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Poster for The Man with the Golden Arm. Saul Bass

“The simplest form of animation is a succession of static images that relate to each other in design and take up their positions on the screen in a sequence, the significance of which is determined by some other factor – for example, the animated credit titles of a film or certain kinds of cinema or television commercial.” John Halas, Motion in Design Longacre Press LTD London 1962 page 13

In the opening chapter to his book, Motion in Design, Halas uses screen shots of Saul Bass’ credits for Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm. What has been acceptably termed today as motion graphics is here being explained as one of the simplest forms of animation. The word ‘simplest’ may rile a few motion designers today but there is something quite revealing in the use of that superlative. A revelation that may well help us understand a particular facet of how motion graphics developed from within the traditional animation studio to become today what is considered more a product of the graphic design studio.

In a later work entitled, Film & TV Graphics 2, (Edited by Walter Herdeg. The Graphis Press 1976), Halas points out four major developments in animation :

1). The discovery of the technique of animation.

2). Perfection of the technique – Disney as an example of the tradition
3). Revolt of the Disney tradition – The need to expand the graphic style and remove itself from natural movement and ‘photorealism’.

4). The electronic & digital revolution bringing about an expansion of the art of animation in other domains such as special effects for film.

It is the third observation that raises an important detail in historical terms. This turning point in animation’s history gave birth to the studios UPA in America, Zagreb in central Europe and indeed to a certain extent Halas himself in England, all of which were pursuing a simpler graphic style. According to Amid Amidi in his book Cartoon Modern (Chronicle Books LLC 2006), studios were opening up that were uniquely producing industrial and commercial films for the television with the First Motion Picture Unit being set up by the Army Air Force as early as 1942 as a means to train and educate officers. In his book Cartoons (Marsilio Editori, 1988), Giannalberto Bendazzi explains that during the 50’s, the television became a major player not only as a means for distribution but also as a catalyst for changing the form of animation.This particular form came in the shape of animated shorts for advertising. And the fact that animators had to find quick and memorable solutions for snappy 15 second commercials brought in a new kind of visual draughtsman – the graphic designer.

This shift from animation as entertainment to a mode of education and communication meant that there was an increased importance for the graphic designer within the animation studio – an “equal partner with the animator and the film technician.” (Film & TV Graphics 2, page 8), as Halas puts it. However this increased status also brought with it more importantly a new perspective to animation. One that was directly informed by a new graphic and visual language based on simple, basic and conceptual ideas. This simplicity, as Halas correctly points out is evident in Saul Bass’ work. The content is conceptual, graphic, limited and almost minimalist. Within Bass’ own words, he was always reducing his visual work to the bare essentials – the simple concept. “We see the challenge as getting the concept down to something totally simple, and yet doing something with it that provokes; to achieve a simplicity which also has a certain amiguity and a certain metaphysical implication that make that simplicity vital.” (Looking for the Simple Idea. Sight and Sound. February 1994. Interview and article by Pat Kirkham).

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