Death to Animation

By Dick Arnall

purple-grey-sebastian-buerkner.jpgPurple Grey, 2006

New names are needed; new ways of seeing

I believe it’s time to kill animation. Not the animation we watch, but the word we use to label it.

Everyone out there knows that animation means ‘invented’ characters brought to life on the screen by an animator. But those of us inside the world of the moving image, also use the term ‘animation’ to refer to just about anything that isn’t direct live-action, created by just about any alternative means for just about any aesthetic, narrative or conceptual reason. We lump together all these techniques, forms and ambitions, call them animation and, frankly, to say the least, it’s just not helpful.

In the UK the term ‘animation’ seeped into mass consciousness during the second half of the 1960s. Up to then we mostly had cartoon and it was mostly made for kids. But the arrival of Yellow Submarine in 1968 changed all that, with its psychedelic surrealism and visual references ranging from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol. Not to mention a dozen scintillating song sequences – music videos years before they were invented. This feature film clearly wasn’t a cartoon for children with families in tow. So, in the spirit of that excitable decade, the culture industry deemed that this was a grown-up cartoon, and called it ‘animation’.

perpetual-motion-in-the-land-of-milk-and-honey-al-holmes-al-taylor.jpgPerpetual Motion in the Land of Milk and Honey, 2004

Of course, even in the 1960s, those of us who were serious about film knew there was nothing novel about cartoons for adults. There was already a half-century history of animators and artists making thoughtful, mature, often mixed-media works – Len Lye, Walerian Borowczyk, Stan Brakhage, Saul Bass, Jan Svankmajer and hundreds more. So when I started a British film festival in 1967 to give a UK audience better access to their films, I very deliberately called the event the Cambridge Animation Festival. I wanted to signpost a defiance of Disney’s cultural hegemony and challenge the prevailing popular presumption of funny, gag-rich cartoons for kids.

And here we are in 2005, four decades later, in a world filled with funny ‘cartoon’ characters from Pixar, Aardman and Klasky-Csupo, and guess what, it’s all called animation now! Animation has become the new term for character-based, story-driven, frame-by-frame cartoon family entertainment. Which is fine and fun in itself, but where does it leave those of us who want to use similar tools and processes for less conventional ambitions?

rabbit-run-wrake.jpgRabbit, 2005

Someone I know well has just been commissioned by a European broadcaster to make a series of short authored films about the social and cultural associations around the hymns we used to sing in school assembly. She will be constructing her visual narrative from old family photographic albums, archive footage, illustrations; stop-frame model and digital cut-out, all treated, layered and melded into a rush of visual memory. Animation? Erm, well yes, there’s no other word to describe it. But it’s one she avoids using at all cost because that immediately requires a lengthy backtracking… “Actually, I won’t be making 24 drawings a second, the films won’t have characters, they won’t be funny…”

The UK-based animate! project is all about questioning received notions of animation practice. The submission guidelines for the annual round of commissions funded by the project could hardly be more provocative. “You do not have to be an animator to apply. Animation is not, and never has been, exclusively driven by frame-by-frame process but by notions of synthesis. Animation can be image re-presentation through spatial or timeline manipulation – or anything that could not be directly recorded in front of a live-action camera. animate! supports innovative content and ‘agenda’ as well as new forms and techniques.” But regardless, every year some submissions blithely assume that animate! might fund Harry the Hedgehog’s depressingly familiar cartoon frolics…

proximity-inger-lise-hansen.jpgProximity, 2006

However I’m not just proposing a new label for experimental artist practice. There are also epic blockbuster visions like the intensely invented and constructed worlds of Lord of the Rings and Sin City, seminal concepts like (British-born) time-slice that became the climactic bullet-time moments in The Matrix series, the high-energy visual mash-ups for narrative spin in Amelie or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. These all use conceptual boldness and a raft of animator’s tricks & tools to invent and manipulate the image, but the context and agenda is much more complex and thoughtful than making straightforward animation.

So, as I said at the start, ‘animation’ really is not a helpful label any more. Let’s return to ‘cartoon’ to describe regular character-based storytelling, whether it’s The Simpsons, Wallace & Gromit or Toy Story. Death to ‘animation’. It’s time to find a new word for “the extended moving image”.

This was posted on the animate! website in August 2005. Please visit for full details of all animate! events and ongoing commissions.