Fantasia/Dumbo/101 Dalmatians/A Bug's Life - The 4 Modes Of Animation: Why Animation Is So Important

Thoughts On: Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), 101 Dalmatians (1961) & A Bug's Life (1998)

An exploration of animation, its styles and approaches to narrative.


What now seems like an incredibly long time ago, we talked about Fantasia, the third film in the Disney Series. In this post, we picked up on the idea that the essence of animation is, in a certain sense, magic. And in such, we briefly looked at the most popular and the highest grossing animated films ever made, finding that a vast majority of them are about monsters, animals or fantastical creatures of sorts. To give a few examples:

Toy Story
Finding Nemo
Shaun The Sheep
How To Train Your Dragon
101 Dalmatians
Monsters, Inc.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Spirited Away
Beauty And The Beast
The Lion King
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Little Mermaid
Princess Monoke
Kung Fu Panda

There are, of course, many more examples to be found, but, why is this? Why are the vast majority of animated films focused on creatures and fantasy? The most obvious answer would be: children; we make these movies for children. However, what does this say about about the medium? Quite simply, it says that we make animated films for the most imaginative of people, that animation is meant to facilitate the most creative outlets of filmmaking.

This strain of thought will lead us down a path we've walked already, one that asks why we then just give animation to our children and not take it seriously enough to be a form of filmmaking that can be widely consumed by more mature audiences. However, as we've already done this, what I want to do today is explore grounds of this subject we've not yet delved into. In such, what we'll essentially be questioning today is how animation approaches this magic.

To start, we must first question why people would even turn to animation in the first place. The answer is simple, when we were in caves...

... we could only imitate reality with painting; before the camera...

... we could still only attempt to capture the real world; before moving pictures...

... motion could only ever be implied; and even with the motion picture camera...

... inner realities of the mind are still impossible to access. The paradigm we see outlined here is a human need to project the imagination, in turn, convey a personal perspective. Whilst we one day may be able to communicate our imaginings and inner emotions through some technology equivalent to email, art is our current outlet to do this. Moreover, animation, in the cinematic realm, is the most malleable, dexterous and capable means of conveying inner perspectives. So, if you wanted to get aphoristic and cheesy, you could say that the magic inherent to animation comes from deep within ourselves; from a will to express that we are conscious, alive and thinking.

However, to break things down into more direct terms, we can come to understand that we tap into this channel of communication through four classes or modes of animation: abstract, expressionistic, impressionistic and practical. To further explain, we'll start with the abstract.

If we were to consider creativity on a plane stretching from the depths of imagination and outward to the real world, the abstract would sit closest to the epicentre of the imagination. That is to say that abstract forms of animation, like the latter half of the Toccata En Fugue sequence in Fantasia, express something non-lingual and not entirely definable - but, nonetheless understandable. We see this in the first sequence of Fantasia, understanding that the imagery we see enhances the music, is derived from music and yet somehow transcends it. All at once, music and imagery then collide to create two separate, yet interacting means of communicating, through ambiguous emotions, thoughts and feelings, a mood or subjectively accessed meaning. What abstract animation then represents is the most unhinged and raw form communication through movement, light and sound. Other examples of this would be seen in Ruttman's Lichtspiel Opus 1-5 - a form of early avant-garde German abstract cinema which Fantasia has clearly been influenced by...

... and the many films of Norm McLaren, for example, Blinkity Blank, A Phantasy In Colours and Spheres.

The next mode of animation is the expressionistic. This is a few steps removed from abstract animation and so is more coherent and closer to reality than the pure abstractions of imagination. An example of this would of course be the Pink Elephants sequence from Dumbo. Whilst this sequence shares a lot with the more abstract example of Fantasia with its non-narrative and nonsensical elements, it does build something of a story and we do see the skewed use of reality; Pink Elephants, not just squiggles and random shapes. This then defines it as expressionistic animation as it uses the abstract elements of the mind, but feeds them through a tangible and understandable reality. Other examples of abstract animation can be seen in small elements of Snow White like the sequence in which she runs through the haunted woods:

And you may arguably find an awful lot more examples when you consider the use of talking animals in animation. But, it can be argued that this falls into the impressionistic mode of animation. The line between these two modes is a very ambiguous, however. So, we will come back to the topic of talking animals when we conclude our exploration of the next mode:

To understand impressionism in animation, you'd only have to look to 101 Dalmatians' background style. Notice as you watch the clip, the bent and twisted nature of objects - all of which are put into place to imply character. What this makes clear is that impressionism is very much so a top-down form of expressionism. So, whilst expressionism communicates the depths of imagination through reality, impressionism uses reality to imply imagination and creativity. What this means is that impressionism differentiates itself from expressionism by focusing on reality more than the imagination whilst expressionism does the opposite. The end result is then a slightly skewed reality through which somewhat realistic stories are told. Other examples of this would be seen in films such as Bambi:

However, this brings us back to the debate on where films that contain talking animals fit. In my opinion, they can exist in both modes as personification can be done with a bottom-up or top-down approach of manipulating reality. If we had to make a distinction, however, I'd say that it depends on the extent to which you personify a creature. For example, the animals in Zootopia are basically people:

This is further from the reality of how animals function, and so the type of talking animals in Bambi...

... would be considered closer to reality and so impressionistic, whilst those in Zootopia would be more abstract, in turn, expressionistic. Nonetheless, I hold fast to the idea that the distinction of talking animals between the impressionistic and expressionistic forms isn't that important. Instead, it's the aesthetic style and approach to narrative that is more pertinent.

The last mode of animation is the practical. This is the antithesis of abstract animation as it means to capture real life photorealistically. In other words, this is the most realistic form of animation that puts the most weight on capturing the nature of the world. The reason why this form of animation exists is largely to do with the fact that a camera cannot capture 'A Bug's Life' in narrative form. You will find many more examples of this from Pixar with films such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Brave. You will find even more examples of this through films that have CGI - anything from Fast And Furious to King Kong.

Now, again, we must ask a few questions and make a few clarifications. Talking animals and a whole lot of fantastical happenings exist in this mode of animation. This is why we've called it practical animation and not realism. But, you may find a lot of examples of realistic animation in gaming...

... which you then may consider a 5th mode of animation. However, in cinema this realism is often mixed with impressionism and, as said, talking animals. And so, the crux of practical animation is simply the telling of stories with photorealism and through a perspective that could not be captured without the assistance of some kind of hand drawn or computer generated imagery.

Before we begin to conclude, it has to be reiterated that these four modes of animation have different approaches to both aesthetics and narrative. So, for example, abstract films don't really have narratives; you often only get a sense of what they mean as a form of spectacle. On the other hand, expressionistic forms of animation won't just be wacky contortions of reality, but will often attempt to dig into the depths of human emotions. An example of this would be the already mentioned Pink Elephants sequence from Dumbo. This sequence has meaning and it also attempts to convey how Dumbo feels in his drunken state. (For more on this, follow this link to the Dumbo post). Impressionistic forms of animation have a somewhat similar approach to their narrative in that they add character where it may not exist; a form of personification. So, again, look to 101 Dalmatians to see the world around characters say something about the narrative and characters themselves. Finally, the narratives of the practical and photorealistic have their basis in some kind of reality. A good example of this would be Up. Whilst it has an impressionistic style, there isn't much of an abandonment of reality in this film. It's evident that the physics are off and that there are elements of science fiction in Up, but, more so there is quite a bit of verisimilitude imbued into the narrative - all of which is derived from its practical-impressionism.

On that last note, it then becomes evident that these modes often blend into one another. For example, we get impressionism meeting practicality in Toy Story, abstraction, impressionism and expressionism in Fantasia and all four modes within Inside Out. Animators will play with these modes to produce new styles and to tell specific stories. However, this is all for the grander purpose of communicating and telling stories. In such, by understanding these four modes, you can see the evidence for my initial claims that animation is one of the most malleable, dexterous and expressive forms of cinema. This all comes down to the fact that the spectrum of animation out-stretches that of live action cinema. In such, without some form of animation, CGI or otherwise, we do not get abstract sequences like those in the quantum realm of Ant-Man outside of experimental films.

Moreover, we do not get vast epic fantasies like Kong: Skull Island or The Lord Of The Rings. What we can then understand to be the importance of animation all rests on the shoulders of its capabilities. Animation broadens what cinema can do; it allows filmmakers and audiences to go anywhere and see anything, but more importantly, communicate on different planes ranging from the abstract to the practical (yet realistically infeasible). This, as we sit deep into the Disney Series, is an ever important notion to remember and, of course, is the reason why we are trawling through these films.

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