Frontiers

Penn Gets Animated

Karen Beckman, Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor of Film Studies and Professor of History of Art, organizes an animation conference at Penn.
October 2012

From 1908’s Fantasmagorie to Disney’s Snow White to resistance films by Czech animators in the ’50s to Avatar, animated films have been around as long as their live action counterparts.  Until recently, though, they’ve been overlooked as part of cinema history and theory.  Karen Beckman, Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor of Film Studies and Professor of History of Art, suspects this was defensive snobbery:  As a relatively new field, cinema studies ignored animation—regarded as childish and more craft than art—in order to make itself more respectable. 

Beckman has been one of the pioneers in reassessing animation’s role within cinema studies, a line of inquiry becoming more and more popular as animation, in the form of special effects, threatens to become indistinguishable from “live action.”  Animation is also more present in our lives these days, not just in movies but in video games and on the web, and finding uses in journalism, medicine and the military.  This September, Beckman organized an international conference, “Animation Across the Disciplines,” which put SAS and Penn at the center of the effort. 

The program, the second half of a two-part conference that began in Berlin, was international and multidisciplinary.  Beckman says, “I tried to think about how this conference could fit in with things that are specific to Penn.”  She pulled in science historians, digital animation engineers, medical experts using animation to teach patients, and more.  The conference attracted an equally wide-ranging audience, from all over the world, the city, and the University:  “This is the first time I’ve seen a chemist at one of my conferences.”

If they can’t find models for political resistance or aesthetic innovation in the world as they see it before their eyes, what are the forms of moving images they can imagine that would be a departure? - Karen Beckman

Beckman is especially proud that the conference encompassed both theory and practice.  Discussions ranged from the need for a language to describe animation and movement, to the ethics of animation, to whether problems in digital animation are being caused by the programs or the users.  “My colleague in Fine Arts, [Professor and Chair] Joshua Mosley, sent me a message the next day to say how exciting it was to have animation be a topic of theoretical conversation, and that it had fundamentally changed some of the ways that he thinks about his own work.  Right there, I thought okay, that was a good conference,” she says.

The study of animation and its place in cinema history will continue to advance, with Beckman at the head of the charge.  As always, animation allows artists to go beyond the real world.  She says, “If they can’t find models for political resistance or aesthetic innovation in the world as they see it before their eyes, what are the forms of moving images they can imagine that would be a departure?” 

At the same time, scholars—and viewers—are focusing more on the difference between live action and animation…and it’s not that big.  Beckman points out that film has never has been strictly real; after World War II, the role movies had played in the rise of fascism caused a movement to reject film as a space of “pure truth.”  “This moment of digital transition is a really important crossroads because there’s a lot of nostalgia,” says Beckman.  “But that sense of confusion or uncertainty has always been part of the experience of cinema.”

Her field keeps changing, which puts its scholars always at the vanguard—and that’s fine with her:  “You have to be prepared to keep admitting what you don’t know if you’re going to be able to ask the questions that will allow you to learn.”