Monday, December 05, 2011


The great A.B. Frost (1851 - 1928) drew a story about a man who wanted to learn hypnotism.  At one point, the man foolishly decides to practice on his wife:

Frost was a master at using the gaps between his drawings to imply a larger story.  People normally focus on Frost's visible lines, but today let's spend a little time focusing on the valuable real estate between the pictures.

Frost's line primes our imagination to fill in that empty space.  By setting our imagination to work, he can make a humble little line boundless.

This is a good example of how drawing can be superior to movies as an art form.  A movie doesn't leave the same gaps for us to fill.  At a rate of 24 pictures (or frames) per second, movies could effortlessly take up all the vacant space between Frost's first and second drawings, and give our imaginations a rest.

But that space performs an important function. As Debussy pointed out,
Music is the space between the notes.
As another example of the importance of empty space, check out the pacing of Frost's story of some local scamps who torment a homeless man looking for food:

While the dog keeps him pinned down, the boys have fun pelting the man with their slingshots

Frost carefully selects each moment to drop you to another level of the poor man's downfall.  Drawings spaced too far apart or too close together would not be as effective.  A movie could fill in all the details but it would likely reduce the artistry.  As Kathy Sierra wrote,
Comedians say that "timing is everything." But by "timing," they almost always mean "the pause." The pause is not merely a void between Things That Matter.
In the next drawing, note how the promise of a sneeze is more effective than if Frost had explicitly drawn a  sneeze:

Don't think we are talking merely about the gap between Frost's sequential pictures; it's also the gap between his pen strokes, the gap between an object and its representation, the gap between artist and viewer. Lots of important things take place in the apparently vacant parts of art.

Movies hug us close and in the future will hug us closer, invading any remaining gaps.  24 frames per second will soon become 48 frames per second. Scenes in movies are tailored in lengths that electronic brain scans show are optimal for keeping your mind from wandering. Improved IMAX screens thwart your peripheral vision from straying off the movie, and 3D effects pull you into that screen. Surround sound or earphones seal you off from distracting noises.  Even smell-o-vision or scratch and sniff invade your nostrils to make the movie a "complete experience."
People who like their art administered intravenously rarely exert themselves looking for invisible things in empty spaces, but I think they miss out on a lot.

After all, dark energy occupies more than 70% of the universe but scientists haven't been able to locate it yet. We can't touch or taste or see it but we know it's out there because of its impact on our universe. NASA reports:
the nature of dark energy is probably the most important question in astronomy today. It has been called the deepest mystery in physics, and its resolution is likely to greatly advance our understanding of matter, space, and time.
NASA even proposed to form a posse called the Joint Dark Energy Mission to track down the stuff. They want to look for it in all the obvious places-- abandoned warehouses on the far side of Saturn, or hanging out with the juvies around the pillars of creation in the Eagle Nebula, smoking Camels.

But personally, I'm guessing dark energy is hiding in that empty space between us and art. That's the only place big enough.


MORAN said...

I love Frost. He is neglected today because he is from a slower time. The MTV fans can't appreciate him.

Benjamin said...

Ah! But you're forgetting that the magic of film lies in editing. The same way music is the space between the notes, film is the space between the shots.

Read about it in Jean-Claude Carrière's "The Secret Language of Film" or in Pudovkin's "Film Technique".

Laurence John said...

true... a jump of time in a movie requires an imaginative leap, but most edits in movies aren't of the 'imaginative leap' type. they are simply cuts that change the position of the camera.
in comics the reader has to literally imagine what is happening between one frame and the next. they have to imagine the characters moving, imagine the sound of their voices etc. this takes the experience somewhere between looking at a still image (painting, illustration) and reading a novel. movies for the most part, don't make those same subjective-imaginative demands of the viewer.

chris bennett said...

Very interesting post David and thanks for introducing me to Frost – lovely artist!

The drive for complete experience through the 3Dification of cinema etc is of course a dragon about to eat its own tail as far as the medium’s expressive potential is concerned. In the hands of the clueless, cinema is ever more becoming the circus ride that is pornography of experience.

But humans have a need for art. That is, synthesis of experience that reminds us of universal truths. If experience is the movement from one thing to another, rather than the things themselves, then the synthesis of that experience will necessarily be movement held in stasis. What is a story if not movement held in the stasis of a structure? The gaps vivified by that suggesting them.
The empty paper made pregnant by the line.

The hand made image does this by default. From the plastic meaning to the temporal; Frost’s guy yawning is a perfect example of this, as is the Michelangelo’s God about to create Adam.

But cinema is a time based sculpture that has always fallen prone to the sensationalism of the trompe l’oeuil wax work.
But when experience and art become indistinguishable… so will art define itself once again.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, Frost was one of the greats. He was prolific, and I find a wide range of quality in his work, but his humorous drawings are absolutely marvelous.

Benjamin-- I will definitely check out Carriere but keep in mind, I don't question that film requires editing and artistic discretion. I love movies (and I am married to a film critic).

I just don't think movies require the same hard choices that drawing does. I agree with Austin Briggs who wrote, " Line... is the most limited medium.... It's necessary to know the limitation one is dealing with in order to use its positive qualities to its fullest advantage. To draw an oak leaf is "an exorcism of disorder." Without knowing what a line cannot do we'd try to express the whole leaf with it, but once we know what a line cannot do, we are on our way toward expressing the leaf in the marvelously simple way a line can function. We begin to to look for the object's anatomy, its real shape reveals itself to us because we must speak with such limited means."

I think you see Briggs' principle at work in Frost's drawings. Frost has to select a few key moments along a time line, and then further distill them to make them simple enough so that the eye doesn't become bogged down (but with enough with information to convey the few points he wants to convey).

Whatever the differences are between drawing and film at the creation stage, I think they tend to be even greater at the perception stage. A viewer has to fill in more gaps for a drawing than they do for a film. I think that most movies can be viewed in a more passive mode than drawings. You sit down in a darkened room and have your eyes and ears (and sometimes nose) filled, with no distractions. The only collateraI input is popcorn. I think drawings require more interaction (which may explain why movies are a far more popular medium today).

kev ferrara said...

Frost's cartooning is just genius. At its best, as here, a match for Sullivant and Kley.

Is it okay to come out of our subjective bunkers to say that it is an objective fact that art that requires the use of the viewer's imagination is better than art that connects all the dots?

JonInFrance said...

Great post. Thanks for that!

Benjamin said...

Laurence John:  Apparently the magic of film is so magical that you failed to notice it! Say you see a shot of a face looking somewhere, after which you see a shot of an object, you will immediately know that this person is looking at the object. But why? There's no reason for you to think that, and yet you do. THAT is the simple essence of the magic of film. THAT is the space between the notes. Debussy was not just talking about the silence between the notes; that would imply music consists only of rhythm. He was also speaking about the relation and tension between the notes, the intervals, the melodic lines rising, falling. Film does all this too.

And *simply* a change of camera position? Composition is as important in film as it is in illustration. You write as if it is a triviality, but these are choices with reasons. And the magic of editing makes them larger than the sum of their parts. True, there is more information given, but as a result, different links and relations are created. 

David: That we understand editing instinctively is as incredible as that we see a bunch of lines and see a person. And therein lies the profundity of these arts. 

True, in some aspects drawing is more interactive, since photography does supply more information. Yet the very fact that our movie culture supplies a dark room with no distractions testifies to the fact that focused interaction is required! The gaps are still there, beyond the information. That we experience them differently does not make one superior over the other.

And choices harder? I believe the essence of your Austin Briggs quote is not that drawing is a limited medium, but that one has to *know* it is limited to exercise it effectively. In other words, one has to know one's medium. So let's examine both media on this level. Yes, it's very easy to film and edit video - but so is drawing stick figures. Both will be understood, both will likely have little value. *Good* filmmaking, however, as with good drawing, is few and far between. But did 2001: A Space Odyssey really require easier choices than a great drawing?

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- Drawing not only makes "subjective-imaginative demands of the viewer" to fill in "what is happening between one frame and the next," it also requires us to use more imagination to close the gap between the object and its representation-- a film of a man is virtually the same as seeing a live man in front of you; but translating a line symbolizing a man into the concept of a man is a greater feat of abstraction (even though, to paraphrase Benjamin, "the magic of [the human brain] is so magical that you failed to notice it.")

And when a line is vigorous to denote movement, that requires more imagination and abstract thinking than a movie of someone running. Or when a line is thicker or darker or rougher to denote strength, that requires more mental activity than a film of a strong subject. There are numerous such differences that support your point (although I'm not saying it is necessarily better to make the audience work hard).

Chris Bennett-- you will have much to enjoy if you spend more time with Frost.

What you call "the drive for complete experience through the 3Dification of cinema" is an interesting phenomenon to watch. Many of the comments that I have made about the difference between drawing and film could be made about the difference between early film and late film. Compare early science fiction movies such as "A Trip To The Moon" or later, "Metropolis" or "Things To Come" with "Star Wars" or "Avatar." The earlier, cruder movies require a lot of imagination to fill in the gaps. The audience for those early movies would be awestruck if they could see the later movies (and would unquestionably prefer to watch them than watch the early movies). Measured by that standard, movies have improved.

As for when "experience and art become indistinguishable..." ahhh, that fabled day is for a whole separate conversation, or several conversations. From my perspective, you are more likely to combine the two with conceptual or performance art than with 3D imax movies that are all consuming.

kev ferrara said...

Beautifully said, Benjamin. You nailed it exactly!

When Harvey Dunn said that "It's the invisible things in a picture that make it good one," he could have been speaking of any artform at all.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Sullivant, Kley, Frost... that was quite an era wasn't it? And on the more "serious" side you had Coll, Gibson, Lowell-- what are people with that parrtcular talent doing today? Bagging groceries at the supermarket?

JonInFrace-- many thanks!

Benjamin-- you raise good points, and perhaps they can lead to some useful clarification. I did not mean to suggest that Frost was a "better" artist than Kubrick, or that Frost's job was easier. And I didn't mean to suggest that drawing is a higher art form than movies, only that it "can be."

Why do I even find it necessary to assert that drawing "can be" a higher art form?

Because I think it is common today for people to ignore drawings like Frost's because his drawings don't move and don't have explosions and a Dolby sound track and they aren't on a screen as big as a wall. Some of these attributes can be put to brilliant use in wonderful films, but a very large percentage of them are used merely as glittering objects dangled in front of viewers with infantile taste. It is a lot easier to relax and park yourself in a dark theatre, outsourcing all five senses to a movie studio than it is to meet Frost half way during a quiet moment alone in your library. People don't even have libraries anymore, nor do they have quiet moments (their ipods accompany them everywhere they go).

For many such people, plain drawing (by which I mean drawing that is not a prelude to CGI) is old fashioned and tiresome these days. Certainly the economic evidence is that once-popular applications for drawing-- comic strips, comic books, advertisements, illustrated books-- are no longer able to command people's attention. Sometimes that's because movies are better, or more entertaining. Sometimes it's because movies are easier.

It was in this context that I felt like speaking into the ether to say that low tech drawing "can be" a higher art form than movies. A drawn line is necessarily a commitment, but it doesn't need to be a boundary or a limitation unless the audience is too intellectually lazy to engage.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

What John Tenniel did for Alice in Wonderland, Frost did for Uncle Remus. I can not disassociate myself from them or accept anothers interpretation.

Frost had a knowledge of animal anatomy and caricature that make anthropomorphic gestures totally believable. His are the only Brer Rabbit and Remus critters I can understand.

Stephen Worth said...

Ward Kimball said of animation, "The drawings aren't important. It's the differences between them that are important."

Stephen Worth said...

Don't forget Zim.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

David - Definitely agree with your stance on that. It's a sad truth that a majority of the audience today is too lazy to engage, in any artform. Which is why there's such a percentage of lazy films, and I would argue it is also why you have to wonder whether today's great draftsmen are bagging groceries at the supermarket...

Laurence John said...

"Say you see a shot of a face looking somewhere, after which you see a shot of an object, you will immediately know that this person is looking at the object. But why? There's no reason for you to think that, and yet you do. THAT is the simple essence of the magic of film."

Benjamin, i was talking about how a reader has to engage their own imagination to imagine movement (and sound / speech) between the panels of a comic book rather than simply sit back and watch it happening as they would in a movie. the cut between a close-up and the following point-of-view-shot isn't an 'imaginative leap' sort of cut. that is just basic film language that every viewer understands, and requires zero imaginative effort on their part. i'm afraid that basic film grammar isn't what i'd call 'the magic of film'.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Not just Dunn, but a number of the greats seem to agree about the importance of "the invisible." It is a huge thing-- like dark energy, it accounts for more than 70% of our universe even though we can't touch it or taste it or see it.

I agree that "it's the invisible things in a [movie] that make it a good one." I have been educated and deeply moved by the invisible elements in many great movies. I would argue, however, that movies (more than most previous art forms) can anesthetize audiences from thinking about the invisible things. It is easier to put your mind on automatic pilot and drive all stray, troubling thoughts from your mind in a movie than when listening to music or reading a book or looking at art.

Joel Brinkerhoff-- Yes, Frost's anthropomorphic gestures definitely deserve mention. He understood animals and had an uncanny ability to humanize them. I also agree with you about Brer Rabbit and the Remus characters.

Stephen Worth-- Thanks for the Ward Kimball quote. It's amazing how many creative people at the top of their game seem to cluster around this same fundamental truth.

And Zim, yes, and Nast and others.

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin-- the excellent blog, Temple of the Seven Golden Camels recently ran an instructive video about editing The Dark Knight which leads with Martin Scorsese's edict, "cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." I think that supports your point and I don't disagree with it.

kev ferrara said...

David, I think you may have gotten so accustomed to the language of film that you don't realize that you are reading it anymore. The same imaginative mechanisms are at work in a 3 panel cartoon as a scene broken into cuts. I think the main issue about films is that it totally controls the reading speed, in the process, disinvinting you from inspecting any one particular moment contemplatively.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I agree that film "controls our reading speed," and much of that pacing process consists of artistic choices similar to the choices in drawing or any other artistic endeavor.

However, consider the following: scientists at Cornell University recently analyzed the editing of 150 top grossing films and concluded that the editing of commercially successful (although not necessarily critically successful) films can be keyed to a mathematical formula which measures the attention span from human brain waves called "1/f fluctuation."

The scientists believe that the 1/f law has a direct impact on the profitability of films because it makes films “resonate with the rhythm of human attention spans.” According to the study, "the rhythm of shot sequences in film is designed to drive the rhythm of attention and information uptake in the viewer." These scientists are not isolated crackpots; I assure you that Hollywood arrived at this idea long before Cornell University. I am aware of half a dozen other research projects by respected institutions, at least one funded by a Hollywood studio, which may cause us to reconsider whether what we once called aesthetics should be recategorized as a subset of neurology.

None of this was an issue until film provided us with the sophisticated and all consuming tools necessary to make practical use of these findings.

kev ferrara said...


Did somebody put something in your coffee this morning?

Didn't you just agree on the point, a few weeks ago, that academics don't know diddly squat about aesthetics and shouldn't be trusted farther than they can be punted? Yet, suddenly you think a bunch of grad student movie nerds with pocket protectors know anything about art? Are we back to "Secrets of the Mona Lisa's Hypnotic Power revealed by microscopic analysis!"

The Cornell study you cite is absolute rubbish. It is so bad, I can barely read through the first pages of the study without tearing my hair out. I am horrified that such nonsense is coming out of the Ivy Leagues.

It is hard to gauge whether this study (and those studies it cites) are worse as science or aesthetics. Either way, it's embarrassing.

(I started typing a lengthy explanation of just why it is so bad, but I don't have the time to do the wretchedness justice, and my temper was blowing through the roof like Willy Wonka's elevator. So I've deleted it and saved everybody from scanning over the gray wall of savagery that I was developing.)

The idea that aesthetics "should be considered a subset of neurology" would be a saner notion if scientists had the slightest understanding of aesthetics. But they don't.

Reading the Oscilloscope & Stop Watch Theory of Movies actually makes me pine for a Maoist critique of Bringing Up Baby.

अर्जुन said...

"They want to look for it in all the obvious places-- …the far side of Saturn, …around the pillars of creation in the Eagle Nebula"


"Mona Lisa's Hypnotic Power revealed by microscopic analysis!"

~ I have my field glasses trained on the Horsehead Nebula.

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin De Schrijver-- Yup. Ultimately the market is the litmus test. If an illustrator wants to pursue greatness in an era when large portions of the audience are addicted to easy, candy coated distractions, then it becomes part of your job to find a way to package your greatness to appeal to them. Right now, the great animators and computer artists seem to be on that path.

Given the direction of world economies, I would not be surprised if we put down Angry Birds and return for a while to a culture that emphasizes personal effort, and where idleness is considered shameful. We see what that kind of culture was able to produce during the century-long Stuart era, which gave us Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Dunne, Milton, Alexander Pope, Defoe and Swift in literature, equally miraculous giants in science (Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, etc), the great Christopher Wren in architecture-- the list goes on and on. But of course, that was in an era before we invented cocaine.

Kev Ferrara-- I think when we were talking about not trusting academics, I was saying (or at least trying to say-- who knows what i actually said?) that academic institutions with art history departments and graduate students at research universities churn out a numbing torrent of self-promotional publications and master theses that delve into the lifeless and irrelevant parts of art. Often their central goal is employment security (not a bad thing in itself) which often makes them an untrustworthy guide for aesthetics, and their instinct for the capillary makes them frustrating reading for anyone with time limitations.

Whether that skepticism of some academics is warranted or not, I view scientific research, which must live or die by reproducible empirical results, a little differently.

I'm not sure we're allowed to criticize scientists for not having "the slightest understanding of aesthetics" unless we as aestheticians can claim an understanding of science.

For me, the interesting points from the Cornell study are purely quantitative-- you measure the length of the shots in movies, you measure the box office, and you put the two numbers side by side. If you find a correlation, you can speculate about whether there is a causal effect or not. I forget whether the Cornell study makes such extravagant claims at this early stage, but I do know that the movie studios (and even worse, neuromarketers) pay attention to such things.

In addition to measuring length of shots, helpful scientific researchers now monitor brain, blood, skin and other biological reactions to movies. They study viewers' sensorimotor, cognitive and affective responses to stimuli and try to calibrate films accordingly. If you don't like the Oscilloscope & Stop Watch, would you be happier with studies employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain, electroencephalography (EEG), or infrared optical tomography?

kev ferrara said...


The issue is not on the instrumental end of these experiments. I'm sure all the readings they have taken are correct and reproducible. These scientists know their craft and their instruments.

But instruments are incredibly specific in their directives. Because of this, it is the nature of instrumentation itself to court accidental fallacies of exclusion which lead to hasty generalizations. This paper is rife with such logical fallacies. Its the same old story of scientism forgetting its old check, epistemology.

Or to put it another way, in order to analyze any phenomena properly (cybernetically), one must break it down into its components... all its components.... and all the interactions of those components. You can't break apart a clock and just look at the pinions if you want to understand its mechanism. Putting the pinions under a loop isn't going to increase the resolution of understanding. Tools are brainless.

We were just talking about the invisible in art, which is to say, the transcendent. Is there some scientific instrument out there, besides the philosophical mind, that can pinpoint the ineffable? Anybody got a Transcendoscope? A suggestograph? A sublimeter?

Unless a talented, philosophical, articulate, trained, and
professional artist is in the room with the neuroscientists, I will not trust their work on aesthetics. I’ve seen too much nonsense by now in the literature.

raphael said...

kev, i <3 those last few comments of yours.

i think it does not take much science theory to put the neuroaesthetics argument to the grave.

a) after reviewing data (which data is considered relevant, and what subset of data is chosen to represent a whole, already is a step away from the thing as it epistemologically manifests itself towards a inherently dogmatic, i.e. random, abstraction of the thing in question) and finding correlations, proper science does not talk about "there is" a causal relation, because empirical data is necessarily limited, and empirical forming of theories is indicutive reasoning on a limited basis. there is no "there is" in empirical science. there only is "there is not", when a theory is falsified. there is, however, no method of verifying in empirical science, and thus no notion of a definite "there is" in terms of causal relations, ever.

b) as mentioned before, choice of branch and the dogma of causality is what determines scientific results: a physician talking about a painting is talking entirely different things than a cultural studies scientist. neither of them talk about the actual painting, because one reduces it to its physical attributes whereas the other views it as an item in a cultural context. both scientists will only find causal relations - and that is because that is the only thing empirical science is looking for. it is a method that can only yield the results "causal" or "random/unrelated". it is not valid to make causal relations part of the things when its part of the method we use to look at things. its like stating the world is green when we look at it through green glasses, actually.

c) ergo: empirical science reduces things to abstracted notions of things before engaging them. empirical science induces causality as the only kind of relation things have. empirical science by necessity can not reach definitive, ultimate results.
a neurological study of aesthetic appeal itself has no point and authority whatsoever, unless one can bring forth good points for 1) aesthetics does take place in the realms of film length/cut frequency and box office report (i.e.: the reduction necessary for this kind of study is indeed valid and contributive to a question of aesthetics). seat yourself in front of something that evokes an aesthetic response, look whether those categories become apparent in the aesthetic sensation, and judge for yourself. if not, talk of aesthetic appeal as a function of cut frequency and box office is baseless. 2) whether the question of what is aesthetic, is indeed a question of causal relations between empirically testable points in the world, and not one of the many relations in the world that are not causal, such as between a thing itself and the notion of the thing in acts of conceptual understanding, or the incomplete sensory impressions of a thing and our inherent understanding of the things complete identity, or all the apodictically necessary relations between entities in maths, logics, or any other branch of deductive reasoning.

tl;dr: before we regard such studies with authority, we need to ask whether the way such studies talk about their subjects applies to the subjects in question.

despite all that, you would goedel yourself in the foot. the only actual, authoritative source of evidence for aesthetic appeal is whether someone is aesthetically appealed. you have to take that as "real aesthetic appeal" if you want to build a study on that. the result of that study, thus, cant be any statement of what is aesthetic and what is not. it may be an attempt at predicting box office revenue in relation to a films cut frequency. it is not aesthetics. period.

Anonymous said...

I'm with David on this one. The hallmark of valid artistic theory and principle is that it is drawn and abstracted from a large sample of artistic works, and is something that can be explicitly and concisely stated. It doesn't matter who does the abstracting.

Anonymous said...

Kev and Raphael, you think science can't take over aesthetics but get ready for it because it's coming.


David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- thanks for the song of Mona Lisa, although its theme ("She don't want no fancy clothes or jewels or big house, all she wants is a place to sleep at night-- is that too much to ask for?)seems like it is better suited for Occupy Wall Street than the horsehead nebula. (By the way, I enjoyed your own OWS post).

kev ferrara said...

Well, I think we need to stick to the specificity of the topic here.. that shot length drives attention and retention.

Aside from forty other issues with the dopey study, three core assumptions that go unspoken are that each passage of uncut film corresponds to a single and complete digestible thought, that camera or object movements can not also act to delimit separate passages of content, and that attention can be directed without regard to content... all easily falsifiable notions.

I'm with David on this one. The hallmark of valid artistic theory and principle is that it is drawn and abstracted from a large sample of artistic works, and is something that can be explicitly and concisely stated. It doesn't matter who does the abstracting.

I notice that you left out that the theory should work in practice. Sounds to me like you are trying to equate mere rationalization with assertions that are actually empirically tested. I don't think that makes any sense at all.

john cuneo said...

One of the intriguing elements of Frost's amazing work is the assured swagger of the rendering. There seems to be no "search" lines in his stuff. He seems to know just where he's going all the time, and some of those little Remus drawing are so audacious in their casual mastery of depths of field and atmosphere that it's easy to take that part for granted. Maybe because it's the seminal anthropomorphism that smacks you down first. Heinrich Kley's line seems to explore the territory a little bit first ; there's a dipping in of the toe before diving aspect there. And Sullivant, who worked much larger, was known to scratch out and redraw big patches of his stuff. Frost's finals have that nonchalant swagger of peerless chops. You've got Brer Fox screaming and jumping from the fire while Brer Possum is curled up in the foreground( viewed from the feet first perspective), there's smoke and fire, a briar patch, suggestions of trees, a picket fence and beyond that, an impassive cow watching the scene. And somewhere in the middle distance of it all, Brer Rabbit is laughing. I'm recalling from memory and may have this scene a little wrong , but hell, who, with a b&w pen line, gets all those elements sublimely "right" but also i figures out exactly what a fox and a rabbit (in clothes but with animal anatomy intact) would actually look like, doing what they cannot realistically do in nature: stand upright, , laugh and leap feet first from a fire? ( I recall Frost's visual "suggestion" of fire in that drawing being as close to an "exorcism of disorder" as anything else.)
Elvis Costello wasn't talking about line drawing when he sang about "complicated shadows" , but Frost's work has it's share of them. Yet unlike Kemble or other humorous line artists of the time, he rarely seemed to lean on technique or an overly dense thatch of cross-hatching to pull off a difficult passage. He knew when to employ those (almost) parallel lines of different weights to render volume, texture and the harsh shadows under a southern sun, and then he'd pull back, get quiet and let you see to the light and the "spaces between the notes"-all in the same drawing, like little quarter page symphonies. It brings to mind that great Richard Thompson observation about a good ink line being "...a combination of weight, velocity and direction.". What Richard doesn't mention is, that once you get that part down, then you've got to figure out what a laughing rabbit looks like.

Anonymous said...

I notice that you left out that the theory should work in practice.

Theory and principle do not always amount to formulas and equations; there is always the possibility of error or ineptitude on the part of the practitioner.

kev ferrara said...


Those are interesting observations. Frost does seem to have an unerring instinct both for storytelling and knowing just how much needs to be said in order to say it all. And boy does he know funny! His compositions are so wonderfully deadpan! I think Will Elder must have really been influenced by Frost in his comic book work.

Theory and principle do not always amount to formulas and equations;

Yes, and..?

...there is always the possibility of error or ineptitude on the part of the practitioner.

This is pettifogging the issue. An inept practitioner might just as easily think he has proven some clueless theory as disproven a timeless principle. The issue is what talented and competent practitioners can demonstrate.

Anonymous said...

An inept practitioner might just as easily think he has proven some clueless theory as disproven a timeless principle.

Of course; that's the result of being inept.

The issue is what talented and competent practitioners can demonstrate.

Are you referring to visual artists? Good luck; they're dead.

kev ferrara said...

Are you referring to (talented and competent) visual artists? Good luck; they're dead.

Every time you whittle you end up with a toothpick. Your spider hole must be filled with them.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- In my view, the innovators who first established the "basic film grammar" were pretty darn creative, although I agree that once their choices hardened into established conventions there was less and less "magic" involved in their use. I am assuming that, like in most things, innovators will come along to change that grammar and start the process all over again.

As you have no doubt gleaned from this post, I am fully in agreement with your position about art that makes demands on our imaginations.

Kev Ferrara wrote, "Is there some scientific instrument out there, besides the philosophical mind, that can pinpoint the ineffable?"

Kev, I think you're holding the scientific side of the equation to an unfair standard. I don't know of any philosophical mind capable of pinpointing the ineffable, and I also don't know of any universally accepted scientific "truth" that rises to the level of epistemological purity that philosophers can conjure up. (If it's "true" at the quantum level, it's probably not true at the cosmic level, or vice versa, and who can prove that any of this exists anyway?)

The kind of science I think we should be talking about here is the kind of "true enough" science that we rely upon to lift airplanes off the tarmac or alleviate a common headache. You know: accurate enough to make money.

I would never suggest that Hollywood could use the Cornell formula to direct the next Aguirre, but I think it is quite plausible that Hollywood could use some variation of the Cornell formula to help keep audiences glued to their seats or to make their pulses race to aid ticket sales. Or to enhance product placement.

I don't think it's much different from the scientific application of colors. We all know that red is instinctively a "fight or flight" color for humans. Experiments have shown that people feel warmer in a room painted red than they do in a room painted blue, even though the temperature is identical. Of course Hollywood uses that science to guide audience reaction. And today in the age of digital miracles, if audience brain waves don't respond favorably to the hero's green shirt, we can retroactively give him a blue one.

Would your view of the Cornell study change if the question was not, "can we use this to pursue beauty?" but instead, "can we use some variation of this to manipulate mass audience reaction in order to sell more tickets?" And if your answer is yes (to get back to the initial issue) does that mean that movies are more capable than drawings of hugging the audience close and channeling their thoughts and imagination, sometimes even subliminally?

If they can do, it they certainly have an economic incentive to do it. (They do call it show business, not show art.)

David Apatoff said...

Etc etc-- while I generally agree with your proposition, I'm not sure we even need to go as far as calling this an artistic theory. If we want to keep the attention of movie audiences with regular, well timed movement on the screen, or if we want to make their palms sweat, or their spines tingle, part of that is certainly art but some part of it may also be a biological theory.

John Cuneo-- Thanks for a truly insightful contribution. It's a little daunting that you have the same unnerving ability to hone in on the truth in both words and pictures.

I have looked at Frost's originals up close, searching for those erased pencil lines or those preliminary strokes, and found none. It's quite scary.

As for that quote from Richard Thompson, I have heard it before and I find it singularly unhelpful as a guide for the less talented. If he weren't so guileless, I'd think he was taunting the rest of us.

kev ferrara said...


I don't think I'm holding Scientific investigation to any higher standard than that which is implied by its claims. I am a science guy. Just like I am an art guy. Which means I hate bad science as much as I hate bad art.

This theory that one can time shots to fixate attention is just another in a long line of eggheaded "sure-fire" schemes to explain success (and to use such knowledge to mass produce hits.) But the history of films is littered with such claims. (As William Goldman said, nobody knows anything.) And there are far more flops using these aces in the hole than successes. (I notice the study didn't time the shots in failed movies, btw.)

Shall we begin the list?

Its gotta have a love story in it!
The title's gotta be short!
Ya gotta have a big star in it!
The more special effects the better!
If it's based on a great book it'll be a sure fire hit!
The second act climax must happen on page 67 of the screenplay!
There must be a happy ending!
Make sure there's a hit song in there!
Hire the director and writer who just had a hit last year!
Let's make a sequel to last years' hit!
Let's get Frazetta or Bob Peak to do the poster!
Let's do an Epic!
No flashbacks!
Let's base the picture on universal archetypes from Joseph Campbell's books!
Write what you know!
No narration or voice over!
Its gotta be in color!
Start the picture with a bang!
Start the picture slowly, so the ending will seem exciting by comparison!
Let's have the greatest stunt sequence of all time!
Let's put the hottest pop star in the world in the movie!
Let's do a talky indy crime caper movie like Quentin Tarantino!
Have a crazy twist ending!
3-D baby!
Let's hook electrodes up to some of the seats in the theater!
Gratuitous Nudity!
Let's have people sign a waiver before coming into the theater to see our scary movie!
Controversy sells!
Let's get the two hollywood hearthrobs who are dating in the same movie together!
Let's have marketing tie-ins at McDonalds!
Let's open it on Labor Day Weekend!
Don't open it opposite the sure fire hit of the summer!
Do open it the same day as the sure fire hit of the summer because those turned away from all the sold out shows will trickle into our movie instead!
We need a superhero movie for the summer!


My view of the Cornell study is simply that it is bad science because of the factors I've been mentioning. It was obviously typed up by people who have never once tried to put words and pictures together to captivate an audience. Let alone actually sat down with the vast library of books on Aesthetics written in the last 200 years, including the many interesting books on the aesthetics of film that have been written in the last 80 years.

Laurence John said...

David: " I am assuming that, like in most things, innovators will come along to change that grammar and start the process all over again."

i'm not so sure. film grammar (shot construction) works because it is so straightforward. start messing with it and the viewer gets confused. state of the art CG-3D films still rely on the basic logic of shot construction. it tends to be the avant-garde film and video makers who mess with film grammar but their work makes no dent on the mainstream.

belatedly... Chris: "But cinema is a time based sculpture that has always fallen prone to the sensationalism of the trompe l’oeuil wax work."

literally !

ironically, that movie may actually (hopefully) turn many people back to the subtler pleasures of comic books and away immersive bombast. it was panned by critics in the UK and lead to an outpouring of praise for the source material. i have faith that the public will at some point hold up their hands and say 'enough'.

chris bennett said...


It’s this kind of misconception of the principles being discussed that led people to animate late Matisse drawings for commercials once the technology was available. A late Matisse drawing is the expression of implied movement and contains the magic for that very reason. Animating it destroys the movement.

The jumps between the panels of TinTin were where the story really took place. The panel’s function is to ignite and steer our imaginations – rather like how the individual explosions in an internal combustion engine produce, by their effect on the car’s mechanism, its smooth forward motion.

The gap between the panels of comic books or Frost’s drawings (as are the spaces between a drawing’s lines) is where the art lives. Kev’s quote about what’s invisible in a picture being where the art is at etc.

The proof of the truth of this is how dead these particular kinds of ‘animations’ look. And the nearer they are brought to verisimilitude without understanding the principles of aesthetics the more lifeless and dormant they become.

Like the wax work, they fascinate only because what looks so much alive looks so very dead.

MORAN said...

John Cuneo, thanks for helping me see what makes Frost so special. Excellent comments.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure we even need to go as far as calling this an artistic theory.

I'm not a cinephile and I was merely extrapolating and commenting on the methodology and not the particular instance. Apologies if I did not make that apparent and you felt I distorted your comments by the extrapolation process.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Laurence John, I'm afraid you're still being fooled by the magic. It looks so easy, feels so easy, but really it is incredibly profound. The cut from an object to a POV is absolutely an imaginative leap! Because the cut means something! Yet the cut itself doens't provide any information. It doesn't even physically exist. Yet you give it meaning! The imaginative effort may not involve movement or sound, which is of course given, but that's not the only "dark matter" that's there. And it's that other dark matter that editing is involved with. And yes, basic film grammar is exactly the magic of film, because that we as human beings understand editing is nothing short of a miracle. There is nothing straightforward about it, in the same way that there is nothing straightforward about us reading a bunch of lines as a character (let alone movement!), which is exactly the magic of drawing.

David, that study is working in the wrong direction. Editors tend to work by instinct. The same way Frost feels that this is how far the line should go, an editor feels this about his shot. Even if the study is correct and there's a correlation with brainwaves, than it's not because they're using a formula, but rather a) because they've done their job right and have found an end for their shot that works for their audience, because it is without their knowing linked to human nature itself or b) their brainwaves work the same, so they will naturally cut at that spot.

And why are you limiting the magic of editing to its discovery? Is Frost less creative than the cavemen who discovered drawing? The ability to understand drawing or editing existed already within us, but that ability was discovered and then shared. Editing is fare more subtle now than it was when it was innovative in an obvious sense, the same way Frost's work is far more subtle than that caveman's.

Tom said...

Hi David
The sequencing is as clear as his drawing. Giving order to a story is hard but drawing is even harder.  One only has to look at the ground plane in Frost's work to understand why his drawings are so strong.   The level plane upon which the rug seats in the sneeze drawing is duplicated again in the spread of the hand holding the snuff can expect now the plane is titled.  The clearly describe ground plane allows us to feel the titled plane of the hand and the tin of stuff.   In fact the levelness of the ground plane in all the drawings bring the actions of the figures to life via contrast.  The level plane allows him to draw the spread legs of the fallen husband and his arm of  support.   He relates the symmetry of the parts across the plane, thus drawing all the parts at once. Instead of seeing individual things he sees the relationship of things.  The understood horizontal plane or better yet the understood plane which can be placed in orientation makes everything possible, and throws out the guess work, so Frost can draw freely, without hindrance and amazing spatial  clarity.  "The best carpenters make the fewest chips."

kev ferrara said...

Every line in that sneeze picture has design force. It's amazing.

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- No problem, I didn't think you were distorting my position by extrapolation. I only meant that if the theory works as an aesthetic theory, it is even more likely to work as a biological theory.

Laurence John-- You may be right, it may be true that "the basic logic of shot construction" is so consonant with our mode of perception that it will forever remain the building blocks for future film making. I claim no special insight into what (if anything) is next; I only know that in the past there has always been something next. Speaking as a rank amateur, it seems to me that over the past 100 years some types of shots seem to have been chopped up into shorter and shorter increments to intensify the movie going experience. Fred Astaire used to think it was necessary and obvious to film an entire dance from start to finish in one shot, to convey his art. Fifty years later, dance was filmed MTV style as a chopped up series of high points filmed from a wide variety of flattering angles. Twenty five years after that, the customary way of editing dances, battles, etc,. seems to be a blizzard of overlapping chop shots that create a jazzed up impression of a dance, or a fight, or some other kind of activity. (Think of the fight scenes in the Bourne Ultimatum). So an editing protocol that once seemed natural... evolved.

Kev Ferrara and Benjamin De Schrijver-- it seems to me that you are making a similar point; that the Cornell study (and other scientific efforts to crack the code) are "working in the wrong direction. Editors tend to work by instinct."

Kev has offered a long and credible list of factors that a director knows intuitively will attract audiences. Benjamin says that if directors are successful, "it's not because they're using a formula, but rather... because they've done their job right and have found an end for their shot that works for their audience, because it is without their knowing linked to human nature itself...."

But if there turns out to be a correlation between quantifiable empirical factors (such as length of shots or brain waves) and audience response, I don't think it will matter much which was the chicken and which was the egg. What will matter is whether test results are reproducible according to some formula that will increase the likelihood of a desired response. I don't see how we can rule out the possibility that talented directors may have intuited neurological responses that can be more accurately charted with the use of information technology and distilled into reliable formulae. That doesn't mean we can get genius from a machine, but it may mean we can stack the deck for economic success (which is enough to get funding for a grant).

kev ferrara said...


I seem not to have explained my position well.

The point of my list of "sure-fire ways to make a hit" is that 10 times as many flops as successes have been produced using them. The list is all pseudo-knowledge.

Secondly, while it is true that editors will work using intuition, and maybe some have some formulas I don't know about... that isn't important.

What is important is that the shots express the ideas they present. This study fails utterly to take into account how content drives expression. Meaning: The only way to formalize shot lengths is to restrict expression to only those ideas which can be presented at the "optimal" shot lengths. This lack of diversity of ideas will quickly result in monotony. And monotony will result in boringness and a failure to interest the audience.

Mike Blette said...

Nice !!!

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Well said. Thanks for your appreciation of these drawings.

Mike Blette-- Glad you see it too. Thanks.

Kev Ferrara-- I didn't mean to dodge the thrust of your point. I agree that there is no
"sure-fire way to make a hit," no matter how many of the ingredients from your "sure fire" list are employed. (it used to be that gratuitous nudity was as close as you could come to that guarantee but even nudity has lost some of its box office allure as it has become commonplace.)

Philosopher Frank Sibley wrote a famous essay about "Aesthetic Concepts" (by which he meant a word that requires "taste or perceptiveness" in order to apply it.) Sibley's thesis is that there is no set of "non-aesthetic" terms that can automatically warrant the application of an aesthetic term. You can follow all the formulae and checklists in the world, but they can never lead automatically to an aesthetic result such as "beauty" or "gracefulness" or "grandeur." I think your point that "sure fire" ingredients often lead to flops is a similar one, and I don't disagree.

As for your larger point that "content drives expression," and that "the only way to formalize shot lengths is to restrict expression to only those ideas which can be presented at the "optimal" shot lengths," I'd say: exactly. The logical extension of the Cornell theory is that movies with long, complex content and slow, extended meanings will not do as well at the box office. I would not be surprised if that turned out to be true. You say, "This lack of diversity of ideas will quickly result in monotony. And monotony will result in boringness and a failure to interest the audience." I hope you're right, but you clearly never saw the movie, "Furry Vengance."

kev ferrara said...

Well, no, I didn't see it. (I try to restrict my self-punishment to the gym.) But, Furry Vengeance was a failure at the box office. Meanwhile, Groundhog Day and Castaway, two films that have philosophical hearts, did quite well and have become classics. So don't stash canned goods and board up your windows just yet!

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Matthew Harwood said...

I think Walia's on to something here. The twenty-first century solution to mediocre art: drugs. To enhance your aesthetic experience viewing Aunt Betsy’s watercolors at her assisted living facility fundraiser just take one Miagra© capsule and you’ll think you’re at Sotheby bidding on undiscovered Rembrandts. Or your wife insists that the two of you sit together and watch the four-hour conclusion of The Bachelor, no problem, take one Miagra© (or perhaps two) and voilà you’ll want to see it all over again but this time take notes.

It’ll be like the 60s but without the good music.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- For a moment there, I was beginning to doubt walia's sincerity. But now that you have pointed out the subtler meanings of his comment, I see he really has a lot to offer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning Sibley; sounds like interesting reading that I will have to investigate. I tend to ignore 20th century aesthetic writers and philosophers because they just don't speak to me (Heidegger as a prime example).

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand the lengthy debate here. However, I do believe that we enjoy art more when more of our imagination is involved. That's why comics have a stronger impact in story-telling as compared to movies, and, in many cases, an excellent comic book does not have the same impact when translated as a movie (no matter how great the movie version was). Conversely, a movie can tell a better, more engaging, story when translated into a comic.

Imagination is also the same reason why movie trailers are much more exciting than the actual product -- because we imagine the rest of the story.

I can give a lurid example, but David might delete my comment :-) It has something to do with doing something alone while imagining versus while watching something explicit...

P.S. David Apatoff, why don't you write about Will Eisner? He's also a master of "dark matter" story-telling.

Natasha said...

Nice artwork...its really good with the story...Animation Institute in punjab

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- I agree with you about much of 20th century aesthetics-- not just because so much of it became caught in those twin dead ends of analytic philosophy and existentialism, but because so many practicing artists began writing more interesting things than academic aestheticians. The Sibley paper first appeared in the Philosophical Review in 1949 but was expanded and reprinted in a number of places after that.

Anonymous-- it sounds like you understand the "lengthy debate" just fine (although I personally I think it is an overstatement to say that "comics have a stronger impact in story-telling as compared to movies.") As for lurid content, I understand and agree with your point, but you never have to worry about being deleted here. The only comments I ever delete are spam. I wrote about Will Eisner a while back and said that I really liked his work despite the fact that he wasn't a very good draftsman. Nearly got myself lynched.

Natasha-- I read with interest your school's advertisement about outsourcing animation work to India. I was aware of much outsourcing to China and Korea, but India is new to me as a source for that art.

kev ferrara said...

Re: Sibley... One can very easily create decorative beauty using very simple rule sets. Forget tiling patterns in Illustrator and Photoshop. You can do amazing stuff with Mathematica with a few numerical inputs. Penrose tiling is also rule based.

Beauty can be generated. So can complexity. The issue is meaning. Which is the outstanding problem regarding the use of rules to generate narrative beauty.