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The Lion and the Unicorn 27.2 (2003) 251-267
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Australian Animation Aesthetics
It is only recently that animation has come to be scrutinized as a "serious" art form by film scholars and analysts. Traditional cel animation is so closely associated with the cartoon and with children that it has often been denigrated as mere entertainment. The economies of studio-based animation in the United States and the rise of cheap, character-based merchandising as an impetus for animation design have made any discussion of an animation aesthetics a modern development in film studies.
This paper attempts to trace an aesthetic tendency in Australian animation for children. While it may seem a grandiose suggestion to claim that there could be a single aesthetic for Australia's product, it is possible to demonstrate that certain industrial, cultural and economic factors, together with discourses in writing for children in this country, have shaped an artist-focused product which is more developmental in its approach to the animated form. My case in this paper is that a hybrid aesthetic characterizes Australian animation for children. Even among animators and filmmakers who use more orthodox cel animation (with its conservative narrative moves) as their major production technique it has, until very recently amongst the larger producers, been possible to identify a parallel interest in the expressive potential of the animated form which theorists have begun to call "developmental." This hybridity is not merely a function of media and form. It can be seen in the discursive moves which balance narrative and character-driven strategies against thematic-driven narrative to privilege discourses of ecology. This is not merely a matter of inserting the "pill" of the message in films which are predominantly entertainment; the reflection on cultural and ecological practices drives story selection, influences choice of media, and creates a tension which has the energy of art as well as fiction.
To illustrate this thesis, I have chosen two symptomatic texts: Dot and the Kangaroo (Yoram Gross, 1977) and episodes from the animated [End Page 251] series The Web (Eco Productions/ Film Australia 1993-95). These films are not only separated in time by almost two decades, they come from two ends of the production spectrum. The first is a feature film by a successful commercial producer with international market reach, juxtaposed with a highly subsidized, "hands on," series of short animations, produced with educational and artistic goals in mind.
Theory of the Animated Form
In Understanding Animation, Paul Wells devotes a chapter to outlining a formal distinction between the qualities of what he terms "Orthodox," "Experimental" and "Developmental" animation (35-46). Orthodox animation refers to traditional cel animation:
Cel animation remains the most convenient technique for the mass production of cartoons and, therefore, the most commonly seen form of animation. Consequently, it constitutes what may be understood as orthodox animation, and is most associated, even in its most anarchic or fantastical form, at the level of narrative, along with the hyper-realist style [associated with Disney]. This may seem extraordinary to the viewer who sees the cartoon as an intrinsically non-realist form, but as will become clear, this sense of unreality only operates with regard to the representation of events in a cartoon, and not the 'realist' conventions by which it is understood. [. . .] This method enables a large number of animators to be involved and facilitates an industrial process. It also results in a certain creative intention which characterizes the criteria for orthodox animation. (35-36)
I canvass this argument at some length, because its parameters are crucial to my own case about the developmental aesthetic of Australian animation.
Orthodox animation, according to Wells (35-46), is characterized by the following eight conditions: configuration, specific continuity, narrative form, evolution of context, unity of style, absence of the artist, dynamics of dialogue.
"Configuration" refers to the fact that cartoons typically feature "figures"—"identifiable people or animals who corresponded to what audiences would understand as an orthodox human being or creature." "Specific Continuity" signals the way in which orthodox animation maintains logical continuity even within a "madcap scenario...