Book reviews Experimental Animation & Cartoons Il Cinema d’Animazione

Experimental Animation: Origins of a New Art

Revised edition by Robert Russett and Cecile Starr, published by De Capo Press, New York

Review by Pat Webb.

Robert Russett and Cecile Starr begin their well researched anthology with a concise introduction to this ever-growing relationship between animation and art before they dip into the archives for a look at the very earliest of European experimentors, starting with L!eopold Survage in the early l900s. Much of his work, in common with that of others of the time, (Eggeling, Fischinger, Richter), was based on music and rhythm and was purely abstract art or animated painting. They continue with a survey of the pictorial tradition of Europe; Trnka’s puppets, Lotte Reiniger’s shadow cut-outs, Alexeieffe and Parker’s pinscreen. A little later the American abstract pioneers, for example Mary Ellen Bute, came on the scene, and then a whole chapter is devoted, rightly, to the work of Norman McLaren and the National Film Board of Canada. We are brought up to date through the work of artists like Robert Breer, who has been experimenting since the 50s, Carmen d’Avino, Larry Jordan, and many others whose work was not familiar to me, and a delight to discover. There is a chapter on animated sound, including the experiments of John Whitney, whose creative genius is also dealt with extensively in the last chapter on the new technologies.

The book is well illustrated with over 250 black and white photographs and filmic art is such that even without colour they still make a strong visual impact. There are rare interviews with many of the creators who talk about their aims, methods and achievements and “how they did it”.

An informative and highly readable book, a mine of information on these brave innovators, often working alone and unknown for years. The authors have never fallen into the trap of letting the subject become arcane but have written a clear and valuable document for the historian as well as any young hopefuls who want to keep alive the tradition of experimental film and work outside the commercially orientated field. A highly enjoyable book, and one I shall treasure on my animation bookshelf not only as an excellent reference book but an enlightening and inspiring one.

Cartoons Il Cinema d’Animazione 1888-1988

by Giannalberto Bendazzi.
Published by Marsillio Editori S.P.A. in Venezia, Italy.

Review by Pat Webb.

This comprehensive history and critique of world animation fills 786 pages. It has 40 pages of well chosen illustrations, many of which are in colour. Unfortunately for most Animator readers the text is in Italian, however, if you are lucky enough to understand that language I urge you to seek this book out. Perhaps an English language version will be published in due course.

I asked Giannalberto Bendazzi to tell me something about the background to his book. This is his reply:

I became involved in animation in 1965 when somebody introduced me to Bruno Bozzetto and I discovered that animation could be art, poetry, experiment, abstraction, and many more things (Bruno screened some of his own films for me, plus those of McLaren, Yoji Kuri etc.). I was then 19 and already devoted to film history and criticism although I never wanted to be a film maker myself.

I began attending numerous film festivals and screenings, met animators and anñnation directors, collected all the available information and wrote many articles and essays on the subject. It was clear to me that animation was a magnificent Art Movement of cosmic proportions and yet very few people were aware of it. I decided it was necessary to write a much more detailed, wide-ranging, critically accurate “animation history” than the existing ones. This was important because information can perish very quickly (a major source such as the film makers themselves could die) and because they had such a limited circulation (some films were screened just once in a single festival and then went back in a drawer somewhere at the other side of the world).

The result of this early research was a book published in 1978: Topolono e poi (Mickey Mouse and Beyond). Despite the title it dealt very little with Disney and focused attention on “auteur” animation. It was not as wide-ranging as I wanted (the publisher did not allow me a bigger book) and I started rewriting it. This became my new book, Cartoons.

Without abandoning the idea of “auteur” animation, I knew that a history of animation must be a history of all aspects: major films and lesser films, major auteurs and lesser auteurs, and a lot of other things that are neither films nor auteurs: show business, cultural influences, trends, investments, production companies, TV series and so on.

The book is like an upside-down pyramid. It starts in 1888 in France, when Emile Reynaud invented the th!eatre optique, introducing the possibility of telling a story with drawn moving images and making previous optical gadgets out of date (I called these “visual varillions”, endlessly repeating the same pattern). The book continues with Europe and the USA at the beginning of the century, then more national productions, up to the current situation of world wide animation production. Every time I discussed a national production in a certain period, I took the opportunity to critically discuss film makers that were outstanding in that period. These were individual chapters, short (and sometimes long) essays on the film makers. In many cases they were the first critical analysis on that particular film maker, and this was both exciting and frightening for me.

The actual writing of the book took me four years and it was quite exhausting. I remember many weekends spent writing and being satisfied if just half a-page was produced. The necessity of checking the information and confronting the sources was really time-consuming.

You probably wonder if I am happy with the result. I can’t claim the book is perfect, that is not possible, but in many ways I am happy with it. It contains a lot of information that has not been published before and, as far as I know, it is the most comprehensive and detailed history of animation existing today.

Of course, it is also a book by a single person. This means it cannot be “objective”. Even if I do not take a partisan view, and respect, study and try to understand all cultures, races and political and ideological systems, I have my own likes and dislikes, my own flaws and my own limitations. I tried to be intellectually honest: which is the only way I know of to be useful to the readers of a book.

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Printed in Animator Issue 25 (Summer 1989)