Book Review: The Illusion of Life II: More Essays on Animation, edited by Alan Cholodenko (2007, Power Publications)
When this book’s predecessor, The Illusion of Life, was published in 1991, it was the first edited collection of scholarly essays on animation, at a time when the subject was placed on the periphery of cinema and cinema studies. In the years since, animation is no longer peripheral but has begun to move to the centre of moving-image culture. Currently, at my local cinema, the biggest movie posters are dedicated to Bee Movie (Hickner and Smith, 2007), The Golden Compass (Weitz, 2007), Enchanted (Lima, 2007) and Beowulf (Zemeckis, 2007). This istestament to the rise of computer animated blockbusters and increasing hybridization of live-action with digital animation and effects since the mid-1990s.
American adult animated sitcoms such as The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and the more cultish Drawn Together have invaded prime-time television, and cable proliferation has spawned several dedicated cartoon channels for both child and adult audiences. A trip to any urban audio-visual retail outlet will now reveal large sections dedicated solely to Japanese anime and computer games, and, as screens have come to dominate our everyday space (cell-phones, laptops, ATMs, street-scape advertising) so has animation followed. No longer just seen as infantile frivolity, animation is finally being taken seriously with a place in film festival schedules; art and new media exhibitions; and assorted scholarly conferences and publications.
In 2007 alone there was, among other things, the launch of Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal (Sage) and the publication of two edited collections: Animated ‘Worlds’ edited by Suzanne Buchan and this substantial volume, The Illusion of Life II, edited by Alan Cholodenko. All three of these projects frame themselves as taking part in a struggle, or “internecine warfare” (Cholodenko, 2007: 50), a battle for the hearts and minds of animation scholars over the directions the fledgling discipline should take, and the merits and failings of different methodologies and approaches. From what I can see the main questions being raised are: what is the relation of animation to live-action film; should animation even be framed in this way, or are comparisons to graphic art or puppetry more apt; is the disciplinary growth of animation studies best served by “piecemeal” approaches to individual texts and practices or by recourse to Grand Theories of all animation (Buchan, 2006: viii & Pilling, 1997: xiv, after Bordwell and Carroll, 1996); and does cultural studies’ preoccupation with identity and content over the aesthetics or ontology of animation mean its practitioners should be tarred and feathered and drummed out of the field?
In this context, Cholodenko, in his fifty-eight page (excluding endnotes) introduction to Illusion of Life II, writes like a general marshalling his troops. Vindicated by the now pervasiveness of animation in moving-image culture, he reiterates his position from the first book: that rather than animation being the “step-child” of film, film, as moving image, is and always was a special case of animation (36). With regards to “piecemeal” versus “Grand Theories” of all animation, Cholodenko writes of the necessity of “working on both fronts simultaneously” (44), moving between analyses of texts and the illumination of theory. He also unapologetically trumpets his and this collection’s allegiance to the big French theorists: Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida et. al. (46-7), admonishes writers for using approaches (like cultural studies) that he deems to have lost their value, and chastises those who venture into the terrain of critical theory for their lack of consistency or rigour (42-50). Despite this amusing preoccupation with settling scores, and his at times delirious word-riffing, Cholodenko’s introduction provides a very thorough and most useful literature survey which will be terrific for readers both seasoned and new to the field.
The sixteen essays that follow are mainly reworked papers first aired at The Life of Illusion conference in Sydney in 1995. They continue very much in the vein of those from the earlier book, with the intent of bringing predominantly “post-structuralist” and “postmodern” perspectives to the study of animation texts and animation as concept. Like most edited collections there is variable quality and focus. It is divided into five sections of very different lengths, with post-war Japanese anime and US cartoon animation very well-represented, but just a smattering of essays on other topics.
The first section, “Japan”, comprises five very interesting essays on anime ranging across historical, philosophical, aesthetic and cultural history approaches. Kosei Ono’s detailed overview of animation in Japan since 1917 challenges conventional Western understandings that anime began with Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy, and gives valuable political and cultural context to the essays that follow. Ono does examine Astroboy too though, and particularly interesting is an anecdote about how Tezuka would stretch the very idea of “animation”, holding a still image for up to three seconds, safe in the knowledge that the sound and characterization would cast their spell on the viewer (106). Tezuka’s saucer-eyed, babyish figures provide the link to Pauline Moore’s fascinating essay, which interrogates the function and manifestation of cuteness in anime. She connects cuteness, or kawaii, to post-war (and post-bomb) cross-cultural exchanges between The US and Japan, and the Japanese concept of amae, concerning mother child relations. Moore is followed by Jane Goodall, writing on innocence and hybridity across anime and Warner Bros cartoons.
Next, William Routt’s “De Anime”, is a fluid dance through animation as metaphor with connections to liveliness, motion and the soul. He reads these concepts through both the manga and anime versions of Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita. In light of recent debates in animation studies about the utility of Grand Theory, Routt shows how a tight textual analysis and big-guns-theory can be lucidly interwoven, each shedding light on the other. Finally in the “Japan” section, we have Phillip Brophy. Readers of the first book will remember his stunning contribution comparing sound-image relations between Disney and Warner Bros cartoon films of the post-war era. Here, Brophy continues to consider the sound-image, attempting to establish a schema of anime’s representation of energy and apocalyptic scenarios. Along with Ono’s consideration of Tezuka’s three-second shots, reading Brophy reminds us of just how central the aural dimension is to the life of animation.
The second “United States” section provides some engagingly written pieces, the first being Robert Thompson’s essay on Bob Clampett’s work for Warner Bros. I was especially tickled by his attention to how such a recognizable character as Daffy Duck could differ between production units:
Clampett’s Piggy Bank Daffy is more acutely expressive than versions of the character from other production units. The deployment of line, volume and elasticity in drawing the character’s mouth, tongue and saliva create a precise and simultaneous visual equivalent of his juicy, lubricious diction (215).
Edward Colless’ ludic and erotic reverie weaving between Pamela Anderson in her red maillot as CJ in Baywatch and the uncertain sexual organs of The Little Mermaid works to transform the otherwise pedestrian and plastic into the stuff of ancient myth: sirens and water-nymphs. This is an entertaining read, but of more centrality to the ongoing concerns of animation studies is Freida Rigg’s "Husserl, Bakshi, The Rotoscope and The Ring" which examines Ralph Bakshi’s reliance on rotoscoping for his 1978 Lord of the Rings. She draws parallels between animation and philosophy, between Bakshi and Husserl. While some may find this an interesting connection to make, for me the most important questions she raises are around rotoscoping itself: did rotoscoping expand the notion of what animation could be or did it annihilate it? Animation practice and theory are currently grappling with similar questions in relation to motion and performance, with Brad Bird, director of Ratatouille (2007) pointedly labeling his film “100% animation”, and boasting in the end credits that “no motion-capture or short-cuts” were used. As long as this value continues to be placed on “purity”, tracing the history and cultural and critical reception of rotoscoping is an important task. This section is followed by “Japan and The United States”, consisting of one piece only: Fred Patten’s extremely well-researched consideration of the similarities between Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba The White Lion and Disney’s The Lion King (1994). Patten’s work here goes a long way to argue against Disney’s denial of their awareness of the earlier Japanese lion.
The fourth section “The Expanded Field of Animation” contains a number of disconnected essays from diverse perspectives. Rex Butler playfully pushes the concept of animation into allegory, in a complex journey across two live-action Steven Spielberg films: Schindler’s List (1996) and E.T. (1982), and one animated feature The Lion King. Ben Crawford looks at character licensing, a subject increasingly important in the horizontally integrated entertainment industry with money to be made from merchandising, computer games and theme park rides. David Ellison on virtual spaces and architecture and Patrick Crogan with a fine essay on flight simulators and logistics, both aim to shed light on digital animation history and practice. Crogan demonstrates to those who may still have thought that animation is just cartoons for kids, that there is something much bigger at stake, that raises ethical and political questions. He moves especially well between theorising and historicising, using the work of Paul Virilio to elucidate the development of flight simulators and the penetration of military logistical perspectives into civilian life and entertainment post World War II.
In the book’s final section there are some excellent general essays of an even more overtly philosophical bent, thinking through the very idea of animation, beginning with an essay by Annmarie Johnson that takes speech impediments such as Porky Pig’s stutter as the starting point of a journey through myriad European philosophers. Examining the history of the idea of animation in Western thought seems to me an important project in an emerging discipline. The interrelated concepts of “the illusion of life” and “the life of illusion” are more pertinent than ever to moving image culture, as the entertainment industry moves into the terrain of artificially intelligent synthespians and photorealistic digital animation in cinema, television and computer games.
One of the boldest of these essays, though it is by no means without problems, is “Animation 1: The Control Image” by William Schaffer. Schaeffer’s article takes Gilles Deleuze’s brief consideration of cartoon film in Cinema 1: The Movement Image as his point of departure in a well-considered contribution to thinking how exactly animation and (live-action) film differ. He writes:
What decisively differentiates animation in general from cinematography is the fact that the animator must physically encounter the fact of each frame and deliberately provide its graphic content, manually controlling the relationship between successive frames conceived as any-instants-whatsoever in the movement of a whole (462).
This echoes and inverts the old arguments put forth to differentiate photography from painting – that of the artist’s subjective hand versus the camera’s objective eye. Except the fly in Schaeffer’s ointment would have to be the degree of automation of
many forms of computer animation such as the reliance on artificially intelligent agents (such as the often cited armies in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) and algorithms to generate particular motions like rippling, flocking, swarming or vapourisation. Nevertheless, Schaffer’s argument is beguiling, and once you begin to think and test ALL animation through “the control image” it becomes a useful starting point to thinking about the varying degrees of control over the frame that different animation (and live-action film-making for that matter) techniques allow.
The final essay is from Cholodenko, and it begins as a very fine examination of the history of the idea of animation and artificial life going back to the Ancient Greeks. He explains that there is a split between an animistic concept of “endowing with life” and a mechanistic concept of “endowing with motion” (486-90). This split between the animistic and the mechanistic continues to exert a hold, as humans and other animals have since The Enlightenment been defined according to the reigning technology of their day. Where once science saw us as human machines in a clockwork universe, now cybernetic models of life and liveliness are dominant. Cholodenko is at his best when he is illuminating, historicising, making connections, as he is in the first half of the essay.
As many of these essays were first written for The Life of Illusion conference in 1995, it would be expected that some of them would be impaired from the decade gap between conference and publication, due to shifts in practice and theory, and the danger of raising questions since dealt with in other arenas. Surprisingly few essays here suffer from these problems, however. In part this is because many authors are examining texts that were already old in 1995, or else unskeining conceptual threads that date back to Aristotle. Of those who might otherwise languish, Patrick Crogan, evidently anxious about the problems of elapsed time for his work on the influence of flight simulators on computer-generated imagery, usefully provides a short after-word outlining the continuities and shifts for his topic. This helps to historically situate and retain the usefulness of his work. Cholodenko’s essay was first aired in 1991, but he appends a note declaring its continuing relevance. I have to agree, especially in light of the development of and media hyperbole around synthespians and digital bodies in the ensuing years. These figures and their cultural reception reveal the persistence of this fascination with artificial life, which has a heritage requiring excavation.
This is the time for animation studies, and this weighty book contains a number of essays that should be taken up by emerging and established scholars in the field. The field of animation practice is now so expansive that this book cannot cover everything, which also suggests that there should be room for any number of foci and approaches. Post-structuralist and postmodernist theories are used to strong effect by many of the writers in The Illusion of Life II, but do these theories help us to answer all the questions we might want to ask about animation? Other tool-kits – phenomenology, political economy, and yes, cultural studies – will ask different questions of interest to different readers. Moreover, when dealing with specific animation styles, the essays here focus largely on cartoon film, and there is nothing here on stop-motion, collage, or flash, to name just a few others. Readers looking for essays on such topics might prefer Animated ‘Worlds’ (2006), whose contributors are interested in the worlds that different styles of animation describe, present or apprehend, and the way we relate those worlds back to the one we know. Those interested in something of anime’s history, aesthetics and cultural logic, however, will be well-served by The Illusion of Life II in addition to Susan Napier’s Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (2006). Finally, The Illusion of Life II will also excite those, like myself, who are fascinated by how animation, generally as both practice and concept, taps into, manifests or complicates, philosophical, mythological, religious and scientific models of life and liveliness and their converse, death and deathliness.
Bordwell, David and Noël Carroll (eds) (1996) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin and England.
Buchan, Suzanne (ed) (2006) Animated ‘Worlds’, John Libbey Publishing, Eastleigh, UK.
Cholodenko, Alan (ed) (1991) The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation, Power Publications, Sydney.
Deleuze, Gilles (1986) Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Continuum Books, London and New York.
Napier, Susan (2006) Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, Palgrave Macmillan, UK.
Pilling, Jayne (ed) (1997) A Reader in Animation Studies, John Libbey, London.
Lisa Bode is Associate Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at The University of Queensland. Her research investigates the cultural reception of synthespians, and the digital re-animation of dead screen actors.