Pantha Rei: Re-theorizing Animation

Original paper written in 2005 (!) for MC71078A – Cinema and Society

Goldsmiths, University of London

Course Leader: Rachel Moore

The Sound of Music - Frame
The Sound of Music (Phil Mulloy, 1993)

— needs to be revised —

The Greek philosopher Herakleitos in the 6th century B.C. maintained that opposites form an inseparable whole and that this unity is in a constant state of flux under the struggle and passage from each state into its contrary. He coined the phrase pantha rei, everything flows, to describe the never-ending process of the becoming of reality.  If there is a primordial element which constitutes reality in its becoming, this element, according to Herakleitos, is fire.

God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, fullness and hunger; he changes the way fire does when mixed with spices and is named according to each spice. (quoted in Hooker 1996, online)

Animation fascinates. It hints at life as a whole, with coexisting dualities: that of the real and that which is imaginary, but real in our imagination. Animation is like fire: it moves and transforms under our gaze.

In it the rules of reality and reason are broken, animation provides a porthole into the fantastic world that resides in our own mind, and that manifests itself in our dreams and imagination. The world we intuit is true and we see it manifested. Animation, disobedient of reality’s laws, shows us the sensuous world that is often obscured by reason. We want the world of the absurd to be true, because in our fantasies and our poetry it already is.

From a love for reasoning and discipline, the whole of man was confined to his soul, and the whole of his soul was allotted to reason. […] There was nothing there for the poet […] (Eisenstein 1988, p. 34)

Eisenstein, when writing his thoughts on Disney in 1941, praised the value of the sensuous and affective experience, which seems to always be subordinate to reason. In his reappraisal of sensuality he speaks of the indwelling spirit in every material form of reality, a spirit that is perceived and manifested in man’s experiments with animation.

The heartless geometrizing and metaphysics here give rise to a kind of antithesis, and unexpected rebirth of universal animism. Animism, in which there wander vague ideas and sensations of the interconnection of all elements and kingdoms of nature, long before science guessed the configuration of this connection in sequence and stages.   (p. 35)

Eisenstein argued animism and its interconnecting spirit are present and brought forward in animation. An art form, and a commercial industry, animation appeals to our desire for magic and miracles to manifest themselves, and for that which remains hidden to come into the light.

‘That which is known to be lifeless, a graphic drawing, is animated’ (Eisenstein 1988, p. 43)

Leaving behind the confines of rational thought, we seek the movement and transformation of that which we know to be static. In its animation there is a satisfaction of our desire to bring things to life, and sheer pleasure in the contemplation of the magical trick.

This paper seeks to explain and illustrate animation’s allure. By tracing the origins of animation to optical toys, we can discover its playful nature. We will explore some of the reasons why animation has been employed and discuss the properties that have appealed to us in our subconscious and conscious perceptions. Expanding on some of animation’s attributes identified by Eisenstein, we will see how they hold true today.  We will look at the element of fire and the state of intoxication as catalysts  which bring the barriers of rational censorship down.  Along the way we will review some examples of animated work by modern artists and see how they achieve the joy of astonishment by bringing the world of fantasy into our everyday life.

Man’s desire to capture and represent movement is not exclusive to our time. As far back as the Palaeolithic age we find our first attempts at depicting the motion we observe and experience in real life. Thousands of years ago the cave men of Altamira wanted to portray a running bison and did so by adding a few legs to their painting, the same technique that futurist painters, like Giacomo Balla in Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash would also employ.  Since the first drawing of the eight-legged and elusive prey our attempts to incorporate movement in our representations have become increasingly sophisticated but our desire has not waned.

All that is alive seems to move and perhaps it is our yearning to understand life itself that makes us want to capture its moving essence in our creations, as if by depicting motion in our art we could better come to terms with what life is. A look at the etymology of the word also points in this direction: animation is an offshoot of the word anima which in Latin referred to the soul. By animating our creations we give them a soul, a life of their own, a life imbued with the potential of becoming anything we want.

A number of technical developments had to take place in order for animation to progress from what would seem stop motion frames painted on the Egyptian walls 5000 years ago, showing sequential poses of the wrestling warriors, and what we understand today as animation.

Animation nowadays generally refers to the technique (and the motion picture produced by it) in which each picture, or frame of a film, is produced individually and then photographed or recorded. Each still image shows successive positions of inanimate objects or slight progressive changes in a series of drawings (either hand-drawn or computer generated). When viewing the images in sequence at the right speed, there is an illusion of continuous movement. It is interesting to consider Norman McClaren’s definition:

‘Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but rather the art of movements that are drawn.’ (quoted by Wells 1998, p.10)

This illusion is generated by the perceptual process called persistence of vision, by which our brains and retina retain an image of what we see for an additional split-second. This allows us to perceive motion where in reality there are only a series of flashing static images. Peter Roget officially identified this perceptual process in 1824.

It is the 19th century and its scientific and technological discoveries that allowed man to first begin to play with the illusion of movement and the first devices that held our attention were optical toys, in honesty: not objects of art but things with which we played and amused ourselves. The history of animation, as recounted by most books on the subject and online sources, mark the first animated toy as the thaumatrope, the turning miracle, whose creation is attributed to John A. Paris amongst others, and consists of a simple disc with complimentary images on either side, a bird and cage to cite the most common example, that when spun on a string superimposes the two images: the bird magically appears inside the cage.  Although the thaumatrope does not reproduce movement, it relies on persistence of vision to produce its magic and was a playful novelty in 1826. The phenakistoscope or spindle viewer, and also known as fanstoscope or phantasmascope, was the first device to create the illusion of movement. Its creation is credited to Joseph Plateau, at the time when other similar contraptions, such as the stroboscope, were being produced. The phenakistoscope was a disc showing a progression of images that when spun around a central axis and viewed through slits in a mirror, showed the movement of the images. William George Horner brought the daedalum or wheel of the devil, which was not surprisingly marketed more successfully a few years later as the zoetrope or wheel of life and which consisted of an open cylinder with slits cut at regular intervals in its upper wall. Inside the drum were a succession of images which appeared to move when the cylinder was rotated. John Linnett invented the kineograph or flip book in 1868 and Emile Reynaud in 1877 took the zoetrope one step further by inventing the decisive toy: the praxinoscope which offered an inner circle of mirrors to reflect the images, which were now much clearer to the viewer and would later be viewed in his praxinoscope theatre. It was also Reynaud in 1892 who, making use of transparent and flexible material, projected animated pictures publicly for the first time on a screen in the Musée Grévin in Paris in what he called the Theatre Optique, and thus gave birth to animation as we know it.

Edison’s kinetoscope and finally the Lumier brother’s cinematograph brought the ultimate machine to reproduce movement which would replace the optical toys and become the medium on which animation would be produced for the following decades until the advent of computer animation. From 1900 onwards, numerous animation techniques would coexist with live action films: blackboard drawings, drawings on paper and direct paintings and etchings on film stock, silhouette animation, clay and puppet animation, cut-out animation, pixilation in which real objects were animated frame by frame and even animation of raised pins, sand, melting wax or drawings with soap on glass. The first twenty years of the century brought the creation of dozens of animators in the U.S. and Europe, James Blackton, Arthur Cooper, Emile Cohl, Charles Armstrong and Windsor McCay to name a few. It seemed that being able to reproduce live action still did not satisfy our desire to recreate the motion of what lurked in our imagination.

There are different reasons for using animation instead of life-action footage. On the one hand its use has been justified economically, even in the 1930s animation techniques were employed as a cheaper alternative to live footage (Thompson and Bordwell 2003, p. 319), this is even more true today, where a computer and some basic software can allow a single person to produce an award-winning short. Animation also allows us to transcend the restrictions imposed by real-life: the laws of gravity are disregarded and characters can fly at will, objects bend or break at the force of a blow, our characters can inhabit landscapes of which we have only dreamed. In this sense, Hollywood movies like Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) and its sequels recreate a word that is now lost to us and present with credible realism that which is only possible through today’s animation techniques; movies such as The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999) create imaginary futurist backdrops and bring to life a computer manipulated world where live action seamlessly takes place. The list of films that utilize some of form of animation to compensate for what cannot be captured with the lens of a camera is long and continues to grow.

Animation has also habitually been used in advertising, in 1955 as many as two thirds of all ads were animations (Animation Nation, 2005) and from counting the number of ads that use this technique, I would venture to say today this ratio is true today. Animation in this industry is not only used because it is a more economic form of production, but also because it allows the creation of characters with which a brand can by identified. Animated mascots give a product a personality, which is not necessarily attached to a particular class or race, and by being mildly entertaining can easily be remembered. Today, animation is still a very big part of the advertising and corporate world. It is surprising how many of the production companies, who on one side win awards for their artistic projects with animation, derive their main income from commercial work in advertising and the development and animation of corporate identities.

Often when people think of animation they bring to mind the cartoons that American animators, most notable Disney, made popular and which have filled children’s television for decades. This is what Paul Wells has called “orthodox animation”: cartoons primarily linked to the mass production engendered by the cell animation technique. Orthodox animation has specific attributes that have made their formula accessible to broad audiences and ensured their success in the marketplace: main characters are identifiable figures, there is a logical continuity of a narrative structure, content is emphasized over form, there is a unity of style from the which the author or animator is absent and action and character are determined by the dynamics of dialogue. (Wells 1998, p.35 – 39).

In opposition to these characteristics, we find what has been called experimental animation, and it is significant to point out that ‘in the beginning all animation was experimental’ (Russett and Starr 1988, p.32) and rather than try to reproduce reality as we see it, and that some advanced computer graphics software now successfully achieve, or create appealing characters to tell a story, many artists at the beginning of the century, particularly in Europe, were more interested in giving movement to abstract painting and exploring the connection they could establish with rhythm and music. Oscar Fischinger’s Studies (1929 – 1933) amongst many other of his short animations, show simple figures: lines, squares and circles dancing about the screen in synchronized animation to a piece of classical music. Fischinger also collaborated in Disney’s Fantasia (Algar & Armstrong, 1940), perhaps the most famous feature to bring music to the screen through animation. The film’s approach to dance and music remains current as contemporary artists continue to explore animation as an artistic expression closely related to music.

Erica Russell’s work is a good example of what she calls ‘post-modern dance animation’ (Russell 1997, p.38).  In her shorts Feet of Song (1989), Triangle (1994) and Soma (2001) she animates sometimes stylised or abstract human figures and makes them dance to African music. The forms move in rhythm forming patterns, they transform into the shapes of their dance and allow their colours and contours to gracefully and erotically intertwine and merge.

If animation is interested in the soul of the object, as we have seen the etymological origin of the word and Eisenstein’s writings on animism suggests, this interest also derives from the necessity for the animator to know the subject being created, to study the movements and the expressions in order to capture and reproduce them.  As German animator Lotte Reiniger stated in an interview published in Sight and Sound in 1936, ‘a study of natural movement is very important, so that the little figures appear to move just as men and women and animals do.’ (quoted in Russett and Starr 1988, p.82)  Reiniger wanted to achieve the most natural movement for her silhouetted puppets, and although other animators may not have realism as their goal, characters need to move in a way that is coherent to the animated being, and inspiration always comes from the study and careful observation of what surrounds us. It is human expression, animal behaviour, the movement of leaves on a tree shaken by a gust of wind and the waves of the ocean pounding on the beach which inspire and give form to animated beings and their animated worlds.

Animation brings us closer to the visualization of our sensuous experience. If you bang your head hard enough, you head and body reverberate with the echo of the blow, you sometimes even hear the high-pitch tweeting of birds circling around you. When something infuriates you, you feel your heard swelling up with steam which seems to spurt out your ears, you might even think you are turning into an erupting volcano.  When you trip, there is an instant in which time stands still and you realize you are about to fall to the ground, like Wile E. Coyote in the Warner Bros. cartoons as he looks to the camera before plummeting down the canyon.  Animation humorously brings into being the metaphors of our experience.

As subjective as the camera can be in live-action filming, it is animation that truly allows for the representation of our random and dream-like thoughts. It is the hand and mind of the artist that create the world brought to the spectator.

The framework of dreams, like that of animation, is not restricted by reason. Freud’s work on the human subconscious has provided the backbone for dream analysis and the explanation for their existence and mysterious ways, and some of his theories may serve to further illustrate our attraction to animation.  Freud has written that it is our subconscious that manifests its desires in dreams, and that our psyche has a censorship system in place to control the desires and wishes that could prove too perverse or disturbing.  It is this censorship system, in full operational mode in our waking hours, which disguises and cloaks the wishes of our subconscious in symbols and incoherent stories in dreams, and it is only through interpretation that we can come to terms with the hidden meanings in them.

Closer investigation of the daytime fantasies shows us how right it is that these formations should bear the same name as we give to the products of our thought during the night – the name, that is of “dreams”. […] Like dreams, they are wish-fulfilments; like dreams they are based to a great extent on impressions of infantile experiences; like dreams, they benefit from a certain degree of relaxation of censorship. (Freud 1954, p.492)

Hanna Segal refers to Freud’s work linking daydreams and dreams, and moreover, daydreams and art.

Unconscious phantasy underlies and colours all our activities however realistic. But certain phenomena and activities aim more directly at the expression, elaboration, and symbolization of unconscious phantasies. Not only night dreams, but also day-dreams, play, and art, fall under this heading. (Segal 1991, p. 101)

Daydreaming and the artistic creation, in our case animation, seem to fool the conscious and get around the barriers of auto-censorship to manifest our deepest desires and thoughts.  It is often quite literally the world of dreams that is translated into animation, as Black Dog (De Vere, 1987) illustrates. This short narrates a woman’s journey of self-discovery that commences as she falls asleep. Accompanied by a black dog that at time turns into her protector and teacher, she learns the price of succumbing to material and sensual pleasures at the hands of the Fates, and faces her deepest fears as she discovers the joys of art, companionship and childbirth. Black Dog is brimming with symbolic images: from nearly drowning in the river of Oblivion and a bridge that crumbles as she follows her newly born (magically transformed) son, to the archetypal nightmare scenario of discovering her naked body in an open space.  This work of animation, considered by many to be De Vere’s masterpiece, explores femininity and the nature of desire by deciphering the language of dreams.

Rachel Moore suggests that animation is a porthole into the fantastic. We acknowledge reality and its constraints, we know the way things are, but we often wonder “what if they were a different way?”, “what if the impossible could happen?”, “what if something magical were to irrupt in our reality?”. Animation offers us a window through which the implausible becomes believable, we recognize reality but we want it to me so much more, we want the magical, the unreasonable, the irreverent to come into our world.

We live in a world of reason and utilitarianism in which every action serves a purpose, in which every effort must produce a result, yet we still seek the actions that are fruitless, the acts that give us pleasure in the act itself. Lyotard gives a clear example in Acinema:

A match struck is consumed. If you use the match to light the gas that heats the water for the coffee which keeps you alert on your way to work, the consumption is not sterile, for it is a movement belonging to the circuit of capital: merchandise/match à merchandise/labor power à money/wages à merchandise/match. But when a child strikes the matchhead to see what happens – just for the fun of it – he enjoys the movement itself, the changing colors, the light flashing at the height of the blaze, the death of the tiny piece of wood, the hissing of the tiny flame. He enjoys these sterile differences leading nowhere… (Lyotard 1986, p. 350-351)

Rachel Moore called this non-productive expenditure. In speaking of the attraction we experience to attraction itself, Moore explains based on Tom Gunning’s Cinema of Astonishment, that our attraction is a form of modern shock, that ‘astonishment also produces an immediate sensation, a moment of physical joy’ (Moore 2000, p. 123) and that,  ‘in so far as we turn away from explanation towards attraction’s theoretical revelry, we regain the immediacy and intimacy lost to what Bataille calls labor’s operations’. (p. 123)

Animation produces this reaction of astonishment; the spectator is subjected to a physical or psychological stimulus, to a demonstration of the magical possibilities of cinema. (Gunning 1986, p. 65).  Random and magical things happen in animation for no other reason than because they can.  We find pleasure in this astonishment; there is no rational need that must be met, it is our desire for randomness and fantasy that is being met.

‘As far back in time as we can go, the gastronomic value has always been more highly prized than the nutritive value, and it is in joy and not in sorrow that man discovered his intellect. The conquest of the superfluous gives us a greater spiritual excitement than the conquest of the necessary. Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need.’ (Bachelard 1964, p.16)

We are held in fascination watching the movement and transformation of a world that is not like our own, but a world that corresponds and is the answer to our desires: things move of their own accord, they change and morph like they do in our dreams and imagination.

In speaking of Disney’s cartoons, Eisenstein coined the term “plasmaticness” to describe the morphing faculties of animated entities and sustains our attraction is derived from this ability to defy a given form and undergo a transformation.

And you can’t help but arrive at the conclusion that a single, common prerequisite of attractiveness shows through in all these examples: a rejection of once-and-forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form. An ability that I’d call “plasmaticness”, for here we have a being represented in a drawing, a being of a definite form, a being which has attained a definite appearance, and which behaves like the primal protoplasm, not yet possessing a “stable” form, but capable of assuming any form and which, skipping along the rungs of the evolutionary ladder, attaches itself to any all forms of animal existence. (Eisenstein 1988, p. 21)

In this fluidity, in which the characters and objects move, evolve and change shape while remaining whole, pantha rei, everything flows and there is a reference to the primordial being, a memory of our existence.  In this transformation we recall our own human evolution, from single-celled bacteria, to fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates and finally man, to trace our ancestry in a sentence, from the fertilized zygote, through foetal development to the birth of a baby. There is a modern-day and precise example of this idea in the music promo produced for Fatboy Slim’s song Right here, right now (Hammer and Tongs, 1999), beginning with the flash of lighting that generated life in the sea, the video portrays with live puppet action and morphing animation the story of our evolution from microorganism to the overweight hamburger-eating man of our age.  We sense our own fluidity and ability to metamorphose.  The metamorphosis undergone by animated characters greatly appeals to our desire to become other, it appeals to an intrinsic knowledge that we could be something other.  We gain insight into our sense of omnipotence.

In the worlds we create forms are not forced to obey nature as we know it, they are free.  ‘

The tendency is the same: a displacement, and upheaval, a unique protest against the metaphysical immobility of the once-and-forever given.’ (Eisenstein 1988, p. 33)

In his interest in liberating the forms from the laws of logic, Eisenstein also explored our fascination with fire, and the trance-like state in which it holds us in its contemplation. Fire is fluid, it is ‘excess and want’ as Herakleitos has foretold 26 centuries ago.

And what, if not fire, is capable of most fully conveying the dream of a flowing diversity of forms?! (Eisenstein 1988, p. 24)

Fire is the element whose image most closely provokes and captures our sensation of rapture.

Ecstasy is a sensing and experiencing of the primal “omnipotence” – the element of “coming into being” – the “plasmaticness” of existence, from which anything can arise. And it is beyond any image, without an image, beyond tangibility – like a pure sensation. (Eisenstein 1988, p. 46)

‘The communion of life and fire’, is how Bachelard introduced another trance-inducing element, alcohol or fire-water, and whose discovery he described as ‘a triumph of the thaumaturgical activity of human thought’ (Bachelard 1964, p.83)

In vino veritas, there is truth in wine, the saying portends the breakdown between reality and fantasy suggested by our consumption of intoxicating substances, where the barriers of censorship in our own minds are brought down and the truth is revealed. In film it is often the portrayal of an inebriated state that opens the porthole into fantasy through animation. In Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939) it is the drunken Greta Garbo, who lying on her bed sees Lenin’s portrait transform from the stern expression representing communism’s asceticism to a condoning smile of her new bourgeois happiness.

The introduction of fantasy into reality does not have to serve a pleasant purpose, and is often achieved by disrupting the actual film medium through animation and shaking the viewer into recognising the interruption. As Bolter and Grusin describe for Hitchcock’s films Spellbound (1945) and Vertigo (1958):

When characters are in mental balance, the camera is a transparent lens on the world; when something is wrong (they are drunk pr physically or mentally ill), the subjective camera offers a distorted view that makes us aware of the film as a medium and often incorporates or refers to other media. (Bolter and Grusin 1999, p.152)

“How very strange, as if the world were drunk” is the subtitle to Oscar Fischinger’s Spiritual Constructions (1927). This black and white animated piece begins with silhouettes of two figures who as they drink begin to transform into other objects and abstract shapes. As if alcohol were a magic potion that breaks the rigidity of our own bodies and allows for the manifestation of our internal experience.  It is also drug-induced states that bring to life Gerald Scarfe’s animated metamorphoses in Pink Floyd: The Wall. (Parker, 1982) Animation is drunken and somewhat sinful in its disregard for authority and censorship, both internal and external.

In circumventing the external censor, the language of animation has also been used for serious purposes. Animal Farm (Batchelor and Halas, 1954), uses animated drawings to tell the story of a farm in which a revolution has taken place and narrates the subsequent corruption of the new system. Animal Farm, based on George Orwell’s book of the same name, is an allegory of the Russian revolution and delivers its satirical message of political and social criticism through what the casual observer would deem an animated program for children.

Animation has the ability to depict the vices we envisage in society with incredible poignancy; by translating thoughts into images, animators have the freedom to exaggerate specific traits and portray the faults to the full and often shocking extent.

The work of British animator Phil Mulloy has portrayed the darker side of human nature in a series of disturbing shorts. The Cowboys series (1991), The Sound of Music (1993), The Ten Commandments series (1994 –1996) and Intolerance I & II (2000 – 2001) address the violence, greed and hypocrisy in today’s society. They highlight the vices by creating grotesque characters that steal, murder and rape with complete disregard to human dignity. No live action portrayal could so effectively stun the viewer, and its effect is achieved because we recognize those traits.  In these and other examples of Mulloy’s work, Eisenstein’s plasmaticness is put to use, not for a magical and wondrous purpose, but in a horrifying account of what we are and what we can become.

In the freedom of shape shifting, we also perceive the sense of becoming: of transition between stages and of reconciliation of dualities. Apparently unrelated ideas are brought together in a dialectic, which we intuit as the truth of the whole, the unity of which Herakleitos spoke. Paul Wells recognizes the potential of animation of connecting in an insightful manner opposing elements.

Even in the most hyper-real, stylized or simulated of animation, the reproduction of the physical, or the seemingly non-tangible, in a material way, is provocative and incisive in illustrating apparently inarticulable essences of meaning that are extraordinarily difficult to communicate in any other form.  (Wells 1998, p.93)

Speaking of philosophy, Bachelard makes a statement of uniting two opposites: poetry and science.

The axes of poetry and of science are opposed to one another from the outset. All that philosophy can hope to accomplish is to make poetry and science complementary, to unite them as two well-defined opposites. (Bachelard 1964, p.2)

And if animation followed Bachelared’s proposal for philosophy, it conjures the world of our subconscious, our fantasies, our poetic creations and makes use of reason and the machines it has created to bring it all to life.

We recognize we live in a world of scientia (as the Latin definition of a knowledge that arises from what is divided and measured). And using Martin Heidegger’s etymological differentiations in The Essence of Truth, we seem to live in a world where truth takes its Latin sense of veritas – that which is equated to our intellect, but we also recognize within us the sense of truth in the original Greek sense of aletheia, unconcealment or revealment (Heidegger 1949, p. 333), a truth that is discovered and does not derive from measurement or rational certainty, and intuition more than a rationalization.

Animation appeals to our intuition. It brings together the serious with the playful, the sensuous experience with the world of dreams. It is art that stem from a scientific project, and it exposes, as Bachelard said of fire, the old man in the young child, the young child in the old man, the alchemist in the engineer. (Bachelard 1964, p. 4)

Animation offers that porthole into the fantastic, into that truth of complementary opposites, and in the processes of morphing, a window into the sense of becoming, and we are still today held fascinated by it.


Animated mirrorball. 2000. Video. Produced & directed by Nicola Black. UK: Blackwatch / Channel 4.

Animation nation, Programme 1: The art of persuasion. 2005. Video. Produced & directed by Merryn Threadgold. UK: BBC.

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