The Ontology of Cinema (and Animation)

Filmmaker Steve Reinke will be in Winnipeg this Wednesday to introduce the Public Domain Screening, and in anticipation for this show, I’m sharing this video!

This scene from Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is referred to by Steve Reinke in his essay in The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema, which was also edited by Reinke and Chris Gehman.

In the clip, two characters on a cinema screen discuss the ontology of film, searching for a formal definition of what makes film, film, and how it perceives reality. Paralleled in his essay, Reinke discusses the ontology of animation, asking what exactly makes something an animation. The film Waking Life is easily brought into question in this regard, as it was originally filmed in live action and then animated over. Is this really animation? Read an excerpt below from Steve Reinke’s essay The World is a Cartoon: Stray Notes on Animation and see for yourself.


-Aaron Zeghers

“In Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), there is (possibly) a mosquito that becomes a vector through its (possible) death. The film was shot and edited on mini-DV as live-action digital video, but was painted over (rotoscoped) to look like, if not become, animation. In a literal way, both digital video and computer-aided animation are exactly the same technology and therefore must share the same representational possibilities: a pixel is a pixel after all….

…The narrative of Waking Life is propelled by questions about indeterminate or liminal states. The protagonist initially struggles to find out if he is awake or asleep and dreaming, later if he is asleep or dead. The film also has an indeterminate state as an extra-diegetical thematic concern: whether it – Waking Life – is essentially indexical (live action: lens-based) or non-idexical (animation: drawn/painted). One easily discerns the live action “below” the animation. The animation can seem like an embellishment that does not seriously compromise the live action origins of the movie, like adding a filter to video to give it film grain. Sure, some things are added that would not have been on the life-actiuon footage – lightning bolts and flashing lights – but these are obvious supplements: they even seem to float in front of the picture plane (lens-based concept), or to be the uppermost layer (digital painting concept).

The character’s (flawed) précis of Bazin continues, moving from film as the face of God to a discussion of the holy moment (wherein one looks upon the face of God). The mosquito is an interruption in the discussion that is comical for a number of reasons. First, it simply brings an increasingly lofty, one-sided conversation back down to earth. Reinforcing this fall from spiritually transcendent to the immanent everyday are the two faces: The face of God becomes the face that gets slapped.

The scene guts between the protagonist sitting in the movie theatre and the film he is watching, which (until the final moments) is a single medium shot. The camera is hand-held, but relatively static. The mosquito lands on the far side of a head we see only in profile. Barring the insertion of a close-up, we have no way of actually seeing the mosquito. Even within the diegesis of the film-within-the-film, only the Bazin-discoursing character could possibly see the mosquito.

The previous paragraph recounts the scene as if it were part of a live action, lens-based film. If Waking Life is essentially live action, with the animation merely a kind of stylistic supplement, a particular question arises: Did an actual mosquito exist in the pro-filmic world? If Waking Life is an animated film, the question becomes nonsensical.

The difference in the ontology of the lens-based photographic image of live action and the graphic possibily-digital image of animation lies at the level of the pro-filmic. But, following Bazin, questions concerning the ontology of images are wrapped up in questions of indexicality. In Waking Life, the mostquito is a vector, which, by raising questions about the ontological/indexical status of the film’s representations, exceeds the film’s diegesis. It seems to me that Waking Life inhabits an indeterminate, even liminal, realm in which we cannot say what is animated and what is not.

Of course, it has frequently been stated that this is the usual status of digital images. Generally, though, it seems that this uncertainty is resolved too patly. Both Manovich and Cubitt seem to assert that because digital images are not necessarily indexical, all of (digital) cinema has become animation. As Waking Life asserts, perhaps paradoxically through the use of computer animation, lens-based indexical representations have not been so easily eclipsed.”

-Steve Reinke, The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema


~ by cineflyer on September 20, 2011.

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