IN FILM STUDIES
How has the animated aesthetic developed
independently from the “live‐action” aesthetic;
how have technological advancements
enhanced them both?
The nature of the animated film is constantly changing and largely misunderstood. Very few
companies –Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Illumination– have the means to undertake these
large scale productions, limiting yearly releases and effectively controlling the entire public
perception of a medium. No animation company has as extended a legacy as Disney; every
other producer largely started or rebooted production in the post‐computer age. When the
target generation audience “outgrows” the animated canon, the history of these films refreshes
with new technology, controlled re‐releases, and merchandise before a constant infusion of
new eyes replaces the old ones. The animated film is about the image on and off the screen,
making it perhaps the most “consumerist”‐minded cinema sector. Peeling back the corporate
layers reveals a clearer picture of the animated aesthetic. With a greater dependence on
technology across the film industry, animation hints at the future trajectory of all cinematic
Part One: Animation Aesthetics and History
To animate is to bring to life or to give the appearance of movement. Movement is the key
to the animated aesthetic – hand‐drawn, stop motion (which utilizes 3‐dimensional, physical
objects), and computerized films are all labeled “animation.” The different forms of animation
share an artificial temporality between frames ‐the intervals‐ but not the content of the images
themselves. “’Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie
between the frames’” (Furniss 5). Producing images frame by frame breaks down the time into
discrete moments. In “live action” filmmaking, a camera records the events in the same amount
of time as we (the audience) experience and perceive them. The camera apparatus then breaks
down the time into frames automatically after the fact as the film passes in front of the
aperture. Animation splinters the boundaries of “real” time, a time machine both for film
production and the diegetic worlds that it creates: from the beginning of the universe to the
The filmmaker controls the interval between frames, both temporally and ideologically. The
former decides both how much time exists between frames and when in the timeline of the
universe the film takes place. The latter determines how far the events are removed from each
other and our own experiences of the universe. If the “live action” film has a Bazinian indexical
relationship to the world around the camera, existing independently of the artist, the animated
aesthetic stands as a testament and monument to our brain’s ability to create. Animation (just
as Bazin’s other “plastic arts”) is freed to explore the abstract by the reality of the “live action”
image. In this way, the animated film is a cross between painting and film, whereas “live action”
cinema is in the intersection of photography and theater.
Every aspect of the animated frame is controlled: the artist chooses what they do or do not
draw in each cell. The filmmaker plays god in the religion of animation; they decide the science
of the imaginary universe. Because animated worlds are fictitious, the audience cannot take the
standard physics and rules of our world for granted when watching. Whereas “live action” can
capture –accidentally‐ what is placed in front of the camera, animation is purposeful. This also
applies to the sound design of the animated film; every layer of a finished scene must be built
from the ground up. Filmmaker Maya Deren theorizes that “live action” motion pictures are just
“controlled accidents … By controlled accident I mean the maintenance of a delicate balance
between what is there spontaneously and naturally as evidence of the independent life of
actuality, and the persons and activities which are deliberately introduced into the scene”
(Corrigan 151). Animated films are not accidental, but rather carefully computated and
The calculation allows for a further level of abstraction from “reality,” allowing the
animated film to comment on human experiences. In Plato’s metaphorical cave, animation is
the allegorical level of representation. The animated aesthetic should not be taken as a realistic
truth, but rather a comment on the metaphysics of being. Animation is not a direct reflection of
the world of the audience. From the animated character, the audience cannot receive the same
voyeuristic pleasure of looking at their surrogate as they do from a “live‐action” film. The
pleasure of live action cinema is a return to the mirror state of self‐development, a time of
self‐recognition, which allows the audience to see themselves in place of the protagonist. The
animated image can assume the same function as a dream: a lens of possibilities that forms the
animated aesthetic of “what if?”
The animated, or “what if,” aesthetic has roots in the films of George Méliès. From the
earliest days of cinema history there have always been two main aesthetic trends: the realistic
and the magical. The former, found in the films of the Lumière brothers, strives to reflect the
world around the cameraman as accurately as possible in a documentarian style. The latter
attempts to explore the world of the unseen, the unexplainable and the imaginary. Méliès, in
films such as A Trip to the Moon, began to utilize cinema techniques and styles that would later
be echoed in animation. He would stop, remove or add something from the scene, and then
start the camera again – “a technical predecessor of frame‐by‐frame animation” (Furniss 17).
Audiences thought these special effects were magic. Animation is only limited by what the mind
can envision, filling a similar void as the science fiction and fantasy of Méliès. In some ways,
animation and the imaginary ask the same questions as a religion: What if something in our
world was different? Animation constantly asks the audience, “what if?” What if toys or cars
could talk? What if our emotions in our mind are alive? What happens to the robots we leave
behind on our planet?
In the pre and early cinema history, animation ‐movement of the inanimate‐ was found in
zoetropes. Zoetropes created the illusion of motion by spinning or flipping between individual
images. Audiences decided the speed of the flicker between images. The persistence of vision,
the after‐burn of one image on the retina, made it seem as if all of the illustrations were
moving. This early movement was tactile and required audience participation to create the
magic. Part of the pleasure of this animation is seeing and controlling the motion of the
inanimate. This animation was short‐form; zoetropes could only hold a specific number of
images. But it was not limited to a younger audience: everyone was attracted to these moving
pictures. Emile Cohl in 1908 was the first to create animation as thought of today with his film
"FANTASMAGORIE." The film was fascinated with transformation and the idea of movement
itself. Cohl thought that “insanity, hallucinations, dreams, and nightmares were sources of
aesthetic inspiration” for his animated films, similar to the themes of Méliès.”
During the 20’s, animation matured in a technological arms race that led to the invention of
sound and color shorts, making the imaginary worlds they created more believable. Walt
Disney, creator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse, is the most famous American
Early Disney films were emblematic of the specific narratives and styles that are best
suited to the animated aesthetic. The Disney style of animation always sought to provide an
“Illusion of Life,” not the illusion of reality that live action provides.
Disney established the
lasting perception that animation should strive for believability – realism in the world of the
aesthetic – and not for a reflection of reality, mimesis. Frank Thomas, one of Disney’s top
animators, listed the 12 principles of Disney animation, with the most important being “squash
and stretch” that emphasize exaggeration of movement (Thomas 47‐48). Actions in animation
do not resemble the way a human would perform or move. The characters are pushed to
represent the extremes of emotions and actions that would not seem believable in the “real”
2He faced competition in the early 1920’s from others such as John Bray, the creator of the first
color animated film (The Debut of Thomas Cat), Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, the artists
behind Felix the Cat, and Fleischer Studios, who were behind Ko‐Ko the clown. None remain
alive in our minds today as much as Disney. For a comprehensive history of the early Disney
films, see Walt in Wonderland by Merritt and Kaufman.
3The difference between realism and reality.
world. In animation, character and archetype are synonymous, also allowing for a larger
audience to relate to the characters, even when they are not human. Every possible thing
(animal or object) that could be anthropomorphized is in the classical Disney film. In the 1932
Silly Symphonies short, Flowers and Trees, the plants begin by dancing and smiling to the music.
In the Disney film, “hyperkinecticism prevails,” showing off the movement capabilities of the
animate aesthetic (Merritt 20). Animation brings the Wonderland of Alice to every film. At this
time, animation was presumed to be unsustainable as a feature length endeavor. It was
relegated to be merely a sideshow as part of a cinema program until Snow White and the Seven
Dwarves in 1937; only then did animation begin to be considered a serious art form.
Following Snow White, Walt Disney based a large number of his films on either fairytales or
pre‐existing storybook characters (i.e. Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, Little
Mermaid, Cinderella, etc.), creating the perception that cartoons were for children.
are didactic, often providing a general moral that aims to acclimate children to the world
matching the allegorical quality of the animated aesthetic. While the target audience for these
animated films were younger generations, the characters they featured face remarkably adult
problems that prepare children to face these issues throughout their lives. Children view the
world in a binary system: good and evil. Villains are clearly evil; even Mickey Mouse in the older
short films faced direct opposition. At this stage, animation was not subtle. The audience was
clearly meant to root for one person’s success and the other’s demise. This narrative arc was
4These movies are mostly rated “G” and “PG.” If another animation producer had become as
dominant as Disney, history and people’s opinions of the medium might have been different.
For example, in recent years there have been a number of very “adult” cartoons (i.e. Archer,
Family Guy), but these are specifically all comedies, altering the aesthetic both narratively and
visually and widening the animated medium’s appeal.
mirrored in all levels of production: from the colors signifying good or evil to the music
associated with each character.
Music also captures these ideas in a way words can’t. Animation, with its roots in the silent
era, has a strong linkage to music that is perpetuated by the Disney fairytale musicals: often
today the highpoints of the animated film are the moments without any dialogue (i.e. the
opening sequences of Up or Wall‐e), where the music helps to guide the emotions of the
audience. “Many of Disney’s [early] cartoons, in fact, amount to silent musicals, extended comic
concerts … prompted by the flimsiest of introductions” (Merritt 20). In the later features, the
aesthetic of “what if?” is mirrored in the Disney “I want” song (e.g. “A Part of Your World,” “Out
There”). In the beginning of the classical Disney movies, the lead character sings a song asking if
their world were different, a song of possibilities. Music acts on the same allegorical level as
animation and technology.
There is not a clear shift in animation history between the hand drawn and the
technological, but one that happened over many years. The Walt Disney Company and their
animators have tried to perpetuate the idea that absolutely everything early on was
hand‐drawn. Disney artist Floyd Norman states “Back in those days animated films were made
by hand, no technology. It was a handmade product. We drew it with pencil and paper. The
inkers inked on sheets of acetate with ink and painted the cells with paint – took forever to do
it and cost a lot of money.”
But that is an anachronism. Animation technology began much
earlier than the later invention of the computer. Instead, analog and mechanical tools were
created to further animation: as with every other time consuming and cost prohibitive industry,
advancements are made to simplify production as well as allow for new types of animation. The
multi‐plane camera, a Disney invention first used in an early Silly Symphony short, flattened and
compressed multiple levels of hand‐drawn images. The different levels could be moved
independently to create an added illusion of depth. Additionally, there was an entire special
effects department at Disney that helped create scenes with fire, water, lightning, etc. These
elements outside of the ink and paper helped to create the final image on the screen. Disney,
with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, began a progress called Xerography that allowed for
the faster reproduction of images instead of creating individual cells using “an electrically
charged plate” (Thomas 281). At this stage of production, Animation began to lose its
analog‐ness and entered the world of the technological. In One Hundred and One Dalmatians,
Xerography allowed for the quick duplication of drawings allowing for the large number of dogs
on screen to not have to be drawn individually. There was no longer a one‐to‐one correlation
between an artist’s drawing and the final frame; images could be reproduced.
Pixar, originally founded from within the visual effects group at LucasFilm that made
technology and computers for others films, began to develop the Computer Animation
Production Systems along with Disney that allowed artists to alter drawn images digitally.
“Technically the CGI ballroom in Beauty and the Beast is a piece of stagecraft, but it was also
the first time that a piece of CGI was used to elicit an emotional response.”
Technology and the
digital were shown to be an emotional force. Disney continued the technological evolution of
animation with the Deep Canvas software. In Tarzan, Deep Canvas helped animators create the
immersive scenes of Tarzan flowing through the trees, bringing the camera with him. This era of
animation shows that technology helps to fill a gap between mimesis and fantasy: making the
world of “what if” closer to our own. The limits of technology push the artists to then further
the technology again. For no two consecutive generations has animated technology been the
same. John Lasseter of Pixar famously stated, “art inspires the technology and the technology
inspires the art.” The animated film constantly tries to be the live action one, whether by
simulating camera movements or by using live actors as a base for characters, by constantly is
blocked by the animated inherent un‐reality.
Part Two: Computer Animation and Pixar’s Toy Story
Pixar Animation Studios was the first to make a completely computer‐animated film with a
The studio studied the narrative and emotional uses of computer
technology in the 1984 short film André and Wally B. In director Alvy Ray Smith’s academic
paper explaining the methodology behind that short, he stated, “the piece was meant to be
symbolic: A computer‐animated 3‐D character wakes up and sees the world.”
generated images as a projection
of reality have enabled a new visualization of the universe;
we have woken up in this post‐analog world just as the character in Pixar’s short has been
roused. 3‐D computer animation created a new visual aesthetic, with “realistic” lighting and
shading that made the imaginary worlds of “what if” closer to something a live‐actor could
inhabit. The audience must approach this new way to interpret the world in a similarly unique
manner. Computer animation is paradoxical in the way we as the audience receive such strong
emotions from the non‐human. Not only are the characters in animation often not human, but
the films themselves originate from the computer. Emotion arises from a series of code. Code
and computers, through the help of the animator, attempt to replicate human emotional
responses. As the visuals of animation developed from the hand‐drawn to the computer, they
73‐dimensional compared to the flat look of hand‐drawn animation and not yet stereoscopic,
9Specifically, not a mirror: “They are not mirrors but projections that are programmed to make
common sense appear mirror like” (Flusser 49). Computer animation acts on the same
metaphysical level, allowing for aspects of the world to be made clear that would not be
apparent in a mere reflection.
became more “realistic” as their origins became even more immaterial. Computer Animation
lives in the digital universe.
The keystone of the Pixar library is the Toy Story Trilogy,
with releases spanning from the
infancy of the computer animated film to the current technology. The 1995 original, partially
based on the earlier Oscar‐winning short film Tin Toy, was the first feature length computer
generated animated film. When it was first released, Steve Jobs commented that Toy Story was
to Pixar as Snow White was to Disney (Villemin 10). Both were lauded as impossible projects,
doomed to fail, that each resulted in special academy awards and in maturations of the
animated aesthetic. Toy Story continued the trend of anthropomorphism, partially because the
computer technology was not able to accurately depict the human face in a detailed enough
manner to sustain a feature‐length film. The plot of the three films are remarkably similar, a
buddy‐cop rescue film, with an increasing cast of characters of toys and humans.
The two main characters in the series are Buzz, a space‐ranger, and Woody, a cowboy. In
the first film, the two must reconcile their differences as Buzz invades Woody’s territory, a life
lesson about working with others. Buzz, who believed that he really was a space‐ranger, would
not be relatable in a live action setting; he would only seem “crazy,” too strongly opinionated
with his false‐view of the world. Buzz can only move in an exaggerated way, especially in the
first Toy Story, because the animation was controlled by simple polygons (Villemin 7). The
characters are all built up from shapes, the atoms of the computer language. The extremity of
movement is mirrored in the way the actors voice the characters by using large fluctuations in
their tones. Buzz is an embodiment of the computer‐animated paradox: part of his character
10A fourth film is currently in production, extending the franchises life, but with an expected
departure in plot structure from the first three.
arc is him accepting his plasticity, but that can only be reached through the “human”
connection of his friendship with Woody. Buzz’s journey is to a self‐awareness of his place in
the world – that he cannot travel to space to save the universe, but he can only affect the world
of Andy’s bedroom. In another Pixar film, The Incredibles ‐ a take on the superhero genre ‐ each
character is an archetype, whose personality is reflected in their unique power. For example,
Mrs. Incredible has the power of elasticity as she must metaphorically extend herself to hold
her family together as a mom. A Pixar character is simultaneously a unique and universal
individual: specific in their personality, but undefined in their origins. The microcosmic society
of toys in Toy Story is allegorical in the same manner to that of the livestock in Animal Farm.
The toys each share a bond with each other, but also with their owner, Andy. Andy’s
presence is often unseen, but always felt. The toys are fully dependent on their owner, but not
the other way around. Andy marks his name on the foot of each of his plastic friends. This
writing becomes symbolic throughout the series, a sense of community and belonging. When
Andy’s name – written in a childish scrawl‐ is added or removed, that toy gains admittance into
the society of his bedroom. The second Toy Story brings the gang to Al’s Toy Barn where they
see rows upon rows of Buzz Lightyears, each one looking the same to the next. Our Buzz,
indistinguishable from the others, even has to fight to prove to Andy’s gang that it really is him.
What makes one toy different from the next, each manufactured in the same plant? What
makes each person different from the next? The film posits the answer as the relationships
people (and toys) make and their experiences; nature versus nurture. In Toy Story, this is both
the backstory given to them by their owner and the way they learn to interact with their fellow
toys. Woody always insists on getting back to Andy to be there for him: that is his purpose and
his lifeline. Andy’s mom tells her son, “I’m sorry honey, but you know toys don’t last forever” as
she places a ripped Woody on the dusty shelf in Toy Story 2. In the world of Toy Story, toys
don’t die, but are forgotten and outgrown by the people that they love; a fate much worse than
death that often forces toys towards a villainous tendency.
Producer Darla K. Anderson states about the trilogy, “‘All the Toy Story movies have been
about morality. You can keep peeling that onion and go as deep as you want into it. Or enjoy it
for what it is’” (Solomon 170). One’s morality is dependent on the decisions of others, not a
fate that one has to decide for themselves: no one chooses to be left behind. In Toy Story 2,
Jessie tells Woody, “you never forget kids like Emily or Andy, but they forget you. Life’s only
worth living if you’re being loved by a kid.” The toys gain vitality through their owner’s
imagination: the opening sequence of Toy Story 3 shows the characters exploring a Western
landscape. They are the happiest when they are being played with; a human need for social
interactions and friendship. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” establishes the long lasting friendship
between Woody and Buzz in the original film. The song reprised in the later films, emotionally
recalling the power of friendship. The songs are not used to advance the plot, but resonate the
emotions, following the animated aesthetic trends set out by the early Disney films.
As people grow older, they are expected to leave the world of imagination behind and enter
the world of the “real.” Even at the end of Toy Story 3, Andy as he leaves for college must
symbolically pass down his youth to Bonnie by relinquishing his old toys to her. This final scene
of the trilogy also grants Andy the ability to play with his toys one last time: there is nostalgia
built into the film that the audience experiences with Andy. This nostalgia works on two levels.
First, the audience members who have grown up with the Toy Story films feel empathy for the
characters. Secondly, the trilogy leaves the audience with the feeling that each of their own
toys is alive, that they have to leave the movie theater, dig their forgotten toys out of their
closest and play with them again to relive their lost childhood. Toy Story allows for an
abstraction of the childhood experience that we all have through our toys, possessions and
memories. We are all Andy.
The toys have a life beyond each owner; they are forever youthful. The same can be said
about the Disney/Pixar canon of animated films: each generation of children grow up watching
the same films. Animated movies have a long shelf life because the events in “un‐reality” lack a
specific time period. The manner, however, of watching these films has drastically changed. For
example, Disney now constantly stocks merchandise for every film they’ve made, not just the
most recent few.
Characters now interact beyond their own film and in the whole Disney
universe. The animated aesthetic has moved beyond the cinema. Disney has even made an
open sandbox game (Disney Infinity) based on the play and imagination of Toy Story Franchise.
Children are literally granted the ability to tell their own stories with these established
characters from across the Disney universe. Forty years ago, a child would see a movie once in
theaters – twice if their parents were generous. They would have to relive the movie
experience in their imagination, possibly aided by a record of the soundtrack. Now, children
have instant ability to instant replay on a screen in front of them. Disney even has a proprietary
application that loads each of their movies, everywhere and anywhere. Disney is the controlling
force behind this digital animated future.
Digital files degrade over time, questioning the long‐term future of these computer
animated films. “In one of the most famous examples of the perils of digital preservation, when
the makers of Toy Story attempted to put their film out on DVD a few years after its release,
they discovered that much of the original digital files of the film — as much as a fifth — had
If these films exist only on a certain type of computer, they may be gone
forever when the file formats become extinct. Computers continue to evolve at a rapid pace,
often leaving behind animation programs and backups. Animated films are never truly finished
in the traditional sense: they exist solely within a computer as digits that can be constantly
updated and revised as long as their files are supported. For example, when the first two Toy
Story films were converted to stereoscopic 3‐D, a second camera was actually inserted into
each scene to capture the image for the second eye, creating an entirely new second frame. No
actors were needed to edit and essentially remake these films.
These digital and virtual cameras are necessary to the production of all computer
animation: the characters are staged in front of a virtual camera, which flattens the digital
landscape in a similar manner to the way that the multi‐plane camera merged the hand‐drawn
compositions. The way that the camera movements were treated affects the aesthetic of the
An example of this, is how we treated camera movement in Toy Story. We tried
very hard to treat our virtual cameras as if they were real. Following traditional
cutting patterns and treating the camera movement as if it had weight and form.
Always asking ourselves, how does this choice advance the story? But we had
similar happened with Toy Story 2, showing that this was not an isolated incident.
limitations, depth of field was extremely expensive and so it was restricted to
only the shots that were significantly enhanced by it. On Toy Story 2, our ability
to move the camera was more sophisticated; as artists we had improved and our
tools had been developed to allow softer lighting and depth of field allowing us
to tell the story in a more cinematic way. With Toy Story 3, we placed a greater
emphasis on drawing the audience into the toys’ perspective of the human
world; using rack focus to the guide the audience eyes, character POVs to tell
their emotions and richer color nuances brought by point‐based global
illumination (Villemin 6).
Just as in the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, the virtual camera movements, evolving
with each entry in the Toy Story trilogy, allow for a more visceral emotional response within the
“what if” aesthetic. Characters animated twenty years apart can be made to look exactly the
same: One of the greatest technical and artistic challenges between films was balancing the
way that characters moved and acted with the new technology while still remaining true to
how they performed in previous films. Between films there was a drastic increase in the
number of points of controls the animators had to work with on the different character models.
The proprietary animation software utilized by Pixar remained constant between the films,
even though the specific animators did not, which helped to maintain the style of the
characters (Villemin 6). The aesthetic the proprietary software produces is the key to studio
Auteurship in animation lies not in individual filmmakers, but rather in studios. “The
creation and perpetuation of a studio ‘style’ became more important than those who created
it” (Wells 39). Rather than director, each animation studio provides a distinctive style to the
films that they create. Additionally, large teams of writers are tasked with scripting individual
films that are largely original concepts with no prior source material. Directors can be replaced
mid production, making it hard to pinpoint a singular vision when so many different people are
involved in the production of a film at all levels. Computer animation is collaborative; a vision of
the studio. Consumers have placed so great a pressure on Pixar to continually reinvent
animation that simply “good” is no longer good enough. Both audiences and critics largely
rejected The Good Dinosaur, overshadowed by Inside Out in 2015.
The genius of Pixar, therefore, is their ability to revolutionize the way we think not only
about human experiences, but also about the technical, animated form, while entertaining
audiences of all ages all at the same time. Animation allows for the visualization of abstract
thoughts. This abstraction makes the emotions much more raw and vulnerable: returning the
audience to a childlike trance. If the animated image could be captured as the pro‐filmic, it
would have been. Inside Out, Pixar’s 2015 animated film directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del
Carmen, visualizes the inner thought processes of the brain of an eleven‐year‐old girl. The film
serves to question the way that we process and emote regarding all other media around us.
Inside Out is more focused on explaining the complexities of the workings of the apparatuses in
our minds than with its simplistic plot about an adolescent’s sadness moving to a new home.
The characters, made up of particles, are designed to reflect their innate immateriality.
Animation, immateriality and religion are further confounded in the recent Pixar short Film,
Sanjay’s Super Team. A son believes in superheroes just as strongly as his father has faith in
religion. Each reflects human’s instinctive need to search for something other than himself;
something a mirrored reflection cannot provide, but the “what if” aesthetic can illuminate. For
example, Tomorrowland, directed by Pixar‐veteran Brad Bird, is a live action film trapped in the
animation mindset. The film centers on our dwindling optimism. Casey represents the extreme
positivity of children, the foil to Frank’s adult pessimism. Such extremes feel false in the “real”
world. A.O Scott in his NY Times review of the film says “What it isn't is in any way convincing or
The film tries to present the “what if” abstraction by presenting a society where
everyone is an optimist and productive, but all the human audience can see is the faults in their
own mirrored appearance, their pessimism.
Part Three: The Future of Cinema and the Hybrid Aesthetic
Pixar’s Alvy Ray Smith hypothesized that the computer animated film – or the “Cameraless
Movie” – will lead to the “digital simulation or ‘realization’ of everything” (Smith 1). The
“Cameraless Movie” would be able to complete a full likeness of the world as a mirror, not just
a believable animated aesthetic.
When the first Toy Story was released, actors began to worry
that these digital characters were replacing them. This is not beyond the realm of possibility:
for a sequel to Aladdin, Disney could use and manipulate existing recordings of Robin Williams’
voice to create an entirely new film.
The earlier comparison of animation to religion is not
unfounded: in the technological universe, humans are no more than another piece of the
puzzle. Are we already so accustomed to our reflection in the cinematic mirror that we are
ready to move beyond pure‐mimesis? Will all entertainment beyond fantasy?
Rather, the future might be a combination of man and machine with “real actors driving
realistic representations of human beings” (Smith 2). Animators are merely actors with a
computer canvas instead of their own bodies. Could the computer ever have a consciousness to
be both animator and actor at the same time? Alan Turing, the WW2 mathematician, in his
study The Imitation Game was one of the first to suggest that computers might have a
consciousness to match the human one.
14Motion capture is one step in this direction, in such films as Polar Express and A Christmas
Carol: a camera captures the actors’ performances before being completely digitized. This often
falls into an interval between animation that looks human, yet remains lifeless called the
uncanny valley. We, as humans, are able to relate to the abstract and a complete likeness, but
not something that calls attention to its falsity.
The aesthetics of animation and “live action” are coming full circle in hybrid films. There
have been numerous attempts to merge the aesthetics of the realistic and the magical with a
combination of animation and “live action.” The hybrid goes all the way back to Disney’s early
Alice Comedies. The live actors immediately call attention to the falsity of the animation, which
would have been believable standing alone. “But there was something inevitably frustrating
about the hybrid films: how they troubled both that ‘illusion of life’ and our sense of the real,
especially as they situated the human in a world of uncertainty where all borders are clearly
arbitrary and constructed to serve an effect or narrative end, and as they rendered interaction
not as natural but as a pivot‐point of curiosity” (Telotte 110). Filmmakers, however, did not give
up on trying to place live actors in fantasy settings (i.e. Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger
Rabbit). With the hand‐drawn animation, it is impossible to reconcile the abstract (the
animated) and the real (the pro‐filmic).
The modern effects film is a return to the hybrid combination of animation and “live
action:” adding the illusion of realism to the computer animated film. These hybrid films bring
the aesthetic of “what if” back into a recognizable, realistic landscape. Where the early hybrids
fail, these films succeed. The metaphysical abstraction of pure computer animation is now
grounded: these films are about strict fantasy and action. Hybrid filmmaking tries to combine
realism, reality and fantasy in a believable manner. They allow the audience to identify with the
live actors as if the films were a mirror, but in an unrecognizable setting. The effects film has
blended the boundary further between the distinct categories of “animation” and “live action.”
Disney is increasingly ramping up production of remakes of animated films with that feature
live actors in motion capture situations. The extensive list includes Alice in Wonderland,
Cinderella, Dumbo, Fantasia, Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, etc. With the rise of digital
filmmaking, this is unquestionably the future of cinema.
As we place an increasing
prominence on technology in our lives, what was previously imaginary is now reality. The
boundary between these two is shifting at an exponential rate, allowing for audiences to
embrace alternative aesthetics such as computer animation. The newest cinematic trend, VR,
places the audience directly inside animated worlds. This 360‐degree experience with
non‐linear narratives is able to place the individual audience member in the animated
landscape with live actors. Once again, the pure animated aesthetic is lost and misunderstood.
16To the point where films make a special marketing note that they were shot on analog film or
made with practical (versus computer) effects.
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Contemporary Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. Print.
Flusser, Vilém. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
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Joel Cohen – 2016.