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Everything We Do Is Animation

This video of plane landings by Cy Kuckenbaker has been quite the sensation this week, amassing over 1.7 million views between postings on Vimeo and YouTube. The video is, of course, not shot in real time, but rather, a composite of all the planes that landed at a single airport over a four-and-a-half hour period.

I discovered the video on where Jason Kottke referred to it as another example of “time merge media,” a trend that he first spotted nearly five years ago. However, the first thing I thought of when I saw it was Zbigniew Rybczynski’s masterful short Tango (1980):

There are obvious differences between the two pieces. Tango is an animated film created using a combination of pixilation and cut-out techniques whereas Kuckenbaker’s plane landings was created through a fancy bit of live-action video compositing with Premiere. But the resulting effect of densely layered imagery that manipulates our perception of time, or ‘time merge media’ as Kottke calls it, is substantially similar in both works.

While film as a whole is a medium that revolves around the compression of time, the graphic nature of animation allows for the most exaggerated and extreme forms of temporal compression. In Dumb-Hounded (1943), Tex Avery visually condensed the Wolf’s week-long journey by car, ship, plane, and horse into a mere 30-seconds of screen time, and in the following sequence, further compressed a second journey of similar length into 15-seconds.

Today’s digital tools allow live-action filmmakers to easily achieve effects that filmmakers like Rybczynski (and Avery before him) were applying decades earlier in animation. We are tempted to give the effects fancy new names like “time merge media,” but they are really just an extension of well-established animated thinking. It is a testament to the success of animation that its influence has been so thoroughly absorbed and diffused throughout visual media that no one can pinpoint the source anymore.

John Cage once said that, “Everything we do is music.” I’d suggest that as far as contemporary visual culture is concerned, everything we do is animation.

  • Tim

    More like this!

  • Dave O.

    “John Cage once said that, “Everything we do is music.” I’d suggest that as far as contemporary visual culture is concerned, everything we do is animation.”

    Nicely observed.

  • It’s a really interesting discussion, how much of film manipulation can be considered animation. I really don’t think there’s a right answer; the line is blurred more and more with all the digital techniques available. I think the most fun part is seeing how creatively people are able to blur that line. :)

    I’m going to see if I can work “everything is animation” into conversation sometime soon, I’m curious of the reactions. :D

    • Very well put, Lauren! As you said, there are no right answers because the line has been blurred beyond distinction. All the new digital tools that have appeared in the past few decades have only served to elevate the importance of animation thinking in the broader arts community, and there’s a huge convergence of art forms happening right now.

      Another example: when Max Feischer and Disney used rotoscope, we called it animation, but when James Cameron used motion capture for Avatar, he claimed it to be live-action.

      What followed were arcane discussions of what percentage of the mo-cap was manipulated frame-by-frame. But whether we label it animation, live-action, or come up with a new terminology, at its core the thinking remains animated. In other words, the visual effect that Cameron was trying to achieve would not have been possible without the century of animation developments that preceded it.

      • Kevin

        I know this is a bit of a hot-spot around these parts but the more CartoonBrew expands its definition of animation, the more I like it. I adore the entire history of animation and love to see stuff about animation history here. But animation means so much more than line-drawings and stop-motion these days.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Yeah! Time-lapse is animation!

    • Tim

      That’s an interesting thought. I think I disagree though — it seems animation demands some active manipulation that’s missing from time lapse. Time lapse is the same as live action, I’d say, just filmed at a different speed. Once you start manipulating those frames, though — for instance, to move things forward and back, or to jump here and there, I’d say you’re in animation territory. Like the way time lapse is used here:

  • These things are only “animation” if you completely disregard ontology and move the goalposts of language to suit your personal viewpoint.

    • I don’t know what “things” you’re referring to, but no one was making claims about what is and isn’t animation. The whole idea of labeling things animation or not is a silly parlor game with little relevance to anyone besides the people arguing the distinction. The point being made here is that animation thinking plays a central (and growing) role throughout contemporary visual culture.

      • Again, then, if your point it that “animation thinking” (whatever that may be) is a new paradigm it has fallen prey to inadequate explanation.

        Knowing what things are is very important. It dispels myths, like the one that sequenced images are “magic” or “the illusion of life”. If one looks to awards committee for guidance in practical or intellectual pursuits it’s easy to see how confusion can spread.

        • For someone who asks others to define things, you sure didn’t bother to define your own complaint, which started with a vague and open-ended “these things.”

          I believe the term was clear to most who read it, but for me, “animation thinking” refers to a century-plus of filmmaking ideas, techniques and concepts developed or elucidated by animation filmmakers.

  • I remember that short tango from school. I loved that thing.

  • Taylor Armstrong

    The time-less forum of “____ is/isn’t animation.”

    It seems like whenever I’ve forgotten this is an issue, a new post pops up the on brew to reinvigorate the conversation.

    -Animation is an art that revolves around creating the illusion of life.

    Compositing time-lapses is not animation. Its a sort of video art. The pixelation link Tim posted above does create the illusion of life/movement by what is essentially just time-remapping, but its done in a manner that we accept this as a new action.

    Rotoscoping and compositing footage, as is, back onto itself is not animation. SImply put. Whether its done digitally with footage of planes, or by hand with cutouts. There’s no illusion of created life there. Its a composite. Video Art. Not Animation. From a purely academic definition based on breaking down the etymology of the words. There’s not really any room for debate on that.

  • P.j.

    I agree with you Tim; on the time lapse matter! But I think that what Pedro meant was your point also, only he didn’t explain.

    I still hold to the phrase “everything we do is animation” and if I can add to Pedro’s “pie forzado” is that with today’s tools and technology the time lapse we’ll have more options would be one that let’s you manipulate frame by frame.

    I’m just summarizing what has been said in previous comments. It’s all about “animation thinking” is just that some people ain’t aware of it.

  • Anika

    Great post! I never really made the connection between live action and animation before, but after reading this article it seems really obvious that they’re one in the same. This made me think of the new flip-books that are being produced as wedding or party favors. They’re a group of photos, but just like drawings they turn into an animation when bound together.

  • I remember Tango was a bit controversial at the Motion Picture Academy because many members did not think it was animation, since the people were moving mostly in real time. But that did not prevent it from deservedly winning the Oscar. This line has been blurred for decades before digital. Norman McLaren masterfully manipulated live moving images of dancers into a beautiful abstraction in Pas de Deux. And earlier he animated people in his film Neighbors; which so confused the Academy they awarded it an Oscar in the documentary category (which I still don’t understand). Even earlier, the great cartoon director Frank Tashlin used to throw in pixilated action into his live features like Son of Paleface and The Man from the Diners’ Club. And Max Fleischer did that in the silent era in his Koko cartoons.

  • Mac

    You should check out this French filmmaker George Melies, I think you might be onto something. Trendwatch!