Craft’s Critique: Artisanal Animation in the Digital Age, by Lilly Husbands

“[Craft] exists as a form of personal responsibility, unintimidated by institutions, corporations, or science.” Malcolm McCullough (1)

Like many words whose etymological evolution has undergone fluctuations in evaluative implication, the term ‘craft’ is a particularly polysemous one that carries a constellation of connotations within it. From useful objects to well-practiced skills to medievalist utopia to folk art to amateurism and kitschy trinkets to Etsy and the revival of the makers’ movement, the valuation and meaning of craft has evolved significantly since the 19th century and continues to be an important aspect of production culture. A verb as well as a noun, craft refers to both process and product, and perhaps most importantly, it emphasises the intimate connection between artist/maker, her labour and the artefact. In this way craft takes on a political significance; as Michele Krugh notes, it ‘has been linked—socially and politically—with unalienated personal labour, in contrast to impersonal industrial mass production.’ (2)

For animation, calling it a craft is to refer to it in part as an art form that requires an extraordinary level of skill and technical mastery, as well as its being in various ways made by hand. It also pertains to animation’s exceptional labour-intensiveness as a process of moving image art making. Indeed, discussing animation in terms of craft draws particular attention to its varying modes of production, highlighting a contrast between the quasi-Fordist industrial hierarchy of the animation studio and the comparatively ‘unalienated personal labour’ of the independent animator.

Animation’s “legacy of subversion”, as Eric Herhuth has put it, extends back to its earliest days, especially in the animated films of the modernist avant-garde.(3) However, as Herhuth states, “the industrialisation of hand-drawn animation, its integration into Hollywood, and its standardisation as children’s entertainment have in turn defused much of the medium’s association with subversion, disruption, and distortion.”(4)

Nevertheless, an implicit alliance can be seen to have continued across the 20th century between forms of experimental animation and the more political understanding of craft. And this alliance continues to this day. Often produced by individual artists working outside the mainstream, experimental animations maintain a close authorial connection between artist and artefact. They also persist in operating according to non-normative aesthetic, technical and representational paradigms. Indeed, experimental animations like those gathered together in the Animate OPEN: Parts & Labour exhibition critique institutional and corporate culture either explicitly in their content or implicitly by resisting the hegemonic aesthetics of commercial entertainment.

What’s more, the variety of materials and techniques used in these works is evidence of the heterogeneity of contemporary creative animation practice. Over the last several decades we have witnessed anxieties arise around the status of artisanal practices within post-industrial culture in response to the increasing proliferation of digital technologies. Some of these anxieties have taken the form of questions about software user agency in the context of computer automated processes and computer animation’s erasure of (the visibility of) labour.(5)

There is a (perhaps waning) point of view that some kinds of experimental animation are more ‘handmade’ and ‘craft-based’ than others, largely due to their relationship to materiality. For instance, Tess Takahashi has pointed out the intentional alignment of some avant-garde direct animation practitioners with artisanal practices that emphasise the physical connection between the artist’s body and the celluloid filmstrip as an active resistance to digital image production and culture.(6)

Nowadays, most experimental animations make use of digital technology at some stage of production or exhibition, and as more computer-generated experimental animations are made, a better articulation of the relationship between artist and the computer as medium is necessary. An increasing number of scholars and practitioners are calling for a more inclusive consideration of artists working in computer animation as ‘digital artisans’ whose mastery of visual software interfaces involves a direct relationship between the artist’s hands, mind and tools. This understanding is essential if we are to fully appreciate the political potential of the ongoing alliance between experimental animation and craft.

( ) Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand‬ (Boston: MIT Press, 1998), 246.
(2) Michele Krugh, ‘Joy in Labour: The Politicization of Craft from the Arts and Crafts Movement to Etsy’, Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 44, Number 2, Summer 2014, 293.
(3) Eric Herhuth, ‘Life, Love, and Programming: The Culture and Politics of WALL-E and Pixar Computer Animation’, Cinema Journal, 53(4), 2014, 53.
(4) Herhuth, 53.
(5) Vivian Sobchack, ‘Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being’, Screen 50: 4, Winter 2009, 384. Aylish Wood, ‘Behind the Scenes:
A Study of Autodesk Maya’, animation:
an interdisciplinary journal,
2014, Vol. 9(3) 317–332.

(6) Tess Takahashi, ‘Meticulously, Recklessly Worked Upon: Direct Animation, the Auratic and the Index’ in The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema, edited by Chris Gehman and Steve Reinke (Toronto: XYZ Books, 2005), 166-178.

Lilly Husbands has a PhD in Film Studies from King’s College London in 2014. Her research investigates contemporary North American and British experimental animation, with a focus on the varieties of aesthetic experience that such works invite and cultivate. She has published numerous articles on experimental animation in journals including Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ), Frames Cinema Journal, and Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media. She is an associate editor of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She is the recipient of the 2014 Norman McLaren - Evelyn Lambart Award for the Best Scholarly Article in Animation for The Meta-physics of Data: Philosophical Science in Semiconductor's Animated Videos, published in MIRAJ.