April 20, 2021

Dr. Ryan Pierson Revisits Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics

Dr. Pierson answers questions and explores the ideas raised in his 2019 publication, Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics
Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics Cover
Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics Cover

In case you missed it, Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics by Dr. Ryan Pierson was released by Oxford University Press back in November 2019. This book provides a method of closely examining and describing how objects move in animated film. We’re often struck by the fantastical events unfolding on screen when viewing animation, yet there is little formally developed vocabulary to describe the visual style of movement happening within these events. Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics offers a new approach of analyzing how animated objects appear to fit together onscreen. New possibilities for the scholarly discussion of animation are opened through the concepts of figures—arrangements that intuitively seem to hold together—and forces—underlying units of attraction, repulsion, and direction. Mid-twentieth century experimental animators played with our perceptions connected to these concepts, distorting our ability to recognize animated elements as related or unrelated to each other.

The book covers the history of various animation techniques up to the mid-twentieth century with this question of visual relations in mind. The four techniques covered are soft edges (as opposed to hard outlines seen in studio cartoons), walk cycles, camera movement, and rotoscoping. While Dr. Pierson does examine some popular cartoonsespecially Disneyhis focus was mostly on experimental animation, where the issue of perception is often foregrounded. Figure and Force in Animation Aesthetics also demonstrates that the concepts of figures and forces, and the previously mentioned animation techniques offer a fertile ground for philosophical speculation. The book offers philosophical interpretations of how we may perceive things like “life” in a walk cycle, and “love” in a rotoscoped line.

Dr. Ryan Pierson is an assistant professor in CMF. He teaches courses on animation, film theory and American cinema, as well as digital cinema and the audiovisual essay.

Photo of Dr. Ryan Pierson

Photo of Dr. Ryan Pierson

What inspired you to write this book? Did you feel that there was something missing in scholarly discussions about animation?

The book came out of mulling over a few things about animation over the years. First, that scholarship doesn’t have a good formal vocabulary for describing movements in animation. This is a foundational problem. When scholars first started studying film more generally in the 1960s and 1970s, this was one of the first problems they wanted to solve: How do we talk about techniques that are specific to film as film? Animation scholarship never had a moment like this. We have good ways of describing [how] bodies move in studio cartoons (thanks to animation manuals), but that’s about it.

Animation was mostly ignored in the study of film for a long time… When scholars began studying film seriously, there was a robust body of criticism they could draw from—popular journals in France and Britain that were celebrating movies by looking at specifics, [and analyzing] them very closely. This never happened for animation. There were some scattered critics who were vocal about it, but there was nothing like a ‘tradition’ of criticism. When film scholars [became] interested in animation, it was largely for theoretical reasons: computer graphics were becoming more prominent, and images on film [were generally] starting to look more plastic [and] more ‘animated’ than before. Animation was brought in as a concept to help explain how digital images behave. So, most scholars have skipped the criticism and gone straight to the theory. This seems backwards to me. Studying art is not a science. You don’t start with general principles, you start with specifics.

At bottom, the book is a work of animation criticism—an attempt to draw attention to certain films that I think are worth looking closely at. This is why it’s arranged as a history of techniques, and not as a taxonomy of concepts.

Why did you feel it was important to investigate animation for its philosophical meaning & significance?

Well, when you start asking questions about the way you’re seeing things rather than simply noting what you’re seeing—when you start asking about the conditions of your experience—you start doing philosophy. Animators who play with our perceptions, who demonstrate right before our eyes how easily our impression of one thing can turn into an impression of another, are engaged in something like a philosophical enterprise. Not directly—it’s not like they read or write philosophy—but any time you play with the givens or assumptions around the way we work or the way the world works (especially regarding perception), you open up opportunities for speculation. Each chapter comes to focus on one or two films and engages in this kind of speculation around it. My hope is that [the] reader will get a sense of how we can play with these films in conceptual ways. Philosophically reflecting on films allows us to speculate, in a playful way, on the conditions of our own world. At the same time, when we ground those speculations in what we’re seeing—in what the films are formally presenting to uswe can look at them more closely.

How can readers apply concepts in this book to subjects/fields not directly related to animation?

For one thing, it opens up an opportunity for us to think about motion in more sustained ways. Motion is hard to describe. The book hasn’t been out long so it’s hard to tell how people will use it, but there are some scholars who have taken it up as a kind of challenge to describe movements more closely, even in live-action film—in camera movement, for example, or in thinking about the movements of people or objects as being timed or designed in certain ways.

I think the other use of the book goes back to the value of speculation. When realism has been drained out of a moving image, all we’re left with is motion and relations. That frees us up to reflect not just on motion, but on relations, [and] ways things can be organized. For someone recording an event in live-action, all sorts of relations can be assumed just from the physical properties of the world: a person’s feet will stay on the floor, a moving arm will sync up with the rest of a body, the dimensions of a room will stay the same. In animation, every relation must be earned with every frame. Forging relations becomes a conscious project. And what is ethics but [the] kinds of relations we choose to forge—with each other, with ourselves, [and] with the planet? What is politics but enacting the question of how to organize?