Highly personal thoughts on the state of animation By Pierre Hébert
The circumstances in which I am writing this article are quite special: that of being a jury member at a festival competition which grants equal importance to narrative and non-narrative animation – which, as far as I know, is a precedent. Since most of my films fall into the latter category, being involved has a quite emotional resonance for me.
In addition to which, I find myself at a turning point in my career. After 34 years, I have left the National Film Board of Canada. No doubt I had to remove myself from any kind of institutional framework to be able to reposition myself, as much in terms of my own work as in terms of what animation is becoming today, and negotiate a path between fidelity to the long-held beliefs of my youth and a willingness to confront the great changes which are currently taking place. Indeed, loyalty isn’t enough. Overall, I have tried to position myself on the artistic side of film more or less in opposition to the other side, that is the side of commerce and industry. That might seem clear enough, but when I try to specify what I mean, it all becomes much more complicated.
Experimental film, non-narrative film, abstract film, auteur animation, are all categories which are conceptually quite different, but which in practice intersect. Most of my films fall into one or the other of these descriptive boxes. The term “auteur film”, which is both vague and all encompassing, nonetheless corresponds to a quite precise historical reality. The term was coined after the Second World War, reaching its height in the 60s, and concerns animation as much as it does live action. But today auteur film is undergoing a crisis of identity. So am I.
As far as animation is concerned, this movement to assert the notion of auteurship defined itself in several areas at the same time. 1- The classical technique of drawn animation on acetate cel, which had hitherto been “the” canonical form of animation, was overtaken by a real explosion of direct techniques. Technical inventiveness has long been the impulse prompting many significant and important works, and inspired a whole generation of animators. 2- Similarly, there was an outburst of graphic styles drawing directly on the inexhaustible possibilities to be found in the history of art. 3- We invented a history for ourselves, rehabilitating the great pioneers, such as Emile Cohl and Winsor McKay, and creating a pantheon of heroic figures such as Alexander Alexeieff, Norman McLaren, Len Lye, Jiri Trnka and others, filmmakers who had done the groundwork and whose inspiring work shone out like beacons. 4- We created institutions to fight for this new vision of animation, festivals such as Annecy, and an international organization of animation filmmakers, ASIFA. 5- Significant geographical areas emerged which were not subject to the rules of the market and where production organizations with relatively substantial resources were given free rein: for example, Eastern European countries and an institution such as the Canadian National Film Board. In the USA, the period also saw a significant movement led by dissident Disney filmmakers. Conversely, there was a temporary decline in industrial animation production, which allowed for the whole heritage to be recycled via television, which was growing in popularity.
These circumstances encouraged an unprecedented creative outpouring almost everywhere. What emerged has left us a legacy of masterpieces which now constitutes our historical perspective in terms of “auteur animation”. It was during this climate of euphoria (which also existed in live-action cinema) that I became a filmmaker and I remain strongly attached to the guiding ideas of that time. I am not a historian, and my point-of-view is subjective and ambivalent. One the one hand I see this period as an absolute, with an enduring firmament of stars but also, on the other hand, as an accident of history, eminently transitory. Because in effect, although the rhetoric celebrating animation which dates back to this era has persisted, things have changed a great deal and in such a way that in my view the would-be unanimous and justificatory discourse, which prevailed for a long time, is no longer enough.
The industrial context has changed. In fact, commercial production for television eventually experienced a period of unprecedented expansion. It involves enormous financial interests and has brought about an international division of labour which takes advantage of the cheaper workforce in Asian countries. This has had various consequences, although not all of them are negative. 1- Not only has the production of auteur films been terribly marginalized in relation to the all-conquering march of commercial production, but it has become difficult to define what exactly is an auteur film other than in nostalgic reference to the golden era evoked above. This makes the whole area something of a internal minefield. 2- It has led to a global demand for specialized labour skills and the establishment of numerous schools. This development is, in general, subject to the requirements of the industry, but, by the same token, it creates a vast pool of young professionals who will not all want to remain within the standardized confines of commercial animation. But for the moment, auteur film production seems to be well-placed in the schools. But how often do we wonder, seeing so many brilliant graduation films, whether we will see any follow up! 3- We have witnessed the disappearance or weakening of the privileged spaces which gave the production of auteur films a critical mass. I am thinking of the enormous upheavals in Eastern Europe, and also the erosion of places like the National Film Board of Canada whose resources have melted away like snow in the sun. Festivals have proliferated and diversified and ASIFA has been somewhat marginalized and lost its regulating role. 4- More profoundly, the internal frame of reference of animation practice is changing radically. The widespread use of digital tools has definitively confounded the once established typology of techniques. The use of computers has brought about a kind of free zone where all anterior techniques can virtually communicate at the same level, similarly with the various formats and distribution channels, film, video, digital video, CD-ROM, DVD, internet, etc. Technical creativity takes on a whole new dimension. The development of special effects has eroded the boundaries between live-action and animated images, reiterating the decisive importance of animation principles to the invention of cinema. Video games, pop promos, the internet move the goalpostsin terms of what can be called a creative work.
Commercial products constitute the vast majority of all the above, but nonetheless the fact remains that the animated image, as such, is undergoing profound and rapid mutations – which in itself is something neither positive nor negative. That is why is it is of no use to simply wish auteur animation back to the ways and values of yesteryear. But beyond making such observations, what should one do?
I have no magic solution, and, clearly the question raises different issues for me, who as a young man experienced this golden age and for whom, 40 years in the job, it remains a reference point, and for those young people who are now taking up this discipline and from the outset accept what it has become. Luckily for them, they have the unrestrained insouciance and all the energy of youth. For my part, and for all those of my generation, I imagine there is the requirement for a degree of wisdom, the responsibility of conveying that tradition whilst recognising the actuality of the present.
There are small, almost unnoticed, things in the developments over the last 40 years which bother me a great deal. The first is the disappearance of the relationship that existed at the turn of the 60s between the then-new live-action cinema and animation, a very real and reciprocal awareness. It was this relationship, for example, which led François Truffaut to recognize a great filmmaker in Norman McLaren. The loss has been on both sides. Caught in its claims to realism, live-action cinema has not managed to retain awareness of the position the concept of animation occupies in the technological matrix that formed the basis of cinema. As for animation, it has let itself drift into an embittered, corporatist and willful isolation, valuing good craftsmanship and good animation and slightly losing sight of the philosophical position that underlies the act of animating.
The second thing has been the loss of the equally problematic connection between animation and experimental film. The fact that, on the one hand, Len Lye’s Free Radicals was made for the Knokke le Zoutte Festival and that, on the other, a Stan Brackhage has always remained outside animation circles is a pertinent illustration of the two aspects of this rupture. I believe the result has been the subsequent absence of a connection between animation and video art and, more generally, contemporary practice in the plastic arts.
These are small, apparently very minor things, but which are profoundly bound up with what can make an art form of animation and which in this respect should be resolutely re-established. I use the phrase “what can make” advisedly, since the “art” of animation shares the same ambiguity as the other technological arts in their relationship to the technical devices which make them possible. There is no way to nuance dealing with the conundrum that, in a sense, not all animated images can claim the status of art, and the fact that the artistic potential of an animated work inevitably depends on the very nature of its apparatus or device (both technical and conceptual). It thus becomes very difficult, within the traditional categories, to decide where art begins and ends in animation, and in cinema generally. The difficulty arises from the fact that the apparatus of film is more than a simple tool that can be reduced to its instrumentality. And there is, in the very terms “apparatus” or “device”, an implicit reference to a complex organization involving technology, skills and social relationships, which from the outset institutes a relationship with the world and which always provides something other than a natural image of it. This is all the more true of animation where the machinery is obvious and unconcealed. Hence, the setting in motion of these devices, rooted as they are in technology and its vertiginous mobility deemed “progress”, as it already carries a weight of meaning in itself, all the more so as it dramatizes in a pure and rarified form that which is the infernal centre of the life of modern humanity, the multi-faceted experience of technology.
When one says “magic of cinema” or even “magic of animation”, this tends to indicate the totality of what is produced using these devices, not only that segment one can define as a work of art. Hence the difficulty of finding solid criteria to discriminate between what is art and what isn’t and, by extension, that which is auteur cinema and that which isn’t.
In light of these considerations, the comprehensive assertion that “the” cinema is an art, or that “the” cinema of animation is an art, seems false to me. It seems more appropriate simply to say that cinema, and animation, “can be art”, that through their apparatus they intrinsically contain a potential for art but that this potential requires a decision to become actualized. And in my view, the aesthetic and ethical impact of this decision depends on the setting in motion of the apparatus being also the invention of a conception of technology, however implicit and non-formulated it might be. That is, for example, the great strength of McLaren. One might as well say that what might be art and auteur cinema must always be re-made and invented anew today, in the context of what audiovisual technology and its social insertion is becoming.
To return to my opening remarks, I would add that it is probably in non-narrative animation that this issue arises in its purest, most extreme and most theoretical form. That is said not to denigrate the other dominant forms of animation, but to emphasize the specific and irreplacable position of non narrative film, analogous to the position poetry occupies in the language arts, dance in the theatre arts, and music in the time-based arts. Shorn of the filter of anecdotalism, it sets out to be an always singular, always timely, thus always historical experimentation with the invigorating relationship between language, corporeality and technology, where voice, body and machines combine in an ethical simulation of contemporary life.
Pierre Hébert Independent filmmaker, publicist and performing artist of live scratched animation.