Feature Article

The Camera Is a Printer: Manufactured Horizon as Expanded Consciousness in Adam Beckett’s Dear Janice

Author: Ryan Pierson (University of Calgary)

  • The Camera Is a Printer: Manufactured Horizon as Expanded Consciousness in Adam Beckett’s Dear Janice

    Feature Article

    The Camera Is a Printer: Manufactured Horizon as Expanded Consciousness in Adam Beckett’s Dear Janice

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Pierson, R., (2023) “The Camera Is a Printer: Manufactured Horizon as Expanded Consciousness in Adam Beckett’s Dear Janice”, Film Criticism 47(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.4738

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Published on
31 Oct 2023
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CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Adam Beckett was born in 1950 to a white, upper-middle-class family and spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Southern California. In addition to his artistic talents (he drew and made prints), Beckett was an active participant in the late 1960s counterculture. He dropped acid at Big Sur; he traveled with the Hog Farm and its famous leader, Wavy Gravy; he protested, and was even arrested, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1970 he enrolled in the then-new experimental filmmaking program at the California School of the Arts where he studied, most notably, under Eugene Youngblood (who had a quasi-mystic vision of film’s future as “Expanded Cinema”) and Pat O’Neill (who was well-known for his own experiments with the optical printer).1

Although Beckett’s main ambitions were in hand-drawn animation (all the films he produced until his death in 1979 contain drawing), he incorporated the mysticism and esoteric technical knowledge at Cal Arts to a considerable degree—so much so that his films come off as a hybrid of postwar animation and the American avant-garde, albeit a West Coast avant-garde rather than the high modernist avant-garde of the East Coast. Beckett’s concerns as a filmmaker lie not only in moving and metamorphosing recognizable figures, but in manipulating the more abstract parameters of film (sound, color, light, and so on) to an extreme degree.2

One particularly interesting parameter that Beckett liked to manipulate—a parameter that has caused long-standing problems for animators—was camera movement. In 1972, at only 22 years old, Beckett produced his first mature work, a seventeen-minute animated film called Dear Janice. Similar to the way that Beckett’s work more generally brings together animation and avant-garde sensibilities, Dear Janice brings together animation-derived and live-action approaches to camera movement.

More specifically, Dear Janice contains two types of camera movement. One of them is proper to hand-drawn animation: the lateral movement of a camera across a surface. (This effect may also be achieved by moving the photographed surface under a stationary camera; partly for this reason, such camera movements are often called “camera movements,” in quotes.) With this kind of movement, Dear Janice’s camera glides along a sheet of paper, following figures as they move and change shape. (Figure 1.) These figures accumulate into a spiral that gradually fills the paper. This kind of camera movement is overtly two-dimensional. No effort is made to disguise the fact the that the “world” of these figures exists on a finite rectangle of wood pulp. Beckett’s drawing materials—colored pencils—even emphasize this, exhibiting a visible grain that calls attention to the paper as an opaque surface.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

After the film has filled the paper with its drawn figures—this takes about six minutes to do—we see there is a blank space left in the middle of the paper. This space gets filled, by way of optical printer work, with another camera movement. Not only is this movement shot in live action, but it enacts a kind of movement that has historically been the privilege of photographically based cinema: a headlong plunge into three-dimensional space (live-action footage of a handheld traversal through Val Verde, near Beckett’s home3), along the z-axis. (Figure 2.) In this zone of dry mountains, there is no opaque surface for a camera to glide across. Whatever surface grain there might be, in the photochemical grain of the film stock, is basically invisible. Depth cues, accentuated even further by the sped-up movement of the camera, create a strong parallax effect. The whole space moves. Strong lines of force, distorting the space, radiate outward from a central vanishing point. Portions of the space appear to accelerate as they get closer to the borders of the frame. Unlike the previous case of camera movement, it is almost impossible to see this impression as flat shapes undulating on a surface. We are effectively pulled into an impression of depth.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

These two kinds of camera movement do not go together. The first, it seems, indicates a space that cannot be penetrated. There is a kind of ontological divide between the camera and the world that it faces. By contrast, the second kind of camera movement, into the z-axis, indicates a space that can be penetrated with ease. There is no portion of the desert landscape that is beyond our reach, at least in principle. Every landmark can be walked around, every gap between landmarks is traversable. The whole space responds at once to the camera’s movement—in the changes of occluding edges of objects, in perspectival distortion, and so on.

One of Beckett’s central projects in Dear Janice is to make these two incommensurable movements make sense to each other. This essay will argue that Beckett achieves this synthesis of lateral and z-axis camera movements—and by implication a synthesis of hand-drawn and live-action notions of space—by blending together two ways of thinking about what a camera does. On the one hand, the camera works as a window on a scene, or an embodied eye embedded within a world; this is a kind of camera native to live-action film, and its properties have been extensively explored by phenomenological film theory.4 On the other hand, the camera can also be a kind of printer, making facsimiles of frames and making layers of an image; this notion of the camera has been made use of by graphic artists, including animators (as well as certain experimental filmmakers), but it has gone less noticed. Dear Janice weaves them together as different levels or scales of a contiguously shared world.

Beckett thus achieves an effect that seems impossible, even nonsensical: he makes his camera simultaneously an agent of movement, roving through a space, and an agent of synthesis or cognition.5 As this essay will demonstrate, this dual conception of the camera was representative of how the camera was being conceived at the time: namely, as a creative consciousness capable of remaking its own world, even as it nestled inside that world.

My argument will thus proceed in two parts. First, I will offer a detailed analysis of the two camera movements themselves and how Beckett fuses them together. Second, I will contextualize the notion of the camera as a printer within the history of animation practice, examining its political implications by the time Beckett was exploiting it in the early 1970s. Beckett’s camera was not only blending animation and live-action together, it was also enacting a politics of consciousness.

***

Dear Janice begins when a heart-shaped form floats into the fixed frame of a blank sheet of paper. After one second of screen time (twenty-four frames), the heart, creeping toward screen right, has formed a D; meanwhile, another heart, identical to the first, has crept into the frame. After another second of film, the D has morphed into an E; meanwhile, the second heart has morphed into a D, while a third heart has crept in. This pattern continues: the lead figure keeps morphing, first into the letters D-E-A-R-J-A-N-I-C-E and then into various other shapes (cubes, sex organs, a hairy blue line, an intestinal tube etc.), always leaving its previous iterations intact and morphing behind it. Only after these figures have sufficiently laid out a curlicue of occupied space does the camera begin to move, counter clockwise, over the sheet of paper. The camera zeroes in on the lead figure and tracks it along its path, sometimes overshooting it a bit, sometimes lagging behind it. The figure veers off out of frame, before the film begins a new shot.

Clip from Dear Janice

Figure 3

So far, nothing out-of-the-ordinary is happening, at least with regard to the camera. The lateral camera movement being executed here, called “refielding,” was standard in two-dimensional animation since the advent of the cel system in the 1920s; the camera operator simply moves the background, frame by frame, underneath a fixed rostrum camera.6 While refielding gives us a sense that there is more space out-of-field, our sense of depth in the image is limited and, compared to our everyday vision, confused. Namely, we never see different sides of the various features of the environment. As we move across the space, it is as if only one side of a house or a tree exists. (In cel animation, the kind of world often implied is one of sliding layers that are locked off from each other, layers that the camera can glide across but not travel around.) As a result, there is no impression that the camera can actually get inside the space or come between anything.

In sum, while refielding does activate our sense of offscreen space, it does not activate our sense of a horizon. As Jordan Schonig has argued, live-action camera movements, especially movements into the z-axis, lend themselves exceptionally well to phenomenological descriptions of a subject-in-a-world precisely because they contain horizons.7 In phenomenological parlance, the horizon is the anchoring point of the subject within the world. For Merleau-Ponty, our perception is always both embedded from a certain perspective (we can never see all sides of an object at once) and incomplete (we can never see to the end of our world).8 The horizon serves a dual function in this respect. First, it is a soft threshold beyond which vision is impossible, making clear that the world always exceeds our grasp of it. Second, it is a structuring principle of our perception—a boundary that always moves with respect to our own movements—guaranteeing that those parts of the world that we don’t see are nonetheless constructed in the same way as those parts of the world that we do see. This makes it possible, in the act of vision itself, to intuit the hidden sides of things, and to navigate through space more generally. Without a horizon, it is difficult for us to intuit a fully realized world. Refielding gives us less a sense of exploring a world than going across the wall of a very large room.

If we keep following the camera’s movement in Dear Janice, though, we find something far more potent than what we would expect from customary refielding. The camera follows a new evolving phrase (“May this note find you well”), noticeably just below the curlicue already traced out, as new figures are formed, growing the spiral ever-outward. The next few minutes of the film continue in this manner, tracing the movements of a lead figure across an increasingly-crowded space—after which, the paper has become so packed with activity it is effectively impossible to follow anything being newly-created. We know that the field of action is limited to the dimensions of a sheet of paper; but that field no longer seems finite. We get the sense that Beckett has begun making new figures out-of-field; some trails of evolving figures are now going clockwise; the camera itself starts going clockwise as well, adding to the overwhelm. Beckett’s space accrues the richness of a world. Yet this world seems to exist without a horizon (at least a literal one, one that we could point to in the frame). How is this richness achieved?

Beckett achieves this effect by executing a special variation of the walk cycle—the same variation that allows his figures to metamorphose through time, even while their actions are being repeated. In a standard animated walk cycle, a figure’s movement is drawn over a series of frames, such that the final frame may appear to precede the first frame. The movement of a figure can thus be looped by rephotographing the same drawings over and over. If a single twelve-frame cycle, filmed on two’s, is looped for five seconds, this saves 48 drawings.9 The same moving figure may even be copied in different parts of the frame to create more visual movement. (This technique, called a “cross-over,” was often done in early Silly Symphonies cartoons.10) Walk cycles also imply refielding, almost by necessity—if a character is moving, it presumably should be going somewhere.

By contrast, Beckett uses what he calls cyclical evolution.11 As in a standard walk cycle, Beckett repeats a limited number of frames in a loop. But on these frames, he draws actions that themselves do not loop from the final frame back to the first. Instead, he keeps drawing a continuous, unrepeatable action, as if carrying it over from a twelfth frame to a thirteenth frame (and so on)—but he draws the continuation on the first frame, where the action of the previous figure is already present. Effectively, a figure in one cycle becomes part of the “background” in a subsequent cycle, albeit a kind of background that is still moving and does not recede behind subsequent figures. Because Beckett is working on a single surface, and not stacking separate cels, new figures can only move into spaces that are not already occupied by existing figures. This means, in the first several cycles, new figures keep invading blank space on the page. And across later cycles, once the basic schema of the spiral is formed, new figures have to press into areas next to, around, and partially behind extant figures.

Clip from Dear Janice

Figure 4

Beckett compared his practice of cyclical evolution to “painting under the camera,” an older animation technique where the animator would modify a single image and take a photograph with every modification.12 These films, like Motion Painting No. 1 (Oskar Fischinger, 1947) and A Phantasy (Norman McLaren, 195213) give us the impression we are watching a single self-altering surface. Indeed, it is likely that Beckett has Motion Painting specifically in mind when he makes the reference. This is because, like Dear Janice (and unlike McLaren’s works), Motion Painting does not erase anything: it merely piles changes on top of changes. This gives us the impression we are watching not just a single surface but a single accumulating surface. (Figure 5.) By periodically adding swatches of paint to multiple plates of plexiglass, Fischinger creates a surface that can seemingly yield to infinite thickness. No matter how close we think the presently-accruing swatches of paint are in relation to the previously-accruing swatches of paint beneath them, it seems that there can always be more. In the film’s final few minutes, this impression takes on a vertiginous, overwhelming dimension. The shapes on the screen get larger and larger, and the applied swatches themselves get larger, eventually giving way to grand sweeps of color that seem to take over the frame from offscreen. (Figure 6.)

Figure 5.
Figure 5.
Figure 6.
Figure 6.

What’s striking about Fischinger’s film is that, even though there is no substantial impression of offscreen space (save for the sweeps at the end), there is an overriding impression of a field of vision with a hazy periphery, extending into the z-axis, beyond which there would be more to see if only we had a different vantage point. That is: within the boundaries of the frame, Fischinger effectively creates a horizon, and with it, the denseness of a world. It is a kind of geological tunnel-world, a subterranean space whose dimensions are felt not by any possible traversal through it (as there is no empty space here) but by the sheer increase of the pressure of matter. Fischinger’s film demonstrates that one doesn’t need a live-action camera movement into a z-axis in order to make a horizon. What’s required is not a literal or simulated distance from a lens that converges into a vanishing point, but something more general, something we might call thickness.14 If a world is underwritten by the promise of more world, then such a world may indeed be built up layer by layer.

This is exactly what Beckett accomplishes in Dear Janice with his use of cyclical evolution. By layering cycle upon cycle, Beckett creates the impression that the world of the film is constrained by the dimensions of a sheet of paper without being confined within them. There is yet more world that, so to speak, can happen. The camera’s lateral movement does not feel like standard refielding—which would have emphasized the parallel planes of camera movement and paper, and hence would have felt like one thing sliding along another thing. Instead, the very opacity of the paper reads as a thickness of possibility, from which more figures might emerge. As a result, the movement of the camera feels active and exploratory, even as the medium of strokes on paper is obvious and we never sense any possibility of the camera penetrating into the paper, moving past or around a shape, or any other activity we associate with exploring three-dimensional space.

This effect—phenomenological thickness in a lateral camera movement across a sheet of paper—would be noteworthy on its own; Beckett, though, goes further. Or, to be more precise, he goes in the opposite direction with the live-action camera movement later in the film. If, in the first part of the film, he uses cyclical evolution to imbue the typically-limited movement of refielding with the richness of a world (albeit an inhuman one), the second part of the film—when we see the live-action camera movement into three-dimensional space—performs a number of converse operations on the z-axis movement in order to exsanguinate it of any sense of openness or immersiveness. He undercranks the movement in the shot: this calls attention to its manipulability as an image, with the jittery qualities of the handheld variable framing tending to level out as aberrations of a more graphically pure homogeneous movement. Beckett also plays the shot through twice, once forward and once backward. Finally, and most importantly, the live-action footage is framed within the animated spiral; when this happens, the lines of force that radiate from the vanishing point of the image look less like features of a landscape we are traversing than like actual lines—not visible lines, but a kind of wire-frame scaffolding that underlies the visible phenomena in a centered, pictorial manner.

The manipulations added to Dear Janice’s z-axis movement do not go so far as to utterly rob it of a horizon—space and camera movement are still recognizable as such—but the live-action space lies embedded within, and subservient to, the spiral of hand-drawn figures around it. The effect is generated through Beckett’s use of an optical printer (a special-effects device that joins together separately-filmed elements into a single image) in order to stitch these two kinds of space together. With the optical printer, the live-action landscape effectively becomes another layer of activity behind the drawn spiral. The matte lines mediating the two, plainly visible, only add to this impression, and although the z-axis movement does not appear three-dimensional in the manner of an actively-explored empty space, it does feel like another component of the pervading non-anthropomorphic three-dimensionality, the thickness without distance, of the cyclical evolution. It is as if our own live-action world were enveloped by another one, a world with strange properties.

By the end of the film, this other world appears to be even more tangible than the live-action world. It is an impression underscored in the film’s final gesture, when the live-action camera movement at the center of the spiral disappears and is replaced with a smaller version of the same drawn spiral. With this gesture, the space of the screen has seemingly deepened even further. There appears to be more world in the spiral than there had been in the landscape.

***

By pressing one layer of space onto the same surface as another space—that is, by printing live-action footage and hand-drawn footage onto the same film emulsion—Beckett effectively embeds our live-action world within an animated world of his own creation. At the same time, as I noted earlier, his technique of cyclical evolution forces new figures to “press” themselves around existing ones when space on his paper becomes scarce. In a more conceptual sense, we can say that Beckett is uniting live-action and animation by applying a peculiar notion of the camera to both arenas: the notion of the camera as a printing press.

The notion that the photographic camera can be used to print surfaces (instead of capturing views of our three-dimensional world) has a long history—one that turns out to be especially relevant for animation and, later, for experimental film of the 1960s and 1970s. Most obviously, a camera may be used to reproduce a design from one surface onto another surface. This function allowed photography to revolutionize the graphic arts at roughly the same time motion pictures revolutionized photography. With the advent of photomechanical reproduction in the early 1890s, artists’ original works could circulate widely in magazines without the intervening hand of an engraver. For the first time, viewers could see an artist’s own brush- or pen-strokes without needing to see the original artwork. (This innovation gave rise to whole new styles of drawing—most famously, the Art Nouveau line of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.)15

We can see this notion of reproductive printing with the camera put to use in animation practice with walk cycles. By rephotographing the same set of frames over and over, the camera operator prints multiple iterations of the same drawing. More generally, the camera’s capacity for automatic reproduction was a crucial factor in making the studio cartoon economically viable, by limiting and dividing the labor of animation workers.16 In this regard, the camera as used in classical animation has more in common with the printer’s camera than with the cinematographer’s.

There is another capacity of the camera-as-printer that is relevant here: printing multiple images, or multiple components of an image, onto the same surface. This is precisely how color printing worked for centuries. In order to print a full-color image, each color is isolated into its own block (or similar vessel for ink). A single surface is then run under one color block, then another, then another. With multiple runs, or “passes,” the image becomes more saturated. As Mal Ahern has argued, the craft of color printing has been primarily a matter of layering: cleaving a desired image into a series of independent strata, and then adding those strata one by one to a blank surface.17

Such printing on the filmstrip, as a matter of layering the image through multiple passes, was the notion behind one branch of special visual effects. From the first decades of film history, filmmakers like Émile Cohl and Georges Méliès placed different takes onto the same strip of film by winding back the camera and shooting again. Portions of the frame would be blacked out and filled by a later take to create a single seamless composition, or multiple exposures would layer different takes on top of each other (as occurred when characters transformed). As the film industry became more standardized, this work was gradually offset to optical effects in post-production (which included dissolves, wipes, titles, and the like). More ambitious uses of “opticals” would come to include Linwood Dunn’s famous special effects unit at RKO (where, for example, Kane’s firing of Jed Leland in Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] was fused from two separate takes by an optical printer).18

This kind of layering bears an obvious similarity to cel animation. Indeed, techniques like walk cycles are more accurately described as utilizing both the reproductive and layering capacities of printing, since characters’ poses are laid atop the same moving background. And the cel system, like optical effects, synthesizes a whole space from a set of autonomous components.19 But it’s important to note that the sense of layers implied in cel space is very different from that implied in optical printing—and it’s the latter sense that Beckett is utilizing. Layers of cels are designed to move across each other; this is, of course, why the celluloid needs to be transparent. When these layers of cels move, the resulting impression tends to be of one layer sliding or gliding across the other, with a palpable gap between the two. (Thomas Lamarre calls this effect “animetism.”20) If the layers in a color-printed image are discernible, they nonetheless do not appear to slide as they do in cel space. While there may be a clear difference between color strata in a print, there is not exactly a sense of felt distance between them. Nothing could fit inside that gap; not even light. The colors appear separate in the manner of striations of Earth in a canyon, not in the manner of sheets on a table. A similar effect occurs when the seams of optical effects are visible, in the form of matte lines: spans of undeveloped film make up thick contour lines around the edge of a layer.21 The action on each plane appears to be compressed into its given stratum. The strata in turn appear compressed onto each other. Matte lines do not read as empty spaces, and layers can touch—but they can only touch as layers.

As I hope the preceding remarks have made clear, trying to capture the kind of depth implied in a printed image—a depth effectively bereft of inhabitable distance—leads to some strangely inhuman descriptions. (This proves appropriate for the strange sense of space Beckett achieves). Indeed, it is difficult to think about a printed image as bearing any depth at all. As Ahern argues, the goal in printing of perfect registration, of a seamless fit among layers into a whole image, has amounted to a fantasy of perfect flatness, of “infinite strata of visual information [that] accumulate weightlessly on a flat surface.”22

This fantasy of flatness is related to another important feature of the printed image: its tendency toward portability.23 Unlike the “window” paradigm of Renaissance painting or the live-action cinema screen, the printed image often connotes a bounded surface. Posters, greeting cards, magazine pages, album covers, and the like may all be framed and displayed vertically in a room, but they do not necessarily solicit such treatments, and they rarely suggest a world beyond and independent of whatever room in which they rest. More often, they exist as things among other things—resistant surfaces that may be moved—in that room. As such, their designs often stress not an embodied comportment within an inhabitable space (like, say, a John Constable painting), but legibility: an overtly artificial organization of information.24

To see what all this has to do with Beckett and Dear Janice we need to examine, for some historical comparison, an aesthetic of American animation that preceded Beckett’s generation: the aesthetic of the United Productions of America studio in the 1940s and 1950s. While animators had been thinking of the camera as a printer for decades, UPA was the first group to actively emulate, in a self-conscious way, the aesthetic of the printed image. This meant striving for similar effects of flatness and boundedness as magazine covers, record covers, and posters. As UPA co-founder Zachary Schwartz related: “Our camera is closer to a printing-press than to a motion-picture camera.”25

By this, Schwartz meant that the studio sought to eliminate the classic Disney conception of space. Such a space consisted of rounded forms moving freely on a kind of theatrical stage.26 This manner of space had resulted in a noticeable difference between foreground figures (with their hard outlines and unmodulated colors, painted in opaque cel paint) and background landscapes (with soft and faded colors and perspectival cues, often painted in watercolor).27 The UPA aesthetic, by contrast, sought to unite foreground and background as completely as possible.28 This entailed painting every plane with the same bold quality of color. It entailed a generous use of negative space. It entailed an assertive use of the lateral plane, with figures frequently walking in straight lines perfectly perpendicular to the camera. It entailed selective and ambiguous depth cues. A row of dancing jurors in Rooty Toot Toot (John Hubley, 1952), for example, is rendered as a column of bodies stacked along the y-axis of the screen in isometric perspective.

Most importantly for our purposes, this aesthetic entailed something like what mid-century special effects technicians called the “locked-down camera.”29 In a UPA cartoon, planes of action never move independently. As a result, magnification and refielding are achieved with ease; but we never get an impression that the camera can explore the space as space. Sometimes the camera will zoom in on an obliquely-angled landmark, as when Gerald ascends an impossibly-receding staircase (Figure 7). But when this happens, the angles of the drawing don’t change. Even as pictorial depth within the picture plane is asserted, camera-depth goes unacknowledged. The result is an impression of being pressed close to, and potentially onto, a plane which bears a depth of its own that nonetheless cannot be entered.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

UPA’s emulation of the printed image was also self-conscious in the sense that it contained a philosophy within it—a philosophy taken from graphic design. As Dan Bashara has argued, UPA’s explicit acknowledgment of the picture plane as an organizing force carried a political weight.30 The studio’s artists liberally borrowed from Bauhaus designer György Kepes’s seminal graphic design book from 1944, Language of Vision. Kepes argues that the chief purpose of the visual arts (especially the commercial graphic arts) is to educate the public in contemporary ways of seeing.31 In keeping with insights from the new sciences, the artist’s task, according to Kepes, is to discipline the public in seeing the world as a net of relationships and not a collection of things. Only once the public could see the invisible forces structuring the world would they be able to integrate themselves within it as a whole. As Kepes puts it: “Integration, planning, and form are the key words of all progressive efforts today; the goal is a new vital structure-order, a new form on a social plane, in which all present knowledge and technological possessions may function unhindered as a whole.”32 Kepes’s language of vision as a social force necessarily reduced the world to a two-dimensional picture. In order to lose “the deluded self-importance of absolute ‘individualism’ in favour of social relatedness and interdependence” (as S.I. Hayakawa puts it in his introductory essay to the book),33 citizens needed to see themselves as points organized on a plane. Thus the UPA studio used printer-space to assert the screen as a singular bounded surface for the impression of legible information.

In understanding Beckett’s work, then, it is important to take into account the role of printing not only in the process of animation (as illustrated with the walk cycle) but in the aesthetics and politics of mid-century animation (as instantiated in UPA’s bounded legibility of the screen as an organized surface, which roughly stands in for an organized society). But the role of printing would undergo yet another modification, thanks to the West Coast experimental animators of the 1960s and 1970s.

West Coast experimental animation made extensive and self-conscious use of printing—particularly with the optical printer. Experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill even taught optical printing at CalArts. (Beckett was a student of O’Neill’s for five terms there.34) But the terms by which West Coast experimental animators tended to explore the optical printer, and layering more generally, were very different from the organized flatness of the UPA image. Take the description by Gene Youngblood of O’Neill’s film 7362 (1967):

At first we aren’t certain whether these shapes are human or not, but the nonrhythmic motions and asymmetrical lines soon betray the presence of life within a lifeless universe. Human and machine interact with serial beauty, one form passing into another with delicate precision in a heavenly spectrum of pastel colors.35

Rather than cleanly-organized pictorial harmony, this description (and O’Neill’s film) suggests shapeless undulation, coagulating forms, a fusion of disparate elements in a wash of movement and metamorphosis.

Such a description comes surprisingly close to capturing Dear Janice as well (despite the face that O’Neill uses neither drawing nor camera movement), right down to the color palette. In addition, as the drawn figures in Dear Janice accumulate on the page in cyclical evolution, it becomes harder for the viewer to focus on any one thing. Our eyes, and with them our attention, begin to glaze over, roaming from pattern to pattern on a surface that comes ever more homogeneous. The camera traces a general path of teeming activity, yielding a sense of near-hypnosis.

As Pamela Taylor Turner notes, Beckett was “well-versed in the prophetic and timely vision of Gene Youngblood’s expanded cinema,”36 and we can see an effort towards using vision as a tool for expanding consciousness in the hypnotic quality of Dear Janice. The film seems purposely designed to approach the spectatorial goal that Youngblood sets for Expanded Cinema: an “oceanic consciousness as that in which we feel our individual existence lost in mystical union with the universe. Nothing could be more appropriate to contemporary existence, when for the first time man has left the boundaries of this globe.”37 In the process, Beckett’s camera, as both printer and explorer, becomes the creator or synthesizer of a world that the camera itself is immersed and mobilized within.

For Youngblood, the project of Expanded Cinema was, like that of postwar graphic design, ultimately political: to re-educate our senses in order to adapt more successfully to modernity’s expansions of the known world. As such, many of the mission statements on art found in Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema, the bible of this new movement, echo those found in Kepes’s Language of Vision: the need to visualize the world in terms of relations rather than things,38 the need to offer a direct experience of forces that cannot be seen,39 the need to imitate the world’s holism in art,40 and so on. Unlike postwar design culture, however, Expanded Cinema, and the countercultural politics that helped shape it, sought to define this re-education in constitutively unstructured and imprecise terms. A consciousness educated in expansion would merge the inner world with the world. Or, perhaps more to the point, as encapsulated in Buckminster Fuller’s suggestion in the introduction to Expanded Cinema, disparate inner worlds would merge with each other.41

***

In its goal of expanding consciousness by overwhelming our vision, Dear Janice can be placed in an even broader context of what historian of science Andrew Pickering calls (modifying Foucault) technologies of the self, or “material technologies for the production of altered states.”42 One such technology was the flicker effect, which could induce synaesthesia and seizures. Others included hallucinogenic drugs, the induction of trance states, and meditation, all of which produced states of consciousness in which the contours of the self were felt to become indistinct.43 Even the experience of staring at a body of water could instill, in miniature form, this sense of merging with the world.44

Paradoxically, though, this politics of vision tended to turn away from concrete social problems, toward an emphasis on individual experience as such. (Note that all of the states listed above are private and impossible to either strictly repeat or differentiate across separate instances or persons.) As cultural historian Fred Turner argues, the growing political consciousness of the 1960s can be divided into two camps, the New Left and the New Communalists. The New Left, inspired by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, sought change through familiar forms of democratic organization, such as registering voters and holding rallies. The New Communalists tended to view any kind of organization with suspicion and instead sought to enact a different kind of worldview, working, as it were, from the inside out.45 Beckett, who experimented with hallucinogens and meditation, visited a commune, and made light shows for the Hog Farm, was firmly in the camp of the New Communalists.46 Embracing the New Communalist “politics of consciousness,” as Turner argues, effectively entailed turning away from more concrete matters—racial and sexual equality, for example.47

If we step outside the milieu of Beckett and Expanded Cinema, we can find an implicit acknowledgment of the hermetic risks of this kind of inward-turning of counterculture politics. This acknowledgment is based on a vertiginous animated camera movement, one from, of all places, Ralph Bakshi’s notorious Coonskin (1974). In a key sequence, a racist and homophobic white cop has been lured into an empty warehouse. The cop is forcibly injected with heroin; then he is painted over with blackface, shoved into a dress filled out with twin watermelons, and has a woman’s wig placed on his head. This information comes to us only indirectly, from a black void into which the cop has been plunged following the heroin injection. What we see are changes that seem to come from nowhere in a space that has no coordinates and no axis. Extreme foreshortening indicates that a camera might be revolving around things, but those things disappear or fly off before any definite relations between them can be established.48 The cop is at the center of his world, but he is rendered absolutely passive to it, at the mercy of his own fantasies, doomed to encounter abject versions of himself. (Figure 8.)

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

This moment offers a kind of dark underside to the utopian possibilities of the inward-turning camera Beckett exploited, laying bare its risk of solipsism. Bakshi is utilizing strategies similar to those of West Coast Experimental Animation—suggesting a world that expands beyond the frame, creating an immersion into depth that goes well beyond the sliding planes of traditional cel animation (albeit a kind of depth that, unlike Beckett’s, is achieved through foreshortened drawings and negative space)—but with a far more socially concrete, and cynical, end in mind. If Beckett used the camera that creates its own world to explore as a utopian and cosmic camera-subject, Bakshi shows its inverse in the manner of a night terror: a consciousness that cannot touch an outside.

***

For anyone familiar with the past two decades’ worth of discourse around digital imagery, this “risk of solipsism” should ring familiar. D.N. Rodowick, writing of the roving perspective in video games, notes: “[P]erceptual immersion in virtual worlds amplifies a certain form of skepticism. Indeed, it produces a form of monadism in which there is no present other than mine, the one I occupy now; there is no presence other than myself.”49 More recently, Shane Denson has drawn on the ubiquity of “crazy” cameras (i.e., images that do not correspond to stable spatial relations and thus imply a nonsensical or “crazy” perspective) in order to argue that digitally-generated moving images have become “discorrelated” from human perception; the digital camera, according to Denson, no longer corresponds to a body within a world but to invisible algorithms generating effects.50 Mike Jones argues that the virtual camera of a digitally-rendered space, existing free of physical limitations, is essentially omnipotent—a quality often applied to animated figures, precisely because such figures are not bound by the laws of the physical world.51

Much as Julie Turnock argues that the “greater animatability of the cinematic image was already a priority well before digital imaging,”52 I wish to close by noting that, as a close examination of Beckett’s work makes clear, the philosophical and political problems implied in a camera that is simultaneously a creative and perceptual agent were being wrestled with—albeit in ways less visible by mainstream media culture—decades before the camera became algorithmic. In a talk given at the 1966 New York Film Festival, avant-garde critic Annette Michelson made a case for thinking of the camera in just such a way:

[T]he notion of the camera as an extension of the body or its nervous system seems to me highly questionable, and...ultimately, it violates the camera’s function. Certainly this way of thinking calls into question the instrument’s fundamental power as expressed in the metaphor of the camera as eye, a marvellously sensitive and flexible one to be sure, that supreme instrument of mediation which is also the “mind’s eye,” whose possibilities infinitely transcend the limitations of a crude automatism.53

Beckett’s camera made its own world; it also helped make our own.

Notes

  1. For biographical information on Beckett, see Pamela Taylor Turner, Infinite Animation: The Life and Work of Adam Beckett (New York: Routledge 2019). [^]
  2. While today we are inclined, somewhat flippantly, to think of any kind of in-frame manipulation as a brand of “animation,” there were significant differences in sensibility within postwar film culture between those who called themselves “animators” and those who called themselves “experimental filmmakers.” For more on this distinction, especially as it applies to the East Coast avant-garde and high modernist criticism, see my “Postwar Animation and Modernist Criticism: The Case of Annette Michelson,” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 62.3 (Winter 2023), 123–143. [^]
  3. Turner, 7. [^]
  4. See especially Vivian Sobchack, “Toward Inhabited Space: The Semiotic Structure of Camera Movement in the Cinema,” Semiotica 41.1–4 (1982), 317–335. [^]
  5. Impossible because, by common sense (and by phenomenological assumptions), space would need to exceed and preexist anything that might move through it; it should not make sense for an agent to be creating or putting together the very space it is moving within. [^]
  6. Donald Crafton, Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Building in Animation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 2013), 182. [^]
  7. Jordan Schonig, The Shape of Motion: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Movement (New York: Oxford University Press 2021), 102–103. [^]
  8. “It is of the essence of space to be always ‘already constituted,’ and we shall never come to understand it by withdrawing into a worldless perception.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York and London: Routledge Classics 2002), 293. Or: “[T]he condition of spatiality [is] the establishment of a subject in a setting, and finally his inherence in a world.” Merleau-Ponty, 327. It is through this impression that space is always already there before us and all around us that our impression of being in a world is secured. [^]
  9. Filming “on two’s,” a common practice in the studio era, involves photographing every drawing twice. This, again, was meant to save labor. Even Disney, known for its willingness to spend lavishly on movement, filmed much of its figures’ actions on two’s. Filming on one’s was often saved for especially slow or complicated actions. See Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Reality (New York: Hyperion 1981), 65. [^]
  10. Thomas and Johnston, 43. [^]
  11. See Robert Russett and Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), 11. [^]
  12. In Russett and Starr, Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology, 11. [^]
  13. McLaren is using pastels, and not paints, for this film, but the basic practice is the same. [^]
  14. Merleau-Ponty, 37. On the importance of the term “thickness,” see 237, 251, 309–310, and 321. Merleau-Ponty will also use the terms “density,” “obscurity,” and “atmosphere” to the same effect. See 26, 129, 191, 232. [^]
  15. See Gerry Beegan, “The Studio: Photomechanical Reproduction and the Changing Status of Design,” Design Issues 23.4 (Autumn 2007), 46–61. The paradox is that it is only by a new kind of labor, that of the camera-operator, that the “original” can be seen. Hannah Frank explores this paradox as it came to the Disney studio in the 1960s by way of Xerography in Frame by Frame (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 108–143. [^]
  16. See Alla Gadassik, “Assembling Movement: Scientific Motion Analysis and Studio Animation Practice,” Discourse 37.5 (2015), 269–297. [^]
  17. Mal Ahern, Factory Forms: Reproducing Images in the 1960s, Ph.D. dissertation (Yale University, 2019), 80–87. [^]
  18. See Julie A. Turnock, Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press 2015), 29–33. [^]
  19. And, as Julie Turnock has argued, many innovations in visual effects in the 1960s and 1970s arose from treating cinematic space in the manner of an animation stand. See Turnock, 43–48. [^]
  20. Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2009), 37–38. [^]
  21. Turnock, 41–42. Misregistration in optical printing, I want to stress, is one example of the problem of registration in printing more generally. See Ahern, 13–14. Both Turnock and Ahern note, for example, that perfect registration between layers is impossible, due to various contingencies of environment and equipment. [^]
  22. Ahern, 86. [^]
  23. Ahern, 83–84. See also Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press 1972) 84–91. [^]
  24. I have in mind here Steinberg’s insistence on the flatbed picture plane as a bearer of data, information, messages, and operational processes. This, he argues, is a fundamentally different orientation from the vertically-oriented picture plane of Renaissance painting. See “Other Criteria,” 84, and “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art,” in Other Criteria, 51. [^]
  25. Quoted in Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999), 512 and later in Frank, 112. For more on the overlap between UPA and the commercial arts, see Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation (San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2006). Although my scope in this chapter is limited to American animation, it is worth noting that the printing-press aesthetic of modern design had considerable reach in animation practices in other countries as well, particularly Poland. For a survey see John Halas and Roger Manvell, Design in Motion (New York: Hastings House 1962). [^]
  26. Barrier, 506. [^]
  27. Crafton, 157–158, 179. For an especially unforgiving criticism of this tendency see Sergei Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, trans. Herbert Marshall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987), 388–391. [^]
  28. Barrier, 507. [^]
  29. Turnock, 40–41. [^]
  30. Dan Bashara, Cartoon Vision: UPA Animation and Postwar Aesthetics (Oakland: University of California Press 2019), 12–15. [^]
  31. Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern, 8. [^]
  32. György Kepes, Language of Vision (Chicago: Paul Theobald and Company 1967 (1944), 12. [^]
  33. In Kepes, 10. [^]
  34. Turner, 73. [^]
  35. Youngblood, 100, quoted in Turnock, 53. [^]
  36. Turner, 2. [^]
  37. Youngblood, 92. [^]
  38. Youngblood, 82. [^]
  39. Youngblood, 97. [^]
  40. Youngblood, 101. [^]
  41. Buckminster Fuller, “Introduction,” 15–36. More specifically, Fuller imagines unborn fetuses all over the world communicating with each other. [^]
  42. Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2010), 77. [^]
  43. Pickering, 73–83. [^]
  44. Youngblood, 92. [^]
  45. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2006), 34–38. [^]
  46. See Turner, 34, 51, 32, and 38. [^]
  47. Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2013), 260. Turner notes in particular the tendency in communes to recreate conservative gender roles, as well as their tendency to gentrify the areas that they often shared with impoverished minority communities, in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, 76–77. [^]
  48. The lack of steady spatial referents in this sequence means that some viewers might be reluctant to call the sequence a camera movement. I concede the point in a letter-of-the-law kind of way, but I would also note that the extreme and disorienting spatial dynamism of the sequence is of the same kind that other immersive camera movements in animation at the time were engaged in—not only in Dear Janice and other works by Adam Beckett, but also in Caroline Leaf’s The Street (1976) and The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), Kathy Rose’s Mirror People (1974), and Maureen Selwood’s Odalisque (1980). [^]
  49. D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 171–172. Note this is different from the kind of skepticism Rodowick draws on Stanley Cavell to theorize regarding photographic film. [^]
  50. Shane Denson, Discorrelated Images (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020). [^]
  51. Mike Jones, “Vanishing Point: Spatial Composition and the Virtual Camera,” Animation 2.3 (2007), 225–243. [^]
  52. Turnock, 280, N9. [^]
  53. Annette Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” Film Culture 42 (Fall 1966), 41–42, original emphasis. [^]