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Animatography - the Language of the Post-Photographic Moving Image

Motion capture has its roots in the Ford factory assembly lines, in the form of time-study management. These days, In a post-industrial climate, where industry is ‘out-sourced’ to other economically expanding countries of the East, it is used for ‘entertainment’ purposes, as though we now regard its cultural significance as part of its obsolescence in the alter modern climes of European culture. Manovich points out the similarity between industrial practices and computer programming: “ Ford’ s assembly line relied on the separation of the production process into sets of simple, repetitive, and sequential activities. The same principle made computer programming possible: A computer program breaks a task into a series of elemental operations to be executed one at a time.” [1] The logic he describes is very much a part of the move towards the post-industrial.

In the light of this, and the increasing ubiquity of technological appliances, manufactured elsewhere - perhaps by ‘techno-serfs’ [2] in China, who experience economic exploitation, we are reminded of the significance of an i-Phone or an i-Pad, a new generation of apparatuses that connect us even more to the ‘matrix’ of communication and its positivities and ills. And yet animatography exists within this context, of data and its ‘objects’; of data object relations.

It is out of this ‘post-industrial’ context that new industrial moving image making techniques are challenging film history with the creation of an animatographic sensibility; one which is not based on the photograph, but instead on the use of mathematics to define geometries propelled by algorithms. Pixar, for example, is an ‘industrial complex’ where animatographers create a few minutes of animation by selecting animation options from a list on their screen. Therefore there is an animatographic hierarchy, which is necessary to ensure continuity in a (post-)industrial production setting.

Why ‘animatography’? The implications of the use of this term are that the animatograph, developed by Robert W. Paul at around the same time as the Lumiere brothers invented the cinematograph, has become useful in defining this new medium at the beginning of the twenty-first century; a century later. [3] That animation is considered to be taking over moving image culture, Born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its periphery, only in the end to become one particular case of animation.” [4], and, “ Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements .” [5] , and yet “no neologism has yet been coined ” [6] for computer animation, which is problematic for critics and for theorists, who need to be able to grasp a medium and its underlying structures. Perhaps it is its very ubiquity and relationship to many new devices and cultural effects and influences, which discourages the actual definition and cultivation of a medium.

Just as data objects/subjects can be the individuals interacting on social networking sites, so the term is also applicable to the ‘creatures’, characters and effects (e.g. a ‘tornado’) in animatographic, (or the use of animatography in special effects), moving image works. Object relations theory is useful for understanding our interaction with data ‘objects’ which in psychoanalytic terms are in fact subjects as well as objects. The important and useful quality of object relations theory is that it addresses ‘instinctual targets’ [7] , and in that sense can be used in understanding the drives we have, and goals that animated characters have for one another, and for us if we are interacting with a game or within a virtuality.

Elsaesser and Hagener have also identified object relations theory as being particularly applicable to the study of ‘animatography’ : “Many philosophers and psychologists have understood human social and psychic reality as being determined by object relations: after all, they establish and shape our access to the world, no matter if we discuss objects in terms of Marx’ s “ commodity fetishism” , Heidegger’ s “ Ge-Stell” , McLuhan’ s “ extensions of man” or the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott. As our environment becomes increasingly permeated with technology, our relationship to the world is being fashioned by objects that more often behave like subjects that actually shape their environment rather than as simple tools we control and bend to our will. In this way, Pixar unfolds a theory of object relations that addresses questions of agency, freedom, nature and technology across a series of animation films.” [8] emphasis added

Animatography exists within this brighter realm of digital culture; one where object relations are explored in a cultural way that extends our ability to interact and to learn from these artificial interactions that which psychoanalysts have spent decades studying. Given the overall trend of manufacture and consumption of animatography, it is important to appreciate its positive direction.

What is animatography? It is the use of proprietory software apparatuses [9] to construct, out of geometrical mappings, 3-D models or ‘data objects‘. Underlying the software apparatuses are the application of mathematics equations, and algorithmic instructions. These qualities might also be employed to a lesser extent by animatographers themselves, through computer programming techniques. Here we might contemplate the use of simultaneous equations; behavioural programming and ‘sacred’ geometric relationships, like the Fibbonacci sequence, for example. Therefore, animatography is both a concern with animation practices, and how well the software ‘simulates’ more traditional aspects of these practices, as well as ‘artificial effects’, which have their roots in computer programs.

What is suggested as the basis of animatography? Why is its ‘immateriality’ significant? Putting forward the notion that animatography, precisely because of its basis in mathematics, algorithms, programming and geometry, has a ‘weightlessness’ to it, therefore suggests that we can look at object relations in a purely descriptive way, which allows us to consider more easily, the exploration of psychic space. One of the key psychoanalysts of object relations theory - W.R.D. Fairbairn is cited by Fuller as challenging Freudian theory: “Fairbairn described libido as not pleasure-seeking, but object-seeking; the drive to good object relationships is, itself, the primary libidinal need.” [10]

In this sense, if object relations is ‘the primary libidinal need’, our relationship with the post-photographic moving image indexes our need to understand more deeply our object relationships both in psychical and embodied physiological terms. The very materiality of data, and yet its concomitant ‘instability’ in material terms, leads to a new (political) experience of reality and that which constitutes our relationship to it. In this sense data both facilitates object/subject relating at the same time that it ‘re-codifies’ our experiences of the physical.

In this realm, illusion is described not through physical objects, despite their verisimilitude, but through geometries and algorithms. This is animatography’s essential quality - there is no-thing there apart from data.

The distance in ‘object-descriptions’ , how each vertex is mapped in the projection system, which simulates a camera view, places considerable emphasis on the animatographer’s ability to animate the object/subject, to grasp the behavioural potentialities and subtleties of related movements in a way that transmits emotional complexity.

Why do we want to relate better, differently? The vitality of much animatography is based on exploring object relationships, and yet the ‘nominal’ quality of much animatography, in computer games and virtual environments, simply enables communication to take place through data interactions. That animatography doesn’t simply exist in a cinematic context, but also ‘lives’ on countless computers globally, in the form of computer games, for example, is very significant.

Here we can consider Bion’s psychoanalytic theories, as he related the ‘transformations’ possible within psychoanalytic practice to ‘matrices’ which he plotted on a grid. A similar descriptive lightness or ‘immateriality’ can be found both in Bion’s mapping of mental transformations, and the animatographer’s mapping of computer graphic transformations in the course of making an animation. When the key quality identified in animatography is the mapping of social and ‘psychic’ space, we need to look at what this means, and how it has engendered interactive gaming and other cultural environments as well as digital cinema and animatography in its pure form.

It is possible to see the parallels between Bion’s theory of mapping psychic transformation and the transformations which occur in animatography. Where T’ becomes T’’ through a process of both psychoanalysis, and, of creative practice through a mathematically described software program. For Bion this process emerges in what he calls ‘alpha - elements’, transformations which result in coherent imaginings or thoughts or 'beta - elements'. In object relations theory this means that the subject can successfully transform their thoughts and imaginings and therefore their perception of reality. While Bion’s theories of mental space stress their difference to geometry, there are parallels. For him the geometer’s space is important as a paradigm to aid visualisation, or the comparison with mental transformations. “…[T]his space, these points, and these lines differ in one important respect, namely that in the domain of mental images an infinite number of lines may pass through one point but, were I to attempt to represent such a visual image by point and lines on a piece of paper, there would be a finite number of lines.” [11] In this sense we can say that computers both extend our visualisation of mental space, while at the same time limiting possibilities, through translation.

Manovich identifies space as the primary quality of new media: “ From one point of view, navigable space can legitimately be seen as a particular kind of an interface to a database, and thus something that does not deserve special focus. I would like, however, to think of it also as a cultural form in its own right, not only because of its prominence across the new media landscape … but also because, more than a database, it is a new form that may be unique to new media.” [12] and importantly, “ For the first time, space becomes a media type.” [13]

This emphasis on space becomes important in relation to our ‘mapping of social and ‘psychic’ space, and its connections with object relations theory. If space has become a significant aspect of new media, it is only logical to assume that relationships with object/subjects within ‘virtual’ space is that which is primarily supported by proprietary software systems, and which is ‘suggested’ to animatographers through its use.

In sum animatography is the exploration of social and psychic space, achieved through technological apparatuses. These apparatuses are sometimes produced in such a manner, which impinges directly on that aspect of space which has more or less proximity to the consumers of games, films and virtual environments. Thus, the very premise of new media, its connectivity and potentialities for spatial communication, including object relations, inflect on the post-industrial cultures of the West.

Sarah Thompson 2011

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[1] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Mit Press, 2001, p322

[2] Lucy Siegle “ Were humans harmed in the making of your shiny gadget?”, 1 May 2011, The Guardian

“It's worth reading the testimonies that tell us what life as a "techno-serf" is really like. A clue: it's totally at odds with the liberating, blue-sky, wireless possibilities offered by the sleek phones and laptops. The words: "Twelve hours of work = standard" and: "One year and I'm dead" were recently found in the notebook of a young man who had been working for a famous electronics brand in South Chungcheong province before he took his own life. We are beginning to hear of intense worker despondency and depression. It's really about time we listened.”

[3] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Mit Press, 2001, p312

Lev Manovich proposed a neologism for CD-ROM design, which blends graphics with cinematography:

“The designers of CD-ROMs were aware of the techniques of twentieth-century cinematography and film editing, but they had to adapt these techniques both to an interactive format and to hardware limitations. As a result, the techniques of modern cinema and of nineteenth-century moving-image presentations merged in a new hybrid language that can be called “ cinegratography ” . ”

[4] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Mit Press, 2001, p302

[5] ibid

[6] Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory - An Introduction Through the Senses, Routledge, 2010, p181

“ Put differently: cinema ’ s step-child, animation, has now become the (grand-) father of the feature film via the storyboard. Therefore, it is not too far-fetched to claim that the films of Pixar - from TOY STORY (1996) to WALL-E (2008) - provide a meta-commentary on several of the transformations that the digital has brought about, without reducing these to “ technical ” issues or “ special effects ” , not even to a matter of convergence. On the contrary, the Pixar films “ think ” cinema in its wider context at the same time as they are rethinking cinema ’ s relation to the animate and the inanimate, to life and the life-like, to subjectivities and objects. In particular, they seem deeply involved in the question of what a thing is, an object, and what kind of object relations can a subject have with the (things of the) world. Many philosophers and psychologists have understood human social and psychic reality as being determined by object relations: after all, they establish and shape our access to the world, no matter if we discuss objects in terms of Marx ’ s “ commodity fetishism ” , Heidegger ’ s “ Ge-Stell ” , McLuhan ’ s “ extensions of man ” or the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott. As our environment becomes increasingly permeated with technology, our relationship to the world is being fashioned by objects that more often behave like subjects that actually shape their environment rather than as simple tools we control and bend to our will. In this way, Pixar unfolds a theory of object relations that addresses questions of agency, freedom, nature and technology across a series of animation films. In TOY STORY, humans are only present as partial objects, while the object world takes center stage, turning the initial premise of cinema, namely to show humans and their world, on its head. In fact, Pixar has almost exclusively dealt in its films with non-human protagonists; the focus instead is either on animals (fish, rats, insects) or on objects to which humans often cultivate a peculiar close and affective relation (toys, cars, robots). This comes full circle in WALL-E, which presents a planet whose only survivor of an apocalyptic ecological catastrophe is a pre-programmed cleaning robot that develops feelings out of its algorithmic routines (echoing Steven Spielberg ’ s earlier AI [US, 2001]. The deceptive autonomy of the digital image, where an object world is generated by another object in which human interference is no longer directly visible, reaches its apotheosis in WALL-E. ”

[7] Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, 1997, p1-2

“The term ‘object’ does not refer to an inanimate thing, but is a carry-over from the Freudian idea of the target, or object, of the instinct. In Object Relations terms it is used in the philosophical sense of the distinction between subject and object. Our need for others is the need of an experiencing ‘I’ for another experiencing ‘I’ to make contact with… ‘Object’ can also include, though secondarily, a non-human thing or idea which is subjectively important through its human associations, such as home, art, politics.”

[8] Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory - An Introduction Through the Senses, Routledge, 2010, p172

“ The terms often used unquestioningly to hide or unite paradoxes and semantic contradictions are: digital cinema, virtual reality and media convergence. At first glance they seem merely descriptive, bringing together the old (cinema, realism, media specificity) with the new (digital, virtual, media convergence). But the fact that no neologism has yet been coined for post-photographic moving images … could also indicate either that there is some special value in treating the cinema as a hybrid medium, or that the embedded contradictions (both “ digital cinema ” and “ virtual reality ” can be construed as oxymorons, i.e. as adjective-noun contradictions) point to a common denominator, toward which they gesture, but which they cannot (yet) name. ”

[9] Vilém Flusser, Photo - Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books, 2000, p21

“The Latin word apparatus is derived from the verb apparare meaning ‘to prepare’. Alongside this there exists in Latin the verb praeparare, likewise meaning ‘to prepare’. To illustrate in English the difference between the prefixes ‘ad’ and ‘prae’, one could perhaps translate apparare with ‘pro-pare’, using ‘pro’ in the sense of ‘for’. Accordingly, an apparatus would be a thing that lies in wait or in readiness for something, and a ‘preparatus’ would be a thing that waits patiently for something.”

[10] Peter Fuller, Art and Psychoanalysis, Writers and Readers, 1980, p163

“Fairbairn, like Klein before him, was something of a systems builder… Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that Fairbairn’s work - together with the influences coming from Budapest, and the ‘Tavistock’ critiques of psychoanalysis - paved the way for a great deal of original work in the post-Kleinian tradition on the nature of the infant-mother relationship… in my view this tradition represents the most constructive development within psychoanalysis, and that which, incidentally, has the most to tell us about the nature of creativity, visual experience and their enjoyment.”

[11] W.R.Bion, Attention and Interpretation, Karnac, 1970, p10

“I shall now use the geometrical concepts of lines, points and space (as derived originally not from a realization of three-dimensional space but from the realization of the emotional mental life) as returnable to the realm from which they appear to me to spring. That is, if the geometer’s concept of space derives from an experience of ’the place where something was’ it is to be returned to illuminate the domain where it is in my experience meaningful to say that a ’feeling of depression’ is ’the place where a breast or other lost object was’ and that ’space’ is ’where depression, or some other emotion, used to be’.”

[12] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Mit Press, 2001, p251

[13] ibid.