David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

An Example of Experimental Animation: Fuji

excerpt from Film Art: An Introduction, 9th edition, McGraw-Hill (2010): 388-390.

In our blog, we profile another great experimental animator in “Len Lye, Renaissance Kiwi.”

In contrast to smooth Hollywood narrative animation, Robert Breer’s 1974 film Fuji looks disjointed and crudely drawn. It doesn’t involve a narrative but instead, like Ballet mécanique, develops according to principles of abstract form.

Fuji begins without a title or credits, as a bell rings three times over blackness. A cut leads not to animated footage but to a shaky, fuzzy shot through a train window, with someone’s face and eyeglasses partially visible at the side in the extreme foreground. In the distance, what might be rice paddies slide by. This shot and most of the rest of the film are accompanied by the clacking, rhythmic sound of a train. More black leader creates a transition to a very different image. Against a white background, two flat shapes, like keystones with rounded corners, alternate frame by frame, one red, the other green. The effect is a rapid flicker as the two colored shapes drift about the frame in a seemingly random pattern. Another stretch of black introduces a brief, fuzzy shot of a man in a dark suit running across the shot in a strange corridor.

More black leader follows. Then, against a white background, a jagged line moves and changes shape, briefly coming together to form a crude tracing of the running man’s movement, then collapsing quickly into an abstract line and reforming into a running man. During this shot, colors shift and change rapidly.

Within this spurt of images, Breer has aroused our curiosity about what kind of film we are watching. He has also introduced most of the motifs that will be varied across the film to create its principles of abstract form. For one thing, the regular clack and hum of the train sets up a rhythm that will govern the movement on the screen. A flicker effect in which images change everyone or two frames will recur through much of the film. Even when the same shape remains on the screen for a longer stretch, its color and outline often jitter in a rough rhythm.

Such attempts to avoid smooth movement and to explore the possibilities offered by different types of abstract drawings are common in experimental animation. Fuji is distinctive, however, in part because of its juxtaposition of live-action footage and animated images that are obviously sketchily traced from the live-action frames. Here Breer is manipulating a technique commonly used in Hollywood cartoons (and, more recently, Japanese anime): rotoscoping. The rotoscope is a machine used to project live-action footage, frame by frame, onto a drawing board, so that an animator can trace the outlines of the figures. The original purpose of rotoscoping was not to make the characters in the cartoon look exactly like those in the live-action film, for in fact their appearances are often quite different. Rather, a character’s movement is usually smoother and more lifelike if traced from a live model. Disney’s animated features, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, used extensive rotoscoping for their human characters. (Computer animation works with a similar principle but uses three-dimensional tracing and mapping.)

Breer takes rotoscoping, a technique intended to create smooth motion, and uses it in quite a different way. For one thing, he often traces only part of a figure, leaving it against a blank white background instead of tracing it onto a cel and combining it with painted scenery. In other cases, he traces the background itself rather than the moving figures, as with the train interior that appears in various colors. He also photographs his rough pencil drawings, rather than tracing them neatly onto cels in ink, as a Hollywood animator would do. By changing the color so often and by moving from image to image so quickly, Breer’s animation avoids all sense of smoothness. (Breer uses blank index cards for his drawings, deliberately avoiding the illusion of depth that cel animation can achieve.)

Most of the flickering images in Fuji are two frames long, and here Breer may be playing off the fact that in Hollywood cartoons of the studio era, each set of cels was actually photographed for two frames in a row, to save time and labor. In the Hollywood films, the movement still appears smooth and continuous on the screen, while Breer creates such noticeable differences between each pair of frames that the effect looks jerky.

Perhaps most daringly, Breer includes bits of the original live-action footage from which he made his tracings. As a result, we are led to see many of the images in the film as tracings (10.109, 10.110). In effect, Breer has taken one of the most realistic animation techniques, the rotoscope, and used it to create a dazzling, abstract exploration of movement and perception in cinema.

Film Art 10.109

Figure 10.109: Early in Fuji, we see flickering images that include single frames of blurry live-action footage of the train’s interior…

Film Art 10.110

Figure 10.110: …alternating with single frames of parts of that same view in crude tracings of the conductor’s body.

The opening section of Fuji is based chiefly on shapes derived from train interiors. The second, lengthier section, which forms the rest of the film, begins with a stylized series of views of a mountain that we assume from the title is Mount Fuji. Again we see shifting colors and shapes, but as before, some of the footage seems to have been traced from live-action frames. The train sound continues, and as sparsely sketched buildings, bridges, poles, and fields move jerkily past in the foreground, we are likely to take this view to be one seen from a moving train-though in this case Breer does not alternate live-action and traced footages (10.111).

Film Art 10.111

Figure 10.111: A simply sketched view of a mountain and passing bridge in Fuji.

“What attracted me to the footage was the mountain in the background and the possibility for motion perspective in the foreground. The film plays with deep space and the picture plane on the screen.”
—Robert Breer, animator

The mountain footage creates planes in depth: fields and buildings in the middle ground pass by, while the distant mountain remains in the same spot. At times colors or abstract shapes appear for a frame or two, and we are likely to perceive them as being in the extreme foreground, near the train and thus visible only as a blurred flash. Yet, even though the mountain remains in the same spot, its simple black outline frequently shifts slightly, and the color changes constantly, making the sky now red, now blue. The smooth sense of motion that rotoscoped footage could create is undermined, and the stable mountain actually shimmers constantly. In this way, Breer simultaneously suggests realistic depth and flat, abstract shapes in the images.

To underline this contrast between conventional animation and the abstract techniques of Fuji, Breer includes one ordinary rotoscoped motion (10.112). This paper cup shape, drawn with the simplest of perspective cues, is the only object in the film to move so smoothly. We also, however, see the cup changing color or superimposed over the more abstract, flickering images of the mountain. At other times, the cup shape is seen as just a flat blob of color. Indeed, the rounded keystone shapes near the beginning are flat, nonperspectival versions of this cup.

Film Art 10.112

Figure 10.112: Fuji’s most conventional animation: a paper-cup shape rolling in an arc against a white background.

At other points, the neat perspective renderings of the cup suddenly twist into skewed trapezoids or fold up into straight lines. Thus even the most conventional of animated movements can collapse in this pulsating, unstable space. With this and dozens of other devices, Breer explores and displays many of the perceptual tricks on which drawn animation is based. While Duck Amuck flaunts the unique powers of animation in order to create comedy and deflate our narrative expectations, Fuji, an experimental film, takes animation techniques as its very subject. The result is a film that asks the viewer to enjoy its abstract design and reflect as well on the possibilities of animated filmmaking.

David Bordwell
top of page

have comments about the state of this website? go here