Monday, January 8, 2007


20th Century Visual Culture

Modernism & Post Modernism


Animation From The Last 50 Years Has Often Been Discussed In Relation To Its Fusion Of High Art And Popular Culture ‑ As Well As Its Use Of Appropriation, Pastiche And Parody, Its Ambivalence To New Technology And Mass Media And Its Avoidance Of The Narrative 'Closure'. Argue That These Characteristics of Post modernity can be applied To Three (3) Animated Titles. (Use Examples from Commercial/ Independent And / Or Web ­based Forms and Pop‑Video Clips)

Animation from the last 50 years has often been discussed in relation to its fusion of high art and popular culture, appropriation, pastiche and parody, its ambivalence to new technology and mass media and its avoidance of the narrative 'closure'.

This paper will argue that these characteristics of post modernity can be applied to the three following animated titles; The Maxx, Shrek, and Fantasia 2000. Firstly, this paper will identify characteristics of the fusion of high art and popular, as in Fantasia 2000, with its combination of Disney cartoons with classical music. Secondly, this paper will show that there is use of parody, pastiche and appropriation, as in Shrek’s irreverent treatment of the fairy tale genre and, thirdly that there is an ambivalence to new technologies and the mass media, and an avoidance of the narrative closure, as in the animated adaptation of Sam Keith’s psycho-analytical comic book, The Maxx.

Post Modernity is itself a slippery concept and there is not one undisputed description of this contemporary cultural phenomenon. It can be said that an artifact or activity is post modern if it exhibits a number of the traits that are generally associated with postmodernism (Batorowicz B. 2003). It is apparent that post modern characteristics are being identified and applied to animation discourse when we consider a statement by Lindvall and Melton;

“Animated film serves as a site for exploring certain aspects of postmodernism, particularly the realms of double-coding, intertextuality, and carnival comedy. It’s use of pastiche and parody, of extended quotation, and of multiple perspectives – of heteroglossia within one small discourse – situate it as a prime property for post modern analysis.”

It can be viewed that animation is an area that is being understood and discussed in a post modern context and we can also further identify some of the significant characteristics of post modernity.

In looking into one characteristic of post modernism, that being the fusion of high art and popular culture, it must be understood that animation has generally been considered a low art form of popular culture entertainment. It is associated with cartoons, comics and the mass marketing and merchandising of trade marked characters and properties. Recently there has been a revival in interest and academic study of the medium and there is a movement to acknowledge certain key animation artists and the art in general at higher level in the continuum of high and low art. (Wells 2002)

Although Shrek, The Maxx, and Fantasia 2000 can be considered as popular culture artifacts given there production within the entertainment industry, there is a significant fusion of high art ideals, concerns, and references into the production process that both informs and affects the final product or outcome. This fusion of high art sensibilities and concerns within popular culture context is seen to be a significant characteristic of the postmodernism era (Benshoff H.1992).

The basis of Disney’s Fantasia 2000, which is the sequel to the original Fantasia of 1940, is the combination of classical music with a variety of figurative and experimental animated segments. Although “this mixing of high and popular cultures doesn’t raise the eyebrows that it did in 1940” (Turan K. 1999), it is nonetheless important to note as it further indicates the continued shifting of sensibilities towards a more post modern discourse.

In Shrek the 3D animated blockbuster film about “a grumpy, slime-loving, bug eating ogre” (Fordham J. 2002) there is a significant fusion of high art ideals, concerns, and references. “DreamWorks upside down fairy tale” (Kaufmann D. 2001) references the impressionist color palettes of illustrators N.C. Wyeth (Fig 1), and Grant Wood. In impressionist paintings such as Monet’s, ’Wheat stacks’ (Fig. 2) the colors are pushed and combined to create an imagined reality of heightened chroma. To achieve the “other worldly’ fairy tale look in Shrek, DreamWorks developed complex 3D rendering programs to add a cooler chromatic spectrum to shadows and a warmer spectrum to the light and to minimize the use of black (Fordham J. 2002). This use of a sophisticated impressionistic colour palette in a popular culture animated feature film can be considered a fusion of high and low.

There are visual references in the design of Prince Farquaad’s fascist theme park castle, ‘Duloc’, that are sourced from “the pre-world war II architecture of Albert Speer, the architect for Hitler” (Joe Fordham 2002). Albert Speer’s impressive architectural monuments to fascism are considered to rest in the culture of the high arts.

Also, a significant high visual art and scientific concern is about creating a spatially realistic pictorial image within a flat two dimensional format, i.e.; a canvas or a screen (Manovich L.1997). Manovich sees this concern to be ancestrally related to the significant moment in the history of high western art when Giotto achieved for the first time the effect of being able to produce 3D form on a two dimensional canvas. This was the significant moment when the practice of visual art changed from symbolic 2D medieval imagery to the 3D perspective awareness and ability of the renaissance painters (Manovich L.1997). Perspective and form is achieved in 3D computer generated imagery by the use of recognizable ‘depth cues’ that correspond to the human visual experience of how we see and understand the real world (Moszkowicz J.2002). The visual depth cues that are used in computer generated imagery today can be seen to be the distant visual legacy of Giotto and the painters of the renaissance period that pioneered the language of perspective, form and realistic pictorial representation. This relationship between the high art and science concerns of creating spatially realistic images within a popular culture animated film can be understood within the framework of post modernity.

Parody, Pastiche and appropriation are considered characteristics of post modernity (Batorowicz B. 2003), and there are significant elements of each in each of the three animated titles.

Fantasia 2000 contains a variety of segments, rather, a pastiche of various Disney animation styles which have been used in previous projects. It has appropriated an entire segment from the first Fantasia of 1940 and there are strong areas of parody within the film. One of the strongest parodies is the segment with pink flamingos and a yo-yo which can be seen as a parody of the ballet (Fig. 3). This segment is set to the fragment of the classical music of ‘Saint Saines’, “carnival of animals” (Turan, K. 1999)

In Shrek, the blockbuster 3D animated feature film, there are numerous characteristics of post modernity. It is an irreverent parody and pastiche of the entire western fairytale genre, appropriated and translated from the children’s book by the same name written by William Steig (Kaufman D. 2001)(Fig. 4). In the movie Shrek, DreamWorks takes well known fairy tale characters and recontextualizes them, putting them all in one new story. Their primary and independent roles are subjugated and they become secondary characters to a new anti hero, the ogre, Shrek (Fig.5).

DreamWorks draws on a number of fairy tales to populate its story and the use of such material could be seen as pastiche, yet the use of this material extends into the realm of parody. The Fairy tale stories used include - The Ginger Bread Man, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, Little Red Riding Hood, Three Blind Mice, and The Pied Piper. It also uses the classic fairy tale element of the prince’s quest to the castle protected by a fire breathing dragon to rescue the princess.

In Shrek there are references to popular entertainment such as the movies Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Gladiator and Star Wars and, there are also parodies of popular television wrestling, ice hockey and a television game show presentation (Adamson A. 2001)

Often a scene or sequence parodies more than one source, in the scene where Fiona fights Robin Hood and his merry men there are humorous references and parodies. These include a contemporary post modern treatment of Robin Hood and his merry men re contextualizing them into musical number that parodies the dance production ‘River Dance’ (Adamson A. 2001) There is a further parody in the usage of the effect called ‘bullet time’ popularized by the movie Matrix in the sequence where Fiona is fighting Robin Hood and his merry men;

“In a parody of the ‘bullet-time’ effect from the Matrix, Fiona freezes in midair as the camera rotates around her during a fight with Robin Hood’s merry men.”

(Fordham J. 2002)

MTV’s, The Maxx is a comic book adaptation of the first 11 issues of Sam Kieth’s cult comic book by the same name (published by Image Comics). The Maxx is complex multi layered story that rests firmly in the soil of psycho analysis (Smith G. 1999). The Maxx parodies the genre of the super hero giving us a large muscle bound super-hero-looking man in a purple suit and mask who lives in two different dimensional worlds. One world is the city and he is homeless, lives in a box and is under the care of a social worker named Julie. In the other world, which is a fantastic variation of the Australian outback, he is the jungle king and mighty protector of the leopard queen. The Maxx is often confused and personally out of control. This is a parody of the hero archetype of intelligence, strength and power (Smith G. 1999).

There is also a self-reflexive parody of cartoons within the film where the Maxx enters into a dream of him as a Saturday morning cartoon character. His character modeling becomes simpler and all dialogue has elements of rhyme.

It becomes evident that we can discuss each of these animated titles in regards to the post modern characteristics of parody, pastiche and appropriation as they are significant elements within the films.

Ambivalence to new technology and mass media, and an avoidance of the narrative 'closure' are post modern characteristics (Batorowicz B. 2003) which directly relate to the three animated titles in discussion.

Fantasia 2000 is a mixture of different animation styles but there maintains ambivalence to new technologies, in that there is a number of hand drawn two dimensional sections within the film. “Mickey’s misadventures with water and a broom still have the kind of magic that modern technology can’t always manage”. (Turan K. 1999). This statement suggests that there is ambivalence to new technologies within at least a few sections of the film.

Fantasia was originally intended as an ongoing project that would have new segments continually added to it. This denies it the authority of a singular traditional narrative and although some elements may constitute a complete storyline or narrative, seen altogether it must be considered in its patchwork and segmented nature.

Ambivalence to new technology and mass media can reveal itself in a number of ways. In Shrek it primarily reveals itself through the use of traditional live action filmic considerations. The inclusion of “camera” moves and angles specific to live action film making, like dollying, panning, film focus techniques and the addition of lens flare effects become an aesthetic choice rather than an actual necessity (Fordman J 2001). Fordman propounds that these are incorporated as if to inform the viewer that this is indeed a live action movie. Given that in the production of 3D animation there is no actual physical camera there is an ability to create any viewing angle or sequence that could be imagined. This effectively renders obsolete the ‘need’ to consider camera based filmic devices (Fordman J. 2001).

The Maxx stands out in its ambivalence to new technologies and in it’s avoidance of the traditional narrative closure. The Maxx as a comic book adaptation has retained significant elements and aspects of the comic book format (Fig. 6). The Maxx uses, to a large degree, radical framing techniques to communicate its comic book origin. The picture frame often changes from the standard film dimension and incorporates long tall frames, frames that are cropped, either horizontally and or vertically, and other framing devices such as frames within frames, and decorated frames indicating changes of scenes. There is also a significant ambivalence to new technologies in that often the animation is limited particularly in regards to the lack of movement of characters hair.

In addition, The Maxx’s storyline is more a psycho analytical investigation into the complex subconscious workings in relation to the repression of trauma other than a traditional narrative. This multifaceted story line does not come to a traditional narrative ‘closure’ in that not all questions are answered and not all plots are completely resolved.

In conclusion it can be said that characteristics of post modernism can be applied to the animated feature films; Shrek, Fantasia 2000, and the Maxx. It has been identified that there exists the characteristics of the fusion of high and low art as in the combination of Disney cartoons with classical music in ‘Fantasia 2000’. Parody, pastiche and appropriation are used to a large extent in ‘Shrek’s’ irreverent treatment of the fairy tale genre, and there is an ambivalence to new technologies and mass media and an avoidance of the narrative closure in the animated adaptation of Sam Keith’s comic book, ‘The Maxx’. Looking at these titles it is apparent that animation is a medium that can be discussed within a post modern context.

  • Beata Batorowicz, (2003), Classroom Tutorial, 20th century visual culture, modernism and post modernism

  • Terry Lindvall and Matthew Melton (1994), ‘Toward a postmodern animated discourse: Bakhtin, intertextuality and the cartoon carnival’, in Animation Journal, Fall 1994, vol. 8, no.1, pp. 44 - 63

  • Paul Wells (2002), ‘the animation auteur’, in ‘Animation, Genre & Authorship’, Wallflower Press, London, pp. 72-111

  • Harry Benshoff (1992),’Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, Is Disney High or Low? From Silly Cartoons to Postmodern Politics’, in ‘Animation Journal’, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 62-83

  • Kenneth Turan (1999), film review, in Los Angeles Times, in fantasia 2000, in Film review annual, year 2000, pp 510 - 515

  • Joe Fordham (2002), ‘Jowly Green Giant’, in Cinefex, no.88, pp. 47 – 64

  • Debra Kaufman (2001), ‘Shrek, DreamWorks’ upside down Fairy Tale’, in Animation Magazine, June 2001, pp 30 – 34

  • Lev manovich (1997), ‘Reality’ effects in computer animation, in A Reader in Animation Studies, John Libbey, Sydney, Australia, pp 5 – 15

  • Julia Moszkowicz (2002), To infinity and beyond: assessing the technological imperative in computer animation, in Screen, 43.3 Autumn 2002, pp. 293 - 314

  • Erin Warner, Vicki Jensen, Andrew Adamson (2001), Filmmakers commentary, in Special Features, in Shrek DVD, DreamWorks Home Entertainment.

  • Greg M. Smith (1999), ‘Shaping the Maxx: Adapting the comic book frame to television’, in Animation Journal, Fall 1999, vol. 8, no.1, pp. 32 -53


“The Oregon Trail Illustrations”

by N. C. Wyeth

Fig. 2

Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer)

1890-91 (190 Kb); Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm (23 5/8 x 39 3/8 in); The Art Institute of Chicago

online gallery

Fig. 3

A flamboyant yo-yo-playing flamingo stands apart from the flock in this interpretation of Camille Saint-Saƫns' "Carnival of the Animals, Finale."

(© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Fig. 4

“cover of the original children’s book ‘Shrek’”

William Steig

Fig. 5

“Still from the animated feature ‘Shrek’”,

in Online Gallery at,

Fig. 6

“Scanned Cover, VHS, ‘The Maxx’”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A very good essay