You write in the opening of the book that animation created a new kind of film performance, and you suggest throughout that it may seem radical or counterintuitive to discuss animation as a kind of performance. In what ways must performance studies be rethought in order to apply to animated film? And conversely, what might the study of film animation contribute to our understanding of live action performance in films?
So many questions, Henry! Good ones, too. I maintain that theatrical animation is a version of cinema and not some completely different form of expression or medium. As you know, it’s trendy now to claim that all cinema is a subset of animation and now that cinema’s dead, animation has made a phoenix-like return as digital fx and CGI. I don’t think so. There have always been uses of animation techniques outside of cinema—for instruction, for avant-garde expression, scientific imaging, advertising, etc.—but for me “cinema” is a constellation of things. Things like a social experience (especially in the twentieth century), an entertainment enterprise (in the business sense of the word), storytelling and spectacle, a cultural barometer, and potentially an art, to name the most obvious. Borrowing an excellent term from Thomas Lamarre, cinema has always been a multilectical performance, capable of many readings and participating in various social orders. CGI may be subsumed inside that performance in films like The Life of Pi, or it may enable performances outside the cinematic experience as a video game, Internet avatar, or whatever. I really don’t see a conflict here.
The discipline known as performance studies is almost unknown to most film studies specialists. And most performance studies scholars seem to be oblivious to or in denial of the possibility that movies, television, video games, virtual reality, etc. are also performances. (There are some enlightened exceptions, like Noël Carroll.) One of the devious schemes in Shadow of a Mouse is to break down the disciplinary walls between these two pursuits of knowledge. I’d like us to consider media performances and stage performances using the same tools and criteria. For example, I insist that human actors on stage or on film and toon actors in media are all fictive and imaginative constructions, and whatever can be said about one class of performer may be said about the other. I provocatively claim that toons are as “live” as any other movie actor. After you read it, I know you’ll be convinced!
In Before Mickey, you suggest that the trope of the hand of the animator played important roles in explaining and foregrounding the process of animation for early film audiences. Yet, your examples throughout the book suggest that the relationship between the animator and his characters remains a central concern well in the 1930s. What kinds of meanings get attached to this relationship in these studio era works?
When I first conceived of animated cinema as a performance art (it was in a talk I gave at DreamWorks Animation about a dozen years ago), it became clear to me that the “hand of the animator” trope was much more pervasive and persistent than the rather short shelf life I originally had ascribed to it, and that it was best understood as a performative gesture and not some vague anthropological or psychological expression (although those are performances too). Actually, “the hand of the artist” is a figurative performance because it casts the animator or artist as a conventional symbol of the act of creation that is manifested in all cultures and times. Although the image of the hand endowing its creation with “life” has religious connotations, the trope doesn’t have to be mystical or theological. Usually it’s just a convenient artistic device, a stock way of starting a film. As a performance it serves two functions. It says, “I, the animator, am creating this toon being for your edification and so you should assume that I have godlike or artistic mojo.” And it says, “Imagine that you, the movie watcher, are also an animator and you are bringing this being to life.”
In the earliest films the hand of the artist-animator or his performing body often was shown literally making the film. Think of Winsor McCay and his Gertie, or Max Fleischer and Ko-Ko the clown. But this seldom happened during the classicizing of the cartoon that I mentioned earlier—although the literal hand motif never went away altogether. Instead the interventionist filmmaker became either an implied absence (invisible but making us aware of him/her) or a symbolic creative presence in the narrative. Quick examples would be the adaptation of the mainstream cinema convention of voice-over narration, as when the animator-narrator explains the faux-travelogue locales in Avery’s The Isle of Pingo Pongo, or Bug’s off-screen hanky panky in Duck Amuck.
As I read your book, I found myself thinking about the role of personification and anthropomorphization in 1930s animation. There are scenes in the Fleischer Brothers films where it seems every element on the screen has agency. How might our inability to separate figure from field impact an understanding of animation as performance?
This is very perceptive. As I think about it, your idea of universal agency in cartoons is another reason for regarding these films as performative. Unlike a non-animated film shot with actors before a camera, in animation nothing is an accident. Everything is motivated, even if its motive is to create the impression that it’s unmotivated or accidental. The jokes in cartoons that the frame has slipped in the projector or that there’s a hair in the film gate are carefully scripted and executed “accidents.” So yes, everything has agency and participates in the show, even the reporter’s pen in Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame that grows a butt and starts dancing the hula along with Betty. That also suggests that everything has the potential to be anthropomorphic, which is another way of saying to perform as if human.
There is non-anthropomorphic animation to be sure, like industrial films showing how to assemble a motor let’s say. But it’s hard to imagine what a non-anthropomorphic cartoon or animated feature would look like, isn’t it? As the great Robert Benchley short The Sex Life of the Polyp shows, even simple animated squiggles can be personified as human.
You write, “If Hollywood cartoons have a soul, it is vaudeville.” What does screen animation take from vaudeville? Why do you think vaudeville images were so pervasive in studio-era animation?
My historical research revealed that vaudeville and studio animation were deeply intertwined. There were material connections. Cartoons, especially Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables series (which were funded by a vaudeville circuit), were regularly screened as “acts” on live programs. And vaudeville acts were frequently represented within cartoons. Mickey’s early appearances often depict him as a stage entertainer. And the Fleischers filmed actual vaud performers such as Cab Calloway and the Royal Samoans.
But the connection also extends to animation’s adherence to a vaudevillesque aesthetic (a concept I borrowed from you when you discussed early sound comedy. Thanks!). The short films pack a punch, they are structured like stage business (sometimes but not necessarily on an actual drawn stage), with repartee between figurative character types, slapstick, singing and dancing, and a “wow finish.” The films assume that their viewers had either contemporary experience with vaudeville forms or a memory of them (perpetuated by the movies and radio as much as by studio cartoons).
A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.
Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.