The portrayal and presence of the body in animated films

Presented at the Society for Animation Studies Conference Ottawa, October 1990

by Pierre Hébert

Before I begin, I would like to define the scope of this presentation. As an outsider addressing a learned society, I feel I should emphasize that I will not be speaking as a university researcher, but as a filmmaker. I’m not trying to side-step your requirements of theoretical and historical rigour, but it is important to remember that my reflections are based on my practical experience as a filmmaker. It was my filmmaking that created the need for this theorizing and it is my filmmaking that will ultimately benefit from it. I don’t see how one can make “experimental” films without this theoretical counterpoint. Thus, my primary goal is not to produce knowledge, but films. However, I hope that, imbedded as it is in the practical side of filmmaking, what I am about to say will be of some use to you.

So, on to the subject of my presentation: the portrayal and presence of the body in animated film, a rather surprising topic, I must admit. In particular, the question of the presence of the body or rather the mode of presence of the body is certainly a less obvious one than that of its portrayal. When I say “mode of presence of the body”, I mean the body of the animator, the role and place it has in the creative/technical process of animated filmmaking and how it thus defines a mode of meaning that is proper to that art.

This idea of presence of the body was originally inspired by certain aspects of the work of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, which hint at a kinesthetic concept of animation. However, I will not elaborate on that here. At the time, it was merely an aesthetic bias I had that was closely related to my preferred technique of etching directly on film. It was only later through my frequent contact with dance that I came to see the question of the body as bringing into question the whole art of animated film.


When I first collaborated with dancers, I intuitively felt that beyond certain formal similarities stemming from an abstract idea of motion, which is usually not explored any further, there were fundamental differences between danced motion and animated motion. A different approach to motion. That was what I wanted to verify by watching dancers and choreographers at work, not just when they were performing but especially in rehearsal, when they were actually working on motion.

It seemed to me that the difference between the two approaches was not a function of the motion itself but, rather, of the mode of presence of the body. In dance, the motions are somebody’s motions, they come directly from the body of the dancer and the energy he expends; they are literally his motions. In animated film, however, the motions seen on the screen are nobody’s motions; they do not come directly from the animator’s body.

This split between the physical energy expended by the artist when he animates and the kineticism observed when watching the film comes from the animator’s purely cerebral process of conceptualizing motion, on the one hand, and the technological process by which he simulates this conceptualized motion, on the other hand. This results in a purely instrumental relationship between the concept of motion and the illusion seen on the screen — an instrumentalism that is the effacement of the body.

This effacement also operates in relation to still drawings. The strokes that make up the still drawing are a materialization of the drawer’s motions and the energy he expends, and thus have an unquestionable corporal value. However, this value is lost when viewing the series of drawings that make up the animated motion. It is as if the singularity of each drawing were absorbed by the effect of motion so that the viewer mentally forms a virtual image of the moving entity, at the expense of everything in each drawing that cannot be reduced to the virtual image and which therefore constitutes a sort of perceptual residue. The classic technique of standardizing the drawing from one image to the next does its best to eliminate this residue.

Thus, animated film, torn between “drawing” and “dancing”, would seem to have its own distinct imaginary world without any corporal foundation. Should this art therefore be seen as a confrontation between the body and machines, a confrontation that has been aggravated with the development of new computerized images? At the very least, this would entail a fundamental debate regarding the place of the body in art, with respect to both the artist and the viewer, as a basis of communication between the two.

These were the reflections that grew out of my association with dancers. And which led to an extremist approach to animation in an attempt to overcome what I perceived as an absence of the body. It was an impossible mission that I expressed through paradoxical formulas: animate with what becomes lost when a drawing is made to move; animate with the perceptual residue instead of with the illusion of motion. This led me to undertake experiments in “live” improvised animation, in which my body in the act of animating was part of the performance.


I now return to the first question the portrayal of the body whose terms were singularly modified by the considerations I have just mentioned. It could no longer simply be a question of why the body was represented graphically in such and such a way. I found myself faced with a new, more general question: Why are moving bodies portrayed dramatically by means of animated simulacra? This was a more fundamental question.

Before, when I asked myself, “What do I do when I animate?”, I was frustrated to keep coming back to the founding role of technological history: I create motion image by image as made possible through filmmaking technology. Put this way, the question and its answer were trapped in an historical ghetto; the only meaning or value they have ever had or ever will have is in the period extending from the invention of filmmaking to its possible technical demise.

However, this was not the case when I asked myself, “What do I do when I draw?” I needed this new question which opened up a much broader historical perspective and did not define animation in primarily technological terms. By postulating a dramaturgy of simulacra, one lumps together animated film, new computerized images and, more importantly, puppet theatre. This is particularly advantageous for animated film since it thereby gains a history that is both universal and thousands of years old.


There are many obvious dramaturgical affinities between animated film and puppet theatre: relative freedom from the law of gravity, unrealistic treatment of time and space, fairly stylized characters, strong influence of plastic arts, similar narrative forms, etc. Just based on these similarities, it seems surprising, if my information is correct, that no historians of film or puppet theatre have ever thought to point up the continuity between these two disciplines.

They only look at the question from the point of view of transfer of particular techniques, that is, the use of three-dimensional figures or ombres chinoises in animated film. There is no doubt that these comparisons are relevant and historically justified: Czechoslovakian animated marionettes have their roots in the national tradition of puppet theatre and Lotte Reiniger was fully aware that she was continuing the tradition of shadow shows. However, this approach ignores the overall dramaturgical relationship that exists between the two disciplines over and above specific technical similarities or differences.

It is also significant that the two disciplines find themselves in similar situations in contemporary cultural life, both being thought naturally suited to children. Anyone who tries to appeal to adults (and thus, in the order of our societies’ cultural values, to practise fully recognized arts) runs up against a chronic problem in reaching the target audience, if not outright indifference from them. This leads to the same apologetic discourse about what a varied and rich potential these arts have and what a pity it is that they are treated like poor relations. While prejudices, historical circumstances and the rigid organization of our cultural life are all real causes of this distressing situation, I feel this constitutes only a superficial explanation.

It is therefore interesting to note that traditional puppet theatres were intended for adults as well as children. It is also interesting that in the West these traditions pretty well disintegrated with the appearance of industrial societies. At the same time, with the introduction of compulsory schooling and child labour laws, there developed a children’s world that would henceforth be distinct from that of adults and have its own forms of entertainment, one of which was puppet shows.

The history of Guignol, the French equivalent of the Punch and Judy show, is a perfect example of this. Initially created as working-class theatre, it degenerated into a stereotype of the children’s puppet show. By the time moving pictures came on the scene, themselves a product of the industrial revolution, the change in puppet theatre was already complete, so that animated film largely targeted the same juvenile audiences from the start. I feel that the underlying explanation for this resides in the very nature of the imaginary world created by these disciplines and its place in our techno-scientific civilization, which brings us back to the question of the body.


The comparison of animated film with puppet theatre is particularly interesting from the point of view of mode of presence of the body, since this question is at the heart of the puppeteer’s dramatic art and technique. His art always consists in giving life, or the appearance of life, to an inanimate figure while hiding his own body.

Most often, as in the Western traditions of marionettes and hand puppets, the puppet theatre or booth is designed to hide the manipulator from the audience. In other cases, such as Japanese bunraku theatre, where the manipulation is done in full view, the manipulators’ art consists in making the audience forget their presence, as if they did not exist. In certain traditions, the puppets themselves which are meant to come to life are surrounded in mystery and are carefully hidden from public view when they are not performing. Just as the manipulators hide when they give life, the puppets are hidden when they are lifeless.

Thus, the dissimulation of the puppeteer’s body constitutes the mainspring of his mode of meaning. It is what makes it possible to symbolically give life to a simulacrum that remains inert without the gestures of the artist but must appear as if it had its own life independent of its manipulator. There is thus an interdependence between the two questions posed at the beginning of my presentation: portrayal of the body by means of a moving simulacrum, and presence of the body based on its dissimulation.

This helps to explain what in animated film seemed to me to be an effacement, an absence of the body. The dramaturgical process is undoubtedly the same and has the same animist intent. However, there is a technological revolution between the two. In the case of the puppeteer, the dissimulation is deliberate and requires specific technical training. There is also a direct kinetic relationship between the motions of the manipulator and those of the simulacrum. This, however, constitutes a technical limit to what is theatrically possible.

Unlike the puppeteer, the animator does not give his own life to his characters. He does not have to hide his body, nor train himself to do so, nor, like the puppeteer, does he have to be aware of the key role of dissimulation in his art — it is an automatic, unthinking effect of the technical process, so that the dissimulation seems like effacement. However, it was this technical process that made it possible to cast off the restraints imposed by the theatrical context and push the animist intent much further. Any departure from real time and space or metamorphosis in the form of the characters became relatively easy to achieve, without the ingenious tricks needed to obtain the same effects in the theatre.

This throws a different light on my extremist approach to animation, since the effacement is no longer measured against the total presence of the body dancing, like an enormous lack to be overcome. That is only one aspect of it. The effacement of the body now appears like an unconscious form of dissimulation. Now, my aim as an animator is not to go to any lengths to assert the total presence of the body in animated film, but to reaffirm it as dissimulation.


Computer animation opens a whole new chapter in this history of the dramaturgy of simulacra. Here, the presence of the body, as I have defined it, is reduced even further and the problem of portrayal is radically changed. It is strictly from these two perspectives that I will consider computer animation; I am not questioning its multifarious applications, which are undeniable. What we have with computer animation is simulations of the real, which aim for perfection. In its most extreme form, this type of animation tries to create synthetic virtual actors — perfect simulacra.

Michel Larouche gives a good summary of the underlying ideological aims of this simulation project in an article entitled La surréalité des images de synthèse (The Surreality of Synthesized Images) (24 IMAGES, No. 43). After bringing up “the possibility of one day being able to synthesize the body of any person, dead or alive, so that the viewer cannot tell the difference between reality and simulacrum”, he adds that “once realism is attained, this paves the way to total surrealism”.

One might doubt the feasibility of this from a technical, not to mention theoretical, standpoint, but it is significant just that the project has been formulated, that it has been swallowed whole without any serious critical examination and that considerable resources have been invested in research that takes a “positive scenario” for granted. In the same article, the author says, “Such a perspective leaves one puzzled on many counts….But let’s look at the positive scenario.” Apparently that is the full extent of his puzzlement! This scientific optimism is based both on the belief of a possible identity between the simulacrum and the thing simulated, and also on a longing for the origins of art: “Thanks to computer graphic techniques, art now has the possibility of returning to its original source, to the stage preceding its separation from science.”

Here, technical considerations give way to an anthropological problem: what is the purpose of the dramaturgy of simulacra in our day and age? Or, rather, how does its own particular imaginary world operate? To answer this, one would have to do an historical anthropological study of the dramaturgy of simulacra, look at the different forms it takes in different societies and see how the distinctive imaginary world of this dramaturgy operates in and on these societies. That’s well beyond the scope of this presentation. I have reached the limits of what I can do as a filmmaker; to explore this any further, I would have to become a researcher. I will therefore confine myself to explaining the hypotheses that guide me as a filmmaker.


It seems to me that dramaturgies of simulacra do two things. First, they are animist; they confer the appearance of life on the inanimate. And second, in so doing, they create imaginary worlds that are exempt from the laws of the real world; they allow us to escape into fantasy. Although not all use of simulacra can be systematically reduced to a magical function, their underlying motivation is nevertheless related to magic, and that is how they are perceived and enjoyed by the audience.

Moreover, it is recognized that the oldest puppet theatre traditions often had to do with magical, ritual, mythical or religious practices: portraying the gods, petitioning the gods or recounting origins. However, one would still have to determine how the use of puppets differed from other theatrical practices involving live actors with sacred functions, and how the puppets also served other functions, such as social criticism. Nevertheless, one can say that in the traditional theatres, the magical aspect (whether implicit or explicit) had considerable social value for all members of society, including adults, although the technical means of giving the appearance of life to the puppets may have been rudimentary. The symbolic force of the portrayals was such that there would have been no point to the perfect illusion so sought after by computer animation.

Nowadays, the opposite is true. The effects of magic and fantasy have been pushed much farther, the illusion is much more convincing and spectacular, but the symbolic force of the portrayal has disintegrated. The animist effect is no longer experienced, except by children. Adults willingly admit they feel like kids again when they watch animated films, with a nostalgia for childhood that is also nostalgia for paradise lost.

This paradoxical situation was brought about by the subversive effect of techno-scientific empiricism the dominant ideology of industrial societies and by the effacement of the body stemming from the technologizing of the dramaturgy of simulacra. And there is no hope of reversing the course of history. There is no use in dreaming of a renaissance of the sacred function of simulacra in its traditional form.


In reflecting on the current state and the future of the arts of moving simulacra, one cannot disregard technology. Which is not to say that one should subscribe to the technological messianism so common today. In this respect, it is not sure that the sacred has totally disappeared from simulacra; it may simply have shifted place. While puppets, the drawings that make up animated film and the virtual beings produced by computer animation can no longer aim to portray the gods, it is not out of the question that the machines themselves secretly constitute a modern, unacknowledged image of God, so that the sacred continues to play a part in the dramaturgy of simulacra.

That is how I am inclined to understand computer animation’s goal of “one day being able to synthesize the body of any person”, which is nothing less than a belief in the possibility of a total, formalized (i.e., mathematicized) knowledge of human nature so as to be able to symbolically create man in a virtual form indistinguishable from reality. It is interesting to note that for the time being we are only able to portray humans as machines, in the image of the god-machine. The scientific and technical appearance of this undertaking does not in any way alter its ideological basis. Thus, animated films are only one step in a process of dematerialization and decorporalization extending from puppet theatre to computer animation. As for puppet theatre, it necessarily remains essentially corporal. Although, under the influence of our times, the place of the body has become unclear there too. In the magazine Marionnettes published by Unima-France and issue No. 51 of the magazine Jeu, one finds a recurring concern with the status of the puppeteer — whether he is a simple manipulator or a full actor, hence the popularity of visible manipulation. This confirms the ambiguous situation of the dramaturgy of simulacra today.

So, where does this leave me as an animated filmmaker? As I indicated at the beginning, my response will be my next film. It will not be conclusive and will resolve nothing with regard to history or theory. For my work, what I need is to find answers, or at least practical solutions, to the following questions: What purpose can simulacra serve today? How can they be reimbued with symbolical force that is neither nostalgia for the sacred nor technological messianism? How can we compass this reference to the sacred which seems to be consubstantial with animist art? And to this end, how can technology be put to the test of the body and vice versa? And how can a dramaturgy based on dissimulation be reoriented toward a body/mind subject seeking its voice through its very effacement? It’s a paradoxical undertaking, and I don’t know if it’s possible, only that what makes it meaningful is that it’s a paradox.

Translated by: Janet Chapman Secretary of State, Translation Bureau, Montreal