What is cinema? This question has been posed innumerable times, and innumerable answers have been offered in response — some of them good, some less satisfying, but most of them in some way biased, partial, and in any case less than comprehensive. If I wager an answer of my own, it will surely suffer from the same incompleteness — and how could it be otherwise, unless the cinema had ceased evolving, been frozen in time, or superseded and relegated to the junk pile of “dead” media? This is hardly the case, I think, even if the material infrastructure of cinema has been radically transformed in its transition to digital production and playback technologies.
Nevertheless, attendant changes in the cinema, as part of the larger media environment in which we live and breathe, have been momentous enough to warrant discussion of “post-cinematic affect” (in Steven Shaviro‘s term) as the emergent episteme or “structure of feeling” informing life today. And the film historians of the past several decades (chief among them Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen) have demonstrated with sufficient clarity that early cinema, far from being a “primitive” version of “classical” cinema, was indeed a different beast altogether. Together, these perspectives suggest that cinema — classical (and post-classical) cinema: cinema proper as the dominant medium of the twentieth century — can be approached as a (relatively) bounded object, not neatly encapsulated but nevertheless defined by some fuzzy borders near the beginning and the end of “its” century.
In an attempt to understand this object better, we might consider that a wide variety of attempts to define cinema suffer from a common shortcoming: they marginalize or otherwise fail to account for “animation.” But perhaps there is something essential about this marginalization, and maybe we could say — knowing full well that any such categorical pronouncement is surely guilty of a similar selectiveness — that animation provides the frame within which cinema in its dominant form has been defined. In order to serve as such a frame, it would therefore not be by accident but indeed as an enabling condition of “cinema” that animation should be pushed thus to the margins. (In this context it is perhaps important, though, to recall Derrida’s meditations on the frame qua parergon…).
What would it mean, though, and what reason is there to say that cinema is “framed” by animation as a border condition? The idea, in short, is that “cinema” (a normative construct historically instantiated in both discursive and material forms) is bookended, delimited historically and conceptually by an initial and an ultimate indistinction of animation and live-action film — such that cinema is defined not as live-action film, narrowly and in exclusion of animation, but on the grounds of the distinction between, or via the more basic distinguishability of, animation and live-action film. For it is precisely (though not solely) this distinction that is at stake in the transition from early to classical and again from cinematic to post-cinematic forms or regimes.
We must recall that it remained common, until well into the 1910s, to refer to film generally as “animated film” — in distinction to static photographs, which had become associated in the nineteenth century with death (an association that was not purely philosophical but practically instantiated in the Victorian-era memento mori). The movies brought these images back to life — animated them: an idea that motivated corporate names such as Biograph and Vitagraph (while the connection might seem even more palpable to us today in a hand-cranked flip-book machine like the Mutoscope). And it was the camera/projector apparatus itself — the main “attraction” of early cinema — that was the life-giving force: “animation” was thus an apparatic spectacle, something that inhered in the very machinery of the movies, not in a certain type of film (see also Paul Ward’s instructive article, “Defining ‘Animation'”).
This is not to say, of course, that early audiences were so bedazzled by moving pictures that they couldn’t tell the difference between live-action sequences and “animation” in its narrower (and later) sense. Rather, the point is merely that this distinction was relatively unimportant in the “cinema of attractions” — where “enchanted drawings,” trick effects, and stop-motion spectacles were widespread. The meaningfulness of the distinction, which emerges in the transition to classical film, depends on the marginalization of animation, which is no longer seen as the essence of film but as an exceptional kind of it. The trick effect becomes a “special effect.” More generally, “life” is no longer given by the apparatus but is merely recorded, witnessed by it in the case of live-action filmmaking, which it now makes sense to distinguish from animation; life, in other words, is located in front of the camera, as a pro-filmic property of actors that filmmakers can at best harness and pass on to their diegetic characters. The once central operation of film — animation — henceforth occupies a subordinate position as the apparatus of classical cinema undergoes its disenchantment.
Again, though, it is less this subordination than the sheer separability of animation that I think might be seen as a defining factor, a framing condition, of cinema in its dominant or proper form as the central medium of the twentieth century. And one of the key developments marking our transition to a post-cinematic era is precisely a reversal of this process: most obviously, CGI and digital compositing render the distinction between apparatically animated and pro-filmically animate images again indeterminate. (But surely the anima at stake is not just a narrowly technical agency, but also the life we call our own, the parameters of which are radically revised by global communications technologies, through microtemporal encounters with the digital, and in the imbrication of our affective lives with the algorithms of global finance). Such indeterminacy, the indistinction of animation, therefore constitutes the initial and the ultimate state, while the cinema is defined in/as the space between.
Seen from this (undoubtedly biased, partial, and perhaps even perverse) perspective, Winsor McCay — whose comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland premiered 107 years ago today, on October 15, 1905, in the pages of The New York Herald — was not only a pioneer of animation (as it is more conventional to claim on the basis of his filmic work with Nemo and the later Gertie the Dinosaur), but in fact a pioneer of cinema proper, which he helped to define by wresting it from animation, from an indistinction of life — from an indistinction into which we plunge again today…