3D Animation Pedagogy and the Aesthetics of Denial

Summer 2011: v.07 n.01: Under Fire: 3D Animation Pedagogy

Gregory Little
Bowling Green State University and Lorain County Community College

The history of animation, more than other artistic genres, is closely tied to technical innovation. The animators Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Butte, and John Whitney, for example, were also inventors and engineers. Their non-objective animations and the hybrid, often transgressive machines they built, can be categorized as part of the Modernist avant-garde. Their work was characterized by the development of an abstract, reductivist language, the visualization of non-visual phenomena, and an independent machine aesthetic that paralleled the radical expansion of technological innovation in the culture at large. Harold Rosenberg wrote in “Past Machines/Future Art” that for artists like Boccioni and Duchamp: “The history of the machine in art consists largely of the responses of artists to mechanisms of fantasy and to objects that are out of date or broken down or have changed into something else.”[1]

It is definitive of the history of animation that the artists involved went beyond metaphor in their engagement with technology. They built new custom tools through the transgressive re-purposing of outmoded machines. The fascination that Picabia, Tanning and others held for technology led them to transform our experience of the machine into metaphors for “persons and for human actions.”[2] The Futurists translated war machines into radical metaphors for aesthetic and cultural revolution, whereas Fischinger, Whitney and Butte transformed actual surplus machines into design tools for the production of experimental animations. The avant-garde practice of the pioneers of animation led to innovations in both aesthetic and technological realms of cultural production.

Outside the discourse of the avant-garde another artist, Winsor McCay, made an important contribution to the history of animation. McCay, a skilled draftsman in the realist tradition, had no patience for the cerebral musings of the avant-garde, no desire to break with tradition, and no interest in machines. He is often considered the father of the animated cartoon, and was opposed to the influence of ever-expanding technological innovations on creative practice, preferring to maintain the imprint of direct touch on his work. McCay took over a year to create through hand drawing each frame of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) on literally thousands of sheets of paper. For McCay the time and effort were well worth the result, and indeed McCay achieved a realism of movement, naturalism, and specificity that remained unsurpassed into the 1930s. However, his contemporaries considered his process slow, impractical and inefficient, preventing him from securing the support required to continue as an animator. His techniques were often plagiarized by opportunists seeking to capitalize on his discoveries while sacrificing his patient artistic process to “improve” on his production values. McCay, at a testimonial dinner in his honor in 1927 issued the following warning to a room full of admiring animators: “Animation should be an art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade [sic]. Not an art, but a trade. Bad luck!”[3]

In a significantly parallel sentiment, Oskar Fischinger stated in 1949 “…the animated film today is on a very low artistic level. It is a mass product of factory proportions, and this, of course, cuts down on the creative purity of the work of art. No sensible creative artist could create a sensible work of art if a staff of co-workers of all kinds each with his or her say in the final creation…they…substitute for the absolute creative motives only cheap ideas to fit the lowest common denominator.”[4] It is worth noting that Fischinger is coming from the position of an animator and painter when referring to the “sensible creative artist”. It is doubtful he would have leveled such criticism at monumental collaborative achievements in architecture, like the Cologne Cathedral, for example.

The history of animation thus follows two parallel threads, positing radically different agendas, processes, and aesthetics. The avant-garde thread represented by Fischinger, Whitney, Butte, Hirsh, Cuba, and others is often synaesthetic, abstract, and bound to technological innovation, and a machine aesthetic. The narrative realist thread most successfully defined by Winsor McCay and later co-opted by Disney posits an objective model of artistic tradition, hand-crafted realism, and narrative continuity. Like the avant-garde, this thread is also heavily invested in technological innovation, but only as related to naturalistic movement, verisimilitude, and the production values of manufacturing. Although these tendencies seem diametrically opposed, they share vectors that contribute to the shift in emphasis from art to trade and mass-production that concerned McCay and Fischinger.

It is not surprising that an extremely convoluted version of this history occupies the imaginations of the majority of my students. Too often their life dreams and aspirations are formed as a consequence of these misconceptions. In what follows I will describe how this view, which I call The Aesthetics of Denial, emerges in my students as an illusory but influential conglomerate of the agendas described above. I began teaching 3D animation in 1999 to Digital Arts Majors at Bowling Green State University. To my surprise, our students would have rather attended a lecture by anyone who worked in “The Industry” than one by The Yes Men or Ann Hamilton. They did not aspire to the paths of the innovators of digital and computational art like Char Davies, Larry Cuba, or Roy Ascott; nor did they appreciate the early pioneers of animation such as Fischinger or Whitney. They did not wish to exhibit their work, visit museums, or pursue galleries, grants, or MFA programs. For a population of largely first generation college students from rural and rust-belt communities, they simply wanted the skills they perceived necessary to land them a job in the industry. These students are encouraged to learn a trade by their family members involved in manufacturing or production work. Their interpretation of the values of the industry often led to conflicts with the art faculty.

In April of 2005 an artist came to campus to give a lecture on his work. This illustrator, let’s call him “Jones”[5], was a cyberpunk illustrator who produced dystopian DADA-esque digital photography and montage for magazines, cd covers, etc. There were striking similarities between the visual strategies used in his work and those I enjoyed in the Max Ernst exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I later asked Jones about the influence of DADA, especially Max Ernst, on his work. To my surprise he stated that he had heard of Ernst but was not familiar with his work. He acknowledged no influence of DADA. Soon after I thought of a passage from Clement Greenberg’s “Avant Garde and Kitsch Art”, a work that I had not looked at in over 25 years: “The precondition of kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends….”[6]

It was not simply the parasitic nature of Jones’s relationship to the artists that preceded him that struck me, it was more so the self-propelled myth of his own “originality”. The forms my students found so inventive in Jones’s work were simple reworkings of forms invented nearly 100 years ago, forms whose relevance had been exhausted by the advertising industry. Most significant was that Jones had appropriated not only the visual codes of DADA, but he also expressed the social codes that signify the effect of originality, the presentation of the avant-garde itself. Greenberg states his belief that there is a “…constant distinction made between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere. Kitsch, by virtue of a rationalized technique that draws on science and industry, has erased this distinction in practice.”[7]

Through the Aesthetics of Denial, both process and artifact are reduced to a pre-processed, easy to digest effect. The spectator (and the art student) is, in Greenberg’s words, spared effort and is provided with “a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.”[8] The Aesthetics of Denial does not challenge or elevate the viewer, but soothes and affirms. It is a bankrupt condition that is thoroughly dependent upon the artistic innovations of the past while entirely unaware or in denial of any link to that past. It is a process that simultaneously posits its aesthetic position to be at the forefront of innovation, creativity, and individuation, while in reality, as Paul Welles writes in Understanding Animation, “follows a highly conventional Disney model of an easily understood hyper-realist style.”[9] Our students describe the current state of animation cloaked in the rhetoric of the avant-garde. Words like “difficult”, “advanced”, “exploration”, and “inventive”, along with more contemporary phrases like “cutting edge” and “state of the art” typically occur in their conversations. These students believe that by working with the latest versions of the software their work is automatically “cutting edge,” as if technology alone defines innovation.

Innovation in the animation industry facilitates the efficient production of feature length works with high levels of verisimilitude that emulate live action and meet the strict and creatively restrictive standards of hyperrealism. The real difficulty for our students who aspire to work in industry lies in reconciling the difficult learning curves of extremely complex software applications and the intense production demands of a deadline-driven industry with the lack of creative freedom endemic to the majority of jobs in the field.

My goal is not to minimize the difficulties inherent in mastering the realist style, nor to downplay the effort required to gain control over the constantly evolving tools of the trade. My goal is not to deny the value of entertainment. However, I believe that the technical innovations that dominate the computer graphics industry are not, in the majority of cases, furthering the development of a socially relevant art or of an aesthetic of innovation, invention, and discovery; rather they are engaged in the creation of a predigested art form, a pablum for the masses. The impulse toward aesthetic innovation and individual expression is lured astray by the sirens of the hyperreal, anesthetized by miraculous effects, sentimental conclusions, dramatic sunsets, adrenal chase scenes, and self-evident stories. Through the Aesthetics of Denial the animation-entertainment industry re-writes history, re-maps cultural narratives, and reinforces stereotypes as difference becomes reflective and ray-traced away. In short, kitsch erases meaning and destroys history. My goal as a teacher is to offer our industry-focused students an informed choice, to cut through the pre-digested hype and denial-based aesthetics, and to propose an alternative. Toward this end, it is crucial to teach alternative strategies to those prescribed by the industry.

Both Fischinger and McCay state unequivocally that animation should be understood as an art, not a trade or mass product. In today’s paradigm the essential pedagogical strategy is to reframe 3D animation as part of Post-Modernism and New Media. This characterization defines the differences between the agendas held by the animators following the trajectory of the early 20th century avant-garde and the Disney model. Manovich, in The Language of New Media emphasizes the importance of the avant-garde to New Media: “One general effect of the digital revolution is that avant-garde aesthetic strategies became embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of computer software. In short, the avant-garde became materialized in a computer.”[10]

It might seem that Manovich’s statement supports my students’ conviction that that their use of current technology alone defines their work as avant-garde, or “cutting edge,” whereas Manovich is describing the steady assimilation of an aesthetic agenda into cultural products and tools over the duration of a century. Artists working with digital imaging and digital music frequently participate in post-modern strategies including sampling, transgressive uses of technology (“playing” a turntable), and cut and paste aesthetics. The post-modernist, according to Frederic Jameson “…ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older culture and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage”[11] whereas the 3D animator is generally not interested in bricolage or fragments, but with the “expression of materiality which has the same physical properties as the real world.”[12] Since the students’ agendas are often industry complicit, I work against this agenda by giving assignments that utilize avant-garde and post-modern strategies like downloading free 3D content, mixing software applications, visualizing the invisible, and deconstructing game engines.

Although Winsor McCay did not value avant-garde aesthetic strategies he might have enjoyed our contemporary digital tools, as they would offer him the possibility of controlling a sophisticated production pipeline, one frame at a time. McCay’s dialogical approach that seemed to the avant-garde so much a part of the past is now a surprising model for the future and an antidote for the present. William Gibson has imagined a rogue character that reminds me of McCay, myself, and many of my students. Only referred to as the “garage Kubrick”, this character has resisted Gibson’s narratives but haunts his quiet moments, and now occupies my thoughts as well. The “garage Kubrick” “…was based not on Kubrick himself but on certain theories about Kubrick’s methods and intentions…Kubrick didn’t care how long anything took, and would have been happiest if he’d been able to construct virtual sets and virtual actors from the wireframe up. “[13]

The “garage Kubrick”, let’s call it garku, has a unique relationship to dominant constructions of the post-modern artist, as garku employes strategies and techniques of the post-modern digital age. Garku does not believe, as many post-modernist do, that the author is dead. The “garage Kubrick” grows out of auteur theory, a theory emerging from film that foregrounds the desires and vision of a single author even in the context of a large production environment. Through auteur theory film became art again, and the director is usually the artist. Hitchcock, Deren, Kubrick, Wertmüller, etc. are examples. However, the post-modern condition of the artist, as defined in Roland Barthe’s essay “The Death of the Author” (1967) seems at first in conflict with auteur theory, as it undermined notions of authorship and originality: “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.”[14]

This author, or “scribe” as Barthe prefers to call him, is commonly understood as pivotal to the post-modern definition of the artist. “The Death of the Author” has led to foregrounding collaborative and collective notions of distributed authorship. In the entertainment industry the author died a long time ago, consumed by a Disney or Pixar. As the film industry needed in the 1960s, the animation industry currently needs an author[15]. I see the “garage Kubrick” in many of my students; garku has visited my studio as well. After all, garku has the entire production pipeline on her laptop. Let us help her make sense of it all.

1. Harold Rosenberg, “Past Machines/Future Art,” in The De-Definition of Art (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1972), 161.
2. Ibid. 162.
3. John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, (New York: Abbeville, 1987), 159.
4. William Moritz, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, (Indianapolis and Boomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 192.
5. It is not important to this essay to name this individual artist, as this is not intended to be a critique of his or her work.
6. Clement Greenberg, “Avant Garde and Kitsch Art.” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 10.
7. Ibid, page 13.
8. Ibid, page 15.
9. Paul Wells, Understanding Animation, (London and New York: Routledge Press,1998), 23.
10. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2001), 258.
11. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 96.
12. Wells, Understanding Animation, 90.
13. William Gibson. (1999). “William Gibson’s Filmless Festival: A long, flickering weekend with the ghosts of cinema’s future,” Wired 7.10 . Retrieved on 23 Jan. 2011 from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.10/gibson_pr.html
14. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” in Image, Music, Text, (New York: Hill and Wang,1977) 142-148.
15. Animation has had many authors over the years, but my point here is that animation pedagogy is dominated by the values of industry as described in this essay, not by the unique and visionary work of artists like Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and David Anderson.