The Still: Animation and the Critical Potential of Stillness

The Still: Animation and the Critical Potential of Stillness
Catalogue essay for ‘The Animators’
British Art Show Fringe Festival

The Still:
Animation and the Critical Potential of Stillness

A still is a single frame of a film. It is, in effect, one of the sequence of photographs that, when shown in rapid succession, go to make up a film. The single frame, on the whole, is not intended to be seen by itself; the still does not have its identity within itself but in relation to the whole of the film from which it is taken. Just as we say that a photograph “captures” a moment or a scene, the film captures movement by capturing a succession of instances. In this process, the continual flow of time is transcribed into a set of discrete steps: the individual stills of the film. Movement is recreated when the film is played: when the stills are shown at the frequency at which they were taken. The conventional speed of film is twenty four frames per second; this is the minimum speed at which the brain no long distinguishes individual frames. The perceived movement is constructed by the viewer.

Animation reverses the usual procedures of film-making in one particular way. Animation stills are made rather than “captured.” Rather than the technological recording of the camera, the animator plans and constructs each still. This is not to say that films are not planned and constructed; but with animation each still is considered, whereas the camera, once constructed and positioned, mechanically produces its stills. Early films showed, for the first time, such things as exactly how a horse gallops. The mechanical shutter could, so to speak, stop the horse in mid-stride: render visible a movement too quick to see. This was the split second made still.

If film-cameras capture the moment, then this was a development within photography. Early photography required its subject to be still. The limitations of its chemistry meant very long exposure times were needed. The subjects of early photographic portraiture, for example, had to sit still for uncomfortably long periods of time. So these early photographs did not make the world still; rather the world had to be made still, in order for it to be photographed successfully.

In this respect early photography mimicked traditional painting. However, representational painting (or picture-making) required not only the stillness of what was to be painted but also the construction of stillness on the canvas (or etc.). Such painting requires looking over time. The scene that a painter depicts is constructed from many glances or hard stares: it is an amalgam of different views at different times. Leaving aside the complexities of artists emphasising (or etc.) particular aspects of a picture, any painted picture is going to be the result of a process of abstraction by virtue of its being a painted picture. There is no single moment to which such a picture corresponds and therefore no way for it to ‘be true’ to such a hypothetical moment (which is not to say there are not other ways in which we might consider a picture to be true).

Indeed, stillness is always an abstraction. In science and philosophy, for example, theorists are fond of stopping time and considering the universe (or some part of it) as a succession of still moments. Such an approach has it uses but it must be borne in mind that this is always an abstraction: time and movement are fundamental qualities of physical reality. The universe is not like a film, where movement is constructed from stills. Moreover, after Einstein, we can no longer think of space and time as absolute and independent, as Newton did. In a Newtonian universe, stillness is constant position in space, over time. Einstein showed that space and time are aspects of a singular entity: spacetime. Although spacetime is an absolute, there are no fixed points within it. Any body that is not accelerating has as good a claim as any other to be regarded as still, regardless of the relative motion of other bodies, which equally could be considered to be still from their particular experiences of spacetime. In short, things are only ever still in relation to a particular observer. Stillness is relative.

The process of the construction of stillness in painting is most obvious, perhaps, in Still Life painting. Sometimes Still Life might make the pretence of showing a natural scene but the Still Life is nothing if not a staged event. However, Still Life was the lowest of the genres precisely because of its stillness. Vanitas pictures notwithstanding, its subject matter was composed of everyday objects: familiar and unremarkable things. Regardless of how such everyday objects could be imbued with meaning, Still Life could make few claims to transcend the stillness it depicted; or have few aspirations to an abstract universality. Other genres sought to transcend their literal stillness not only with the depiction of movement (figures caught in movement and so on) but also with scenes of morality and character. The stillness of Still Life is, in a sense, a commitment to the quotidian and the overlooked: to the domestic and material world. Still Life brought to the fore qualities of everyday things otherwise ignored or taken for granted.

Still Life is an instance of the criticality of stillness. In an analogous way to the way that the photograph of the galloping horse revealed for the first time how a horse actually achieves its galloping, there is a way in which Still Life renders the base, material processes of life visible. Being still can be a condition for analysis; observation is a precondition for critique. And, indeed, being busy can be a way of not seeing, of avoiding analysis. The obsessive-compulsive, who sees dirt and disorder all around, gives him- or herself plenty to do in the never-ending task of trying to keep everything in order. The perpetual doing precludes the possibility of examining the causes of all this activity.

Being still as a condition for analysis can be as true for an onlooker as well as the picture maker. This is to say, pictures also require another kind of stillness: the stillness of the onlooker. But here there are types, as well as degrees, of stillness. The encounter with a picture is a temporal, not an instant one. A picture is looked at over time. One of the skills of the picture-maker is to direct attention to some areas or features of a picture rather than others which fill in the background or context. This is not foolproof, of course: the onlooker can always become interested in some unintended detail or heterodox interpretation. Iconoclasm was nothing but the attempt to quash heterodox interpretation by getting rid of troublesome pictures altogether. Nevertheless, some pictures attempt to impose an orthodox interpretation through their scale and content: to make the onlooker still and quiescent in face of their grandeur. Such is history painting. Other pictures, such as Still Life, perhaps, leave a greater space for the exploration and interpretation of the onlooker. Whilst no less physically still, the onlooker is drawn into careful observation and critical engagement rather than the passivity of receiving information. Stillness in the onlooker, then, can be a metaphor for either intellectual passivity or, something like its opposite, critical activity.

Animation has its own history. Some forms of animation, such as the Phenakistoscope and the Zoetrope, both invented in the 1830s, pre-date the invention of film. These devices relied, in one way or another, upon a spinning set of images viewed through a series of slots. The movement they gave was cyclical: a short loop endlessly repeated. 

As a critical practice, however, the history of animation cannot be detached from that of film. Most animation has been parasitic upon the mechanisms of film and subsequently those of video and computers: that is, the sequence of stills. But in bringing the constructions of picture-making into the making of each still, animation incorporates processes of selection, exaggeration, condensation and so on; processes familiar to representational painting and so forth. Animation covers a vast range of potential and actual practices, so it is pointless to generalise about what animation does. However, it is worth considering the ways in which commercial animation, such as children’s cartoons, routinely warp reality. In the world of animation, time slows down and speeds up; gravity is suspended; characters change form; miraculous resurrections are common; and so on. T his breadth of invention is the strength of animation borne of the marriage of the construction of pictures and the temporality of film: it presents the possibility of interrupting or analysing both the temporal flow of film and the spatial stillness of pictures.

Stillness, however critical and necessary, can never be the end of the story. Somewhere along the line stillness must be followed by transformation, by action. In psychoanalysis, the so-called patient returns to the stillness of the analyst’s couch not as an investment in the future but as preparation for not coming back: as a prelude to doing something else.