and so on. All these, let us call them sub-genres, share the existence of an object or puppet that is gradually repositioned in front of the camera, and each movement is shot in a certain number of “frames“ to create the illusion that the object is moving; the movement can only be seen during the projection of the finished film.[5] Therefore the shooting, creating motion, as well as editing, are on the micro and macro level essentially the same as in creating motion for the animation of images or drawings. Thus, caricature stylisation in shaping characters and humour in the narrative are very often a feature of both stop-motion animation and image animation. Likewise, metamorphoses and transitions from scene to scene without a cut are present in the sub-genre of stop-motion animation based on malleable clay animation. But what makes stop-motion animation specific is the actual, continuous, three-dimensional space in which the animation process takes place and which is reproduced on the screen.  Regardless of whether the objects are specially made for film production - such as the puppets in the films of Wladislaw Starewitz and Jiři Trnka, or are existing objects brought to life in the pioneering films of  Blackton or films by the Macedonian animator Boro Pejčinov, or puppets made of found material - vegetables, fruit, stones, raw meat, etc. (as in the films of the prominent Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer) - what makes stop-motion animation a separate animation genre is primarily technical performance linked to a continuous space of a stage. Because of this, its origin, aesthetic and tradition are closer to the puppet theatre than to the cartoon and the comic, unlike the animation of the drawing, which I have tried to prove elsewhere.[6]

Another subtype (sub-genre) we could mention is the animated painting or photographic image using the „frame by frame“ method, which should not be confused with live footage that is rendered in a sequence of 24 photographs per second showing segments of motion recorded in real space. This type of animation was practiced, among others, by central-European filmmakers ranging from Karel Zeman to Zbigniew Rybczynski and Jerzy Kucie, and digitalisation made it extremely up-to-date. Of course, the cartoon (the animated drawing) remains the most widely present animation genre, perhaps not so much in production as in reception, and was for a long time used as a synonym for the whole form. Sometimes the cartoon is generalised to such an extent that it is generically categorised as a "film for children", which is another consequence of the enormous impact that Disney's production had on the overall development of the animated film; sometimes even the term "Disney movie" is understood as a genre. Because of this, some of the most complex twentieth-century animated masterpieces, such as those by McLaren or Norstein, are sometimes almost looked down on as "cartoons". In the book Film: zabava, žanr, stil (Film: Entertainment, Genre, Style) Hrvoje Turković, indicating similar misunderstandings, protests against the custom in public communication to classify cartoons (which he calls "a species") among film genres (Turković, 2005: 53). However, this is something that I would agree with. Yes, the cartoon is a genre (or rather a sub-genre) of film animation created by the process of shooting a series of drawings that represent the segments of a particular continuous or discontinuous movement. Several cartoon subtypes emerged during film history, which can generally be divided into comical, adventurous and cartoons for children, each with their own subtypes. For example, it is safe to say that the Japanese anime films can be categorised as adventurous fantasy, like the American film Watership Down (Martin Rosen, USA, 1978), but the differences between them are as obvious as those in the type of humour shown in films of the "Zagreb School" and American sitcom cartoon series (e.g. The Simpsons).

 

Digitisation: mass production and accessibility

But why do we today need this delayed generic spring-cleaning of a technologically largely extinct form such as film animation? First of all, because it will provide a starting point for the great work that film theory is waiting for: categorising digital animation, which has for a long time now not been "new" or "in the future" but is an important part of everyday reality.

A paradigmatic change took place in the production of animated images after computers, in the 1990s, completely pushed back the film camera. Modern animated images are directly created using various computer programs (CGI) or by scanning images or models that are later processed in a computer program. Digitalisation simplified animation production and brought new possibilities (digital video, digital space and figures, digital collaboration methods, nonlinear production, digital projection, etc.) to both large and independent producers. Animators have long since not been working bent over drawing boards but sitting in front of computer screens free of the strict production conditions and restrictions of the earlier studios. Equally, screening and distribution practices have changed radically. Animated films are mostly shown through computer-aided communications: online animation festivals have already existed for a long time, and films are screened on the Internet for audiences on all continents. This has definitively liberated the animated image from festival ghettos, where only the authors themselves and the few enthusiasts gave them attention. Animation is also no longer dependent on the extremely marginal space allowed to it in television programmes and cinema repertoires, usually reduced to the children's programme or special matinees in cinemas, but is constantly present on internet platforms.

This expansion of the offer and accessibility of animated images led to a great increase in the overall interest in them, to the extent that we can speak about democratisation in global production/reception without the risk of sounding pompous. Thanks to inexpensive animation programs such as Macromedia Flash or Toon Boom, more and more people are creating animated films on their home computers, choosing this particular form as their way of observing and interpreting the world and communicating with others. This mass production, ranging from mere entertainment through satirical comments on society to formal experiments, is now accessible to people on most of the planet.  Already in the mid-1990s many prominent animators began to turn to digitisation by replacing traditional distribution channels with the Internet. For example, the animation historian Jerry Beck believes that "the first artistically important online animation event" (2004: 318) occurred in 1997 when the artist and animator Christine Panushka, sponsored by Absolut Vodka, gathered thirty-three world-famous animators on her website "Absolut Panushka". Of course, this expansion of animation and increased interest in the form have radically changed the attitude to that kind of moving image in professional television and film production, so today as many animated feature films are produced in the world every year as were produced in a decade of the second half of the 20th century.

However, structuralising the study of post-cinematic animated images, their aesthetics, the historically-related formal system, techniques and styles, and the social context and the way of fictionalisation in our time - is impossible without prior knowledge, that is, without completely understanding cinematic animation as the starting point for digital animation. Let us at the end illustrate this through the example of what is known as collage animation, a technique (or "genre") that is experiencing a renaissance in the digital age. Earlier, this production method half-way between image animation and object animation was largely used in the studios of the former Eastern Europe, but since it is complementary with the Flash Program, it has become more widely used in digital than it was in film technology.  If we take as an example globally popular animated television series such as South Park (Trey Parker & Matt Stone, USA, 1997), Quads (John Callahan, Canada, 2001), Chilly Beach (Steve Ashton & Graham Clegg, Canada, 2003) and others, we will see that a digital surrogate of collage animation has in fact been dominant for over a whole decade.

This case fully confirms the Marxist argument, which is empirically difficult to deny, that a newer technology "sucks in" the older one. The assumption that 2D and 3D animation are analogous to image and stop-motion animation in cinema seems to be a good starting-point for observing and understanding the real avalanche of animated images that is inundating us from the diverse and omnipresent screens of today's world.

 

 

 


[1] For example, during the 1980s video libraries had whole sections with films starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger and others.

[2] See the chapter "On the margins of realism in film" in Midhat Ajanović, 2004, Animacija i realizam (Animation and Realism), Zagreb: Croatian Film Association, pp. 13-35.

 

[3] As, for example, by Rick Altman in the study Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing 1999), p. 127.

 

[4] More on this in Ajanović, Animation and realism, pp. 13-35.

 

[5] See the detailed study on stop-motion animation based on a wealth of hands-on experience: Barry J. C. Purves, 2008, Stop Motion. Passion, Process and Performance (St. Louis: Focal Press), as well as on the sub-genre of clay animation, in: Peter Lord & Brian Sibley, 1998, Cracking Animation. The Aardman Book of 3-D Animation (London: Thames & Hudson).

[6] See the chapter "The Humorous Drawing From Print to Film", in: Ajanović, 2008, Karikatura i pokret (Cartoon and Movement, Zagreb: Hrvatski filmski savez), pp. 65-115.