CGI (Computer Generated Images) made their notable appearance in the 1970s with the development of science fiction films (reference). Indeed, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) studio created CGI for Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) in order to create a realistic intergalactic saga. In the 1980s and the 1990s, Pixar studios marked a turning point with Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), a watershed which proved computer animated films to be guaranteed financial success. Other studios within Hollywood are devoted to computer-animated features, such as Walt Disney Animation Studio or DreamWorks, which produced WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), the film which I will be focusing on. However, Hollywood is not the only source of computer-animated films: other filmmakers use CGI are for more experimental and abstract purposes, such as Yoichiro Kawaguchi or Marc Craste.
Since animation has established studios and auteurs, we can therefore consider it as a genre. Animation is therefore noteworthy to analyse for its formal and narrative characteristics. The main characteristic of classic animation would be giving movement to an inanimate lifeless object or hand-drawn images. However, CGI are more concretely computers generating images utilising algorithms. This questions the role of the human hand within the creative process. By being more computerized, is animation to be considered less artistic? Is CGI the epitome of spectacle, consumption and consumerism and escapism or a form of art allowing infinite possibilities? Moreover, I would argue that labelling computer-animated feature in general as a genre is too reductive. CGI, like motion picture are a media, a mode. Within this mode are several genres, each having distinctive formal and narrative features.
The way of apprehending animation has evolved through the 20th and 21st centuries with the appearance of CGI. Like in motion picture, animation was a fast succession of twenty-four frames (drawings or objects) per second. It has changed with CGI, where the “frame is no longer the determining factor in the measure of the advancement of this movement.” Indeed, the frame is no longer relevant as space and continuous flow. Scholars such as Leon Gurevitch make an analogy between the development of the perspective in the Renaissance and CGI as both revolutions regarding the relationship between the viewer and the representation. Perspective puts the human vision (thus the viewer) at the centre of the creative process. The difference with CGI is that the perspective is no longer calculated by humans but by automated algorithms. Moreover, these algorithms are capable to reproduce consistent spaces, objects and “camera” similar to the real world while allowing for “plasticity,” i.e. infinite possibilities which are only possible in animation.
To go back to Bazin, the perspective and continuous flow allowed by CGI offer a new richness within the image. Smaller objects seem more distant than bigger objects (see fig. 1) in this screen shot, the cockroach and the explosion have approximately the same size, it is their positioning within the image – the cockroach at the foreground and the explosion at the background – that make the perspective work. “the observers and their environment are complementary… visual perception operates only if the observer is free to move about, use both eyes and observe rich, changing scenes.”
Paradoxically, computer-animated movies are defined as a genre thanks to their form yet somehow denied of having real artistic expressivity because of their automated form.
Let us have a look at the first images of WALL-E. The film starts as typical Hollywood-style, with spatial images of the galaxy (fig. 2) (Spatial images are traditionally associated with CGI because they allow to create or reproduce a space that would be impossible or too expensive to film) and then the earth (fig. 3), which we “dive” into. The “camera”, or should I say viewpoint crosses the atmosphere to unravel this apocalyptical world. Not surprisingly, we dive into the North-American continent.
The music is highly nostalgic and coupled with images of a destroyed earth, covered in mountains of trash. (The film alternates between long shots of different angles, (bird’s eye view, lateral…) and fade-outs transition, expressing both nostalgia and the endlessness of the destruction (fig. 4 & 5).
CGI enables the immensity of this Dantesque vision, with a plethora of details: the dust, detritus etc… E. H. Blake notes the importance of details in CGI as essential to be believable “These levels of detail are simultaneously perceived as nested within one another, for example, grains of sand on beaches in bays along the coast and fine fuzz on the leaves of trees in forests. At every scale there are forms within forms.” Our eyes end up following a moving box, which is actually WALL-E. Within digital image, the eye is caught by the movement, just like in motion picture. We first follow WALL-E from a long shot (fig. 6) and then from an extreme close-up (fig. 7).
Like most Hollywood narrative, the attention is quickly driven onto the individual interacting with or against the outside world. WALL-E and the cockroach are the moving beings, which already puts in balance automation and biological movement. WALL-E emphasises the importance of human characteristics: communication, exchange, love, and uniqueness while being the fruit of, should I say “anti-uniqueness”, since it is a computer-animated movie. We are confronted a few times with images of “real” humans (non-digitalised characters) who look like us and who have disappeared. The images of Axiom shows non-digitalized humans (fig. 8) on a screen within a screen, creating a mise-en-abyme of ourselves.
These “real” humans have disappeared, and the digitalized ones are all identical, obese, manipulated, impotent beings. Therefore, we end up identifying more with Wall-E than with the humans. The narrative structure is faithful to Hollywood structure and continuity: introduction, disruption, resolution and a heterosexual couple manages to save humanity. Yet this “heterosexual” couple is that of robots. WALL-E underlines the importance and omnipresence of anthropomorphism, even with CGI. Indeed, the audience identifies with the robots because his “human” features: big eyes, need for romance etc… WALL-E is also sympathetic because of his imperfection; his rustiness and bricolage-like appearance makes him stand out from the other polished and cold robots from Axiom, which are definitely non-human. The message is paradoxical: the robots threaten and manipulate humanity, yet robots (Wall-E and Eve) save the latter.
Vivian Sobchack points out the tension between animation and automation.  “Automation” means that the work is achieved by a robot instead of a human (in WALL-E, robots have replaced humans in so many aspects of life so much so that they are incapable of doing anything by themselves). It is not the human hand who animates the image, but the computer itself. Thus, it is a mechanisation of representation. This recalls the Bazin’s indexicality of the photographic image. Contrary to the painting which used the only means of representation, the photography is the index of the world, since the link between the photo and what it represents is a mechanical device. Are CGI a step back to iconic representation, since, instead of reproducing the world, it creates a world? Is it the end of a “human” art as we know it? Perhaps it is an iconic indexicality, since CGI are based on “real” elements (e.g. the use of motion sensors). WALL-E expresses the contemporary human anxiety regarding the mechanisation of everyday-life and art: “‘in between’ future and past, gain and loss, promise and nostalgia, animate and inanimate – and, of course, life and death.” Thus, one of the characteristic of contemporary Hollywood animated movies could be the expression through both the narrative and the form of the transitional nature and uncertainty regarding the development of technology and our own agency.
As said earlier, computer animated films have a secondary status within film scholarship, perhaps because their form obliterates the authors. Indeed, who, apart from insiders, remembers the names of the animation film directors? As often for film associated or made with special effects, they can belong to “high concept film,” i.e. simple pitch, advertisement mise-en-scène, merchandising, product placement etc… This goes back to cinema of attraction, as film as both and advert and a product of consumerism, where “viewers no longer engage with rounded characters and a story arc but instead relish the interplay of different elements and the style of the film.” Gurevitch discusses the correlation viewer/consumer as the mass-produced animation echoes mass-consumption: “Pixar animated features mainline the viewer onto the processes of industrial fabrication and consumption simply through the act of spectatorship.” This due to the merchandising of Pixar characters, or vice-versa the creation of a character from an already existing object, “When engineers construct an object on their computer for mass industrial production, the visual object they work with is not simply an image of a product, it is a product.”  WALL-E is once again self-reflexive on conformism and consumerism. The irony is that WALL-E denounces consumerism yet it is a product of consumerism itself, as a mass-attraction film and derived products (e.g. WALL-E toys).
Can we still find art within CGI? As mentioned earlier, they allow infinite possibilities and creativity. As Wells argues, “animation is still the art of the impossible, (…) animation remains the most versatile and autonomous form of artistic expression.” I would argue that animation and CGI is expressive itself since it still requires designers to create a world and a narrative structure. “‘technology’ and its innovations are no longer sufficient in evaluating the progress of the form, and it is once more the traditional skills in innovative storytelling, persuasive character animation and inventive visual spectacle that will determine the next classic in the field.” Genres are groups classified according to textual characteristics (form, content, style…); film industry practices and marketing, audiences expectations and responses. Hollywood animated features, regardless the studio look formally very similar; the distinctiveness of these films rely thus more on their narrative genre: Sci-Fi, comedy, fairy-tale etc. Sci-fi is “a genre characterised by stories including conflicts between science and technology, human nature, and social organisation in futuristic and fantastical worlds created in cinema through distinctive iconographies, images and sounds, often produced by means of special effects technologies.” Wells quotes Walt Disney: “The first duty of the cartoon is not to duplicate real action or things as they usually happen – but to give a caricature of life and action… to bring to life dream fantasies and imaginative fantasies that we all have thought of based on a foundation of fact.” However, I would argue that WALL-E is not only a fantasy. Humans’ destructive power against their environment and themselves because of consumerism – as illustrated in the film by the ravaged Earth and the obese humans incapable of moving – touches upon the loss of power and agency. On Axiom, humans are shown as hypnotised and absorbed by the images projected in front of them instead of looking at what is going on around them. It is again a mise-en-abyme of the spectatorship, where we watch a screen representing people mesmerized by screens.
In Kawaguchi’s short films (e.g. Embryo (1992), Cylcoton (2002), we see shapes and textures and colours changing and evolving according to music. CGI becomes an artistic abstract expression, like a moving abstract painting. On a less abstract, Marc Craste’s Jo Jo in the Stars (2004) recreates German Expressionism and Universal horror films style of the 1930s, thanks to perspective and shadows (fig. 9).
In this bleak world, everybody (the characters are indefinite creatures) goes to watch Jo Jo, a winged-trapezist owned by Madame Pica. The film questions the ethics of spectatorship, by showing countless identical beings watching Jo Jo, a captive being constantly stared at (fig. 10). The hero, one the spectator, steals the key of Jo Jo’s prison to see her. They fall in love; their feelings are expressed by them floating in the stars (fig. 11), but it is just their fantasy; animation allows this plasticity.
However, they are surprised by Madame Pica and her henchmen. Both decide to jump out of the window, Jo Jo survives because of her wings but the hero falls in the void. Ten years later, Madame Pica recruits another misfit for her show, who is horribly disfigured and mutilated. It is actually the hero, who will find Jo Jo again. The film ends on them embracing through the bars, then floating in the stars. This example illustrates how animation can use anterior sources of stylistic inspirations while having a narrative. The “unrealness” of the animation helps conveying the symbols more forwardly, as John Halas lists animation’s key characteristics: “symbolisation of objects and human beings, picturing the invisible, selection, exaggeration and transformation…”
To conclude, one might say that animation is a new media, which distinctive feature is first and foremost in its form, as CGI. This media represents a large scope within which different genres and approaches exist. Studios related to Hollywood produce Hollywood-like narrative structures with similar designs. However, WALL-E proves that computer animated features are not merely escapist but can be capable of self-reflexivity. CGI allow a great versatility of effects and therefore can be expressionist, such as in Jo Jo in the Stars. Once again, it is how CGI are used which creates or not an artistic piece of work.
Blake, E. H. “The Natural Flow of Perspective: Reformulating Perspective Projection for Computer Animation”. In Leonardo 23, no. 4 (1990): 401-9.
Gurevitch, Leon. “Computer Generated Animation as Product Design Engineered Culture, or Buzz Lightyear to the Sales Floor, to the Checkout and Beyond!” In Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7, no. 2 (July 2012): 131-149.
Manovich, Lev. “ ‘Real’ Wars: Esthetics and Professionalism in Computer Animation”. Design Issues 8, no. 1 (1991): 18-25.
Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, edited by Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Animation and Automation, or, the Incredible Effortfulness of Being.” In Screen 50, no. 4 (2009): 375-391.
Wells, Paul. “The Language of Animation.” In Introduction to Film Studies, edited by Jill Nelmes, 230-58. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.
Bird, Brad. The Incredibles, 2004.
Craste, Marc. Jo Jo in the Stars, 2004.
Kawaguchi, Yoichiro. Embryo, 1992. Cylcodon, 2002.
Stanton, Andrew. WALL-E, 2008.
Jo Jo in the Stars
 Paul Wells, “The Language of Animation,” in Introduction to Film Studies, ed. Jill Nelmes, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 231.
 Leon Gurevitch, “Computer Generated Animation as Product Design Engineered Culture, or Buzz Lightyear to the Sales Floor, to the Checkout and Beyond!,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7, no. 2 (July 2012): 133.
 Gurevitch, 134.
 Blake, 403.
 E. H. Blake, “The Natural Flow of Perspective: Reformulating Perspective Projection for Computer Animation,” in Leonardo 23, no. 4 (1990): 403.
 Vivian Sobchack, “Animation and Automation, or, the Incredible Effortfulness of Being,” in Screen 50, no. 4 (2009): 375.
 Sobchack, 378.
 Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, s.v. “high concept.”
 Gurevitch, 137.
 Gurevitch, 140.
 Wells, 231.
 Wells, 254.
 Wells, 232.
 John Halas, quoted in Wells, 232.