Animation cinema is a special technique of making movies shot frame by frame, or stop motion. The majority of animation is made by drawings or photographs. A small portion of animated films are made with photograms (which are created by placing opaque/semi-opaque materials on light sensitive paper and exposing it to light without the apparatus of a lens or camera, leaving behind a silhouette of the object when the film is developed).
As in traditional cinema, animation cinema is founded on a biophysical principal first experimented with by Isaac Newton in 1676: retinal persistence. When exposed to light, the photosensitive cells of the retina undergo a biophysical modification that is transmitted to the optic nerve. The “recuperation time” of these cells lasts a twenty-fourth of a second. Therefore, anything above a rate of ten frames per second creates a “composite” mental image. So, when seeing a succession of fixed images, of which certain elements are modified, the brain chronologically links the information and recreates the movement: this is the “phi phenomenon”, a theory first discovered by the Belgian Joseph Plateau in 1829. In the 19th century, numerous savants orientated their research in this direction, permitting the spread of numerous “optic toys” that applied the principle of retinal persistence which, combined with the photography developed by Nicéphore Niépce and others of the same period, led to the invention of cartoons by Émile Reynaud (1892), on one hand, and the creation of cinema by the Lumière brothers (1895), on the other.
Contrary to cinema in general, which is filmed in “real time”, animation cinema decomposes time. In general, a second of film thus corresponds to twenty-four frames. The time is only reassembled during projection and so it is referred to as “differed time” (or “deferred time”). It could also be said that cinema reproduces movement whilst animation cinema creates it.
Historically, Secundo de Chomon filmed El Hotel eletrico in 1905 by animating objects using the crank-turning technique, “one turn/one picture”. This name corresponds to the filmmaking technique of the time when operators filmed by turning the crank of the camera, eight images per turn. Some, more inventive, transformed their cameras in order to take only one photogram per turn, whilst the objects were moved around between each turn of the crank. Stuart Blackton displayed The Haunted Hotel in 1906, using the same technique. The first cartoon, Fantasmagorie, was filmed, in stop motion, by the caricaturist Émile Cohl in 1908, who also used this technique in Le Cauchemar du fantoche (The Puppet’s Nightmare). The same year, this industrious artist experimented with cut up and articulated paper (Un drame chez les fantoches, A Puppet Drama; called the Love Affair in Toyland for American release and Mystical Love-Making for British release), animated objects (Les Frères bout de bois Brothers Wood/Acrobatic Toys, using match-sticks), and finally animated puppets with Le petit soldat qui devint Dieu The Little Soldier Who Became God. He considered himself an “illustrator-animator”. In 1910, Ladislas Starevitch animated mounted insects to film Lucanus cervus, before making Le Roman de Renart (The Tale of the Fox) in 1930, using puppets and stop motion animation.
Puppets have inspired numerous animation cinematographers. In 1938, Jean Painlevé produced a puppet film made by René Bertrand, entitled Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard). George Pal, an animation cinema pioneer in Hungary (his country of origin), worked in Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands, where he made On Parade (1936). A ninety-minute compilation of his creations was made in the United States between 1940 and 1942 entitled The Puppetoon Movie (ten short films and extracts from ten other films) in which more than five thousand different hand-sculpted puppets were used. In the opening of Vincente Minnelli’s Ziegfeld Follies (1946) were Lou Bunin’s very “sexy” puppets, which he also adapted to figurine form in Alice in Wonderland (1948).
The Czech school followed the path first trodden by Jiří Trnka who, in 1924 at the age of 12, became a puppeteer in the theatre of his teacher, Josef Skupa. Thus, in 1947, Karel Zeman created a small, humorous character, a puppet named Pan Proukouk (Mr Prokouk), a hero from a series of films. In Vynález zkázy (A Diabolical Invention/An Invention for Destruction, a re-interpretation of a Jules Verne’s work, 1958), he mixed “deferred time” images, live action, and actors integrated into engraved sets as well as puppets. Bretislav Pojar filmed Un verre de trop (A Drop Too Much, 1954) whilst Milos Makovek made a puppet film La Sentinelle oubliée (The Forgotten Sentinel) which served as preparation for his remarkable film for actors, on a related subject, entitled Les Enfants perdus (The Lost Children, 1957). In Poland, Halina Bielińska produced Le Chapeau sous les étoiles (The Hat Under the Stars, 1954) and La Boîte à musique (The Music Box, 1956). In China, Yang Teï created The Monkey in 1959. The Frenchman Michel Clarence proposed a suggestive dance in L’Artichaut (The Artichoke, 1971). Many other cinematographers have been tempted by puppetry: Ivo Caprino, the master of animation in Norway, with Den standhaftige tinnsoldat (The Steadfast Tin Soldier, 1954), and Michael Myerberg (from the United States), with Hansel and Gretel where the mobility of the puppet’s faces was electronically controlled.
Most animation films consist of animating flat images that come from the entire array of graphic and pictorial techniques starting with drawings on “cellulose” such as Mickey Mouse, created by Walt Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks in 1928 in Plane Crazy. A year after the first audible film in the history of cinema came out (The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in 1927), at the same time as the second Mickey Mouse film, Walt Disney made the first audio cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Shadowed paper cutouts – silhouettes – were used by Lotte Reiniger for Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926), where the refined work on cutouts was well served by the sensual animation.
It is important to note that shadow theatre, in which movement is created live, on the spot, is not founded on retinal persistence. Therefore, it cannot, in any case, be considered an ancestor to animation cinema. However, the latter readily uses techniques from shadow theatre. Proof of this lies in Princes et princesses (1999), made independently and with few resources by Michel Ocelot, who cut out silhouettes of black paper that he animated using a sixteen millimetre camera. For direct drawing onto paper, one should mention Fréderic Back’s L’Homme qui plantait des arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees, 1987), based on the short story by Jean Giono. Finally, with regards to drawings onto transparent paper, Francesca Yarbusova must be cited for the “multiplane” (animation stand whose plateau consists of several transparent, horizontal and superposed surfaces) of Youri Norstein’s Le Conte des contes (Tale of Tales, 1979).
Pictorial techniques are equally varied. It can consist of oil paintings, painted and repainted, where every single change is filmed image by image like in Géméz Joszef’s Heroic Times (1985), which shows paintings numbering several tens of thousands. Dry or oil crayons modified by stamping, paintbrush, solvents or scratching were used in Norman McLaren’s The Grey Hen (1947) or Florence Miailhe’s Hammam (1992), and an aerograph (a type of airbrush) was used in Twenty-Four Variations on an Original Theme (1940), an abstract film by the brothers John and James Whitney, shot on 8 millimetre film. We can find drawing, scratching and painting done directly onto film (without a camera) in Len Lye’s A Colour Box (1934), in Norman McLaren’s numerous experimental films (including Blinkity Blank, 1955), as well as in The Nose (1963), based on Gogol’s short story, and performed on a “pinscreen”, a technique updated by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker: in a vertical frame thousands of pins are horizontally inserted. The points are stuck out in order to receive a cutting light. The more the point sticks out, the more luminous it is. Powders, sand and grainy materials are animated in Piotr Kamler’s 1958 film La Ville (The Town), Robert Lapoujade’s Trois portraits d’un oiseau qui n’existe pas (Portraits of the Bird-That-Does-Not-Exist, 1963) and Caroline Leaf’s The Owl’s Marriage (1974). The film Pas de Deux (1977), by Norman Mclaren in which a couple of dancers perform a superimposed chain of gestures that gradually disappears from their movements, recalling another technique: optic manipulation. The following can also be used: photos, photocopies, cut out or not, animated, etc. Animation film can also use the placing of objects on stage in front of the camera (giving it more volume), then filmed image by image or stop motion.
Other manipulation techniques are used in animation cinema. Cinematographer-sculptor-puppeteers can use modelling clay as in Will Vinton’s Closed Monday (1974) and Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit (1996) or the blown glass in Karel Zeman’s Inspirace (Inspiration, 1949) who went so far as to spin glass figurines, a different model for each character and for each frame. With regards to puppets used by animation cinematographers, they must be manipulated by an expert, and especially, “hold the pose” in order to be filmed frame by frame. In general, the characters are articulated by “twist-socket skeletons”, stuffed and dressed, or made of foam fitted with a flexible metallic string (copper, brass, lead, aluminium). They usually are not larger than thirty-odd centimetres, otherwise the sets, installed on the tables acting as the film set, would become too big. The incontestable master of this technique is Jiří Trnka. String puppets were used, for example, in Un comédien sans paradoxe (An Actor Without Paradox, 1974), animated by Robert Lapoujade, or Norman McLaren’s A Chairy Tale (1957), which narrates, accompanied by a Ravi Shankar musical score, the changes in humour of a chair that wants to be loved. The manipulation was assured by black nylon strings and the filming was done in “pixilation”, which consists of taking a series of frames of a single part of an action at different moments. If we take, for example, a frame of a jumping comedian the moment he is in midair, make him move and take another frame of him jumping in mid-air over and over again… at the time of projection we would see the actor moving without touching the ground. It was this technique that Norman McLaren used in Neighbours (1952). Animated objects appear in Étienne Raïk’s Alkathène circus (1957) or even in Renaissance by Walerian Borowczyk (1963). Paper puppets are used by the Japanese Yoji Kuri.
Jan Švankmajer (as well as his wife and collaborator Eva Švankmajerová) must also be mentioned. Inspired by surrealism, Švankmajer animates, with equal talent, modelling clay, objects, puppets… Among his twenty-five short films and four feature-length films, the most noted are Don Šajn (Don Juan, 1970, using large rod marionettes French: tringles and string puppets), Do pivnice (Down to the Cellar, 1983), Něco z Alenky (Alice, 1987), Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996), and Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000). His Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994) was an ingenious mix of stop motion and live action, puppets and humans.
The production of an animation film is a long, fastidious process that demands enormous amounts of meticulous preparation. The scenario is drawn from the synopsis, which presents the basic outline. The cutting-up of sequences allows the drawing of a story board which prepares the frames, the angles of shots, the movement of characters, the movements of the cameras, the number of frames, the lighting, the music, the dialogues, etc. The characters and sets have been conceived beforehand on a model-sheet, constructed, articulated, painted and dressed. All these combined elements are usually orchestrated by a rigorous “base-time” (twenty-four images per second for cinema and twenty-five for television, which is the speed of sweeping the screen by a luminous point). This can be reduced to eight images per second but this is detrimental to the quality, as the image becomes more jumpy. A long day of work will produce a few seconds of film. Animation assisted by computer allows for a considerable gain in time, whether it be in the creation of characters, in the multiplication of images, the drawing of intervals or movements in a 3D space, or a digitally conceived set. Peter Foldès used a computer for the 1976 Visage (Face). In 1986, John Lasseter produced, exclusively using digital images, both Luxo Junior and Toy Story in 1995, the first feature-length film consisting only of computer-generated images.
Films using puppets for their special effects must also be evoked, and this took place long before computers co-opted this process, often with a technological coldness that detracts from the poetic value of contemporary cinema productions. Citing the well-known: the “enormous” gorilla created by Willis O’Brien for King Kong (1933), which actually measured in at 45 centimetres tall, even if certain shots used a giant head, head or foot; or the combat between skeletons in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), a work by Ray Harryhausen, formed by the very same Willis O’Brien. Ray Harryhausen (b.1920) is known as the master at blending stop motion creatures into live action, human films.
At the beginning of the 21st century, animation cinema went in two opposite directions. One of super production on one side, which requires an enormous budget in order to call upon traditional techniques as well as the most sophisticated digital contraptions. And the creation of “art films” on the other, created with limited means. These productions are done “economically”: without film, development, film editing, limited tracking, magnetic or optic sound. The computer production programmes have become affordable, notably the DRAGON programme for stop motion filmmaking. However, an infinite amount of patience is needed, as well as a lot of passion, ingenuity in any scenario and a good dose of imagination, without forgetting the poetic vision of life necessary to animate puppets in stop motion.