Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Definition of Animation
(August 6, 2006)

With the discussions about how critics write about Monster House and A Scanner Darkly, I think it’s useful to spend some time to actually define what animation is. There’s a lot of confusion among critics and even some people in animation.

In live action, movement exists in real time in the real world. It’s observable without any technology. On film or on tape, live action is the re-creation of motion through the rapid display of still images. The key word there is "re-creation.” The motion already exists. It’s recorded by sampling it at a given frame rate (24, 30 or some other number of frames per second) and then when those sample images are displayed in rapid succession, our flawed eyes see them as moving.

The flaw in our eyes is referred to as persistence of vision. When an image is removed from in front of us, it remains on our retinas. Movies and TV use this flaw to replace the old image with a new one before the old one fades away. Our retinas are just not fast enough to keep up with what’s actually happening.

In the case of animation, no motion exists in the real world for recording purposes. Animation is the creation of the illusion of motion through the rapid display of still images. That’s as basic as it gets, yet it’s open enough to encompass a lot.

Chuck Jones pointed out that you don’t need a camera for animation. All you need is a stack of paper and something to mark it with. Norman McLaren did away with cameras and paper when he drew on film. Both these approaches provide a way to rapidly display still images (either by flipping or projecting them) without any recording device at all.

Beyond the basic definition, animation borrows a lot. Like live action film, it borrows narrative and character. It also borrows the use of sound, whether dialogue, sound effects or music. It borrows the use of colour. Finally, it borrows design.

None of these things is necessary to make an animated film and there are examples that lack each of the above. There are abstract films that avoid narrative and characters. The silent period did without sound and color of any kind.

Design enters the picture when somebody has to create the object or image that will be used to create the illusion of motion. All drawn and cgi animation has to be designed. Stop motion can be, but doesn’t have to be. J. S. Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel manipulates real objects a frame at a time. A more modern equivalent would be Roof Sex (parental discretion advised; sexual situations involving naked furniture). In both these films, the design isn’t created so much as borrowed. Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Art Clokey are examples of stop motion animators who do design the objects that they manipulate.

Because so much of animation has revolved around the creation of images and objects, there’s confusion about the relationship of design to animation. Good design is a plus, but as stop motion shows, design itself is not a necessary part of our medium.

When critics talk about Monster House or A Scanner Darkly, they are confusing design (the look of cgi or drawn animation) with animation itself. As the motion in these films originates in real time in the real world, it’s not animated. The films are re-creations of movement, not creations of it.

Saying that something is not animation is not a criticism; it’s simply a statement of fact.

These days, we are getting into gray areas. If a character’s body movement has been motion captured but the face has been animated, how do you describe that character? Do we need to determine percentages before we can call a character or film animated or not? I don’t know the answer to this.

My impression of Monster House and A Scanner Darkly is that they’re both live action films that have used animation design the way the might have used costumes and make-up in the past. Nobody would claim that Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz was animated. If Lahr was alive today and wired up to drive a cgi character or if his image was overlaid with artwork created with digital paint software, people might be confused and call it animation, but they would be wrong. If the motion exists in the real world and the resulting images are re-creations of that motion (even if they’ve been doctored) they’re not animation.