This book review is a part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher’s Out of the Past blog. Click here for a list of the classic film books I am reading this summer and here for a list of the reviews from others written so far.
“Imagine studying a building not by walking its hallways or perusing its blueprints, but by examining each of its bricks”, Frank posits at the beginning of Frame by Frame (1). Frank suggests that animated film can, and should, be studied in a similar manner, investigating animated films as a set of thousands of individual drawings and paintings. She states that her aim is “to return cartoons to how they were made: one drawing at a time, one photograph at a time, one frame at a time. Through this mode of very close analysis, I provide an account of the aesthetics of an art formed on the assembly line” (2).
Frank delivers on her promise, applying her approach to numerous classic era animated American films from a wide range of studios including Warner Bros., Fleischer studios, UPA and Disney. Amongst the thousands of individuals frames, Frank finds numerous artifacts, both intentional and accidental, of the animation and photographic process. Frame by Frame is not just an advanced search for Easter eggs but an effective argument to promote the inclusion of animation as a legit part of film studies and study the contributions of below-the-line workers in the creation of classic cel animation.
Popeye’s leg defies logic and physics in Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep (1940)
For example, Frank cites a still from Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep (1940) that contains an uncolored and out of place tracing of Popeye’s leg. Only lasting for one frame, the leg was supposed to be covered by the tablecloth. Frank suggests that this tracing exists due to a miscommunication between the Inking and Paint departments. This single frame is evidence of the labor process and how specialized departments worked together (or forgot to) in order to create a finished cartoon.
Frank also uses these traces of human labor in individual frames to push back against many film historians and theorists that separate animation from photographic film. Much too often in film history and theory, animation is not considered to be a true cinematic medium because of the perception that animation doesn’t use the camera to record reality. These theorists argue that live-action film is recording our world while animation is creating a world separate from our own. Frank asserts that animation does indeed capture our world and should not be separated from live-action films, using the traces of the artists’ and laborer’s influence as evidence.
A hand caught by the camera in Jumping Beans (1922)
For instance, in the Fleischer cartoon Jumping Beans (1922) a human hand can be seen in an individual frame where it shouldn’t be. The presence of a camera operator’s hand on top of the cartoon image reminds the observer of the origin of the animated images onscreen. Whether the work of a single animator or thousands of a studio’s animators, inkers, painters, and camera operators, animated films like Jumping Beans contain traces of our world and its creators. Frank argues that these traces of an animated film’s creators in the finished film is proof that both live-action and animated fiction films, while creating fictitious or dramatized characters and situations, refer back to our own reality.
While Frank’s method of analysis produces interesting arguments that challenge basic concepts of animations, the book can be dense and thick in many areas. I found myself frequently re-reading sections of the book to understand the hardcore film theory Franks regularly uses. Published posthumously after Frank’s sudden and premature death in 2017, Frame by Frame is a slightly edited version of her doctorate thesis and is therefore written to an audience well informed in advanced film theory and animation history. The book contains a lengthy introduction written by film historian Tom Gunning that helps to contextualize Frank’s arguments and give the reader a better picture of the type of streamlined and more accessible book Frank was working towards editing and writing at the time of her death.
For anyone who wants to learn more about the process behind American Golden Age Animation and is willing to parse through large swaths of theoretical arguments and quotes, I highly recommend taking a look at Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons. You can find a free ebook copy through the University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program here.