- Assembling Movement:Scientific Motion Analysis and Studio Animation Practice
[F]or animators—those microscopists of the cinema—the substitution of images contains the very fabric of their art, just as, for biologists, the behavior of cells contains the secrets of living organisms.—Alexandre Alexeieff, 1970
In employing an organic analogy in this account of his work, animator Alexandre Alexeieff echoes a long tradition of linking animation to the study of life. Animation, as one frequently reads in popular criticism, is an art form that plays with the boundaries of life: constructing an illusion of a living world or creating an alternate fantasy life, imbuing inert objects with a vital spirit, or composing abstract forms that dance about like intentional beings.1 However, Alexeieff’s definition goes beyond these familiar tropes and suggests something much more concrete about the relationship between animation and biology. Just as a biologist dissects organic bodies to understand the inner workings of life, an animator probes into the essence of cinema by dissecting moving images. Or, in a more provocative formulation, animators are not [End Page 269] just filmmakers; they are also scientists of film. This claim isn’t a self-aggrandizing gesture (at least, it isn’t only that) but instead is a statement about the particular skills required to animate an image. Animation challenges the filmmaker to synthesize movement where there is none, frame by frame, by orchestrating a “substitution of images.” Or, as Alexeieff notes in another passage, whereas photographic live-action cinema begins by breaking down and stilling real movement, “[a]nimated movement is not re-constituted by projection: it is created on the screen for the first time.”2 As such, animation requires a certain level of close, methodical inquiry into the fundamental rules of motion, whether that means studying the trajectories of moving bodies or more intangible dynamic processes, such as emotions or musical rhythms.
The emphasis on understanding the workings of movement explains why Alexeieff’s analogy does not just point to science in general but also turns to the life sciences in particular. After all, by the twentieth century, the study of organic life also became inseparable from the close study of movement, from the concrete behaviors of discrete organic particles to the more abstract forces (reproduction, synthesis, evolution) that propel biological events. Since many of these dynamic processes cannot be optically seen or captured in a single still image, modern life sciences also took interest in the moving image as a device for capturing and analyzing movement.3
Alexeieff’s poetic description of the animator as a biologist of cinema is thus indicative of a much wider historical and conceptual relationship between animation and scientific inquiry. Broadly, I would characterize this relationship as a shared interest in studying and visually rendering movement with the aid of moving-image technology. For early animators and for modern life scientists, the cinematograph was an instrument of motion analysis in advance of (and often in preparation for) serving as an instrument of movement documentation. While early twentieth-century biologists and industrial researchers of motion relied on the cinematograph to disassemble organic and mechanical processes into discrete instances or manageable cells, early animators, working in reverse, used the cinematograph to reassemble movement from discrete poses or images (building toward the celluloid “cels” in classic drawn animation).
This shared interest fostered a relationship of mutual influence in how the different fields approached their study and visual rendering of movement. The life sciences, as a number of scholars note in this journal issue, have frequently relied on animated figures [End Page 270] and images in order to model complex biochemical interactions and communicate the invisible structure of organic processes.4 However, early animators, as I propose below, also drew influence (directly or indirectly) from techniques developed by the life sciences in order to visually compose and communicate movement. This connection was particularly evident in early American studio animation methods and training guides, which form the focus of this essay. Whereas many experimental animators took up the language of scientific inquiry as a more symbolic call to dedicate themselves to the study of movement, in early studio animation scientific motion analysis became...