The idea of animation and instrumental expression

(written between Brussels, Lisbon and Montreal in February and March 2009)

This is a personal manifesto. I say «manifesto» because it is a programmatic text organized around a number of injunctions. I say «personal» firstly because I direct those injunctions essentially toward myself and nobody else. The others may use them the way they want, take advantage of them, if this seems possible, or ignore them. «Personal» also, because it is constructed around my personal history and because it draws from the thoughts and the works of people I have known and who have had a decisive impact at specific moments in the course of my professional life. These are the late André Martin, Norman McLaren and Johan van der Keuken. This text can thus be considered as a posthumous tribute to the strength of their views and an expression of gratitude to them for influencing my creative life in ways that would have been very different without them.

André Martin plays a predominant role because, very recently, less than a year ago in fact, I became aware of the importance of his work. His thought suddenly acted as a crossroad between all the other components of this text and with my endless effort in trying to understand what I do and what I should be doing. The reader will find in this text a mixture of general considerations – like an attempt to redefine cinema – and many notes of autobiographical character.

An attempt at definition: cinema is a complex of time and space such as modulated by a technical apparatus. This modulation may serve historically as a foundation to different forms (animation, documentary, fiction). The possible range of those modulations at any given moment of history is dependant upon the changing conditions of the technical apparatus of the cinema. From the beginning of its existence up until now, the unchanged core of the apparatuses «of cinema» was based on the division of the flow of time into a succession of distinct images. This is the deep tenet of cinema upon which the universality of a technical definition of the cinema is based.

However, this division of the flow of time was accomplished successively through the use of apparatuses descending from heterogeneous technical lineage (chemical/mechanical for classical cinema, electronics for television and video, and calculating machines for digital video). The uniqueness of the history of cinema is that it bears the marks of breaks, caused by jumps from one technical lineage to the next. Each breaks implies a profound change in the mode of discontinuously withholding discrete images from the flow of time, in the mode of accessing the succession of images in order to work on them (editing, alteration), and finally in the mode of public presentation. In every instance, these changes, conditioned by technological evolutions, have had important aesthetic consequences that have led repetitively to attempts to define the new state of things as autonomous forms of art, i.e. cinema, video, digital art. Each of these breaks has resulted in the emergence of individual forms of discourse that each time, aspire to define a state of esthetic autonomy. In fact, there is very little communication between these forms of discourse.

Cinema as such is divided along two axes: 1- synchronically, between the aesthetic zone of formal composition of space and time and the material zone of the technical apparatus; 2- diachronically, in the jumps from one technological lineage to the next, events that happen first at the technical level and are then translated to the aesthetic sphere. After two major shifts, in the technical paradigm, this double scission (one entailing the other) now appears as the basis for the structure and form of the cinema. Thus, it is an important time to salvage the artistic and theoretical patrimony of the «classical cinema» and of video, to ensure their relevance in the current and somewhat amnesic digital world. This undertaking can only be directed against the triumphalism of the digital era but it cannot mean a rejection of the successes of the digital, which is an ineluctable fact. Rather, the challenge is to reposition the digital technology within the historical context to which it belongs. It would also mean an attempt to redefine cinema and give it a new ground under the light of what only now can we understand of its total history and not only of its stylistic history.

As I said earlier, the constant of this complex technical history is the fixation of time in series of distinct images. This principle transcends the succession of technological lineages and constitutes the constant that may allow us to reason in a unified way the double bind of the technical history of the cinema (“cinema” not only in its classical historic meaning but in a global meaning which I champion). I write precisely «to reason the technical history of cinema» as a unitary movement through its differences and variations. This is important because, in the practice of creation of «complexes of time and space», often time, the technical background is considered as a given, theoretically reduced to a neutral element. Of course, the fact of technical evolution is generally admitted but, rarely, is it fully recognized that, since its origin, the cinema was always dependant on technology, consequently always in a transitory state determined by technological changes. It is like if, on the one hand, there was an autonomous esthetic zone and, on the other hand, a technical zone of which the deeper level, the frame by frame structure, could be considered as not meaningful.

We can find in the animation cinema, and in some areas of experimental cinema, the only exceptions to this deafness to the echoes of the technological depth. That is to say that only animation cinema, globally, with its conscious practice of the frame by frame principle, and this part of experimental cinema that deals, amongst other things, with flickers, give a specific esthetic prolongation to the fragmentation of the cinematographic flow in distinct images, and thus tries to specifically connect the two levels.

At this point, a development is needed about what I just referred to as “globally, the animation cinema”. It must be reminded that the appellation “animation cinema” is a rather late arrival in the history of the cinema. It seems quite certain that it was invented and defined (in French: «cinema d’animation») by the French critic and theoretician André Martin and his friends around 1955 (on this subject, the studies of Hervé Joubert-Laurencin are an essential reference). This does not mean that before this date there were not films constructed around the frame by frame principle. Quite the contrary, the long tradition of “animated cartoons” goes back to the early beginning of cinema and even before. But never was it called “animation cinema” before the 50’s.

The terminological invention of Martin aimed to designate the extraordinary renewal in the art of “frame by frame” filmmaking in the years following World War II. This renewal found its landmarks in the new animated cinematography of the Eastern European countries, in the productions of the National Film Board of Canada, more particularly the works of Norman McLaren, and in the works of the dissident animators of the Disney empire and also of many independents around the world. There was in those years an extraordinary outburst of creativity that took advantage of the retreat in cartoons production due to the arrival of television.

Many things were simultaneously accomplished by the new appellation. First, by the very words it was using, it was simply saying that animation was «cinema» and not only a particular and marginal genre. Second, it accounted for the collapse of the hegemonic style and ways of the American “animated cartoons” tradition and all its avatar around the world. So it had a critical edge aiming at resituating the cartoon tradition in the framework of this new entity, more widely defined on the ground of the extreme diversity of expressions of the new emerging animation. Thirdly, it characterized this emergence in terms of a triple liberation. First, a liberation from the narrow graphic style of animated caricatural drawings. Also a liberation from the hegemonic technique of cell animation as practiced by large animation studios based upon an industrial division of labor. This was assessing the appearance of a much wider spectrum of techniques, most of them practiced individually in an artisanal setting. Finally, a liberation from an understanding of animated movement constrained by a very rigid codification, to open it up to a much wider register of frame by frame expression, ranging from the radically shattered vibratory discontinuity of “drawn on film” animation (like Blinkity Blank by Norman McLaren, the tutelary example of this), to a static approach to animation ( like the hieratic rigidity of Jiri Trnka’s puppets). For André Martin, this third liberation constituted the very hearth of the emergence of modern animation, precisely because it had to do with the deep nature of the cinema.

This third liberation was the one that counted most for him and was understood as the driving force for the two others. From this angle, the views of André Martin were less an assessment of an actual state of things in animation cinema than the anticipation, based on signs that he considered significant, of a program, of a line of action, of an utopia of the animation cinema and of the cinema as a whole. It is in this perspective that he associated the renewal of animation cinema to the work of the pioneers of the early days, at the time of the invention of animation – which was one and only thing with the invention of the cinema. The accomplishments of those pioneers had been totally forgotten when the large industrial animation studios developed. So Martin rehabilitated, amongst others, Émile Cohl and Émile Rayneault, which is not without raising questions and doubts about the actual moment of the invention of the cinema. Thus the idea of defining the new, newly named, animation cinema as a potential refoundation of cinema, the idea that there is only “one” cinema with animation and its frame by frame principle in its center. What he was writing in his visionary texts of the 50’s, was really the dazzling reappearance of the origin at the moment of emergence of the new, as a pledge for the future.

Therefore, the course of cinema and animation underwent a severe quake, more or less between 1950 and 1965, of which the creation of the Annecy Festival and the establishment of ASIFA (the International Association of Animated Film) were the resultants and the conclusion. This tremor was felt by André Martin at a very early stage (1952), in the text “Animated drawing and Weight” (cosigned with his colleague Michel Boschet). Maybe this is the real event because it determines the appearance of “the idea of animation” on which I will comment later. He (with a few others) named this tremor «animation cinema» and did everything to organize the potential energy it contained in an actual movement. During a decade, he deployed an intense activity as an educator, a propagandist and an organizer to achieve this. Amongst many other things, he organized at the Cannes Festival, in 1956, the first systematic screenings of animation films and the first international meeting of the major directors of this emerging new animation.

But no later than at the fifth edition of the Annecy Festival (1965), he began to express his disillusion in stronger and stronger terms. According to him, the animation filmmakers missed the historical moment, by not understanding that the deep focus of the tremor was located at the level of the frame by frame expression of motion, and by satisfying themselves with the consumerist exploration of the most fashionable graphic styles. It resulted in a narrow and impoverished understanding of animated motion. In his diagnosis, Martin hesitated between, on the one hand, criticizing the directors for this failure or, on the other hand, seeing all of this merely as a side effect of a much wider set of social phenomena, like the fast emergence of television, the acceleration of social communications and information, the dominance of the world market and the beginning of the digital. This is what was to interest him thereafter.

The entity «animation cinema» will maintain itself for more than twenty years but in an indecisive and weak manner. It will continue – but less and less – to claim a relationship to its glorious past. It sustained itself theoretically – irony of History – with an apologetic rhetoric inherited from André Martin himself but which became more of a repetitive mantra than a real effort to develop a deeper understanding of the history and phenomenon of animation. With the strong return of commercial animation in the 80’s, boosted by the huge programming needs of television, and reshaped by the digital, the appellations “animation film” and “animation cinema” have acquired a meaning that have very little to do with what their inventor meant when he proposed them in the first place. I don’t want to negate the fact that during the last half century, there were numerous very good films, many of them absolutely brilliant, but very few amongst them succeeded to let appear “the idea of animation” such as André Martin had tried to develop it. But, it is possible that nowadays, beyond the digital revolution, a new generation of animators, liberated from the vague conceptual conundrums of the 70’s and the 80’s, might be in the process of reconquering and redifining the mythical territory of animation.

There is a wide gap between «the idea of animation» and the historical animation cinema (that is to say most of the films that were actually produced over those years). The “idea of animation” is based upon the deep material reality of cinema – the frame by frame scroll of images. By the most radical approach of the wider spectrum of possibilities of frame by frame synthesis of time, it bears a force of unity and survival of the cinema through its double cesura. I must mention here that the expression «idea of animation» is not to be found as such in André Martin’s writings. As far as I know, it was introduced almost simultaneously by myself and by Hervé Joubert-Laurencin (Émile Cohl et le virus fantasmagorique, in Émile Cohl, Les Éditions de l’Oeil, Montreuil, 2008). But I find it is a legitimate and defendable claim to derive it from the work of Martin.

This idea shined with its maximum brilliance in the early phase of the multisided invention of cinema. It shined again, but in a more dusk manner, announcing the end of an era, in the 50’s at the moment of the first signs of crumbling of the “classical cinema” in the hands of technical progress in the sphere of social communication. Martin did assess this in the complex alternation of his enthusiasms and his deceptions. Those two glorious moments were also moments of defeat, the first time at the hands of the industrial normalization that came with the development of the large studios, and the second time, at the hands of a new phase of industrial expansion, much wider than the first one, amplified by the global market of television and the gains of productivity that came with the digital technology.

But what I assert and what I want to believe is that, in this whole history, under the surface, the ”idea of animation” preserves all of its potential energy and its ability to spring up at any moment and to “touch to the cinema”, that is to transform the basics of the cinema. “They touched to the cinema…” this is the expression André Martin used to characterize the work and the effects of the work of Norman McLaren and Len Lye. And the cinema was not left unchanged.

This expression of “touching to the cinema” is not far from another expression used by Martin, just once, in his article “Dessin animé et pesanteur”, the “danger of animation”. He was using those words to designate what the animated cartoons animators wanted to avoid confronting, in order to protect their normalized comfort. We may suppose that what he wanted to promote by this expression was the audacity to work without a net, without established rules, on the tight rope of History, with a strong personal bodily involvement, accepting that “the idea of animation” can only appear through the most abrupt and most acute action, and not longer than the time of a flash.

In a flash, the “idea of animation” creates a moment of transparency between the level of representation of the texture of time and space and the deep level of its “frame by frame. technical foundation. This is the contrary of the “genres” system that relies on the opacity of this construction. The “idea of animation” has to do with the creative power of the frame by frame construction of the cinematic flow (animation in the narrow meaning of the word) but is not restricted to it. It is not particularly drawings, photographs, images, sounds or music, it is everything of which it is materially made of at the moment when it “touches the cinema”, it can be anything and everything. It is the contrary of opacity, it does not tolerate that the texture of time and space resorbs itself in mere representation, it does not tolerate mere representation, it is a differential, it requires a transparency of architecture and construction. This is not the magic of animation (or the magic of the cinema, at any rate), it rejects magic, it dissolves the phantasmagoria. It always expresses itself in a concrete specific materiality, but it is not this materiality, it is immaterial which is why we can say it is an «idea».

This is why it can not be identified to a “genre” of cinema. And animation in its actual historical existence has been mostly nothing more than a genre (again this is not a judgment on the actual films), paralyzed by opacity just as musicals, gangster films, horror films… This is why I am not very interested in the “historical animation” as a whole (just as I am not much interested by any “genre”) because generally it does not live up to the height of the idea on which nevertheless it is based. I realize now, and only now can I express it: what interests me, and always had, is the “idea of animation” and its power of illumination. I discover this thanks to the epoch, the epoch of the digital, and also thanks to a rediscovery of the writings of André Martin. Before, I only had a very vague grasp of this.

I started my animation career during the first half of the 60’s in the wake of the explosion of the new animation cinema. I lived in Montreal were one of the focus of modern animation was blooming, the National Film Board of Canada with one of the most illustrious actor of this emergence, Norman McLaren. I had the chance of being supported and encouraged by Norman McLaren and I could meet with Len Lye, although very briefly. I was carried by the wave of euphoria, enthusiasm and optimism triggered by this new age of animation. So I started my career just a few years after the invention of «animation cinema» and I was nourished by the hi-energetic writings of André Martin (and others) that I was reading in the French magazines of cinema. The very same texts that I reread and rediscover today, forty five years later, in a totally different perspective. At the time there was also the whole of the cinema, not only animation, that seemed to renew itself, with the French “Nouvelle vague” and all the new national cinemas, including the new Quebec cinema. Exaltation was at its apex, but as seen from the distance, it now appears that realy it was the beginning of the end of a certain era of cinema.

I knew André Martin between 1965 and 1967 at the National Film Board of Canada when he was directing his two macluhanian films about the emergence of television and also at the Cinémathèque québécoise (“Cinémathèque canadienne” at the time) in the organizing committee of the World Retrospective of Animation of 1967. I then heard directly from his own mouth, with a certain level of fright, his words of deception concerning the course then taken by the new animation cinema that he promoted so strongly, and that he kept «announcing”. When I came for the first time to the world capital of animation, the Annecy festival, my mind was already intoxicated by those bleak judgments. At the festival, I felt compelled to generally agree with André Martin’s hard verdict. For me, the golden age of animation ended before I could become part of it. From that year, I definitely remained in a distant position in regard to the animation cinema and its institutions. A distance that was reciprocal as most of my films did not raise much interest in that world.

With time passing by, I forgot André Martin’s initial and decisive role in my life. In the solitary course that I was about to embrace, I tried to rationalize the gap between my work and the world of animation in many different ways. Among others, I thought that by not adopting a critical standpoint about the status of the animated image in particular and the cinematographic image in general, in short by not assessing the “godardian revolution”, animation remained in a retrograde state, enclosed in the cult of prettiness and good craftsmanship. This judgment, although it is partly true, was certainly unjust toward numerous excellent films that deserved more than being considered as epiphenomenons of a corporatist ghetto. Today, the attentive reading of André Martin’s writings forces me to see things rather differently. I discover that what interests me, what unconsciously always interested me most, is “the idea of animation” more than the animation cinema that actually existed. My “godardian¨ remark was at best superficial.

In all fairness, I must readjust the pantheon of the fundamental influences of my youth. To Norman McLaren and Len Lye (those who, according to Martin, “touched to the cinema”), to the American underground of the 60’s (Stan Brackage, Robert Breer, etc.), to a few European independants (like Robert Lapoujade), I imperatively must add the name of André Martin whose thoughts left in my mind an indelible mark.

Earlier in this text, I have referred to “the idea of animation” as if it was something that occurs suddenly in History like a lightning which disappears at the very moment of its appearance. From the practical point of view of the practice of an art, this is a bit annoying. Are we going to just wait the improbable moment of an intense but fugitive illumination of which the parameters are beyond the action of an individual artist and which you can only notify after the fact? Is there, in the banal course of the ordinary days, a way to take into account “the idea of animation”, to take on in a sustained way the long alternation of its obscure and subterranean life and of its scarce bright appearances? I find a possible answer to those questions in another lexical invention of André Martin, which opens up the possibility of a sustained and viable practice, that is the concept of “instrumental expression”.

It was essentially developed in the course of a text of utmost importance, that Martin wrote about the work of Norman McLaren, which was published in four episodes in the famous French cinema magazine Les Cahiers du cinema, in 1955. From then on, he will keep using the same expression (under different forms: “instrumental strength”, “instrumental cinema”, “instrumental invention”, “instrumental art” etc) but never adding any more precision to what he meant by it. Particularly, as far as I know, he did not comment about how this notion could have find new developments during the genesis of computer animation techniques. But it is possible to claim that the meticulous attentiveness he gave to the appearance and development of the new technology can be understood as a development of his study of the singular relationship of the mclarenian poetic with materials and instrumentation.

In those texts about McLaren, the point was to assess the intimate relationship, in the course of the aesthetic elaboration of the films, between the work on techniques and materials and the widest exploration of the full spectrum of the “frame by frame” principle. This allowed Martin to talk about a reinvention of cinema in every McLaren’s film, or elsewhere, of an exploration of all possible cinemas. But he also took care of making a clear distinction between McLaren’s approach and what he described as “a schizophrenic handiwork based on a galloping technicalness” («un bricolage schizophrénique mené par une technicité galopante»). So technology is not praised in itself but through its clear association to a poetic. Although he introduced the expression in close relationship with Norman McLaren’s cinema, Martin also affirmed that “instrumental expression” had a history of thousand years and he described the work of several other filmmakers (and not only animation filmmakers) as also displaying an “instrumental strength”, thus allowing for a generalization of the concept far beyond the work of Norman McLaren.

I feel very concerned by all this because if there is any lasting filiation between me and Norman McLaren, it is less at the level of the aesthetic style than at the level of the necessity of a theory of technology imbedded in the creative process, that I see at the center of his art. And I hold that André Martin described it correctly with his concept of “instrumental expression”.

In order to try generalize this concept (to make a real concept out of it), I will state that the “instrumental expression” may be said of artistic expression when it sets at the center of its process a historical relationship to technique, instrumentations and materials and aims at a zone of indistinction between the level of technical construction and the level of aesthetic elaboration. The “instrumental expression” also involves a reference to the body of the artist, to the manual activity in front of the apparatuses and the materials. This can be applied to the entire history of art and can embrace an historical spectrum of thousand of years, as suggested by Martin himself. But it is only with the development of modern technology, starting with photography, that the “instrumental expression” finds its deeper relevance. It gains an even stronger significance with cinema and its singular technical/aesthetic history. And it is remarkable that it allows Martin to praise Norman McLaren’s work as a preparation of the mind of spectators to the promises of the technical evolution to come in the future. This is obviously situating the history of cinema not only in terms of stylistic history but also in terms of a radical technological historicity.

This reminds me of the famous Walter Benjamin’s sentence in the Short History of Photography that always was of prime importance to me: “ what judges in definitive of photography is always the photographer’s relationship to its technique.” His thesis about cinema in the essay about The Work of Art at the Era of Technical Reproduction is an extension of this sentence. It is really not possible to depict André Martin as an adept of Benjamin. The conception of history and of utopia that underlies his thinking is at the antipode of Walter Benjamin’s. Amongst other things, Martin’s embracement of Marshal MacLuhan’s theories is significant in this regard. But to the extent that, in both cases, there is a prescription of a thought of technology towards the practice of cinema, it seems correct to me to make this connection.

So in my understanding, the “instrumental expression” would define the possible practice of cinema in the form of a fidelity to “the idea of animation”, as a foundation of the whole of cinema with all its various genre, during all of its different historical phases, as a work in transparency and indistinction of its synchronic and diachronic scission. It would be the appropriate form for the practice of an art under technological condition, taking charge of the transparency between the work on the form and the work on the technology, also taking charge of the historic vector of technological history. Seeing the practice of cinema as “instrumental expression” allows to conceive the unity of cinema beyond the jumps from one technological lineage to the other.

This outlook was impossible as long as cinema remained in its hegemonic phase of “classical cinema” and seemed to be destined to a millenarian existence under this unchanged form. But being under condition of technology, the “classical cinema” could not remained unchanged, and so was also its corollary, animation cinema. The enclosing of the history of the cinema (between its invention by the Lumière brothers and the promise of an unlimited future without any “after”, as expressed by the expression “7th art”) and the characterization of its technical infrastructure as a neutral element in relation to its ability to generate meaning, has become impossible today, now that two technical thresholds have been crossed over. This is a theoretical exploit on the part of André Martin, that, in a single movement, he detected the wavering of “classical cinema” right from the beginning and he understood the deep power of “the idea of animation” as something stronger than anything to be found in the concrete history of animation ( I mean the chronological series of really existing films) and that finally he left for us a few theoretical tools and some indications to possibly follow up on all this.

To fully accede to the cinema, Martin recommended to grasp the strip of film (he called it “the modulation strip”) hands on and to observe the succession of images on the film itself, or also, to watch the dynamic variations of the cone of light that traveled in the theater between the projection booth and the screen With video, such a thing became impossible, there is nothing to be seen on the magnetic tape. Martin correctly understood that, in relation to “the idea of animation”, the analogical video technology (which prevailed from the 60’s to the 90’s) was regressive. It prevented the access to the successive distinct images – or at least it made this technically complicated. These, by their diagonal piling into the opaque magnetic tape, were not visible anymore, neither easily isolable through the electronic analysis of the signal. They were somehow falsely homogenized in the continuous motion of the tape, without the recurrent stops of the strip of film at each photogram as was the case in the “cinema”. This was a false effect of continuity because in reality the in depth structure of visual information still consisted of distinct sweeps for each of the successive images. The images were not processed separately but through the alteration of the electronic signal taken as a whole as if it was continuous. The frame by frame structure became opaque and frame by frame shooting became a sort of technical exploit. “The idea of animation” suffered a real set back.

With the digital technology, it is very different. Although there is not anymore any «modulation strip” to be found, the direct access to the successive images that still constitute the flow of time, becomes possible again under the form of access to distinct digital files. Whether they are operated manually or automatically, all the processes that can be applied to the time flow are fundamentally done frame by frame again. This is what makes possible for the American theoretician of “new media”, Lev Manovitch, to say that in the digital age, live action images have become a particular case of animation. There is certainly some truth in this statement but, to my sense, it is superficial. I disagree with Manovitch in this that he aims at establishing a full specificity of the “new media” in relation to the cinematographic tradition (I must nevertheless recognize the fact that in doing this, he acknowledges the existence of the cinematographic tradition and feels the need to constantly refer to it to make his point, which is far from being often the case in that field) while my objective is the inverse. By relying on “the idea of animation”, I am looking for a unifying ground between the different eras of the cinema, by withholding , in the continuity of Martin’s thinking, that there is only one cinema with the “idea of animation” at its core.

In digital cinema, there is an increasing blur between animated images and live action images. I just mentioned that, at the level of technical processes, everything is done frame by frame. There is also, and it is a consequence of the first point, the fact of the interpenetration between live action images and the wider spectrum of everything that can be produced “frame by frame” (in the traditional sense of the term), and there are also all those other images made with automated processes that can be assimilated to animation (like the motion capture techniques in general). This is exemplified by the routine use of digital special effects in almost all of the blockbuster feature movies. We could almost say that, in its current meaning (which is not what André Martin had in mind), animation cinema does not exist anymore and cannot exist anymore as a distinct entity. This does not mean in no way that there are not anymore films made “frame by frame” – there is still a lot of them – and that there are not animators anymore – there are more than ever before. It is more a conceptual question. It means that the overall technical frame of reference, in which all the different practices interrelate, has been totally recalibrated and that the respective positioning of live action and animation has radically change and that the traditional boundaries have become more and more irrelevant.

If it is true to say that, in the digital age, the “frame by frame” processes have become more and more the operative center of the whole cinematographic structure, it would be exaggerated to pretend, particularly in the case of live action cinema, that every thing has become legible solely at the level of the succession of frames, and that animation, in the classical sense, has become the center of cinema. I don’t think this is what Martin meant with his idea of a “modulation strip”. It would be more precise to say that the “frame by frame” principle is the vantage point in the general landscape of cinema, this is what put its mark on the ensemble of the technical apparatuses of the practice of cinema under its different forms and eras. This is how “the idea of animation” operates, its mark is everywhere, in all the phases of the technical process. Thus, it is not necessary to refer narrowly at the strict fact of “frame by frame” construction, to establish the centrality of “the idea of animation” and of the “instrumental expression”. It is the digital age that makes it possible to understand this. Later, I will come back on the ambivalent effect of the digital. As much as it helps make this conceptual disposition clear, simultaneously it obscures it. For now, we will examine how animation and live action have both been altered, each in its own way.

On the side of animation, the strict frame by frame practice it is now contaminated by the automation of numerous processes or by totally new processes of alteration or of synthesis of the images. The frame by frame principle, at the level of its effective concrete practice cannot anymore be made singular and be used as the foundation of a distinct and autonomous form of cinema as it has been proclaimed by animation festivals since half a century. The “animation cinema” category was only possible as a relatively distinct and autonomous entity in the constellation of “classical cinema”. Beyond this point, it loses its consistency and if one tries to maintain it, this is against the new conditions of its practice. From now on we must accept that animation function in a multifaceted and unlimited space, which is rather good.

In the case of “live-action cinema”, the situation is not simpler. Beyond the increasing infiltration of animated images, synthesized or manipulated through different automated processes, there is a much deeper mutation. The fact is that due to the possibility of undetectable manipulations, the still or moving photographic image is losing its indexical credibility. But it is not enough to simply say that, before the digital age, the indexical photographic image (that is to say the image that maintains a relationship of material imprint with reality) was a faithful and credible reflection of reality, and that after it is not anymore. We should rather say that before the digital age, the photographic image was reputedly realist, and that after it loses this reputation in an accelerated way. From now on, any photographic image is under the suspicion of having been manipulated. It suffers from the competition of algorithmic simulations of reality, which, from a scientific point of view, may sometime claim a higher degree of truth. There are also new types of imageries, which, although they originated in the direct capture of reality with new kinds of apparatuses, produce a non-photographic visual rendering (at one extreme there is the medical imagery and at the other extreme there are the different motion capture systems).

The question of the realism of the photographic image has exploded in many directions and if there is suspicion about photographic realism, this does not mean that the debate about the condition of realism of images is closed.

At any rate, the alleged realism of the pre-digital triumphant photographic image was not above any discussion. Inasmuch the direct material indexical relationship between the real object and its photographic image seemed unquestionable, other aspects where put into question: on the one hand, there is the very filter of the necessary technical apparatus and the diverse inherent technical decisions, and, on the other hand, the space and time decisions made by the photographer (where to stand? When? What framing? When press the capture button? What setting? etc.). Between the “ontological realism” of the bazinian tradition and the radical criticism of the entire series of mediations that lead to an image of reality, there were not many people to seriously believe in the total transparency of the photographic image. Most agreed, at varying degrees, to say that the photographic image of reality could only be a construction, constantly subject to discussion and contestation. Nevertheless, it remains that it is a consequence of the emergence of the digital that the unquestionable material relationship between a portion of reality and its image does not exist anymore in an autonomous way framed by a relatively stable technical apparatus. Its era of innocence has ended.

As a consequence, the action of withholding images from reality is now done in the totally redefined context where the values of realism and truth set themselves very differently. From now on we can affirm that the paths to the construction of an image of reality go through much less favorable ideological territories, are much more difficult and cannot count anymore on the traditional capital of sympathy and credibility of the photographic image. The image construction work is now facing much more acute exigencies as to how to shoot and out to edit. For me, the entire work of Johan van der Keuken that deployed itself in the era of progressive crumbling of the “classical cinema”, is an anticipated answer, a forerunner sign (in as much as the work of Norman McLaren, according to Martin) of those new conditions and certainly an imminent example of instrumental expression.

Here, there is something highly personal at stake because, beyond the initial tutelary influences mentioned before, the work of Johan van der Keuken remains, at the time of my maturity, my main cinematographic influence, more than the influence of any animation filmmaker. At the time, I could not completely understand why he gained such an importance for me, he who did not like animation cinema very much. Now all those developments about instrumental expression help me understand. I will come back to this a bit later. At any rate, his acute conscience of the paradoxical destiny of cinema never made no doubt for me. One day, he told me (I quote from memory) “we know that cinema is in the process of disappearing, but we want to continue”, which contains implicitly the fundamental injunction, that I share (and I thank him for including me in this “we”), to be determined to continue cinema beyond the cinema.

All those considerations about live-action cinema first concerned documentary cinema rather than fiction cinema that, from the start, is totally a construction. Thus, it is not a surprise if it let itself be penetrated without resistance by the wave of digital special effects. Nevertheless it is quite troubling that the discussion about ontological realism (including a quite radical rejection of animation cinema) by a certain bazinian critical tradition have rather developed around the fiction cinema where there is nothing much directly real except the flesh of the actors (this goes without mentioning aesthetic surgery!). The debates about the interpenetration between documentary and fiction and, to a lesser degree, between fiction and animation, are also quite symptomatic of the current years.

In January 2009, I gave in Brussels, for l’atelier Graphoui, a week long workshop on the theme “animation and documentary” and, in November 2008, I took part to a workshop on the same subject at the Rencontre internationale du documentaire de Montréal. This question comes up regularly. The expression “animated documentary” was used quite a bit, some years ago, in relation to Chris Landreth’s film “Ryan” and this now happens again at the much larger scale with the film “Waltz with Bashir”. In this later case, the use of this expression “animated documentary” is part of marketing strategies, and from this point of view, it may be quite superficial. However, we may believe that it has the value of being a symptom of the growing tendency in the digital era towards blurred boundaries between the genres inherited from the”classical cinema”. It is particularly remarkable that animation, which up to now was seen mostly as an art of phantasmagoria, affirms its legitimacy in addressing directly the reality.

What is even more interesting for our subject is the fact that for many animation films that claim a direct relationship to reality, the need situate themselves in relation to live-action shooting seems inevitable. My own work is totally characterized by this highly paradoxical tension. In effect it is quite surprising that at the moment when live action images are losing their innocence and their realistic credibility, precisely because of processes that have a lot to do with the increasing importance of animation, the animation films that are aiming at reality so often feel such a strong need to situate themselves in relation to live-action images and also to include directly or indirectly some of those images.

If it was only a will to co-opt within animation the professed realism of live-action images, this would be of limited interest. But it is possible to see those practices from a totally different angle – and this is how I try to understand my own efforts in this direction. It can be seen as a way to create the conditions for the emergence of the “idea of animation” in complexes of space and time jointly supported by animated and the live-action images. This conjunction creates an opportunity of emergence for the “idea of animation” and the possibility of a critical transparency in the representational opacities on the two sides and renders the technical infrastructure ostensible, thus creating a field of instrumental expression.

As far as I am concerned, my first efforts were mostly aimed at shaking up the phantasmagorical bubble of animation by the juxtaposition of live-action images that nonetheless remained untouched by any critical bias. A long road was needed to achieve, like in the case of La Plante humaine, the same level of doubt and suspicion towards live action and animated images. Of course this is not the only way to approach those questions, but today, at the occasion of this reflection, I understand better the path that I have been intuitively following. It is only now that I succeed to formulate it in an historical way and to grasp its consequences.

Finally, except for its provocation value towards the phantasmagorical tradition of animation, I don’t think that the expression “animated documentaries” does carry much usefulness at a fundamental level. By stressing the question of a direct relationship between animation and reality, which would allow animation to act as if it was documentary, there is the risk to occult a much deeper relationship that animation may have with reality. What of which it is the reality.

In the stride of what I developed earlier, I now affirm: (1) that animation is the reality of the deep frame by frame technical structure of cinema, and (2) following the same idea, that animation is the constantly renewed reality of the invention of cinema, a kind of permanent origin of cinema, constantly updated. But if I want to make those two affirmations effective, I also need to affirm that animation is the reality of the action of a body (the body of the animator) at grip with the frame by frame technical apparatus of cinema.

This last statement is fundamental because, first, since it existed and now more than ever, the apparatus of cinema determines the occultation of the body at the advantage of an abstract and opaque representational form. The opacity towards the body is the same as the opacity towards the technological depth. It has the same implications. And secondly, it is the destiny of an ever-growing part of humanity to live more and more in an opaque and abstract vicinity with machines. And animation, through its special dramaturgy inherited from the tradition of puppet theater, based precisely on the playful dissimulation of the body (I have written around those questions in my text Égarement volontaire, Corps langages, technologie, Les 400 coups, 2005) positions itself at the sharpest point of this question of the body in the cinema and of the body in the technology.

The digression about the realism of the live-action shooting, about the relationship between animation and documentary, and in a more general way, about the relation between cinema and reality (it’s the whole question of the truth of cinema), was first aimed at underlining the change of regime brought about by the digital in the always complex, never unilateral, relationships between those different poles: reality, direct shooting and animation. The transparency of cinema towards the reality, just like the transparency of cinema towards its own technical infrastructure, is never a given, it is always reached at and constructed through a deliberate action into the infinitely open flow of History. An uncontrolled action, endless, that can only base itself on an utopia, as André Martin had seen it, or a messianism as Walter Benjamin would have rather said.

In this changing construction that is cinema, live-action shooting occupies the pole of “the cinema in the world”, and animation, in the wider meaning of the word, occupies the pole of “construction”. Both are indispensable one to the other. By tradition, live action shooting is social, emerges in the relationships with “the others”, but is threatened to remain confined in pure representation. Animation is a solitary activity, a simple confrontation with machines. The risk here is to remain enclosed in the lightness of an imaginary world, cut away from the real world. The fact of putting into play the physical relationships between the filmmaker and the cinematographic basis of its expression, in the form of a traversal of the domain of machines, is the only way to open up the enclosures. In this, animation cinema is facing the biggest danger because it holds in its hands the deepest might (the power of “touching to the cinema” as Martin was saying). If on the one hand, the live-action filmmaker is threatened to remain on the surface, beyond the zone of the machines, on the contrary, the animation filmmaker, if he accepts the instrumental challenge, runs the contrary risk to remain beneath, imprisoned in the underground machine room. But more than any other, he holds the power to shake up the zone of the machines, to touch to the cinema and not simply to use it. Maybe this is the “danger of animation” to which André Martin was referring in 1952, this initiative traversal of the world of machines, this road that goes directly from the hand of the animator to the mind of the spectator, if once again I may refer to a formulation that André Martin used in relation to Norman McLaren.

Here lies precisely the importance that Johan van der Keuken has for me. Actually, he once wrote that, for the viewer, watching his films was like traveling inside his brain. In all of his works, through a constantly affirmed physicality, he always succeeded to unite in one motion a complete presence to the world and the meaningful traversal of the technical conditions of his work. So simultaneously he is totally a filmmaker in the world and a filmmaker in the construction process thanks to a full acceptance of the corporeal risk. This can be seen very eloquently in the way he shoots, by its way of being physically present at the same time and with the same acuteness to his subject and to his camera, and above all to make this obvious, to give to this presence to the tool and to the world a character of eloquent inevitability for the spectators who then cannot avoid to resent one and the other. So he proposes a cinema that simultaneously is totally mental and totally physical with a full transparency between the two, based on meticulous materialism. A body of work without illusionism where the material data in play are always fully detectable as much at the level of “life” as at the level of “technique”.

I met him in 1974, precisely at the moment where, after my film “Santa Claus is coming to town”, I started to wish that my work of animation became more physical. I though that it was important to do that, but I did not understand precisely why I should. I saw all of his films in a retrospective at the Cinemathèque québécoise. I did not understand yet why what I was seeing seemed so important to me, but I was totally aware of the fact that it was something that was giving me courage. Later on, I continued to see all his movies right to the very last one just before he passed away. I began to understand my own work at the same pace I was understanding his. This is how I became conscious of the words of Norman McLaren and Len Lye (the “muscular memory” and the “animation as a dance”) that I have constantly been quoting since then. In 1982, after seeing my film “Memories of war”, he told me: “Your work takes too much time, you dig your grave at every film”. This was hard but from then on, thanks to him, speed became a main concern for me and, consequently, physicality. In 1996, he wrote about me: “Out of his painful craft of animation, of this sufferance of the “frame by frame”, he emerged as the men of speed, “the flying animist” (…) SPEED, that’s him”. The loop was complete. His cinematographic friendship convinced me (way before I read it in André Martin’s writings) that there is only “one” cinema and that the questions are identical on both sides. It was deeply necessary for me to write this short commentary about Johan because in my personal mythology, the domain of the expressive body and of the instrumental expression lies in between Norman McLaren, and Johan van der Keuken. There lies the challenge of the generalization of this concept of instrumental expression, between McLaren and Van der Keuken, mediatized by André Martin, the three heroes of this story.

The digital era presents itself in a very paradoxical manner. In a way, we can say that everything became “frame by frame”. Can we then talk of a kind of final victory for the “idea of animation”? But we are far from that. It is certainly not the triumph of the “idea of animation” as developed here after the writings of André Martin. We will never know what Martin would have thought of the evolution of digital cinema and of digital animation. He nourished great expectations from this new phase in the evolution of cinema but he could only monitor it during its formative years. It is only after his death that this new age of cinema stabilized and only then was it possible to consider where all this had led in reality. Be it through the generalization of digital special effects, or through different forms of simulation, or through the proliferation of 3-D animation features, or through the explosion of the whole computer games sector, or through the more and more common use of motion capture devices for instant production of animated TV programs, globally, digital cinema presents itself in the form of a generalized immersion in a vast and totalitarian phantasmagoria where any kind of technological transparency has been removed. The gap between the figurative sphere and its technical apparatuses is more opaque than ever. And even more opaque is the occultation of the bodies.

It could have been the absolute epoch of “instrumental expression”. It’s probably what André Martin dreamt of. Isn’t it an epoch were technical inventiveness can deploy itself with total freedom, without the inertia and the rigidities that characterized the mechanical era of “classical cinema”? But instrumental expression means far more than the spectacular display of technological prowesses. What we witness nowadays is a very deep opacity. In his time, André Martin had opposed the mclarenian “instrumental expression” and what he described as the “schizophrenic puttering about led by a galloping technicalness”. A good part of the digital arts is just that. Most of the time, a poetic of materials and techniques that is the center of the work of Norman McLaren, is missing.

I started to present live animation performances in 1986. At that time, I was doing it by live scratching on a 16mm black leader loop of film while it was running in the projector. I had several motivations to do those presentations that totally contradicted the normal ways of doing animation (the protracted studio work, the endless perfecting, the patience). I was looking for speed, for a direct contact with the public away from the misunderstandings inherent to the genre of animation, for a renewed contact with musicians, and also for a kind of training to become capable of animating a feature just by myself (speed! again), etc.

But the deepest motivation was elsewhere. It rather included all of those specific objectives in a wider, more inclusive, project which was to set side by side, in clear view, in front of the spectators all the different components of cinema: the screen, the projector, the strip of 16mm film, the light table, the engraving tools, the frame by frame work, and the body of the animator (my own body) doing all this, engaged in a frenetic activity in order to proceed at the same speed as the projector. Today, I would say that I was trying through an extreme form of instrumental expression to project a purified image of the “idea of animation”. In those performances, the displaying, with full transparency, of the apparatus and of the process was as important as the result of the work, which was the short 40 sec. looped film that was completed after more or less one hour of this unleashed activity. The fact that this was done with the technique of direct animation on film was an important element. On the one hand, in the 80’s, it obviously was the only possible way to do live animation performances. But, on the other hand, at the time I was seeing the technique of scratching directly on film as the most extreme and the most radical point of cinema and animation because it was threatening the coherence and the continuity of the filmic flow, and even more when it is practiced in this frantic way.

I was convinced that I would continue indefinitely to do those live scratched animation performances. I was imagining that, even after the extinction of the different technical components of the “classical cinema” (film, laboratories, projectors and the mechanical cameras), it would still be meaningful to continue doing it with the archaeological remnants of cinema. I even stockpiled lots of black leader in case it would eventually become unavailable on the market. But the acceleration of the upcoming of the digital decided otherwise. I realized that the critical strength that I was aiming to liberate by this activity only found its consistence from being in a state of tension with the dominant form of cinema. The tipping point was reached at the end of the 90s, and, as a consequence, I easily accepted Bob Ostertag’s proposition to write for me a software for live processing of images. It seemed to me, that at that point, if there was something that needed to be profaned, desopacified, submitted to the judgment of transparency, it was not the rundown “classical cinema”, but rather the new triumphant digital technology. So I replaced my old live scratching apparatus by a new system, based on a similar principle, where the tools, the matters, the process, my body, my hands drawing at full speed, the camera, the computer, and the projected images are set on the stage, side-by-side, in clear view as much as possible, in front of the spectators.

In this context, the references to the “idea of animation” and to the “instrumental expression” are gaining a much more acute meaning. In fact, everything that is written here came from the intersection between this new way of doing my performances and the thought of André Martin (encountered by chance, thanks to a back ache that forced me to sit in an armchair for months just being able to read). This is a system of thought that developed out of my new performance practice, and that in the same time clarifies my previous work.

In 1986, when I first started to do those live animation performances, it was a totally singular activity that was unrelated to any artistic current that I knew of. It’s necessity came strictly from questions that I was personally raising in relation to animation. My technical apparatus was totally personal. Today the situation is totally different. The fast development of more and more powerful portable computers and the apparition of various specialized software’s favored the blooming of a vast and diverse movement of “live cinema” that I saw emerging around my lonely practice. The presentations of the vj’s are the most visible part of this. In a certain way, whether I like it or not, I am a vj and I am part of this movement. I use a software written with the well known graphic based programming language Max/Jitter which was precisely developed for the live presentation of music and video. This programming language is now thought in new media departments of many universities and is quite commonly used. Consequently my work and my apparatus are part of a much more normalized environment then it was the case with live scratched animation. In this regard, I must admit that my current system is much less radical than before. And I must also admit that it is with a certain smile that I realize, at 65, that suddenly I am part of this scene where most of the actors are less than half of my age. But, beyond that vanity, isn’t it true that my work could become trivialized and that all the objectives that I explain here could turned out to just be rhetoric.

It is clear that when I left the National Film Board of Canada in 1999, I had clearly decided to situate myself in the new digital paradigm and to run the risk of working from the inside of it. So it is to me to sustain the challenge. But I think that there still is in my work something singular and radical that distinguishes it from the current that surrounds it. It comes from the fact that my performances, centrally, are still live demonstration of frame by frame work and that the software itself has been conceived around the processing of the succession of discrete images and does not make much use of most of the fancy image processing available in Jitter. The focal point of my work is situated precisely at the level of the interface and the interaction between the live manual creation of successive images and the digital processing of those images in terms of modification of order and speed, of their segmentation in series of distinct loops, and of live composition of those loops. The fact that everything is accomplished from series of images drawn during the performance, maintains at the center of the process the bodily dimension and the imperative of speed which were so important in live scratched animation. All the aspects that I develop in this text are always in action in my performances so that I still can see them as an exercise of fidelity to the “idea of animation” and as a practice of “instrumental expression”, held together by a radical physicality.

It is not by accident if earlier on I used the word “profaned”. It comes from the short book by an Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, “What is a device?” (“Qu’est ce qu’un dispositif?” Édition de Payot et Rivages. Paris, 2007, for the French edition). Confronting the example of the cell phone to philosophical considerations taken amongst others from Foucault and Hegel and from the study of the division between the sacred and the profane in Roman law, he proposes a reflection on «devices» (dispositifs). He calls “devices”: “everything that has in a way or in an other the capacity to capture, orientate, determine, intercept, model, control and ensure the gestures, the ways of acting, the opinions and the discourses of human beings”. The “devices” of course include (but not only) all the modern technology including cell phones and computers. He continues: “What defines the devices that we have to deal with in the current phase of capitalism is that they are not acting anymore through the production of a subject, but rather through processes that we can define as processes of desubjectivation.” And today, “the processes of subjectivation and of desubjectivation seem to have become indifferent and don’t allow any more the recomposition of a new subject, or only in a latent and spectral form”.

It is exactly what happens with the smooth opacity that characterizes the dominant course of digital cinema but that was already present, at a lesser degree, in previous phases of the history of the cinema. “The strategy that we must adopt in our fist fight with devices…” would consist “… in liberating what have been seized and separated by the devices to give it back to common use” that is to say “profaning” the devices. In Roman law, the profanation is the reverse action of sacralization that consists in taking away things from the free use to keep them in reserve for the sacred sphere. And he concludes: “The problem of the profanation of devices (that is to say the return to common use of what was taken away and separated) is extremely urgent. And this problem will never be posed correctly as long as those who will take up this task will not be able to intervene at the same time on the processes of subjectivation and on the devices in order to bring to light this Unmanageable element that is, at the same time, the point of origin and the vantage point of all politic”.

This brief exposé of Agamben’s thought is certainly a bit simplified, but this prescription of profanation struck me as a good way to define what has to be done in the era of digital cinema. In fact, the word “profanation”, that as the interest of aiming simultaneously at the technology as such and at the whole of the social and political context in which it deploys itself, synthesizes quite precisely what I always wanted to do in order to “touch to the cinema”. 50 years ago, when I started to engrave directly on film, I knew very well that it was a profanation of cinema (literally, it was scratching the film). Only the word was missing. Today, I don’t hesitate to affirm, this time using the word, that more than ever it is an exercise of profanation. In this way, I am totally in the current of “live cinema”, and simultaneously I am totally outside.