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  • Simultaneous Narration and Ethical Positioning in Three Short Animated Films
  • Mary Slowik (bio)

Cartoons, short animations, animated films, the majority of cgi effects, all originate in the forward rush of single images flipped so quickly one after the other that the eyes are fooled into perceiving motion where none exists. On a micro level, animation is inherently narrative, a series of nano-events unfolding sequentially, frame by frame, at roughly twenty-four frames per second1 to create, if only for a moment, an illusion of a whole. Animation is also an art of extravagant metamorphosis. Line-drawn characters squash, stretch, twist around themselves; rooms turn into windows turn into trees; the letter "A" becomes a hat; superman leaps over buildings. For all of the relentless forward motion and wild narration, animation paradoxically also has the capacity to stop and hold stories still, if only for the long take of Wile E. Coyote, looking directly at us between the time he steps off the cliff and the time gravity takes hold, and he plunges downward. In that glance is held animation's capacity to fool the eye, to fool a gravity-fearing mind, and to hold in suspension a number of narrative strands running through the cartoon simultaneously: the snares Wile E. Coyote has invented for the Road Runner have once again backfired on him; Wile E. recognizes his failure and shares this recognition with his audience, also given, from time to time, to similar failure; Wile E. has also lost to an animator who can foil gravity itself.

The purpose of this study is to investigate on two fronts the aesthetic and ethical components of animation's extravagant and complex artifice: first, as they engage the [End Page 46] viewer while the animation unfolds, the ethics of the told, to extend James Phelan's useful term to visual as well as literary narrative; second, as animation's artifice reveals an overarching but intrinsic rhetorical and ethical organization—taken as a whole, Phelan's ethics of the telling (Experiencing Fiction 11-12). I will particularly showcase animation's deft use of frame narrative for these purposes, that is, narrative that houses multiple stories that we respond to both progressively and simultaneously.

Animation is an art of the sleight of hand, or perhaps more accurately, the sleight of eye. One image folds almost instantly into the next and then the next, tricking the eye into seeing motion. Yet, to some extent, the eye tricks the animation as well. While changing frame by frame, micro-moment by micro-moment, each image is nonetheless held by the eye as a shadow, a shape it won't let go of even as the image morphs into its next iteration. The eye's persistence of vision2 is, I maintain, geometric and spatial and distinctly narrative. It allows us to take in many storylines at the same time while seeing structure and shapes, which constitute larger areas of aesthetic and ethical reference. A good animated film delights and disturbs all within the blink of an eye. And we even see beyond the blink as well to unexpected layers of ethical complication.

While narratologists have considered the gaps in visual narratives—the spaces between frames in comic books, for instance, and the stacking and popping of embedded narrative in digital media3—there are no studies, to my knowledge, that relate the multiple storylines presented simultaneously within animations to their aesthetic and ethical effect upon an audience.4 Not all animations, of course, accomplish the feats I describe here, but I have chosen three short animated films that pair three different types of narrative progression and ethical judgment with three distinct visual techniques peculiar to animation. The first film is a hand-drawn, split-screen animation that organizes the story as causal sequences of events that recount an historical occurrence—in other words, the telling of something that happened—to use and simplify Phelan's basic definition of narrative (Experiencing Fiction 7, 16).5 The second film is a digital animation that, through accelerated speed, reveals the make-up of its subject by unearthing and then animating the layers of its organization. In this case, I...


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