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The Toy Like Nature: On the History and Theory of Animated Motion

Pierson, Ryan (2013) The Toy Like Nature: On the History and Theory of Animated Motion. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation examines some key assumptions behind our prevailing idea of animation, arguing that our idea of animation is not, as is often implicitly assumed, an ahistorical category of manipulated imagery, but the result of a complex network of contingent processes. These assumptions, from the aesthetic end, largely emerged from the postwar rise of figurative (or noncartoon, nonabstract) animation—a “new era” which critic André Martin characterized as “marked by the widest possible range of techniques and processes.” From the other end, animation is tied to widespread assumptions from science that assert the biological, automatic nature of visual illusion.

Animation’s unique status as a medium of visual movement that can arise from any kind of material (drawings, puppets, computer graphics, etc.), thus yields a paradox that I call “animated automatism”: the fact that, in order to assert its open-ended freedom as an art form, animation must acknowledge the reductive mechanics of perception.
The dissertation examines these tensions between aesthetics and science by weaving together moments in the history of figurative animation with moments in the history of animation’s theorization, arguing for the importance of oft-neglected thinkers as animation theorists in the process. Chapter one analyzes philosopher Stanley Cavell’s remarks on cartoons in context with the rise of figurative animation against cartoons, and against the emergence of film studies as an academic discipline. Chapter two analyzes a significant overlap between the methods of animator Norman McLaren and Gestalt psychologist Albert Michotte to argue that the history of figurative animation shares protocols of optical testing with the history of the study of perception. Chapter three examines two major theorists of early trickfilms, critic Rollin Lynde Hartt and poet Vachel Lindsay, as proto-animation theorists who found early cinema’s significance in the push-and-pull between illusion and explanation. Chapter four reads Michael Barrier’s 1970s cartoon journal Funnyworld against the celebrated practice of John and Faith Hubley to indicate a modernist crisis in the understanding of animation. Two brief excurses examine the assumptions behind Michotte and 1960s/70s art critic Annette Michelson’s neglect of animation as a category of film.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMorgan, Danieldrmorgan@pitt.eduDRMORGAN
Committee MemberAnderson, Mark Lynnandersml@pitt.eduANDERSML
Committee MemberLandy, Marciamlandy@pitt.eduMLANDY
Committee MemberMachamer, Peterpkmach@pitt.eduPKMACH
Committee MemberBukatman,
Date: 29 January 2013
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 21 August 2012
Approval Date: 29 January 2013
Submission Date: 28 November 2012
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 268
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: animation, classical film theory, film studies, new media
Date Deposited: 29 Jan 2013 23:10
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 14:06


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