In 2017, GKids distribution and the Annecy International Animation Festival, along with Variety and ASIFA, teamed up to present a festival aimed at legitimizing animation for American audiences, and especially for Hollywood. Based in LA and focusing on a “highly selective” lineup of artistically adventurous animated films from around the world, it’s not hard to see it as a direct challenge to the kind of Academy voter who crops up in every year’s Hollywood Reporter “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots,” who views animation as kids stuff and abdicates their vote to their son and daughter.
I have a huge amount of respect for GKids, and the work they’ve done in bringing some absolutely spectacular international animation to North America. Annecy’s importance to the international animation community goes without saying. But their festival gets something wrong, right in its name: Animation isn’t film. The name “Animation Is Film” was clearly chosen to make a statement: that animated films are just as artistically valid as any other subset of cinema, and should be given the same respect as film in general. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But animation isn’t film. It is a distinct medium with its own history and vocabulary, closely tied to film but separate in important ways. And trying to legitimize it through equating it with film is reducing its potential.
Think of it this way: There is a huge conceptual overlap between photography and painting. You could, if you wanted, compare a photograph and a painting using only their shared terminology—in terms of composition and lighting and subject and perspective. But in restricting yourself to the shared elements, you would miss out on so much of what the artists involved are doing. You can’t really discuss impressionism or pointillism without a language around brush strokes. Talking about photography without some knowledge of film grain or perspective distortion leaves out important nuance. Photography isn’t a subset of painting; painting isn’t a subset of photography.
Similarly, talking about animation using only the language of film is doing it a disservice. Not that animation isn’t cinematic—animators borrow heavily from cinematic language, even so far as thinking about specific lenses or camera movements. But fans of animated art are well aware of the refrain that animation isn’t a genre—it isn’t a subset of film. It is its own beast, a medium with a huge diversity of styles and techniques. Talking intelligently about animation means being able to borrow not just from film theory, but from an intimidating range of artistic sources. Animation can incorporate oil painting, acrylics, watercolour, marker, cut paper and pastel, collage art, sculpted clay, mixed media and so much more—and that’s without even getting into digital techniques. And within each of those media, the animator’s unique style makes for an infinite variety of expression. Appreciating the staggering range of techniques available, and the richness of each, is one of the keys to appreciating animation as a medium.
And that isn’t even getting into what happens when you bring motion into the picture. Morphs, smears, loop-weaving, squash-and-stretch—the more understanding you have of the nuances of how animation is made, the more appreciation you have for the choices the artist is making and the more clearly you feel their intent. I’m a relative newcomer to animation—I’ve only really been immersed in it for the past five years or so—but the difference in what I saw in an animated short as a more casual fan and what I see in the same film today is striking. The more I’ve learned about what goes into animation, the more convinced I become that it is one of the most vital, vibrant art forms in existence.
There seems to be a tendency in many underappreciated art forms to seek legitimacy by identifying yourself with more established arts. Comics went through it when they argued for their status as literature—the term “graphic novel” is as transparent an attempt at re-framing as you can really get—but anyone who is seriously interested in understanding comics knows there’s a whole lot more to it than just re-purposing literary theory. Video games still have trouble with some critics’ habit of equating a game’s artistic merit with how “cinematic” it is. And especially in North America, where the tendency to equate the medium of animation with the genre of kids films is most pronounced, animation tries to legitimize itself by pitching itself as serious cinema. But comics aren’t novels. Video games aren’t movies. And animation isn’t film—it’s a distinct, and distinctly wonderful, medium.