The animal logic of the antz in the matrix

Richard Smith looks at the impact on ideas and practice as feature film and animation converge

“if [the cartoon film] belongs fully to the cinema, this is because the drawing no longer constitutes a pose or a completed figure, but the description of a figure which is always in the process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course…it does not give us a figure described in a unique moment, but the continuity of the movement which describes the figure.”
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: the movement-image, Minnesota UP, 1983

“Animation is not the art of drawings that move but of movements that are drawn.”
Norman McLaren.

Let us work with these two definitions to think about the convergence of cinema and animation that is taking place in contemporary action cinema and television, a convergence which is redefining the relations of production and post-production, and therefore the pro-filmic event itself. The first definition comes from the philosopher, film theorist, Gilles Deleuze and the second from the animator and animation theorist, Norman McLaren. Taken together the definitions indicate a point of convergence, conceptual, but nevertheless real, between cinema and animation. Gilles Deleuze’s definition of the “cartoon film” is presented in the context of a definition of the specific qualities of the cinematic image. The first thing we notice is how close it is to McLaren’s definition of animation—the first proposition of a theory of animation. It presents, I think, an essential inversion of the concept of animation as making animate things that are inanimate. The first thing we notice is how close it is to Deleuze’s definition of the cinema.

For Deleuze, cinema is defined as an art of movement, its distinguishing feature as an art; its distinct modernity is that it introduces movement into the image, “it makes movement the immediate given of the image. This kind of movement no longer relies on a moving body or an object which realises it, nor on a spirit which reconstitutes it. It is the image which itself moves in itself.” (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: the time-image, Minnesota UP, 1985) Deleuze’s definition of the cinema is “animatic” because its material is movement and movement can only be described not represented.

For McLaren animation is also defined as an art of movement, of drawing movement. This definition is an inversion of the notion of making the inanimate animate because it refers animation to the animate. It is precisely the animate that is drawn, but not in the sense of an outline or in terms of figuration, but, to use Deleuze’s term, figurally. Drawing works with movement, with transitions, with those moments when indistinction is the rule. McLaren’s definition of animation is cinematic because it throws attention onto the relation between images, into the gaps in the frames—the explicit topic of his second proposition. Deleuze and McLaren’s definitions of animation as cinema, and cinema as animation, converge on the concept of drawing movement.

It is in this sense that animation and cinema can be said to be forms of drawing and that drawing is a means of expressing the contours of things and not representing the state of things in fixed images that happen to move. The representation of objects is less important than unleashing the forces that constitute them, and which do not appear on their surfaces. This task of “rendering visible invisible forces”, an aesthetic borrowed by Deleuze from Paul Klee, is the sense in which drawing functions in both definitions of animation. And it can provide the basis of an examination of the convergence of cinema and animation which is presently taking place with the increased utility of new media technologies. Martin Scorsese often refers to the camera as a brush and the shot as a stroke. Film theory has investigated the notion of the camera as stylus. McLaren seemed to eschew the camera by drawing directly onto the celluloid, but it seems in doing so he was not so much replacing the camera as reinventing its function as descriptor not recorder.

From Clouzot’s Picasso to The Matrix

A remarkable example of what I mean by the convergence of cinema and animation can be found in Henri-George Clouzot’s film, The Mystery of Picasso aka The Picasso Mystery. This is an untimely example from film history. It was made in 1956, but it points to the convergence under discussion albeit from another direction. Clouzot sets up a unique convergence of animation and cinema by situating Picasso on the other side of a sheet of glass that is inserted between himself and the camera and which serves as a frame for the camera. Picasso then goes to work drawing in black on the surface of the glass. What is henceforth presented is not so much the process of the production of an image of a bull or whatever, but a temporal series of movements of hand and line. And it is the movement at the heart of Picasso’s drawings that emerges as the strictly artistic component of the film. Drawing is here as an art of movement. It is cinematic and animatic.

We can in fact go a step further and argue that one of the effects of new media technology is precisely the production of this drawing-effect. Clouzot’s film could be used as a model of computer animation. The upshot of this would be that the big budget action-suspense or action-adventure film (which seems to be where the more grandiose animatic effects are happening) would become more and more animated, more and more like the ‘cartoon film’ described by Deleuze and more and more the fulfilment of McLaren’s notion of “movements that are drawn.” One only needs to watch The Matrix to appreciate that bodies and objects can be presented as drawn movements. I am thinking here of the cascading code but also of the Reeves character’s ability to slip in-between and in and out of the motion of things, of the trajectory of objects, and to perceptually liquefy the space around him.

The expansion of post-production beyond the status of supplemental facility (if it ever was this) which has accompanied the rise of outfits such as Animal Logic attests to the possibility of a radical transformation of the ‘content’ of the cinematic image—a transformation which extends beyond the invention of DVD and tele-visual screens to the very definition of the image, and the pro-filmic event. This scenario would not herald the actorless cinema but rather a cinema where the actorliness of the actor is constituted at a very different level.

This is not to say that realism is dead, or even dying. Animated effects play a strong role in sustaining or deepening the sense of reality that the cinema and television are offering viewers. Ally MacBeal for instance, presents an order of mental-caricature through the animation of thought-clichés. Antz offers an infantilised notion of the colony of individuals which is Spielberg’s trademark narrative of American social formation. Animation is being used to resuscitate not only the careers of screen actors by transforming them into voice-sketch combinations but also to strengthen the claim of verisimilitude in a wide array of projects.

The convergence of cinema and animation which is envisaged through the definition of drawing movement does not take place at this level but it is clear that animation is reinvigorating cinematic realism. The Matrix remains realist to the extent that the cascading code seeks to articulate what is assumed to be already there, the matrix and the web of plug-ins, be they objects, bodies, or the actions of bodies on objects and vice versa. If I use my credit card to buy a bottle of wine from a bottlo I set in motion and interact with all manner of cascading codes, the codes of purchase, the codes of credit and debit, of stock control, the linguistic codes of the transaction between salesperson (whose name appears on the register) and purchaser (whose name appears on the bill), the codes on the label of the bottle, especially the one that reads 1.5 litre, the codes which differentiate wine from other forms of alcohol, etc. The Matrix’s use of code seems to place such things in the image, but it does not remove the image from its realist framework.

Surveying Australian animators: drawing with the computer

Let me shift focus and come at this question from a more practical perspective. In a recent survey of Australian animation companies that I conducted on behalf of the AFTRS (Australian Film, Television and Radio School) it became clear that producing reality-effects is bread and butter for a number of computer animation companies and animators. For instance the recent Australian mini-series Day of the Roses had sequences animated for visual embellishment. Sparks and flames were inserted into a crash sequence. One can surmise myriad situations where such embellishments can be used.

In the course of the study the question of drawing by computer came up again and again. Drawing with a computer is a decidedly different task from that which McLaren set himself but it is clearly an issue that confronts today’s animators.

The survey was conducted on behalf of AFTRS Research and asked animators, or representatives of the animation operations of a particular company, to answer a series of questions about their operations. One set of questions pertained to the practicalities of computer animation. What skills are animators looking for in new animators? What skills are they finding hard to get? A good number of animators stipulated that young computer animators do not know ‘basic animation’ or ‘traditional animation.’ And by basic animation they mean, drawing. They referred to modelling, and to design principles, but mostly drawing. To use the words of one respondent, “we don’t need operators, we need animators.” It is not that young animators themselves are somehow bereft of the capacity to draw, but that the amount of preparation that is required before one can even begin to animate anything by computer is forbidding. Animation (read drawing) is now also a question of the operation of new technologies with their own cascades of codes, or to put it another way, the operations which make up the process of animation have been transformed quite dramatically from when McLaren set down his propositions. Images of McLaren at work with his magnifying glass and light table reveal a quite different apparatus from images of animation students working with mouse in hand at their Macintoshes. From a distance, the students look like office workers whereas McLaren looks like a jeweller. It seems that drawing with a computer requires a different set of optics and a different order of gesture, of habit, than drawing with scratches.

It would seem also that contrary to the rhetoric of computers being machines of great speed, objects of the future, new in the strict sense of the term, that they are slow machines, that they do not make the process of generating images any easier but aid in the combination of images. This is probably saying little more than they are the technology of slow beings. McLaren after all had to draw movements frame by frame, a very laborious and slow process, or operation, indeed.

RealTime issue #32 Aug-Sept 1999 pg. 8

© Richard Smith; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 August 1999