Pixar’s Zoetrope and the 4th Dimension

As leaders in computer animation, in terms of box-office takings, technical prowess and industry awards, it’s easy to forget that Pixar’s roots are in traditional animation: the frame by frame progression of a set of still images at speeds that trick the eye into perceiving a single moving image.

But in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, it’s hard to explain the essentials of what Pixar really do without spoiling some of the magic: as any Behind the Scenes DVD extra will show you, it’s a probably a bunch of sweaty animators slaving over their Wacom tablets for months on end.

traditional zoetrope
a traditional zoetrope

So when Disney sought to showcase their acquisition (they bought Pixar back in 2006) in a couple of their resorts, they tasked Pixar with a demonstrating how animation works in a way that keeps the magic in.

What they came up with – a modern re-imagining of the zoetrope – is something to truly surprise and delight.

Take a look at this:

Lovely, isn’t it?

What caught my attention is the point animator Warren Trezevant makes:

It’s the clearest explanation of animation, because you get to see every frame of animation before your current frame […] and every frame of animation after it. Here you have the opportunity to see the tricks the animators use to make things move.

Dr Manhattan
Dr. Manhattan

Thinking more deeply on this, one could consider the zoetrope’s design as illustrative of one other concept: four dimensional perception.

Unlike traditional screen-based animation, the zoetrope lends observers the ability to see ‘through time’. One can rewind or fast-forward through frames with a slight adjustment in perspective, much like Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan.

This recalls an essay I wrote applying McLuhanism to comic books, which talks around the medium’s unique ability to force a sort of cognitive leap between the panels of a page (despite speeds far lower than 30 fps).

In comics, the reader’s mind fills in the blanks, making it probably the most effective animator of all. And now that Disney owns Marvel too, perhaps we’ll see more examples of Disney playing around in the fourth dimension.

Applying Benjamin

AR technology grants virtual objects presence in physicality. This is a concept ripe with potential for academic study. Baudrillardian thought states that we would seek to assign these objects similar values to other, real world objects. The School of Economy offers the truth that scarcity creates value. Our physical, tangible world is finite, but The Virtual is infinite. Now, any object in space denies the opportunity for another object to exist there, however we know this not to be true in an Augmented Reality. I proffer that virtual objects taking up space in a finite world hold economic value, but Benjamin might argue against this view.

In his piece The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1968) which was written in the thirties, Walter Benjamin argues that film and other ‘reproductive’ media diminished or destroyed the aura that had belonged to earlier art. As Bolter et al. (2006: 24) put it, “Aura belongs to works of art that are unique, as most art was before technologies of mechanical reproduction. Aura is the sense of the ‘here and now’ that each such work possesses because of its history of production and transmission. This uniqueness lends to each painting or sculpture a special quality, which can in turn evoke an attitude of reverence on the part of the viewer”. Benjamin (1968: 222-223) said that:

We define the aura as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.

Benjamin (1968: 222-223)

In this we see that Benjamin equates Aura with immediacy and the uniqueness of the moment of an artefact’s viewing. Since each moment is unique for each of us, it is economically valuable, auratic even. The information age of perfect digital reproduction does not detract from the personal uniqueness of experiential reality, only diminishes the aura offered by certain mass-produced elements within it. In Benjamin’s time, art was sanctified and extremely auratic. Now, most view classical art as a digital copy or encyclopaedia reference, which embodies little of the aura of the original piece. Travelling to the Louvre offers only the added auratic experience not gained from a home computer, where one’s experience is more like anybody else’s experience of the subject, but visitors must get very close to a works in order to experience what Aura remains there.

Benjamin might say that in a world of perfect digital reproduction, virtual objects can have no Aura. The Magic Lens is not spiritually void, however, and my Reality 2.0 is not a stagnant place. It buzzes with an aura of its own, borne from the uniqueness of each interaction, live and in context. A virtual object can be duplicated infinitely, but its location in space and the immediacy of its presence in that moment that helps shape its unique meaning for every AR denizen. Physicality offers the backdrop to the unique experiences offered by virtuality, indeed, experiential reality is improved through the wider opportunity for unique moments.

Returning to the economics of virtual space, virtual objects cannot hold currency in and of themselves, but the context surrounding them has value. Advertisers could exploit this if they act fast in commercialising AR space. More interesting to me is the potential for unique virtual art objects and sculptures that could hold purely aesthetic value. In this case, interested parties would seek out the object and view its intricacies and movements in the space it was designed to fill. There is much room for spatial enquiry in this field, some of which I will come onto in my next section.

Applying Benjamin