Animated Poetry-films Essay

Expanding on borrowed words: The animator as author in animated poetry-film.

AUTHOR: Diek Grobler

Animation is a free medium with porous borders that are constantly in flux. Gianalberto Bendazzi (2008:[sp]) defines animation as “everything that people have called animation in the different historical periods” which reflects that freedom. Bendazzi’s definition places the responsibility of defining not only on theorists but also on the practitioners of the art. Because of animation’s relative freedom from theoretical parameters, it has the licence to draw inspiration from any source, such as literature, real life, folklore, fairy tales, and poetry without the need to justify its choices. As a result, genre in animated film is seldom classified according to the source of its inspiration: Poetry-film is not a genre of animation. 

Poetry-film is a genre of filmmaking that concerns a hybrid combination of poetry and film. 

In the praxis of poetry-film, a variety of technical approaches are used. Live footage and found-footage films are popular with the average poetry-filmmaker because of its relative ease of production. Although a substantial body of animated poetry-films exists, animation as a medium of execution is afforded little attention in the critical approach to poetry-film. The manner of moving image production seems to be regarded as incidental. The complexities of fabrication, materiality of the animated film, and the implications for making meaning in the film are not valued. Meaning is for the words to make. 

I believe that within the medium of poetry-film, the animated poetry-film should be regarded as a genre. I use the term ‘genre’ rather loosely to shed light on the manner and process of constructing the poetry-film, rather than on its subject matter. 

Poetry-film is an intermedial genre, practised by both poets and filmmakers. As a result, the question of authorship has become a divisive issue among its practitioners. It is often insisted on being a literary genre rather than a cinematic one. The poet is regarded as its author even when an independent filmmaker is involved in the filmmaking part of the process. I contest this claim on authorship because within the animated poetry-film, the actual poetic text constitutes only a part of the content of the hybrid artwork. The animator does an extensive amount of additional authoring, enhancing the poem’s core concepts and adding meaning. 

Defining authorship 

Derived from the Latin ‘augere’, the verb ‘to author’ (its present participle, ‘authoring’) refers to creating through the action of writing, in language, a piece of text. However, ‘augere’ also refers to being the originator of a concept, a person who invents or causes something, and increases or promotes. The versatility of application of ‘authoring’ is reflected in its continued use in computer language in terms of authoring systems and software. In the combination of poetry and animation, all these aspects of authoring are engaged: Writing, originating, promoting, inventing, and causing. To focus on only one writing in assigning an author to the poetry-film is to ignore a vast portion of additional authoring essential for the existence of poetry-film.

Opinions in the field

Fil Ieropolous and Fin Harvour are two artist-academics involved in the praxis and study of poetry-film who express directly opposing views. Ieropolous favours the filmmaker as auteur, saying, “The poetry-film tradition has arrived at the point where the notion of the filmmaker as the main person behind a filmic creation has to be reclaimed and the modernist appropriation of poetics on film are seen as an ‘alternative viewpoint’ (Ieropoulos s.a.). On the other hand, Harvor maintains that poetry-film should be regarded as a genre of literature, saying, “What videopoetry requires as a form is a clearly thought-out literary and aesthetic ideology. But to have this, it also needs to prove that it is a fundamentally literary form… On a practical level, one needs to foreground the poem – ideally, the text – in a videopoem” (Harvor 2017:[sp]).

Harvor’s concern is with the parameters of ‘authorship’ and what it means to create a literary artefact. He claims that collaborations between filmmakers and writers often lead to an overwhelming amount of credit being lent to the filmmaker. He motivates this concern by referring to the near-invisibility of the screenwriter in feature-film-making. He states that the ‘seduction of the visual’ can be at the expense of the verbal, watering down the poetic qualities of poem and film hybrid artforms. He demands a film in which the author of the poem is directly and clearly the author of the ‘new media’ creation so that poetry to retain its position of importance (Harvor 2017:[sp]). Harvor’s reference to the near invisibility of the screenwriter in feature films cannot be equated with the poet-filmmaker relationship in poetry-film. The feature film is seldom, if ever, intended to be a literature-film hybrid. The literary text is seldom present in its original literary form as is the case in poetry-film. The filmic adaptation of a literary text is of necessity a mise en abyme of authorial texts, resulting in multiple productions of meaning. Apart from the original text, there would be an adapted text, a film text, the director’s text, the actor’s texts, the production texts, and finally, the various texts’ own intertexts. The notion of authorship in the literary adaptation becomes very dispersed, as the original author is only one among many (Hayward 2001). 

The original author in the poetry-film is in a privileged position. The text cannot disappear among the various instances of authoring. The text remains physically present in the film, either voiced, text on screen, or both. Poetry-film could be viewed as an instance of metamorphosis, rather than an act of adaptation. The poem becomes a film, rather than the film representing the poem.

Aspects of authoring 

A substantial amount of authoring has to be done on various levels for a poetry-film to come into existence.

The original authoring 

The lyrical poem forms the basis of the poetry-film, is a point of departure for the visual narrative, and structures the act of narration. Rather than linear storylines and concrete plotlines, lyrical poetry is characterised by metaphorical description and abstraction. Lyrical poems are “stories that tell what is” rather than “stories that tell what happened” (Phelan in Slowik 2014: 281). Lyrical poetry typically features “strings of primarily mental or psychological happenings perceived through the consciousness of single speakers and articulated from their position” (Huhn & Sommer 2013: [sp]).

Additional authoring 

The creation of an animated poetry-film requires additional authoring as a means of transforming the poem from printed text on a page to a cinematic artefact. All of these instances of authoring are usually done by the animator. 

a. Authoring through analysis

Authoring through analysis entails the selection and analyses of the chosen poetic text to establish its meaning or significance. The animator processes the poem for visual consumption. This processing includes translating literary concepts into visual ones. 

b. Authoring through conceptual construction

Authoring through conceptual construction is the conception of a screenplay for a film in which these visual concepts are communicated by means of visual narrative strategies. The screenplay as an artefact predating the production of a film is not a necessity. As a construct, the screenplay plays a role in viewing the poetry-film, qualifying the discrepancy between the script (poem) and the visual material presented with the poem. 

c. Authoring of the visual world

Authoring of the visual world is authoring the universe of the film through a design process in terms of a visual style to determine that universe’s appearance. 

d. Authoring of the visual language

Authoring of the visual language is presenting a system that consists of a lexicon and a grammar. The lexicon consists of a set of images – some of which might be signs with universal significance and some of which might be specific or particular to a film. The grammar is a spatiotemporal grammatical system of the moving image. This system refers to how space is designed in a single frame of an animated film, and how time is designed by creating representations of movement and structures of duration, and by combining individual images. The images form a filmic sequence that creates duration, speed, and aspects of timing and movement. The aspect of movement of objects through space and time produces meanings in relation to time.

e. Editing as authoring

Editing as authoring is a practical process of constructing a film frame by frame. The very nature of animation puts editing at the very heart of the process. Editing is one of the primary devices of signification available to the film artist, since editing creates sequential relationships in a film, giving new meaning to the images. Animation not only requires editing between shots and sequences as would real-time film but theoretically between every two sequential frames. 


Pioneer of film semiotics, Christian Metz points out that cinematic meaning-making and linguistic meaning-making possess similar features adjusted to fit each medium’s primary mode of address (Yacavone 2018). Visual images possess both an expression and content plane for meaning-making, which should be factored in for the planes’ contribution to meaning-making in a text (Fei 2007:[sp]). The planes’ significance is especially important in a medium where text and visual imagery function together within a shared timeline, as is the case in poetry-film. In the animated poetry-film, both text and imagery impart meaning on equal footing, that is, text not functioning in a supportive role as dialogue, nor imagery functioning merely as an illustration. 

Estonian academic and animator, Ulo Pikkov (2018:34) regards the director’s authorial position as inseparable from the film and views the extent to which the film affects the director personally as an essential criterion in the evaluation of an animated film. In the making of an animated poetry-film the animator is affected personally by the poem chosen to such an extent that the animator is prepared to spend a substantial amount of time transposing that affection into a film. The animator borrows the words of the poet and authors the film around it in so many different ways. In the animated poetry-film, the animator is more than an illustrator putting moving pictures to the words of the poem. Animation is a visual language, and the animator an author wielding a camera-pen. 

PhD at the University of South Africa

READ Narrative strategies in the creation of animated poetry-films.


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