For this essay, my professor asked us to analyze how a given animated film uses dimensionality to formally and technologically give the movie a sense of life. I chose write about Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis through Thomas Lamarre’s theories of animation as outlined in his book, The Anime Machine.
Key themes of animation are used to enliven the world of Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s animated film, Persepolis (2007). As an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name, the story finds its origins in a flat aesthetic common to all comic book media. However, in the translation to an animated feature, new technological affordances can be made to make Satrapi’s life in Persepolis feel more tangible. Most notably, Paronnaud and Satrapi use the medium of animation itself to give what was a strictly two-dimensional story a new sense of perceptible depth.
To elicit a sense of depth from the flat pages of the Persepolis graphic novel, the directors use two techniques that film scholar Thomas Lamarre calls “cinematism” and “animetism” in his book, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. To define these terms, Lamarre begins by referring to Paul Virilio’s assertions about the effect of speed. He uses the example of the environment blurring as one moves through it on a train or in a car. According to Lamarre, Virilio believes that that the blurring of the scenery, whether it is in a vehicle or by proxy through the camera or television screen, is itself a form of art. Virilio uses the term cinematism to define the phenomenon of seeing motion parallax as art.
Lamarre states that Virilio’s definition of cinematism is a good one because it does not restrict the observation to a locomotive vehicle moving through space. Instead, he says Virilio focuses on the “technological condition” that produces the visual effects of speed. He continues by stating that Virilio believes humans enjoy this phenomenon because it gives the viewer a sense of agency in the proceedings. It does this in two ways:“ (1) to give the viewer a sense of standing over and above the world and thus of controlling it, and (2) to collapse the distance between viewer and target, in the manner of the ballistic logic of instant strike or instant hit.”
For Lamarre, Virilio’s definition makes the concept applicable to both film and animation. However, focusing only on this “perceptual logic” precludes another important technique for producing a sense of depth and dimensionality, one that is often used in animation.
Lamarre contrasts cinematism with a parallel operation he calls animetism. In animetism, the audience is not taken along a Cartesian z-axis through the environment. Instead, the scene is separated into several different overlapping layers. These planes – generally designated as foreground, middle ground, and background – move across the screen horizontally or diagonally. Through the composition of the planes, this produces a multiplanar “diorama effect” which creates an imagined depth where previously there was none . Importantly, Lamarre is careful to say that cinematism and animetism are “potential tendencies of the moving image,” and therefore are not exclusively restricted to either animation or live-action cinema. In other words, animetism and cinematism may appear in animated films.
Animetism plays a critical role in Persepolis. In one short scene towards the beginning of the film, protestors are shown in silhouette form against a background shrouded in fog. When police show up in gas masks, the two parties clash until a bullet is loosed which strikes one of the protestors. The action ceases as the other protestors pick up and carry their fallen comrade away. During this protest, there are several instances of animetism. In one instance, when the sequence opens, protestors are running from right to left across the screen.
Some of the figures are positioned in the foreground, large and unobscured by fog. Others are smaller and less-defined, giving the impression that they are farther away. When the police enter from the right in pursuit of the mob, they are also positioned according to size across the different planes with fog flowing in between the foreground and background. By sandwiching the fog in such a way, Paronnaud and Satrapi accentuate the fact that this is a three-dimensional world with depth along the z-axis. Note, however, that the camera never moves into the frame, and the figures never change in size; therefore, this is not cinematism, but animetism.
In the next frame, there is a noticeable shift in how the animators produce dimensionality. The camera shifts perspective to face the protestors, several of whom are running towards the screen. In this shot, the silhouettes are in the foreground, a hill is in the middle ground, and the fog-covered city is in the background. As they come toward the camera, the protestors grow in size until they pass it and move out of frame. Here, the objects in question are not simply moving across the screen to elicit depth as with animetism. On the contrary, they are changing in size (scaling) as the viewer feels closer and closer to them. This is cinematism; these figures are, in a sense, ballistic objects, moving through the scenery along the z-axis. Cinematism in this case furthers the implication made by the animetism in the opening shot, emphasizing that these events are taking place in a three-dimensional world.
Once the protestors have passed the camera, tanks begin to roll over the hill in the middle ground of the composition. Here, it appears neither animetism nor cinematism are taking place. Indeed, the tanks and the hill all seem to reside within the same plane, their gradually descending size from left to right across the frame the only indication of depth. However, these objects are still moving across the landscape, just as the fog in the background moves in the opposite direction. Therefore, although it is subtle, animetism is utilized to show that the tanks and the hill are distinct from the city and the fog. Depth in this instance is shallower than it was in the opening moments of the protest because there are only two planes evident; the tanks appear to move within the same plane as one another, but nevertheless, remain disparate entities from the background.
Subsequently, the protestors are again shown head-on. This moment is an important counterpoint to the earlier sequence where cinematism is used to show the protestors as they run toward the camera. The shot opens with a camera tilt as it moves from facing the street vertically to the legs of the figures up to a view where it can capture the whole scene, including the buildings and the sky. In this case, there are at least four different planes through which the animators show that the crowd has depth.
In the front is a figure who stands in pure black silhouette in front of the crowd. Behind him are several other protestors whose torsos are also black, but whose legs are covered by the fog. This shows that they are behind the first figure. Behind them are many more protestors who seem to blend into one another. They are a shade of dark grey rather than black, separating them from any of the other planes in front of them. Finally, two buildings and a street lamp are relegated to the background. Unlike the scene where the animators used cinematism to show the protestors run toward the camera, this moment is a clear example of animetism; this is confirmed when the camera tilts along the y-axis past the crowd instead of in or out of depth. We know that the camera is not moving along the z-axis because the figures in the crowd do not grow or shrink in size, and yet nonetheless evidently exist in a deep multipanar environment.
In this sequence, although they remain constant in size and shape, the protestors move as if they are walking. Contextually, it can be implied that they are walking along z-axis – the street, in this case. But it remains unclear whether they are headed in the positive or negative z direction. For the viewer, though, the mob still seems to move toward the camera in this scene. One way the animators achieve this effect is by de-emphasizing the characters in the back. The less-focused, lighter group in the rear of the crowd seem to be one entity, while the figure in the front is clear, sharp, and obviously closer to the camera. This likens the rearguard to the undefined background rather than to the individual characters in the foreground.The pyramidal structure of the protestors also helps to give a sense of pointed direction to their motion; a line could be drawn over the heads of the protestors, peaking in the middle. In combination, the sense of depth, kinesis, and scene composition leads the viewer to believe that the crowd is moving forward.
The question inevitably arises: why use cinematism in one sequence, but animetism in the other? Lamarre states that cinematism and animetism operate differently on the viewer:“…animetism not only implies a different way of perceiving things in an accelerated world but also promises a different way of thinking about technology and of inhabiting a technology-saturated world. Put another way, animetism does not take us out of the modern technological condition but hints at other ways of dwelling in it.”
In this way, Lamarre draws the comparison between a technique of experience and a technique of acknowledgement. In cinematism, as aforementioned, Lamarre and Virilio assert that ballistic motion in cinematism taps into a primal pleasure of a “strike or instant hit,” as well as the desire to close distance between the viewer and the a target object as fast as possible.
Conversely, Lamarre says that animetism is more concerned with what drawing attention to the idea that modern technology is pervasive, and offers a means by which a technologically created world (like that of Persepolis) can be lived in by the audience despite its inherent artificiality. In tandem, these sequences therefore give the viewer a visceral experience of the action as it takes place on-screen (cinematism), as well as an acknowledgement that the events are unfolding in the context of an animated world that is inherently technological (animetism).
More instances of animetism and cinematism occur in the final moments of the protest and for the rest of the film. However, it is important to consider what these choices do for the audience. In every shot throughout this uprising scene, the animators take painstaking effort to either employ either ballistic z-axis movement in the case of cinematism or multiplanar techniques in the case of animetism to give the viewer two different senses of depth.
Although it can be argued whether or not these techniques make the film seem realistic, this added sense of dimensionality is certainly fundamental to immersion; cinematism satisfies the human desire for an “instant hit,” and animetism recognizes the medium in which the story is being told. These operations also makes Persepolis very different from its source material, offering motion as a means to see into the Marjane Satrapi’s vision of Iran that could never be achieved on the pages of the graphic novel.