Reflexive Authorship in Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, and Don Hertzfeldt
Reflexivity and authorship are crucial concepts in animation and film. The balance between sustaining an audiences’ suspension of disbelief and giving the art reflexivity is challenging. Suspension of disbelief does not equate to the audience forgetting they’re watching a movie entirely, as this is unlikely in the majority of mentally stable viewers, but there are instances when the suspension of disbelief is broken without reflexivity and causes the audience to lose interest. For example, if a character in a film acts in a way that serves the narrative in opposition to the character’s predilections, the suspension of disbelief is lost with keen members of the audience and the cinematic effect is ruined. However, destroying suspension of disbelief through the proper use of reflexivity can increase enjoyment for the viewer and be essentially cinematic. In fact, it is possible to implement reflexive elements into a film and not break suspension of disbelief. Authorship, for example, does not necessarily interrupt suspension of disbelief. Authorship in it’s simplest state comes in the form of crediting those who worked on the film but this is rarely considered to be a part of the work of art and more as an appendix. In a movie theatre, the lights turn on at this point and the audience leaves. Combining authorship and reflexivity is more difficult as it can interrupt suspension of disbelief and appear egotistical, but if done right it can serve the film’s narrative, gag, and overall quality. The shorts being examined for reflexivity and authorship are Walt Disney’s “Alice’s Wonderland,” Chuck Jones’ “Duck Amuck,” and Don Hertzfeldt’s “Rejected.” Each of these cartoons implements combinations of reflexivity and authorship in different ways that borrow and build from those films produced before it.
The first of these films to be released is “Alice’s Wonderland” and it implements reflexive authorship from the start. When Alice walks into Disney’s studio and asks to watch him “draw funnies,” Disney’s obsession with authorship becomes apparent. Walt Disney is arguably the most famous figure in all of entertainment and this was no accident. His studio, named after himself, quickly sought to make Disney a recognizable figure in popular culture and did so by making him a character. After establishing this authorship he even starred in promotional films such as the announcement of the multiplane camera to capitalize on his fame further. The inclusion of Disney as a character in the film is a stark and effective example of authorship, and while this is already reflexive in nature, it is escalated when Disney begins drawing images that animate in front of Alice and his team. This is essentially cinematic due to the interaction of live action characters with animated ones, a concept only possible in animation, and doing so immediately draws attention to the fact that this is a film. This is effective as Disney was setting out to make cinema of attraction, but the suspension of disbelief remains intact as he also sets rules for this world that keep it relatively grounded. This carries into the second part of the film set in Alice’s dream due to the animated characters possessing limited plasticity. The live action world is obviously not plasmatic, but the animated world operates similarly. Once Alice falls asleep and enters “Cartoonland,” authorship takes a backseat to reflexivity. This portion of the film focuses even more so on creating a cinema of attraction through reflexivity as imposing a live action figure into an animated world was fresh and inventive. There is little narrative as the basic plot is simply Alice having a dream about cartoons doing various things. This also allows the viewer to further suspend their disbelief due to the events in this world presumably not having an effect on Alice. This helps frame the danger posed by the lions in a more kid friendly way, a primary focus of Disney at this time. There is also very little character or personality imposed into the animated world or Alice. The cartoon characters of the same species look identical and Alice is simply used as a vessel for the young viewer to increase the film’s attraction and reflexivity. However, this approach had not been done this way before due to Disney’s inventive use of authorship and reflexivity that eventually paid off heavily.
Chuck Jones took a more nuanced approach to authorship than Disney but a much more blatant approach to reflexivity. “Duck Amuck” is a short entirely centered on the idea of reflexivity, but there are traces of authorship throughout. The first case of reflexivity comes when Daffy is walking across the frame and the background slowly fades to white. This is an example of using mis en scene and negative space to draw attention to the cartoon’s medium. However, this is taken to another level once authorship is introduced. Daffy proceeds to address the animator demanding that he draw in scenery. An animated paintbrush begins painting a background in response and we get our first example of Jonesian authorship. Disney depicting a live action version of himself in his own film is the most blatant example of authorship being examined, but Jones does not turn to live action at all. Even with access to more sophisticated audio technology, he elects to not characterize himself through voice either. Instead, he uses the power of animation to humorously claim his authorship through his drawings and Daffy’s interaction with them. Jones was so set on favoring story over all else that he reveals at the end that Bugs was in fact the animator, but despite that narrative separation, his personality and comedic sensibilities are bleeding through in the form of reflexive authorship. A prime example of this is the scene where Daffy is trying to play guitar but random sound effects play instead. The character of the animator, played by Bugs but representative of Jones, seems to garner joy from teasing his own creation through a deconstruction of his world’s physics. This inventive use of sound effects is a reflexive act by Jones’ character, but reflexivity is most apparent in Daffy as he is characterized as a disgruntled actor completely aware that he is in a cartoon. His concerns about his “contract” and “keeping trim” are nonsensical as he does not actually exist, but this reflexive monologue is hilarious for that very reason. Jones also uses cinematography in a reflexive way in the scene where Daffy is far away from the camera and asks for a “close-up.” He initially crops the mis en scene to only show Daffy far away, but due to Daffy’s insistence on a close up he adjusts the cinematography and animates the effect of the camera moving rapidly toward Daffy. Almost every moment of this film is reflexive in some way. When Daffy demands they “get this picture started,” it prematurely cuts to “The End,” and he is seen pushing the text box across the screen. The nature of the cartoon and the reflexive nature of the relationship between Daffy and the animator are deconstructed. After the film reel gets stuck and there are 2 Daffys on screen, the animator erases the original Daffy in favor of the second. This is existentially reflexive and leaves the audience questioning if the Daffy they were introduced to at the beginning and the Daffy seen at the end are the same character. This is essentially cinematic and offers a unique viewing experience. The characterization of the animator and his interaction with the animated world had a clear influence on Hertzfeldt and “Rejected.”
Don Hertzfeldt approaches reflexive authorship by creating a false narrative in which he is animating cartoon advertisements for multiple companies. When examining the film as a whole, especially the ending, this is clearly a narrative. However, the initial reaction of audiences would be to believe that narrative as Hertzfeldt does not credit himself as the editor of the film. In fact, the choice to refer to him in the third person is a deliberate subversion of audience expectations and implements a unique strain of authorship. This authorship is a combination of the approaches used by Disney and Jones. Disney literally creates a caricature of himself in the narrative and Jones characterizes himself through the animation, but Hertzfeldt borrows elements from both of these. The film’s narrator, the one writing the text, is not the animator Don Hertzfeldt. Initially he creates a caricature of his actual self within the narrative of the film similar to Dinsey, but the ending turns more Jonesian as he emulates the experience of the cartoons’ world being compromised. The short is broken into four major sections, each becoming increasingly darker and bizarre. This serves the narrative of the film well as each section shows Hertzfeldt growing more disgruntled with the corporations he’s working for and their rejections of him. When he begins making advertisements for Johnson and Mills he includes slanderous quotes at the end of each short like, “Now with more sodium,” and “I am a consumer whore!” This is an example of reflexive authorship within the narrative of the short as this calls attention to the fact that they are advertisements and characterize Hertzfeldt’s sentiments toward the company. The short drawn with his left hand is very reflexive in it’s use of sound. Using your non-dominant hand to animate has no actual effect on the sound recorded, but the characters speaking gibberish calls attention to that fact and produces a comedic effect because of it. The end of the short depicting the destruction of the world is very reminiscent of “Duck Amuck” as the cartoons’ world is being destroyed. In “Duck Amuck” it was through changes in animation but in “Rejected” it is due to the physical destruction of the paper. This is another marriage of authorship and reflexivity as Hertzfeldt’s dysphoria results in his creations’ destruction and the specific animations used to depict this utilize the destruction of the medium itself. The technical expertise of the ending animation gives further significance to Hertzfeldt’s deliberately amateur style as he proves it was a creative choice and not due to a lack of skill. Don Hertzfeldt clearly took concepts of reflective authorship established by Disney and Jones and made them his own.
While Disney, Jones, and Hertzfeldt all approached reflexive authorship in different ways, they have similar threads running through them. All of them called attention to the medium they were working with, they all put their specific creative signature on their work, and they all built upon existing approaches to reflexive authorship and made it their own. Reflexive authorship is a difficult balance to walk, but each of these animators did so masterfully.
Disney, Walt. Alice’s Wonderland 1923.
Hertzfeldt, Don. Rejected 2000.
Jones, Chuck. Duck Amuck 1953.