- Teaching (Like) Hannah Frank (1984–2017)A Tribute
Hannah Frank, an assistant professor in film studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), died suddenly, on August 29, 2017, at the age of thirty-three. The cause was suspected to be pneumococcal meningitis. Despite her youth, she was a well-regarded scholar with many interests, and the archivists who worked with her during her research on animation imagery admired her. She also was an innovative and inspiring teacher. Here she is remembered by some of her friends and colleagues.
I begin this tribute with what I imagine Hannah would have liked me to begin with, namely, the cat in Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014). For a couple years, Hannah was deeply invested in this cat’s ontological status and technological origins. Finally, last year, she introduced the claim that the cat is computer generated to the students in her special effects class. Soon after, one of them posted the following on Reddit.com in an attempt to cat-egorically resolve the debate:
Our professor showed us a scene from Gone Girl and asked us to find the hidden special effect. The class collectively decided the cat was CGI, and the professor told us it was. We talked about it for an hour and then the professor told us she had no idea if the cat was CGI and that she was lying. She then tasked us to find out....I want to get other people’s opinions, and use that to formulate my discussion in class. Is the cat CGI?1
While this is a metaphysical question for the ages, it is also a testament to the effectiveness of what I have come to think of as Hannah’s signature pedagogical trolling. Many can troll, but only Hannah could take a cinematic object as seemingly insignificant as this cat and turn it into a case study of photorealistic CGI and popular beliefs about its capabilities, as well as an exercise in creative research. The average academic is so caught up in the act of projecting authority in the classroom that building an entire pedagogical activity out of encouraging students to question the lecture would be out of the question. But Hannah knew that the sting of being lied to, combined with a direct challenge, would galvanize her class. That Hannah got so much mileage out of a joke about a cat speaks to the power of pedagogical trolling and of her connection to her students.
Hannah didn’t simply ask her students to watch movies. She asked them to stare at frames, as she put it. To her, each still image held not only aesthetic value but also the potential to unlock its own material history, and so much more besides, but only if one is willing to stare.
Each and every animated cartoon is a photographic archive, and each and every one of its frames can be understood as an individual photograph that preserves a moment in time. A reel of film, in this sense, is a record of its own making. Its constitutive frames double as a visual catalog of mistakes. Of course, blink and you will miss these errors. You must stop the film. Look. Stare. Treat the still frame as if it were a mug shot.2
This quote comes from “Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography,” an article of Hannah’s that I plan to incorporate in my future animation syllabi as well as my film theory course. This piece will also shape my approach to “close analysis” going forward. The way this course is currently taught at most institutions does not leave room for animation, nor does it allow for Hannah’s meticulous, laborious, relentlessly dedicated attention. But her way of looking, as challenging as it is, teaches students the value of scholarly patience and discipline. More importantly, it inspires them to want to discover. This is why I will ask my students not only to watch but also to look. Hannah’s...