Animation is a lot like food. When you walk into a fast food restaurant, you know what to expect. The menu stays the same, more or less, and you’re able to satisfy your hunger just fine. At the supermarket, most manufactured foods are pretty good. Even “TV dinners” are edible at their worst and palatable at their best.
But how does that make you feel about your mother’s cooking? Are you unimpressed? Do you spend each spoonful wishing that you were eating something mass-produced?
Your answer is probably no. Home-cooked meals have this warmth and tenderness that just can’t be beat. Even though manufactured foods are created, tested and engineered for widespread appeal, they lack that last, crucial ingredient: soul. This whole analogy serves to point out a problem with animation in the context of visual art.
Humans have been making images move since pretty much the beginning of time. From shadow puppetry to pencil drawings on paper, our animations have reflected an interest in two very important concepts: motion and time. Motion is a power not afforded to many other forms of visual art.
Paintings, drawings and sculptures have a long history of depicting bowls of fruit and the aristocracy in still-lifes. While some traditional artists capture the world in motion through both abstraction and realism, the sheer power of animation to achieve this goal is often overlooked.
The second concept is that of time. At first glance, one might think that its importance is arbitrary. You watch something happen on the screen, and then it’s over. But time is a fundamentally human experience. We understand the world through the way it changes as time passes. It’s through the medium of time that we experience emotion and thought. Animation has the power to represent this like no other medium of art. Imagine experiencing your favorite scene from your favorite movie as if it were a single image and you’ll feel the power of time. And even where film is concerned, the imagery captured by a camera has its limitations. With a blank flipbook or any 3D modeling software, artists are able to create something greater: something with soul.
More often than not, though, animation is used as a tool to entertain. Most people will immediately think of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks when asked about animation. In the same way that an inspired chef might call Hot Pockets a product rather than cuisine, it’s fair to say that most of the animation that people consume is more product than art. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your favorite princess movie and that the work these studios produce can’t be appreciated on a deep, intellectual level. But the context is different. They’re manufactured, designed to garner mass appeal oftentimes at the expense of creative freedom and originality. It’s something that a lot of animation students themselves don’t fully realize sometimes. I know that personally, it took a long time to understand why I was dissatisfied with the state of animation and articulate exactly what I’d like to see change.
It’s possible that you’re thinking this is all a bunch of uppity, artsy, snooty bull****, and on a certain level, it is. This article is being written in an academic setting beyond the realities of capitalism and it’s hard to call for change when the state of the world itself makes that difficult. Plus, we all really enjoy those Disney princesses, those Marvel movies, those Cartoon Network shows and those “Family Guy” reruns. But regardless of academic idealism, this kind of artistic limitation is important to talk about. The art that’s created outside of these limitations might not be easy to understand, and it might not even be something that’s fun to watch. It also might not even tell a story, but art’s job has never been to entertain or please.
Imagine if all creative people in the world spent all their time focused on how things are now instead of how things could be different. Imagine if painters had just kept painting portraits of rich people until the end of time. Imagine if no new recipes were being created, and if your mother never cooked that soulful food ever again. This analogy illustrates the enormous amount of creative opportunities that are being lost in the world of animation, and hopefully, someday that soul will return.