Theory of the Animated Form

Traditional animation is also called cel animation where the frames of a traditionally animated movie are hand-drawn. The drawings are traced or copied onto transparent acetate sheets called cels, which are then placed over a painted background and photographed one by one on a rostrum camera. Nowadays, the use of cels (and cameras) is mostly obsolete, since the drawings are scanned into computers, and digitally transferred directly to 35 mm film

In Understanding Animation, Paul Wells devotes a chapter to outlining a formal distinction between the qualities of what he terms “Orthodox,” “Experimental” and “Developmental” animation (35-46). Orthodox animation refers to traditional cel animation:

Cel animation remains the most convenient technique for the mass production of cartoons and, therefore, the most commonly seen form of animation. Consequently, it constitutes what may be understood as orthodox animation, and is most associated, even in its most anarchic or fantastical form, at the level of narrative, along with the hyper-realist style [associated with Disney]. This may seem extraordinary to the viewer who sees the cartoon as an intrinsically non-realist form, but as will become clear, this sense of unreality only operates with regard to the representation of events in a cartoon, and not the ‘realist’ conventions by which it is understood. [. . .] This method enables a large number of animators to be involved and facilitates an industrial process. It also results in a certain creative intention which characterizes the criteria for orthodox animation. (35-36)

Orthodox animation, according to Wells (35-46), is characterized by the following eight conditions: configuration, specific continuity, narrative form, evolution of context, unity of style, absence of the artist, dynamics of dialogue.

“Configuration” refers to the fact that cartoons typically feature “figures”—”identifiable people or animals who corresponded to what audiences would understand as an orthodox human being or creature.”

Experimental animation, on the other hand, explores the particular language and formal properties of animation itself. Wells defines its “terms and conditions” in opposition to those of orthodox animation: abstraction, specific non-continuity, interpretative form, evolution of materiality, multiple styles, presence of the artist, and dynamics of musicality.

Experimental animation tends to “Abstraction,” rather than configuration. It is more concerned with rhythm and movement than in using the figure, the body as “an illustrative image” (43). It rejects logical and linear continuity while creating other, sometimes multiple continuities, structured not on narrative progression but the vocabulary unique to the particular animation in question. Rather than narrative, experimental animation displays “Interpretative Form.” It is aesthetic and non-narrative; it prioritizes abstract forms in motion and its vocabulary is painterly and/or sculptural, requiring the audience to interpret the work not in the context of familiar storytelling strategies but “on their own terms, or terms predetermined by the artist.”

Further reading: Wiki article on The Incredibles and this article on animation from New World Encyclopedia provides a nice overview of early animation and animation techniques. An interesting article Inside the Incredibles, if you’d like to know more about technical innovations, and this one on creative human character animation which discusses comedy and action through squash-and stretch. Also see this blog post on gender in pixar movies and this article on how Disney perpetuates gender stereotypes. “Hey Pixar, what’s up?” is also quite engaging.


About nicolapallitt

I am currently doing my PhD in Media Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I use WordPress for research and teaching purposes.
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