Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons by Hannah Frank
Volume 7, Cycle 2
© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press
One cannot review Hannah Frank’s Frame by Frame without observing that it is a book marked by tragedy, specifically its author’s passing in 2017. That might have meant the end of the present volume—a lightly edited revision of Frank’s dissertation—had it not been for a few prominent advocates who saw it through to publication, even as they cautioned that, without much opportunity for revision, readers should consider Frame by Frame a work in progress. In his editor’s introduction, Daniel Morgan explains that the book “is basically the dissertation that Frank defended in August 2016,” and “not the book that she would have published,” as Frank had already begun planning extensive changes to the manuscript that she did not live to complete (xxii). Despite this warning, Frame by Frame is not a work for which a reader’s expectations must be tempered. In fact, Frank’s is a remarkably polished account of the material conditions underlying the Golden Age of American cel animation, focusing on Hollywood shorts produced by Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Paramount from the 1920s to the 1960s and propelled by an incisive critical acumen that blends formalist, historicist, and ideological approaches with apparent ease. Her book is by turns provocative and careful, and offers nothing less than a wholesale reconceptualization of how animated cartoons might be understood not for the illusions of motion they create but as products of the uncredited artistic laborers, mostly women, who created them, and thereby shaped one of the twentieth century’s most prominent popular art forms in ways that have gone largely unrecognized.
Frank begins with an elaboration of her method, an ambitious approach that examines animated films frame by frame, poring over individual cels rather than analyzing the continuous, projected sequence that gives a cartoon its final form. As such, she challenges established practices for viewing any film by lingering on seemingly trivial material details, cataloging obvious errors like blurred characters and missing limbs to more intentional time-saving practices like reused cels and Xeroxed lines. This minutiae, Frank argues, is significant in that it represents the handiwork of the anonymous laborers who made animation happen, their work as inkers, painters, and photographers being essential to the production of animated films yet never deemed essential enough for them to receive artists’ credit; by making them the focus of her study, Frank illuminates the otherwise unseen moments of contingency, accident, and even boredom that, despite their apparent inconsequentiality, reveal the material realities of film production within an industry built on unequal divisions of labor. “By arresting the animation of animation,” she explains, “I aim to return cartoons to how they were made: one drawing at a time, one photograph at a time, one frame at a time” (2). Her focus is thus “on the incidental and the accidental, the qualities of the image that resist being understood as the product of creative intention: the textures of a graphic mark, the patterns of paint splatter, jarring collages, swirling specks of dust” (6). What Frank locates in these moments of chance is, paradoxically, evidence of individual agency that emerges within a form whose communal nature makes it impossible to gauge just who those individuals were or to understand their efforts as artistic in their intention. In other words, by looking at an animated cartoon frame by frame, we see evidence of the individual within the collective, the labor within the art, in a manner that frustrates efforts to separate them.
Frank’s examples are compelling and carefully chosen, and each chapter follows a consistent mode of looking at cel animation frame by frame that productively leads to different, though related, conclusions. Her first chapter, for instance, theorizes the animated film as a sequence of documents that functions like montage, and brings together examples as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Winsor McCay, Robert Breer, and Woody Woodpecker alongside an extended account of fictional newspaper headlines, inserted into multiple animated films. As Frank explains, these newspapers offered a way for animators to provide exposition quickly while also nodding to celluloid animation’s similarity to microfilm, another ephemeral medium made possible “through the labor-intensive process of photographing single-page documents one at a time” (37). Chapter two proceeds to an analysis of cel animation as a form of photography by challenging André Bazin’s influential account of cinema, photography, and realism, demonstrating how cartoons, through the mistakes present in individual cels, “give heft to the reality of the world both inside and outside the film,” making the animated film an index of reality despite its apparent surrealism when one sees those frames projected in sequence (52).
Frank’s later chapters are equally instructive, situating the most significant aesthetic practices of the period within a concise labor history of the industry. Chapter three centers on the figures of the “in-betweener,” or the animator who fills the gaps between a character’s main positions by creating several successive, barely different images of that character to move it from one pose to the next, and those in the ink and paint departments who produced the individual cels to be photographed in numbered sequence. Here Frank examines the various moments of abstraction created through this process alongside the labor strikes in which workers fought the conditions that made their labor anonymous, routinized, and unsustainable. The achievement of this chapter lies not just in its interpretive bravura regarding individual cels, but also in its careful parsing of collective labor as a concept. The women who largely staffed studios’ ink and paint departments, Frank contends, “are the heirs not only to the women who painted lantern slides, picture postcards, and ceramics and who hand-colored and stenciled early motion pictures, but also to women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the cotton mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts” (88). Thus, we should remain skeptical of any “valorization of collective art as such,” since “it defers the question of authorship” while simultaneously suggesting that these women’s work “is only of aesthetic interest if it can be understood as nascent artistic practice” (88). Finally, chapter four explores the emergent practice of xerography for animation production and aesthetics, using Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) as a case study in how a technical innovation designed to streamline the work of making cartoons—and, in so doing, to downsize the industry’s workforce—brought with it expected and unexpected effects, from the reconceiving of the concept of the artist’s line to the questioning of what it might mean for a creative industry when technological reproduction removes the individual hand from so much of its output.
The temptation when reviewing a posthumously published book like Frame by Frame is to lament how much more its author might have contributed to their field, how many promising projects will now have to be written by others, if they are written at all. That impulse is understandable, since Frank’s book is, by any measure, excellent. At the same time, one of the most consistent impressions I had as I read Frame by Frame was the sense that I would have benefited immensely from having Frank as a teacher. The perspicacity of her descriptions, her wholly unexpected but absolutely convincing juxtapositions: these are the marks of a wonderful guide, and her book teems with moments of clarifying insight that push the reader to look at animation with fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm. Tom Gunning, in his foreword to Frame by Frame, praises Frank for “renew[ing] for us the joy of looking at cartoons” (xvi), and Daniel Morgan describes her writing as evincing “the ability to transform our understanding, even our basic perception, of artworks with which we believe ourselves already intimate” (xxi). As her former student Jen Bircher puts it in a tribute to Frank published in 2018, “[s]he was our antidote for complacency.” I wish we had more of Frank’s writing, to be sure, but I equally wish we had more of her teaching. We should all hope to be as effective in communicating the joy of our subjects and the transformative potential of our critique. “We work at watching animation in order that we might play,” Frank writes in the conclusion to Frame by Frame, and it is this statement, at once a description and an imperative, that epitomizes the pleasure, promise, and uniqueness of her approach (155).
 Mihaela Mihailova, et al., “Teaching (Like) Hannah Frank (1984–2017): A Tribute,” The Moving Image 18.1 (Spring 2018): 85.