Center for Visual Music
Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-Linear Animation
by William Moritz, 1988
No animation film that is not non-objective and/or non-linear can really qualify as true animation, since the conventional linear representational story film has long since been far better done in live-action. If the stop-motion techniques (drawing, clay-molding, etc.) are used to express something that could be shot in live-action, why bother to go through all the trouble of spending hours to make 1500 separate exposures for a scene that could have been shot in one minute?
This applies, of course, to the endless chase and mayhem cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, etc.), which attempt to revive the exhausted vocabularies of the silent film comedians, from Melies and Linder to Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges, by substituting animals for humans. Now, the convention of animal fables is ancient and honorable, and whether it be classical Greece's Aesop, medieval Europe's Reynard the Fox or Heian Japan's Choju Giga scrolls, the use of animal personae allows the storyteller to say something that could not be said by talking about humans due to political, religious or social taboos. But watching a drawn coyote crash through walls, fall down stairs, be crushed by falling objects or burned to a crisp by the explosives he holds is certainly not as amazing or funny as seeing Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or the Keystone Kops do those same stunts live right before our "camera-never-lies" eyes.
Despite this self-evident fact, most writing about "animation" concentrates almost exclusively on representational, linear cartoonists, praising the Disney ability to simulate live-action footage as the ultimate artistic goal, and "discussing" films by retelling stories and gags. John Halas' recent Masters of Animation (BBC Books, 1987) typifies this sort of non-animation book. Non-objective animation is virtually suppressed. Oskar Fischinger (who won a grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1935 and a grand prize at Brussels in 1949; whose Composition in Blue (1935) was voted one of the 10 all-time great animation films by the international jury of a 1980 festival in Ghent; and whose Allegretto (1936) and Motion Painting (1947) were voted among the top 25 all-time-great animation films by the 1984 Olympiad) is dismissed in one sentence, no illustration. Several unquestionable "masters" of animation, such as Harry Smith and James Whitney, are not even mentioned. Jules Engel is mentioned in three sentences and a small illustration — the only non-objective image in the book. Of the 43 "Masters" featured with full-length profiles, only one, Norman McLaren, had made a non-objective film, and only one sentence in passing mentions his "abstract films," while the one-and-a-half pages of illustrations show dancers from Pas de Deux (1967), a painted warrior from Neighbors (1952) and a chicken from Blinkety Blank (1954). Non-linear animation hardly fares better.
Actually, the various sorts of animation are not really in competition. One should consider them as parallel pursuits, the way one handles genres of music and literature. Long narrative films would be equivalent to novels, plays and operas, while short narrative films would correspond to short stories, narrative poetry, songs or descriptive tone-poems. Abstract and non-objective films function like lyric poetry and non-programmatic music such as string quartets, sonatas and concertos. I suppose story cartoons would be equivalent to jokes in literature and parody drag routines in music. No one would, or should, write a history of "masters" of music or literature and exclude poets or such composers as Bach and Brahms who wrote only, for the most part, pure music — symphonies and things like that without even a story to them. (But most histories of great authors do omit stand-up comedians, and most books on major composers do seem to neglect vaudeville and drag routines.) Cecile Starr and Robert Russett's Experimental Animation (Da Capo Press, 1988) may be the only survey book that is really about animators and animation.
Non-objective animation is without a doubt the purest and most difficult form of animation. Anyone can learn to "muybridge" the illusion of representational life, but inventing interesting forms, shapes and colors, creating new, imaginative and expressive motions — "the absolute creation: the true creation," (1) as Fischinger termed it — requires the highest mental and spiritual faculties, as well as the most sensitive talents of hand.
Non-objective animation has a long and noble history from the "chroma-trope" magic lantern slides that projected colored, moving moire patterns, and the many abstract sequence-bands sold for Zoetropes and Phenakisto-scopes, through various early lost films and the superb Colored Rhythms animation sequence painted by Leopold Survage in 1913-14 but still unfilmed, to the historic Light-Play, Opus No. 1 of Walther Ruttmann. This was a hand-tinted abstract film with an original live musical score, which played in public cinemas in Frankfurt and Berlin during April, 1921. A radical breakthrough and landmark in the history of both animation and experimental film in general, it came just as Messmer's Felix the Cat and the Fleischers' Koko were beginning to be seen in theatres, McCay had nearly completed The Pet, and Disney was an apprentice at Newman Laugh-O-Grams in Kansas City.
Why is this history of non-objective film systematically ignored? Possibly because abstract art seems to be harder to understand. Visually illiterate people still accost modern painting with questions such as "What's that supposed to mean?" and accusations that it must be some fraud or trickery to conceal the artist's lack of skill in depicting photographic everydayness. Non-objective animation often meets this same barrier of ignorance and prejudice.
Non-objective animation may also be harder to describe, since the vocabulary of terms for distinctions in hue and diversity of organic shape and the variable gestures and trajectories of choreography is actually quite limited. Most authors quickly find themselves, for example, citing "salmon-colored squid-shaped objects undulating like porpoises," which suggests some spurious connection with a representational scene.
The new and radical character of non-objective animation also challenges our articulateness and philosophical assumptions about the nature of being. Conventional storytelling requires a beginning, middle and end — though life itself rarely lives happily ever after but rather goes on and on with many ups and downs. If we substitute the more sophisticated critical jargon, "exposition of conflict, development and climax or resolution," we come closer to terms that overlap with the musical/choreographic "theme and variations" structure. Yet though the critical terminology of painting, music and choreography may be most accurate, explicit and useful in dealing with non-objective animation, many films also yield to a dramatic criticism. Even a single still from Ruttmann's Opus No. 1 can tell us that one of his concerns in this film (and a major one, as it turns out) is an encounter between hard-edged geometric shapes and softer, supple organic forms. So the film can be described as a story about that encounter — as well as a rhythmic musical structure or a painterly balance of colors and figures. Similarly, a single still from Larry Cuba's wonderful computer animation, Two Space (1977), shows us that it is a "story" about positive and negative space: about exclusion and inclusion, about matter and anti-matter, about being and nothingness and creation out of nothingness.
Of course, many non-objective films do not yield so easily to analysis by reference to single stills, and therefore criticism must be accompanied by a whole sequence of stills showing developments of a phase, in order to make the discussion intelligible. The power of Fischinger's climactic transfiguration in Love-Games (1931) (2) can only be felt by seeing it, as can the marvelous conjunction between a soft, polymorphous radiant body and its fractal, skeletal counterpart in Dennis Pies' Luma Nocturna (1974). And while some single stills from Sara Petty's Picture Window (1987) give us an immediate clue to the multi-dimensional framework of the film, the enormous variety of the transmutations can only be guessed by seeing several sequential images with various metamorphoses in them. Preparatory sketches and technical information for non-objective animations can also be of prime importance. James Whitney's "spatial dynamics" diagrams for the movements in Yantra (1955) reveal the abstract expressionist energy behind the choreography, while the simple precision of the actual animation drawings sharpens our perception of the impressive irregular solarized textures in the finished film. These technical perspectives also provide an insight into the philosophical concerns that inspired Whitney (as well as Fischinger, Harry Smith, Petty, Pies and others) — Oriental religions, alchemy, Jungian dream analysis, quantum mechanics, the fourth dimension, and so on. In all these realms, the fine balance between concept and structure, idea and manifestation, appearance and substance, is pondered.
All these issues and approaches I have raised briefly here in reference to non-objective animation also apply to non-linear representational animation, for the two fields share most of their aesthetic assumptions and techniques. Indeed, many animators overlap the two genres as well; Fischinger could conceptualize the crazed drunks of Spiritual Constructions (1927) as easily as the serene geometries of Love-Games, and Harry Smith moved from his brilliant series of non-objective films to a no less spectacular group of symbolic cut-out animations of staggering intricacy. Pure non-objective and non-linear representation coexist in Sara Petty's films. Her Furies (1977) clearly shows how the daily life and consciousness of two cats blends from sharply-observed moments of realism into "abstractions" that reveal the concentration of energy and focus of attention intensely refined and directed into purely geometric trajectories and configurations. Her Picture Window challenges our assumptions about the nature of art and cinema with its very title: is a picture a window through which we can gaze upon an external reality, or is it, like the veil of Maya in Indian culture, a magical illusion that hides truth from us, a barrier we must pierce in order to perceive other dimensions? The pure non-objective transformations, as well as the fleeting suggestions of known objects like curtains or broccoli, flow in such an insistent, seemingly inevitable metamorphosis that we do appear to be glimpsing an alternate reality system.
This creation of a synthetic reality unique to the particular film is a hallmark of non-linear animation, distinguishing it from the conventional narrative film that simulates an everyday reality, or a virtual reality (in the case of science fiction) behaving along normative lines extrapolated from accepted reality. (One of the great masters of animation, Winsor McCay, practiced a specialized variation of synthetic reality — a kind of tortured realism — in which he would carefully build up a comfortable sense of normal, everyday conditions and then, with deliberate pacing, distort the limits of credibility further and further into total absurdity, as in The Pet  and How a Mosquito Operates .)
The non-linear animator constructs the synthetic reality using a variety of techniques including unexpected transformations, parallel systems, abstraction/symbolism, and reflexive devices — the same techniques employed by non-objective animators, since, after all, the non-objective spectacle is the ultimate synthetic reality.
Transmutation or metamorphosis has been a staple of animation since Emile Cohl and Winsor McCay, and it was responsible for the most brilliant and amusing moments in early cartoons, especially Messmer's endless permutations of the tail of Felix the Cat, and the surrealistic musical sequences in the Fleischer films of the early 1930s (see my article on the genius of the Fleischer Studios, with special reference to Minnie the Moocher  and Snow White , in the program of Zagreb 1986). The gradual repression of surprise transformation in later commercial cartoons led to their aesthetic decadence, while its survival in independent non-objective and non-linear animation has continually nourished their vitality and creative exploration. For example, in films as diverse as the interview Confessions of a Stardreamer (1978) and the musical Bottom's Dream (1983), John Canemaker's witty and inventive metamorphoses translate what would have been a banal linear illustration in commercial hands into a novel, magical experience.
Parallel systems posit more than one viewpoint or reality, either an intermittent progress, as in Larry Cuba's Calculated Movements (1985), which alternates two sorts of imagery and sound, or simultaneous appearance, as in Harry Smith's Film No. 11 (1956), in which discrete elements float across the screen in various directions, or as in Christine Panushka's The Sum of Them (1984) and Al Jarnow's Incidence of the Northern Moon (1981), in which the film frame is divided into numerous separate boxes that show different phases or aspects of a similar image — for very different reasons, by the way, in these two films!
We have already seen the abstraction/symbolism syndrome in Sara Petty's Furies. It is a natural tool for animation since, like animation itself, abstraction/symbolism must remain vital and mysterious non-linear phenomena. If a "symbol" becomes too obvious or if it forms a one-to-one equivalence with a known, realistic quantity, then it is no genuine symbol, but rather a mere proxy or decoy. The true abstraction and the true symbol must have an intriguing spirit and integrity of its own, and it must suggest more meanings, various, almost-contradictory depths and speculations beyond the surface value; otherwise, why bother to obfuscate? If the viewer comes to the point of saying, "Oh, that represents the police and that represents freedom," then that revelation is about as interesting as, "Gee, Donald Duck drives a car and mows his lawn just like an average American; he must represent the average irascible American!"
Abstraction/symbolism in non-linear animation often manifests itself as process. So perfect is the interplay between natural and manufactured time-lapse light in Jane Aaron's Traveling Light (1985), or the tension between traditional perspective laws and their logical/illogical extrapolation in Jarnow's Auto Song (1976) that they do not easily resolve into any simple formula or linear moral statement. Similarly, Paul Glabicki's Diagram Film (1978) submits a single image of a familiar suburban landscape to such relentless analytical abstraction that the viewer begins to doubt everything.
First-rate dream depictions, like Jules Engel's Accident (1973) or Christine Panushka's Nighttime Fears and Fantasies (1984) also defy linear explanation. In Accident, the subtle balance between tempo and pacing, the known cycle of the Muybridge greyhound and the "accidental" erasure, creates an inexplicable and fascinating phenomenon. It also calls our attention to the animation process itself, and this reflexive perspective is another important non-linear technique. Christine Panushka purposely shows us the blank edges of her animation papers, and Al Jarnow in Cubits (1978) and Incidence of the Northern Moon shows the stand holding numbered animation drawings and even the hands of the animator. This continually reminds us of the process and calculation, and adds a conceptual tension to the philosophical issues implied by the material in the images. Similarly, a non-objective film like Wet Paint (1977) by Jules Engel contains vertical lines wandering back and forth across the frame, reminding us of scratches on the film and calling our attention to the fact that we are watching a prepared, technological artwork.
One of the most exciting and elaborate forms of reflexive gesture is live performance with animated film. Kathy Rose, after a dozen years making widely-acclaimed non-linear films such as Doodlers (1975) and Pencil Booklings (1978), animated a 30-minute film, Primitive Movers (1983), specially designed to participate in the choreography of a live dancer, performed by Rose herself. Unlike many experiments in multimedia performance art, Rose's film-dance can boast a genuine parallel validity, being distinguished and imaginative both as animated film and as modern dance. The stylized animated dancers of Primitive Movers perform like a choreographer's dream fulfilled: they are inexhaustible and unerringly precise, they can multiply themselves in perfect alignments, they can instantly change the color of their hair and costume, and they can perform impossible twists and gestures, logical extensions of the ballet's expressive pantomime, such as swiveling the head completely around, leaving traces behind as they execute a turn, or sending a hand flying off in the direction the fingers were pointing to — a homage to the cartoon gags of the Fleischers' Betty Boop's Museum (1932), as well as Lisze Bechtold's Danseuse (1973). Rose's interplay with the animated figures (which includes elaborate games of balance, since the drawn people can tilt against the laws of gravity) gains extra complexity from the action of her silhouette, which always dances on a different scale, and occasionally even casts the semblance of a Javanese shadow puppet or the traditional hand-games of modeling a rabbit or bird silhouette. The agility and poise of Rose's dancing — and her own real-life inexhaustibility — reaches a stunning apotheosis in the final movement, during which elements of color and design of costume and movement become abstracted into giant non-objective patterns which flood across the screen in rhythmic cycles of falling, filling and emptying, accompanied by a musical collage of insistent mechanical noises (including bursts of gunfire) and antithetical surges of water. The triumphant implosions and explosions of Rose's body are hard to describe: they must be experienced.
A later, equally sensational film-dance, Syncopations (1987), uses live-action footage behind Rose's dancing, but the sensibility of Rose as the non-linear animator is everywhere evident — in the dynamic editing that interrupts and repeats gestures, in the radical camera angles, close-up and overhead, which defy space, and the time-lapse, slow-motion and reverse footage that defies our sense of time, even in such delicate touches as the dark black, calligraphic outlines along the arches of the dancers' feet. In the final apocalyptic moments of Syncopations, with a sudden breathtaking beauty and serenity amidst enormous energy, in a gracious fulfillment of all the strivings of Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan and Doris Humphrey, enormous hands arise from the bottom of the screen with fingers moving as if to form the lotus mudra. Rose enters the center of the hands and tosses her scarf upwards, and the scarf appears sensuously rippling in slow motion on the screen, rising upwards and upwards, defying gravity as it disappears and refuses to fall back to earth. This mixture of contrary scale and perspective, of keen illusions and overt reflexive alienation-effects, again reflects the synthetic reality practiced by non-linear animators admirably extended into an elaborate performance.
Dennis Pies, who, like Rose, was a student of Jules Engel at California Institute of the Arts, which encourages interdisciplinary multi-media experimentation, also performs live with his animation films, but his ascetic, contemplative Dissolve in Light (1984) is very different from Rose's dances. The robed Pies interacts with the image in a more formal way, sometimes carrying a projector or portable screen to intercept segments of imagery. The abstract animations are accompanied by haunting music and various mystical narrative parables, culminating in Pies' own Ace of Light (1986). We've come a long way since Winsor McCay offered the apple to Gertie.
(1) The phrase "absolute creation" was used by Fischinger in My Statements are in My Work, published in Art in Cinema catalog, San Francisco, 1947. See also Fischinger's True Creation.
(2) "Love Games" is translated from "Liebesspiel," which is generally used as the assigned title for this film (named by Elfriede Fischinger).
Originally published in Storytelling in Animation: the Art of the Animated Image, Volume 2. Ed. John Canemaker. Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1988, 21-31. Footnotes added by CVM.
Return to Center for Visual Music Library
Return to CVM Directory