Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Animating Technoscience: Imagination, Production, and Representation

Organizers

Michael J. Meindl

Radford University and Virginia Tech

Matthew Wisnioski

Virginia Tech

Chair

Hanna Rose Shell

University of Colorado Boulder

Metadata

Session Abstract

This joint HSS and SHOT panel investigates animation's role in the history of recent technoscience. We bring together historians of science, historians of technology, and media studies scholars to examine the development and uses of animation from the 1940s to the present. We aim to contribute to studies of representation in scientific research (Canales 2009, Daston and Galison 2007) and its communication to broader publics (Lafollete 2013, Gouyon 2014). We draw attention to the coproduction of media technologies, labor practices, and organizational change in spaces ranging from university research laboratories to Hollywood studios (Kirby 2011, Sito 2013). And, we demonstrate the many ways in which animation mediates between real and imagined worlds (Wells 1998; Telotte 2010). Colin Williamson explores the relationship between animation techniques and evolutionary theory in Disney's Fantasia. Alana Staiti reconstructs the interplay of external motion and internal emotion in the work of computer modeling practitioners in the 1980s. Michael J. Meindl and Matthew Wisnioski chronicle how, in the 1990s, science education reformers behind the popular television show The Magic School Bus utilized animation both to create new means of engaging students and to establish new government-corporate "synergies." Rebecca A. Perry documents how new digital techniques such as gaming engines in the 2000s sparked debates about the "democratization" of labor and production in the film industry. Taken together, these papers demonstrate how animation has mediated processes of imagination, production, and representation in modern technoscience.

Presenter 1

Animating Biology and the Biology of Animation: The Technoscience of Disney's Fantasia

Colin Williamson

Rutgers University - New Brunswick

Abstract

In 1940, Walt Disney released the animated musical Fantasia, a modernist experiment in demonstrating the aesthetic possibilities of music and painting in American animation. While the film is clearly oriented to the history of art, in this paper I make a case for locating Fantasia in the history of science. My focus is on the film's "Rite of Spring" sequence, which visualizes a natural history of the origins of life on earth. The sequence showcased Disney's state-of-the-art technological and scientific innovations in the field of animation production. It was also developed in collaboration with preeminent scientists like astronomer Edwin Hubble and biologist Julian Huxley among others, who gave Fantasia cachet as scientifically accurate and powerfully educational in its artful rendering of astronomical, geological, and biological phenomena. I begin by considering how the "Rite of Spring" was conceived in the mode of popular science filmmaking of the 1930s and then explore how the sequence does more than popularize contemporary scientific discourses. The historian Hannah Landecker has shown that early biological films about cells, which helped scientists develop theories of life in the 20s and 30s, also helped film theorists conceptualize motion pictures as having a kind of vitality: like living cells, still photographic images come to life on the screen. I use Landecker to make the case that Disney's animation of leading theories of evolutionary processes like abiogenesis-the emergence of organic life from non-living matter-allegorizes animation as the technoscience of creating life and movement from inanimate materials like drawings and paintings. In the process, I suggest that the "Rite of Spring" is not just an animated sequence about biology; it also visualizes something like a biology of animation.

Metadata

Presenter 2

Motion, Emotion, and the Human in the Computer: Motion Models and Computerized Bodily Form, 1971-1981

Alana Staiti

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Abstract

This paper reveals the influence of dance and traditional animation in digital computer animation, arguing that graphics practitioners needed a keen sense of not only how to visually convey motion and emotion, but also how to embed those properties in digital character animation. Building on histories of science and technology that analyze the cultural and epistemological implications of scientific modeling, visualization technologies, and the body (Brown 2005; Cartwright 2012; Myers 2015; Laemmli 2017), this paper explores the background work of computer-generated imagery before animation software entered the market around 1985. The entry point is by way of the human model and animator - sometimes one and the same person - in the development of digital computer animation at the University of Utah and NYIT in the 1970s and early 1980s. Graphics practitioners inscribed their own movements into figures by studying their motions in a mirror, a technique borrowed from traditional cel animation. They also recruited dancers and laypeople as motion reference models. The human model/animator labored amidst expensive hardware and tedious manual operations, while their movements were inscribed in algebraic transformations. More broadly, motion modeling contributed to the trope of the human-in-the-computer by the 1980s. As commentary weighed in on the promises and perils of computers and cyberspace, the trope of the human-in-the-computer embodied not just linguistic but also visual characteristics. The articulations of motion models and animators contributed to a visual culture of computing, lending liveliness and emotion to the moving computer image based on the mastery of traditional animation techniques and already-dominant understandings of aesthetically pleasing movement.

Metadata

Presenter 3

Take Chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!: The Magic School Bus and the Reanimation of Science Education in the 1990s

Michael J. Meindl

Radford University and Virginia Tech

Matthew Wisnioski

Virginia Tech

Abstract

In the mid-1990s, a crazy-haired teacher named Ms. Frizzle took America's children on field trips inside the human body and to the outer reaches of space. The Magic School Bus was a centerpiece experiment in a national effort to reinvigorate science education. The show's catchphrase, "Take Chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!" suggested new ways of getting children excited about science. In contrast to many live-action programs, the show used animation to help viewers experience science in action. Animation allowed the children to venture into otherwise unreachable environments and imagined worlds, making use of the affordances of animation scholars have pointed to (Wells 1998; Eisenstein 1986). Along the way, Ms. Frizzle encouraged kids to take risks, to fail, and to find patterns. Beyond its pedagogical innovations, The Magic School Bus was an experiment in how to pay for the nation's technoscientific future. The show resulted from a public-private "synergy" between the National Science Foundation; Scholastic, Inc.; PBS; Fox; Microsoft; and even McDonald's. The show combined science education expertise with "tie-ins" such as software and a traveling show. Though the show was only in production for four seasons, it had a lasting impact on science education in the United States, living on in syndication and a recent reboot. This paper uses The Magic School Bus to analyze science education reform in the late-20th century United States. We situate the show in the history of efforts to use television as an educational medium (Lafollette 2008 and 2013; Boon 2008; Reagan et al. 2008) and broader discussions of children and public science (Onion 2018).. We then document how NSF and its corporate partners produced the show and its networked activities. Finally, we explore the role of animation in the show's pedagogical, ideological, and economic goals. Ultimately, we argue that in content and in form, The Magic School Bus contributed to an emerging model of STEM education.

Metadata

Presenter 4

Virtual Film Production: Surfing the Database, Democratizing Technology?

Rebecca A. Perry

Space History, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

Abstract

As 21st century film and game-making practices push into virtual domains, the craft of representing motion, or creating the illusion of life, as early Disney animators described it, has given way to the art of capturing, synthesizing, and reordering data fragments. Virtual film production, a term that broadly describes a cluster of technologies rapidly evolving in the film and game industries, allows a director to build a virtual environment and film inside of it. Digital production tools have displaced the physical camera and its operator. Instead, virtual cameras in virtual spaces perform an activity positioned somewhere between scene capture and data mining. Core narrative elements like lenses, lighting, textures, objects and effects have become discretized, and redefined as bits and pieces in a database, to be reassembled and reordered to create the final film. Virtual production tools allow filmmakers to surf the database, shaping and reshaping a film while moving through virtual spaces. By 2009, filmmakers were beginning to embrace virtual production tools to generate real-time, high-quality simulations of cinematic spaces and events. In 2018 a visual effects supervisor, using a game controller to steer his camera through a virtual set, referred to, "democratizing the technology," while software makers spoke of putting the camera back into the hands of the director. Is virtual production a democratizing technology, and what does that imply? This paper looks at the origins of virtual production and explores its impact on authority, expertise and work in the film industry.

Metadata