Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer – Kyle R. McDaniel

Abstract: This study analyzes the aesthetic content and user-generated feedback of fan-appropriated film trailers exhibited in on the Internet. The aim of this research is to gauge participatory culture’s involvement in the transformation of promoting archival motion pictures on the Internet. This research study looks to fan trailers as unique media entities that exist as visually empowered narratives created through specific acts of fandom. Specifically, this study investigates the audiovisual and discursive elements of competing trailers for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). The findings suggest that fan trailers are capable of generating myth and nostalgia for aging motion picture properties through user-generated acts. The broader goal of this project is to understand the relationship between participatory film cultures and studio-controlled motion picture content available on video streaming and sharing media channels.

Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Introduction: Trailers at a Turning Point

A YouTube video by an unknown director can suddenly blow up on the marketplace, and there will be three studios bidding for it. (Without having yet met the director!)…Maybe execs are busy watching YouTube instead of hearing pitches. Our work is virtual.   

-Lynda Obst, Sleepless in Hollywood (2013, 27).

In April 2014, an online user released a high-definition film trailer on YouTube for David Fincher’s forthcoming thriller, Gone Girl (YouTube 2014a). Several hours after the trailer’s debut, an impressive 186,000 fans had accessed the content with 276 of that number contributing written feedback to the message board on the webpage. While film fans were sharing interest and excitement for the trailer on YouTube, News Corp., the media entity that financed Gone Girl through 20th Century Fox, perceived a threat of digital piracy. The following day, the conglomerate removed the trailer and the fan commentary. In the absence of this content, News Corp. left a statement reading, “FOX has blocked [the trailer] on copyright grounds” (YouTube 2014b). This incident is representative of the contemporary state of affairs between media conglomerates with a controlling interest in motion pictures and film fans in online spaces. The presence of film trailers on the Internet presents a specific set of issues for both parties as well, especially in relation to film marketing and promotion, in addition to content ownership and control over copyright.

This study engages with how film fans interact with once-profitable motion picture properties through fan trailers on the Internet. Here, the fan trailer is defined as the act of re-editing and re-exhibiting abridged film content through online channels. Fan trailers are realized through specific and largely collective acts of user-participation, and have the potential to revitalize interest in aging film properties. This article explores the audiovisual and content-related aspects of fan trailers in comparison to a distributor-owned trailer for Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick 1978). Furthermore, the feedback or commentary on message boards is also investigated as part of this research project to locate how such discourse speaks to the collective memory of Hollywood archives. In order to understand the issues surrounding the emergence and popularity of the broad spectrum of Internet trailers, this study looks to literature on the relationship between the evolution and of fan involvement with digital cinema and new media, as well as scholarship on the history of film trailers and film promotion and advertising. The findings from this article suggest that fan trailers play a crucial role in continuing the lifespan of aging Hollywood properties or archival films. The proliferation of fan trailers through video streaming and sharing websites as well as the message board commentary suggests that fan participation is instrumental to building relationships between film and viewer. In turn, participatory cultures that interact with older film titles in online channels incorporate aspects of their public and private selves as part of this creative process. The following research questions are designed to further explore this relationship between film fans inhabiting online spaces and the evolving state of fan trailers in digital cinema: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Film Promotion in the Digital Age: New Strategies, New Rules

For much of the 2000s, Hollywood was reluctant to promote film content through online channels for fear of losing theatrical and home video revenue (Sickels 2011a). The film industry seemed confused by the ever-growing presence of the Internet and related online technologies for film exhibition. But to effectively reach a global audience, the studios and their parent media conglomerates were eventually forced to adapt to the changing media landscape. As Sickels (2011) stated: “Deals with Netflix and the like are only going to delay the inevitable…Audiences don’t want to wait, and they certainly won’t when their only reason for having to do so is an artificial time structure concocted by the studios…”(145). By the second decade of the century, the industry’s fears had become a reality, with on-demand film and television viewing radically altering the industry.

Scholars have pointed to the different complexities of film marketing in the digital age and the associated challenges for the U.S. film industry (e.g., Cunningham and Silver 2013). In Perren’s (2010) words, “A wide range of economic, cultural, political, and formal factors are at play; different entities have distinctive stakes in online distribution” (77).  In other words, films with a greater potential to appeal to a global audience receive preferential treatment from media conglomerates, as well as promoters, marketers, and distributors. With video-on-demand (VOD) revenue climbing steadily since 2010, the studios are looking to different methods for advertising motion pictures beyond the more traditional formats, which includes one-sheets of film posters and theatrical and television spots (Roxborough 2013). Film trailers on the Internet are a viable option in this evolving landscape. The Internet Movie Database and YouTube are the most frequently visited websites supporting online film trailers, with both entities supporting numerous trailers for new releases and older Hollywood titles. In effect, the spectrum of film trailers on the Internet presents a number of potential issues for the film industry. Trailers, historically controlled by studios for advertising and publicity purposes, are increasingly pirated by outside entities. One scholar argues that film industry insiders are the ones largely responsible for leaking studio-controlled content online, with the availability of illegal anti-encryption and watermarking software to bypass copyright restrictions playing a role as well (Bettig 2008, 200-201). Since the release of the DVD De-Content Scramble System (DeCSS) in 2002, film content has been descrambled and decoded for public access and use, despite the studios efforts to control motion picture content (Litman 2002).

Film fans, however, have argued that such laws overwhelmingly favor those with a financial stake in motion picture properties, thereby inhibiting individual and collective acts of creative expression (Boyle 2008). As such, studio-backed restrictions have resulted in more frequently cited instances of pirated motion pictures as well as an upsurge in websites devoted to streaming and downloading studio-owned film content (Sterbenz 2014). Scholars and journalists reporting on the film industry have addressed some of these issues in relation to film trailers. For instance, Rothman (2014) discussed how theatrical trailer standardization discourages user interactivity. Tolson (2010) reported that fan participation with film content suggests an increase in technological “play” that disrupts the traditional model of media production to consumption. Others have looked at how trailer “mobility” is encouraged in a cross-platform media environment, and the effects of contemporary trailer length and message on the viewer (see Franich 2013; Johnston 2008). While many of the issues surrounding film promotion in online spaces remain unanswered, trailers continue to serve as a primary marketing tool for motion picture studios and their parent conglomerates. Fan involvement with film trailers is a burgeoning area of contemporary film marketing and new media, but scholarship on this subject is lacking. Therefor, how participatory cultures connect to older film titles in online spaces through the fan trailer remains an unexplored avenue of study for cinema and media scholars.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Trailers in Transition: A Brief History and Contemporary Definitions

The most time-honored marketing strategy for film promotion is the movie trailer, commonly referred to as the “preview.” Kernan (2009) traced the genealogy of film trailers to 1919, citing the National Screen Service (NSS) as the first unified company responsible for creating these advertising spots. The author asserts that the evolution of the film industry during the 20th century affected changes in the types of motion pictures produced, thereby altering the aesthetics and meta-messages of trailers in the ensuing decades. A transition in film marketing occurred during the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s, with a rise in independent filmmaking, an upsurge of art-house theaters, and eventually, the summer blockbuster. During these decades, films trailers debuted on network television in thirty-second spots, visually supported by moments lifted from the film, and complete with the now-familiar and once-prominent voice-of-God narration. By the contemporary era, trailers had become “unique form[s] of narrative film exhibition, wherein promotional discourse and narrative pleasure are conjoined (whether happily or not)” (Kernan 2009b, 1). In essence, this period saw the rise of distinct promotional film advertisements alongside the audience’s familiarity and ability to detect such media forms.

Scholars regard the modern film trailer as both complex and historically shifting media type. A leading scholar on the history and transition of motion picture trailers suggests that these forms are specifically targeted, easily recognizable visual media that are created to capture, direct, and guide viewer attention (Wyatt 1994). Today, both media entities and online film fans aid in determining trailer standards and audiovisual elements. Trailers are guided by audiovisual messages through structured narratives to connect with the largest number of viewers through multi-platform distribution. Some have argued that film trailers in the digital era are defined by their dynamic if fleeting presence, asserting that contemporary trailers are forced to compete with other media forms to encourage audience-driven participation or feedback (see Rombes 2009a). Smartphones and digital tablets indicate an increase in trailer mobility and interactivity on behalf of audiences, who are receiving different media in shorter, eye-catching bursts (Grainge 2011).  Scholars have also argued that the efforts of fans on the Internet extend film capital beyond traditional home video or cable and network replay through film mashups or distributing abridged content (e.g., Sickels 2011c; Hoyt 2010a). Tyron (2009) traced the inception of the digital movie trailer to a fan preview for The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980) that gained Internet traction the same year as the inception of YouTube. According to the author, the fan trailer was an outgrowth of DVD culture “that allowed viewers to recognize that texts were ready to be ripped apart and reassembled in playful new ways” (151). Lazzarato (2006) described these types of fan creations as influential because they are “activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion” (132). In sum, film fans use popular film properties to engage with and further promote such content to a wider range of consumers.

Re-appropriating and exhibiting film content is oftentimes understood as a group effort. Rose (2012a) argues that the cyclical discourse that occurs in online social networks encourages is what engages users to interact with film properties. Citing Avatar (James Cameron 2009) and The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson 2001-2003) trilogy as examples, the author maintains that a strong and relatable narrative or story is of the key to fan involvement. According to Rose, online visual narratives must be able to entertain as well as challenge participant-viewers, thereby encouraging individuals to take part in the creative act (233). Through user-participation and online media channels, the modern film trailer appears in transition. In an environment increasingly dominated by new media platforms and social networking, video-sharing websites are stimulating the development of relationships among social actors.

Defining Participatory Cultures and Digital Cinema

Participation raises the question of whose story is it? And, the answer I think is, it’s all of ours. In order to really identify with the story, in some way we have to make it our own.

-Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion (2012b).


Online users are now affecting many aspects of the motion picture industry and most recently, have turned to collaborative involvement with film trailers. Through an increasing number of video streaming and sharing websites, fans are producing and exhibiting short and hybrid motion picture forms from existing film content. Jenkins (1992) defined networked individuals who engage with and repurpose existing media materials as members of participatory cultures. These persons “speak from a position of collective identity, forge an alliance with a community of others in defense of tastes which…cannot be read as totally aberrant or idiosyncratic” (23). The author attributed the roots of this phenomenon to fan communities that built up around popular television programs, such as Star Trek, and who communicated and bonded through sharing information at conventions and fan clubs. More recently, Jenkins (2006a) has adapted his definition to include new media and social networking. Although optimistic about the endeavors of participatory cultures, Jenkins has noted the drawbacks of these communities as well, including the shifting power dynamics of group members and the involvement of corporate entities. In addition, the author has described the illegal activities of some members of participatory cultures, specifically those parties who undermine media conglomerates through acts of digital piracy and copyright infringement. Jenkins (2006b) has also commented on the burgeoning relationship between participatory cultures and digital cinema:

[I see] media fans as active participants…seeing their cultural products as an important aspect of the digital cinema movement. If many advocates of digital cinema have sought to democratize the means of cultural production and distribution to a broader segment of the general public then the rapid proliferation of fan-produced Star Wars films may represent a significant early success story for that movement (551-552).

In other words, the upsurge in digital cinema is dependent on fans in much the same way that fans are dependent upon interacting with cinematic creations. Digital cinema, as such, is oftentimes described as an outgrowth of online fan participation. Rombes (2009b) claims that collective acts of nostalgia, personal expression, and the adaptation of new technologies play a role in shaping digital cinema. Beginning with the rise of digital video and cinematography in the mid-1990s, the author discusses an additional factor in the relationship between digital cinema and the actions of participatory cultures: “There is a tendency in digital media – and cinema especially – to reassert imperfection, flaws, an aura of human mistakes to counterbalance the logic of perfection that pervades the digital” (Rombes 2009c, 2). In consideration with Rose’s (2012) insistence on powerful storytelling, Rombes argues that digital cinematic forms are generated and desirable because of factors such as pixilation and noise, which appear to mirror human imperfections. While fan intervention in existing film content raises questions for the future of digital cinema and a general understanding of what constitutes motion picture archives, participatory cultures have contributed to film marketing and promotion since the late 1990s. According to Erickson (2009a), who studied Internet film campaigns for The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez 1999) and others, studios appropriate fan-based advertising strategies if fan efforts prove financially successful.  This article is concerned with how participatory cultures repurpose and interact with the content of older motion picture titles. The entrance of fan trailers through online video streaming platforms suggests new territory for digital cinema, as well as the possible extension of the lifespan for archived film properties.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Case Study Film: Days of Heaven

Since it was first released, “Days of Heaven” has gathered legends to itself…[it] is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made. Malick’s purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss. His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.

-Roger Ebert (1997a).

In the contemporary media marketplace, conglomerates and studios overseeing film distribution and exhibition pay close attention to the role of technologies in film promotion and branding. This is also true when considering how older film titles are released, with potential revenue gained from cable and network television broadcasts, DVD rentals and sales and most recently, VOD. Those with a financial stake in film archives oftentimes publicize and rerelease only a select number of dated film titles per year, with those properties having the most commercial potential regarded as particularly valuable on the marketplace. While some noteworthy and popular motion picture titles are available for little-to-no pay through video-sharing online services, media conglomerates use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, for instance, to promote their most commercially viable films. It is here that the role of participatory culture and the evolution of the fan trailer in the archival value of film properties must be taken into consideration. Days of Heaven is significant because of its longstanding popularity amongst fans, its continual re-emergence in the public arena, and its location in cinematic history. Malick’s film arrived at a turning point in the New Hollywood of the 1970s. The competition between fledgling studio productions and a burgeoning independent film movement marked much of the decade’s releases (see Thompson and Bordwell 2010; Biskind 1998, et. al.). “But by the late 1970s,” Thomson (2012) writes, “there began to be fewer grown-up pictures meant to disturb and provoke” (459).

Before and after its release, Days of Heaven was considered an oddity for Paramount Pictures, a none-too-profitable feature that rested on the short reputation of its filmmaker.[1] Malick spent his early years in Hollywood penning several projects for other directors until his first feature-length film, Badlands (Terrence Malick 1973), gained traction from both audiences and critics, garnering a reputation as the second Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967). Patterson (2007) said Malick’s film offered the director the chance to “work outside more conventional parameters” (28). The filmmaker’s follow-up, however, was grander in scope and presented to audiences as a thematic American period piece. Set in the Great Plains of the 1910s, the narrative focused on a romantic amongst two migrant workers and a land baron. Morrison and Schur (2003) described Days as “wed[ding] Whitman’s poetic ideal of the democratic vista to the interior landscapes of Henry James, with a plot that evokes The Wings of the Dove and ends with a quasi-biblical plague of locusts” (23) [Fig. 1]. Indeed, the locusts were memorable, as was a lengthy scene in which wildfire spreads rapidly across the grasslands, scorching a vast swath of farmland. But much of the film’s storyline involved the happenings of Malick’s starring quartet – Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, and Sam Shepard – with the characters’ muted emotions drawn out in close-ups paired with character voiceover.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Much of the film’s legend was only realizable years after its release. For one, Malick departed from filmmaking for two decades after Days, leaving a questionable legacy for a motion picture whose long-term stability rested on the director’s reputation and the film’s much-discussed cinematography. Over time, those perfectly composed images of man and nature, or what Kehr (2011) glowingly referred to as, “aesthetic shock effects [that] create vast, harmonious wholes,” were responsible for keeping the film in the minds of journalists and cinephiles (23-24). The film’s cinematography eventually became something of Hollywood lore [Fig. 2]. Ebert (1997b) detailed the infighting between credited director of photography, Nestor Almendros, and his predecessor, the notoriously cantankerous Haskell Wexler, in his “Great Movie” review of the film. Over the years, rumblings over credit for the look and feel of the film have led to a reconsideration of the man responsible for capturing such well-regarded images. In the years since its release, Malick returned to filmmaking and has garnered generally favorable reviews and some commercial success.[2] No fewer than ten book-length volumes are dedicated to the filmmaker’s resurgence, including The Terrence Malick Handbook (Smith 2012), and a number of academic and trade journal entries have surfaced on the canonical worthiness of Days (e.g., Crofts 2001; Woessner 2011; Koehler 2013, et. al.). Not surprisingly, praise and frustration for the film reigns on the Internet as well. The number and popularity of video clips available on video streaming and sharing websites suggests additional enforcement of the scholarly and journalistic discourse devoted to the film as well. While Days remains a much-debated and discussed film more than 35 years after its theatrical release, the role of trailers for the film on the Internet deserves attention in the era of cross-platform film promotion.

Selection of Trailer Case Studies: The Presence of Days of Heaven Online

The “Paramount Movies” channel on YouTube, overseen by Viacom, offers an original trailers for Days of Heaven [Fig. 3]. The Criterion Collection, responsible for marketing and distributing the Blu-ray and HD-DVD versions of the film, also displays an official trailer on its homepage for Days.[3] Mysteriously, Paramount’s trailer has received few visitors on YouTube while Criterion’s showcases an impressive 153 user-generated comments. The seeming randomness of attracting viewers to trailer content in online spaces is represented in this brief comparison, which appears to crossover to fan trailers as well (YouTube 2014c; The Criterion Collection 2014). The volume and popularity of fan trailers and video clips of Days showcased on YouTube overshadows this corporately controlled material in several ways as well. For one, the power of the video sharing website’s status as a social networking outlet is immediately evident. The “WorleyClarence” YouTube channel, for instance, has reposted an official version of Paramount’s trailer with an astonishing 360,000 views and 97 message board posts.[4] “JokerTreePictures,” described as an umbrella channel for three student filmmakers, has created a seven-minute video essay for Days that has gathered significant attention [Fig. 4]. Another YouTube user offers a promotional video compiled from scenes from Days matched with the music of Rod Stewart’s pop single, “Broken Arrow.” The sum of this content, which includes fan-exhibited interviews with the cast and crew as well as scenes lifted from the film, is evidence of the film’s presence on the Internet (YouTube 2014d).

For this study, three trailers were chosen as individual case studies based on the following criteria: 1) the recognizable differences in their audiovisual content, 2) the number of online views (i.e., “hits”), and 3) the number of message board posts or available online feedback. Two fan-appropriated trailers exhibited on YouTube were selected based on these requirements, as was the aforementioned trailer available through The Criterion Collection. The necessity of the trailer selection process was to compare and contrast elements of fan trailers with an official trailer approved by a media outlet in an effort to answer the research questions for this study. Many trailers that did not meet the research criteria were not selected because of factors such as conflicting content with the selected trailers, a lack of available user-generated discourse on message boards, and/or the number of recorded views or hits online. After completing the selection process, trailers were coded A (“WorleyClarence” YouTube Channel), B (“cnharrison” YouTube Channel), and C (The Criterion Collection), respectively. The researcher conducted individual and comparative audiovisual analyses on trailers A, B, and C and made notes on narrative structure and trailer content. This was followed by a qualitative content analysis of the online commentary or feedback on the message boards for each trailer’s webpage. In effect, the trailer selection process and resulting analyses were guided by the research questions for this study: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Days of (Online) Fan Trailer Heaven

Trailer A opens with an image of Paramount Pictures’ trademark logo. The studio’s signature emblem fades into an image of brooding clouds looming over a wind-worn prairie. Thunder bellows on the soundtrack, and a shot of a bird of prey morphs into a backlit figure of a man standing in the grasslands at sunset. “In 1916, America was changing,” the narrator says in the trailer’s opening seconds. An image of a railcar passing over a bridge fades into a scene of factory workers digging through heaps of coal, followed by another wide frame of an empty sunbaked wheat field. The viewer is then swept into close-ups of the rough-hewn faces of the film’s stars – Gere, Shepard, and Adams – amidst passing railcars and horse-drawn carriages en route to the barren frontier [Fig. 5]. One minute and fifteen seconds into Trailer A, the serene mood and tone of the narrative changes abruptly. The narrator’s voice states that the film is “the story of a man who had nothing…the woman who loved him…and the man who would give her everything for a share of that love” (YouTube 2014e). With these words, the imagery moves away from the thematic scope of the land and its inhabitants and into the romantic dilemma at the heart of the film. A scene in which Gere’s field hand runs from law enforcement on horseback is juxtaposed with a quieter moment of his character embracing Adams in a quiet meadow. The next shot is an extreme close-up of Shepard’s watchful gaze, as if overseeing these scenes from afar.

As the narrative for Trailer A moves towards its conclusion, Adams and Shepard are photographed in silhouette inside the latter’s large estate, while the bedraggled face of Gere’s character peers up at the duo through a windowpane from below. This moment is framed from Gere’s perspective, with the actor and the encompassing field bathed in the deep blues of a Midwestern dusk, suggesting the loneliness his character will face with the coming of night. The film’s title appears over this closing shot, foreshadowing a troubled outcome for the trio. Trailer A presents much of the entire film’s narrative in under two minutes; what begins as a broad glimpse of turn-of-the-century westward expansion in the U.S. evolves into a minor tale of lost love [Fig. 5]. Thematically, the trailer’s primary audiovisual message suggests a heightening of nostalgia for both the American West and the Hollywood of the late 1970s, with the mythic qualities of innocence and utopia highlighted in the cinematography and production design [Fig. 6]. The professionalism of the editing in Trailer A, including the pairing of shots and sequence evolution provides a seamless story arc. Thus, the inclusion of Paramount’s introductory logo, the ‘70s-era voice-of-God narration, and the production elements suggests that this user-exhibited fan trailer was re-appropriated without revising the original trailer’s content. Therefore, Trailer A is most likely an original trailer for the film repurposed by one or more online fans. Trailer B also provides a visually compelling narrative to signal nostalgia and romanticism for the American West. But here, the viewer is immediately transplanted into to the lives of the film’s primary characters without the broader introduction of the land and its inhabitants as witnessed in Trailer A [Fig. 7].

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

The opening shot in Trailer B, a striking low-angle image of Gere, Adams, and the younger Manz running to catch a moving train, introduces the film’s predominant family dynamic.[5] Next is a shot of moving railcars topped with migrant travelers that segue into multiple close-ups of these characters’ hardened faces. Already, the viewer is guided toward the themes of travel and migration. The following image shows the Gere, Adams, and Manz trio atop one of the railcars, amidst the masses, fleeing the East for better opportunities. The rest of Trailer B’s running time focuses on the romantic triangle that ensues. Several important elements in Trailer B suggest a greater degree of user- repurposing. Manz’s tinny backwoods drawl, taken from the film’s narration, guides the trailer’s audio track for much of the running time, and is backed by a second musical track of delicately plucked guitar strings. In addition, the caption for Trailer B, located just below the video player on YouTube, states, “Bill, Abby, and sis arrive on the panhandle,” a sentiment only marginally correlated with the majority of the trailer’s visual narrative (YouTube 2014f). Another item that speaks to user re-appropriation is the individual shot duration, which moves at a more leisurely pace here, and seems to have been edited mostly to match Manz’s voiceover.

Further suggestive of fan involvement with Trailer B’s content is the abrupt segue from Manz’s voice and the guitar string audio tracks to the ambient sounds of trotting horses and rolling wagon wheels. Visually, the nonprofessional editing is emphasized at this point as well, with a sequence in which Gere’s character is propositioned for work by a land baron, a moment that is abruptly interrupted by a long shot of migrants moving en mass across the prairie. Throughout the two and a half-minute running time for Trailer B, the mood and tone shift in favor of different scenes from the film that drive the trailer towards a questionable conclusion. Marketing and film promotion is immediately evident on the webpage for Trailer C [Fig. 8]. The Criterion Collection offers viewers the option of purchasing several DVD versions of the film, reading a written essay on the film’s historical significance, a list of DVD special features, and links to related films from the company in addition to the trailer.

The trailer itself, however, is constructed from film content not included in Trailers A and B. In this much-abridged version, the guitar audio track preceding Manz’s narration is audibly fragmented and disassociated from any cohesive visible narrative. As such, the film’s primary visual content is made up of close-ups of the nondescript faces of migrants overlooking a land of grazing crows and antelope on the abandoned prairie. Here, Manz’s brief narration serves to introduce the film’s quiet mood and leisurely pacing. The aforementioned scene of Gere interacting with the land baron is cut prematurely in Trailer C, presumably for purposes of keeping the trailer’s length under the running time of one minute. In this version, the scene that introduces the bullhorn-gripping farm owner is interrupted by an establishing crane shot that places the viewer in the midst of migrants scampering towards the opportunity of work. Each of these moments take up several seconds worth of running time, and Criterion’s trailer closes abruptly with a surprising fade-to-black.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Whereas the finales of both fan-appropriated trailers on YouTube are classically structured to mirror the resolutions found in many trailers of the 1970s, the transition to a black frame in Trailer C suggests a different kind of closure. The trailer concludes by returning to a still frame of six farmhands standing in awe of an insect downpour, a somewhat iconic image from the famous “locust scene” in the film. This visual placeholder is representative of Criterion’s idyllic version of the film’s significance. As such, this striking still image speaks directly to curating the memory of Days, arguably more so than the totality of the narrative for Trailer C. Although the design of the distributor’s webpage is simultaneously content-heavy and visually arresting, this emblematic still frame stands apart, begging the visitor to click, watch or re-watch and possibly, purchase the film from the distributor.

Feedback on Heaven: The Online Discourse of Cinematic Aesthetics & Nostalgia

The contents of three hundred user-generated message board posts for Trailers A, B, and C were analyzed for this study. Most of this feedback was found to be praiseworthy of Days, with many of the user-posts lauding the film’s cinematography. The discourse on Criterion’s webpage for the film was overwhelmingly positive and found to reflect the distributor’s marketing intentions. “A beautiful spectral and view of the early 1900s mid-western America,” Mike Santoro wrote on the message board. “I love Malick’s brilliant direction in this [film]” (The Criterion Collection 2014b). Others commentators on this webpage used specific discourse that intertwined aspects of their real-world lives with the film’s history and nostalgia. “My first Malick movie, discovered when I was watching every movie on’s ‘101 Movies To See Before You Die,’” Taylor P. stated. Bennett Duckworth wrote, “…thanks Dad for introducing this movie to me.” And mimicking Manz’s drawl in the character’s narration, Arthur Mhoyan said, “There were people sufferin’ in pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin’ out of their mouths” (The Criterion Collection 2014c).

While single-word and somewhat elusive statements, such as “Breathtaking” and “Beautiful,” were found on the Criterion message board as well, much of the feedback was more detailed and descriptive. The lack of negative comments on the message board is further indicative of Criterion’s approach to online publicity and distribution for the film. In turn, the majority of user-feedback for Trailers A and B on YouTube was specifically targeted at the film’s cinematography. Equal parts excitement and praise for the film’s imagery was evident on both message boards, suggesting that the film’s visual approach is endorsed through fan-recall on these video-streaming webpages. For example, the “GregF” channel wrote, “…all 5 [of] Malick’s movies are beautiful but there are no words to describe Days Of Heaven…pure magic.” The “44eelz” channel posted, “i haven’t seen this movie yet but the cinematography looks amazing.” The “ErikHutt” channel added that “[Days] was shot in Alberta,” and the “MrKeepitunderyourhat” channel said, “To be honest, I’d say that the most famous aspect of the entire film is its magic hour cinematography” (YouTube 2014g).

The similarities in the content and tone of the statements analyzed across all three webpages suggest that fans are fond of the film’s historical significance and imagery. The cause-effect nature of this discourse also acts as an effort to keep the film in memory while promoting it to others. The content of this rhetoric also signifies the film’s ability to evoke an era in Hollywood history in which aesthetic power swayed and captivated audience members. In sum, much of this online discourse speaks to how film fans in online spaces curate the myth and nostalgia of aging mainstream film properties. Much of these statements reflect a sincere familiarity with Malick’s production design and the aesthetic properties of the cinematography. The statements under analysis, therefore, speak to the role of message boards in film advertising as well as the intricacies of fan-generated promotional feedback.

Promoting Hollywood Through the Fan Trailers: The Archive in Transit

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.

This article investigated how participatory cultures use fan trailers to engage with aging Hollywood titles in online spaces. The findings suggest that online film fans utilize fan trailers to interact with others while drawing attention to archival film properties. In effect, the findings from this study demonstrate several ways in which trailer repurposing and exhibition on the Internet aids in developing fan support around older motion pictures. An upsurge in fan trailers on the Internet is a burgeoning avenue of marketing for Hollywood studios and film distributors. Through new media platforms, fan trailers have the potential to reach global audiences and encourage social networking and commentary. In this study, the number of fan trailer views and user-generated message board posts was found to play a role in supporting interest in online film content. The audiovisual elements of both fan trailers for this study were generated from existing film content and repurposed to varying degrees. Specifically, the fan-edited trailer content was found to draw attention to the emotive properties of the film text. Collectively, the trailer narratives for this study presented an overwhelmingly favorable image of the case study film, as well as its historical significance and nostalgic qualities. The textual or written discourse analyzed in message boards on the webpages under investigation was found to shape the collective memory of the case study film as well. The content from this portion of the analysis also helped in preserving a positive view of the film itself, with much of the user-generated feedback positioned to promote the film’s cinematography and production design.

The composite findings indicate that fan trailers play a detrimental role in reviving older studio properties. The unintended consequences of these actions suggest a new avenue for media conglomerates and/or film distributors in marketing older motion pictures in the digital era. With Hollywood making fewer “midrange films [with] distinctly American subject matter,” such as Days of Heaven, smaller production companies and independent channels are overtaking this once-profitable market (Goldstein 2012). The role(s) taken on by members of participatory cultures, as well as the long-term effects of their interventions in online spaces, remains to be seen. For aging Hollywood film, fan trailers appear to offer one example of a promotional tool for film distribution and archiving. In June 2015, more than 88 million viewers had accessed 107 mock fan trailers through Honest Trailers, the YouTube-hosted channel by Screen Junkies (YouTube 2015). As Erickson (2009b) suggested, “with rapidly evolving technological features and equipment, tomorrow may yield an entirely new approach to using the Internet in a film promotion campaign” (51). As technological advancements in cinema and digital media continue to unfold, new online platforms and Web channels are creating an increasing number of spaces for participatory cultures and motion pictures. While many of these changes are on the horizon, scholars have predicted a continuous stream of content-related interruptions from tech-savvy film fans, as well as an evolution in the blending of virtual selves with cinematic information in cyberspace (e.g., Hansen 2006; Hardt and Negri 2004). Although the art of re-appropriating film content on the Internet has ballooned into a truly mass phenomenon, the future and direction of the fan trailer will depend on the negotiated balance between online cinephiles and digital control of motion picture properties.


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Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. USA: 20th Century Fox.

Bonnie and Clyde. 1967. Directed by Arthur Penn. USA: Warner Brothers.

Days of Heaven. 1978. Directed by Terrence Malick. USA: Paramount Pictures. 

Gone Girl. 2014. Directed by David Fincher. USA: 20th Century Fox.

The Blair Witch Project
. 1999. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. USA: Haxan Films.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. 2001. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 2002. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2009. “Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick (1978).” Last modified on November 9, 2009.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.

Days of Heaven’s 1978 box-office gross was $3.5 million nationwide. Compare this figure to other mainstream studio releases of 1978 that received Oscar attention and critical acclaim, such as Heaven Can Wait ($81.6 million) (Beatty 1978), The Deer Hunter (roughly $49 million) (Cimino 1978), and Midnight Express ($35 million) (Parker 1978) (BoxOfficeMojo 2014).

[2] At the time of this writing, three Malick-directed films are in various stages of development, with his next feature, Knight of Cups, scheduled for wide release in 2015.

[3] The one-hour, thirty-three minute feature film is also available for rent or purchase on YouTube.

[4] Paramount Pictures’ YouTube channel displays fewer than 4,000 posts.

[5] This image is also used near the end of Trailer A, primarily to symbolize the passage of time for migrants moving from urban to rural areas.


Kyle R. McDaniel is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. His research interests include the intersections between American cinema and digital culture in the 21st century. His forthcoming dissertation focuses on the usage and repetition of visual effects in contemporary documentary film.


Volume 26


  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith



“Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie – Erin Hawley

Abstract: In this paper, I explore the possibility of retelling Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in a children’s media text.  Like most material within the horror genre, Frankenstein is not immediately accessible to children and its key themes and tropes have traditionally been read as articulations of “adult” concerns.  Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  With this in mind, I consider how the Frankenstein tale has been transformed within the constructed space of a child’s worldview in Tim Burton’s 2012 animated film Frankenweenie.  I argue that the film neither simplifies nor expresses great fidelity to Shelley’s novel, but instead cultivates a sense of curiosity and cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and the horror genre itself.

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

The horror genre has long been considered “off limits” to children.  From the rewriting of fairytales to erase their violent and scary content (Zipes 1993) to the literal defacement of eighteenth century children’s literature to remove traces of the Gothic (Townshend 2008), efforts to disentangle children’s texts from horror have given rise to the notion that children cannot derive the same sort of pleasure from “being scared” that adults can.  Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that children can and do take pleasure in horror material.  In her work on child cinema audiences in Britain, Sarah Smith has found that horror films in the 1930s were “extremely popular with children” due to the “mixed feelings of fear and fun” they evoked (2005, 58).  Writing of James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931), Smith observes that children were “fascinated by its appeal and attended in droves” (2005, 70).  Similarly, David Buckingham’s research into children as horror viewers reveals that, while fright reactions to horror material can be powerful and long-lived, child audiences also take pleasure in the conventions of the horror text – they enjoy watching “evil destroyed” but also watching it “triumph”; they enjoy the feeling of fear itself and, like adult viewers, find pleasure in horror’s momentary destabilisation of societal norms (1996, 112-116).

The pleasures of horror from a child’s perspective have also been explored by Neil Gaiman (2006), who tells an interesting story about his daughter’s fascination with James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  “My daughter Maddy loves the idea of The Bride of Frankenstein,” he writes: “she’s ten”.  Such fascination leads to dress-ups and play, and eventually to young Maddy and her friend watching the horror classic under Gaiman’s supervision.  When confronted with the movie itself, however, the enthusiasm wanes: the kids don’t get it.  As Gaiman observes, “They enjoyed it, wriggling and squealing in all the right places. But once it was done, the girls had an identical reaction. ‘Is it over?’ asked one. ‘That was weird,’ said the other, flatly. They were as unsatisfied as an audience could be”.

To some extent, this reaction is not surprising.  The Bride of Frankenstein is based on Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, a text that – like most material within the horror genre – is usually read as an articulation of decidedly adult concerns.  From the original novel to its more recent manifestations in popular media, the Frankenstein tale is peppered with depictions of violence and violation, murder and misogyny; across the long history of its remaking in popular culture it has been interpreted as a story about genetic manipulation (Waldby 2002, 29), sexual transgression (Mellor 2003, 12-13), and post-partum depression (Johnson 1982, 6), to name just a few of its more adult-centric resonances.

Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  At its heart, it is a story about what it means to be an outsider and what it means to encounter, experience, and negotiate otherness; these are themes that have more recently been explored by writers of children’s and young adult fiction from Roald Dahl to Stephenie Meyer.  As Barbara Johnson has pointed out, Frankenstein is also essentially a story about parent/child relationships: with its themes of monstrosity and technology, Johnson tells us, Shelley’s novel explores “the love-hate relation we have toward our children” (1982, 6).  Building on Johnson we can suggest that by offering us a glimpse of the world through the monster’s eyes the novel also briefly presents this “love-hate relation” from the child’s perspective, and that decades of Frankenstein movies continue this by offering the misunderstood monster as an icon of all that is unruly, confused, and frightening about childhood itself.

The story Gaiman tells about his daughter’s fascination with The Bride of Frankenstein and her reaction – “that was weird” – to the movie itself is a lovely articulation of the way children may be simultaneously drawn to and locked out of the Frankenstein tale.  It is interesting to note that Gaiman’s daughter and her friend were not frightened by the film or put off by its horror elements (indeed, they seemed to enjoy this aspect of the movie, “wriggling and squealing in all the right places”); instead, it was a certain indefinable strangeness that informed their ultimately “unsatisfied” reaction.  All this suggests that children can engage meaningfully and pleasurably with material in the horror genre, especially if that material is rewritten with a child’s perspective in mind.

In this article, I explore the relationship between Frankenstein and young audiences and consider the possibility of retelling Shelley’s novel in a children’s media text.  My analysis is inspired by the recent appearance of characters from Shelley’s novel and its various adaptations in three children’s animated films: Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012), in which a boy named Victor Frankenstein reanimates his dog Sparky after a tragic car accident; Igor (Anthony Leondis, 2008), in which a hunch-backed laboratory assistant brings a female monster to life; and Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012), in which the Frankenstein monster and his Bride join Dracula and a host of other characters from the horror genre.  This trend towards engaging the Frankenstein myth in children’s media begs the question: how have such texts made Shelley’s tale accessible to young audiences, and with what degree of success?

Below, I take up this question with specific reference to Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.  Not only is Burton’s film (as we shall see) the most highly regarded and in some senses the most successful of these three texts, it is also the most complex and arguably does not “dumb down” its source material.  My analysis of Frankenweenie will examine how the film constructs a “child’s eye view” and transforms the Frankenstein tale so that its characters, themes, and narratives make sense within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I will demonstrate that Burton’s film captures the spirit of its source text without necessarily striving for fidelity.  I will also consider some of Frankenweenie’s extra-textual material, exploring how reviews, product tie-ins, and even the film’s intertextual references contribute to its overall project of transforming but not simplifying the Frankenstein tale for children.

Adaptation, simplification, and transformation

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton's homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton’s homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Frankenweenie is a stop-motion animation inspired by Burton’s earlier live-action film of the same name.  Here, the Frankenstein tale is relocated to one of Burton’s characteristic suburbia-scapes (“New Holland”), complete with manicured lawns, hedge sculptures, and monstrously mediocre residents.  Within this new narrative space, “Victor Frankenstein” is a child: a troubled, creative loner who spends his time tinkering in the attic, playing with his beloved dog Sparky, and making movies.  Tragedy enters Victor’s life when Sparky is killed in a car accident.  Inspired by his science teacher, the delightfully dour Mr Rzykruski, Victor steals Sparky’s body from the pet cemetery, drags the corpse back to the family home, and reanimates him in the attic.  When Victor’s classmates learn his secret, they try to replicate the experiment.  Chaos ensues as pets both living and dead are transformed into monsters who descend on New Holland, leading to a climactic showdown at the windmill overlooking the town.

The relationship between Frankenweenie and its source text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is complex.  Burton’s film both diverges from and intersects with Shelley’s novel, defining itself through patterns of fleeting fidelity and moments of spectacular transformation.  At the same time, the film makes reference to a plethora of other texts both within and beyond the Frankenstein mythos, thereby demonstrating the ways in which “adaptation” approaches and merges with “intertextuality” (see Elliott 2014; Martin 2009; Leitch 2003).  In other words, Frankenweenie is by no means a “faithful” retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It should be noted, however, that Shelley’s novel – despite being adapted many times in the centuries since its publication, across different media and in different genres – has not tended to inspire fierce fidelity in adapting authors.  As Albert Lavalley points out, Frankenstein tends to be “viewed by the playwright or the screenwriter as a mythic text, an occasion for the writer to let loose his own fantasies or to stage what he feels is dramatically effective, to remain true to the central core of the myth, [but] often to let it interact with fears and tensions of the current time” (1979, 245).

The notion of “fidelity” to an original text as the means of measuring an adaptation’s success, strength, and value has itself been thoroughly contested and problematised in recent years.  Fuelled particularly by the work of adaptation theorists such as Robert Stam (2005), Thomas Leitch (2003, 2007), and Imelda Whelehan (1999), this problematisation of the fidelity model has been an intervention in established ways of thinking about the relationship between an adaptive text and its source material.  As Will Brooker observes, though, fidelity criticism may be “outmoded and discredited within academia” but it has managed to “retain its currency within popular discourse” (2012, 45); in particular, it still informs the critical reception of films that adapt well-known novels or works of literature.  Even within academia, moreover, fidelity criticism has tended to linger in discussions of children’s media texts, particularly when the texts in question are retellings of classic or literary works.  It is often assumed that such adaptations carry some degree of responsibility for encouraging children to read and connect with the source material (Napolitano 2009, 81); in this way, the issue of fidelity becomes more urgent in the context of children’s media.

Concerns about fidelity in children’s adaptations are compounded by the issue of simplification.  Frankenweenie, for instance, is both an adaptation of a literary text and a reworking of classic horror films within the space of a child’s animation: the question we may immediately wish to ask, then, is “what has been lost in this process?”.  Both Shelley’s novel and the films of James Whale are today held in high regard as cultural classics, while the Frankenstein myth itself is a repository of ideas and cultural conversations about selfhood, embodiment, subjectivity, life, and death.  Potentially, the simplification of this myth for children would involve more than just a strategic removal of violent and sexual content in order to achieve a PG rating: it would be a process of dumbing down, a cleaning up of a story that works best when it is not “clean”.  It would also be a form of commercialisation, a reduction of a complex tale so that it can be packaged and marketed to young audiences.

These problems of simplification, commodification, and the dumbing down of source material are frequently mentioned by analysts of children’s adaptations, especially when the adaptation in question is a Disney product (as is Frankenweenie).  Writing in 1965 for the journal Horn Book, Frances Sayers refers to the “sweet” and “saccharine” nature of Disney adaptations and argues that, in order to both address and construct a child or family audience, Disney texts present life as lacking “any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence” (609).  Her concerns have been echoed by Hastings, who writes of the “conscious effort [by Disney] to produce children’s movies with no alarming moral ambiguities” (1993, 84).  Zipes, in turn, laments the way Disney has “‘violated’ the literary genre of the fairytale and packaged his versions in his name through the merchandising of books, toys, clothing, and records” (1995, 38).  Marc Napolitano’s work on the “Disneyfication of Dickens” is particularly relevant here because it explores the intersection between adult literature and children’s media.  Napolitano argues that the films Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol – both Disney texts that retell canonical works by Charles Dickens – are “simplified and sanitized adaptations of Dickens that were marketed to families by the Walt Disney Company” (2009, 80).  In Oliver & Company in particular, Napolitano argues, Disney “lightens the material significantly and uses cute, cuddly animal characters, all of whom would be reproduced as stuffed toys, McDonald’s Happy Meal prizes… and countless other types of child-friendly merchandise to market the film to kids” (2009, 82).

All such criticism of Disney’s treatment of literary material is important, and functions as part of a wider interrogation of the seemingly “apolitical” and “critically untouchable” world of children’s animated film (Bell, Haas, and Sells 1995, 2).  As analysts of Disney products, it is essential that we disentangle ourselves from our own enjoyment of the Disney “magic”; this is part of what Zipes has called “Breaking the Disney Spell” (1995).  At the same time, however, claims about “Disneyfication” can be problematic when they make sweeping assumptions about young audiences, their levels of media literacy, and the ways in which they engage with media texts.  In other words, when accusing a children’s text of simplification we ourselves risk making an overly simplified reading of the child audience.  The charge of simplification becomes especially problematic when it lapses into what Semenza (2008) has termed the “dumbing down cliché”: the notion that adapting a literary text for children must always and automatically involve a process of reduction and commodification.

In the context of these concerns, Frankenweenie provides us with an interesting example because it resists the simplification process and simultaneously encourages its young audience to reconnect with the source material through means other than fidelity.  The film’s refusal to “Disneyfy” the Frankenstein tale is signified by the transformation of the Disney logo in the opening sequence: lightning strikes the familiar Disney castle and the picture turns black and white, a suggestion that there will be no fairies or cute, singing animals in the film that follows; that there will be no attempts to render the Frankenstein tale “safe” and “simple” even as it is opened up for young viewers.  While this transformation of the Disney logo is indicative of the mediating presence of Burton in the adaptation process, and of the supposed clash between the Disney and Burton brands, it can also be read as a resistance to simplification – a suggestion that the film will be “Frankenstein for kids” but not “Frankenstein lite”.

In what follows, I explore how Frankenweenie transforms (rather than simplifies) the Frankenstein tale within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I use the term “transformation” with an awareness of its applicability to studies of animation as an art form, a technology, and a mode of representation.  As both Susan Napier (2000) and Paul Wells (1998) have noted, animation has metamorphic qualities that distinguish it from live-action cinema and that manifest at the levels of story, body, and space.  Wells has also argued that the process of adapting a literary text into animated film can involve “an act of literal transformation which carries with it mythic and metaphoric possibility” (2007, 201).  In this way, the idea of transformation allows us to discuss children’s animated films as adaptations without making assumptions about animation as a medium (for instance, that it is inferior to live-action cinema) or about children as audiences (for instance, that they are incapable of understanding textual and intertextual complexities).

Transformation and the child’s eye view

In her analysis of the filmic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Sarah Annunziato (2014) explores the construction of a “child’s eye view”, arguing that the film – while drawing attention and public comment for its scariness and mature themes – is appropriate for young audiences because it imagines the world as seen through a child’s eyes.  Similar claims can be made of Frankenweenie, which constructs a child’s view of the world and repeatedly invites its viewers to inhabit this childlike space.  In both these films, the creation of a child’s eye view specifically involves moments of scariness rather than excluding them.  The relationship between Frankenstein and Frankenweenie differs, however, from that between the book and film versions of Where the Wild Things Are because it involves a shift from adult to child audience.  In Burton’s film, therefore, employing a child’s perspective allows for a significant rethinking of the original tale.

In its simplest sense, this child’s eye view is visible in the depiction of New Holland and its residents.  While certainly reminiscent of some of Burton’s other visions of suburbia, New Holland is best described as a small town landscape seen through a child’s eyes: a place of long shadows and neat lines, of fantasy and darkness, of strange children and menacing adults.  The frequent use of low camera angles to depict some of these adult characters (such as the mayor Mr Bergermeister and the science teacher Mr Rzykruski) aligns us with Victor and invites us to adopt a child’s perspective.  While not menacing or imposing, Victor’s parents, too, are adults as seen by children: simplistic to the point of caricature, caught up in trivial or meaningless “grown-up” concerns (Victor’s father talks endlessly about his work as a travel agent; Victor’s mother is repeatedly seen vacuuming the house and/or reading romance novels).  On the other hand, the world of Victor (the child’s world) is depicted as complex, detailed, and intricate.  This is best represented by the attic, a cluttered space of creativity, invention, and play – and a notable contrast with the rest of Victor’s house and suburb, which are neat, sparse, and boring.

This inherent difference between adults and children – and the resultant conflict, always seen from the child’s perspective – is central to the plot of Frankenweenie.  From the opening scenes we learn that Victor is misunderstood by his mostly well-meaning parents, who worry that he spends too much time alone and will “turn out weird”.  His father encourages Victor to take up baseball, which leads inadvertently to Sparky’s death: the little dog meets his doom while chasing a ball hit by Victor.  The subsequent depiction of Victor’s grief is highly moving, all the more so because his parents do not seem to understand the extent of his sadness.  His mother offers clichés and platitudes: “If we could bring him back, we would” and “when you lose someone they never really leave you – they just move into a special place in your heart”, which Victor interprets as hollow and macabre (“I don’t want him in my heart”, he objects, “I want him here with me”).  These early scenes suggest a sense of turmoil beneath the calm surface of even the most loving parent-child relationship: a version, perhaps, of the “love-hate relation” that Johnson (1982, 6) detects within Shelley’s visions of monstrosity.  They also reveal that the world seen through a child’s eyes is not a simple place, even though it may be dominated by fantasies (such as the desire to bring Sparky back to life, which Victor soon fulfills).

It is through these early depictions of conflict, death, and grief that the film captures the thematic spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel.  In Shelley’s text, Victor Frankenstein is driven to create his monster by a desire to suspend mortality and escape the horrors of death and decay: Shelley’s Victor is both haunted and inspired by the death of his mother, Caroline, which leads him to seek out scientific means of “renew[ing] life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 1993, 43).  For children, the death of a pet is often a first experience of mortality; thus in Frankenweenie it is the dog, Sparky’s, death that allows Victor to confront the notion of perishability that so horrifies his predecessor in Shelley’s novel.  This experience of death and perishability also precipitates the story events and initiates the move into the horror genre by inspiring Victor’s act of monster-making.

The scene in which Victor reanimates Sparky provides Burton and his team with much opportunity to revel in horror movie history and to pay homage to the films of James Whale, particularly Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  Lightning flashes and thunder crashes as Victor sews Sparky’s body back together and fixes bolts to his neck; the body is then covered by a sheet and raised through the roof to receive the life-giving electric charge.  Yet here, too, the child’s eye view is at work.  Attentive viewers will notice that Sparky’s body is laid out on an ironing board, and that toys, appliances, and other household objects form part of the elaborate life-giving apparatus.  Signifiers of “childhood” and “ordinariness” are thus interwoven with the signifiers of life, creation, and monstrosity borrowed from Whale.  Instead of fingers twitching and eyes opening, Sparky’s “alive-ness” is signified by a wagging tail; and instead of proclaiming “It’s alive!” like his predecessor in the Whale films, young Victor Frankenstein says “You’re alive”.  This shift in language reveals that the monster has been created according to a child’s desires and wishes: the moment of creation is framed by Victor’s desire not only for Sparky to still be alive but for the friendship, happiness, and unconditional love that a pet often represents.  Accordingly, the child views the monster as a friend and companion (you) rather than as the product of an experiment (it).

This transformation of Frankenstein to suit a child’s perspective certainly involves a degree of softening, a removal of some aspects of violence and conflict that define the original tale.  For instance, Shelley’s novel and most of its adaptations are constructed around the conflict between monster and maker – this conflict is not present in Frankenweenie.  As we would expect given the film’s target audience, Burton and his screenwriter John August also de-sexualise the Frankenstein tale: another notable absence is Shelley’s sub-plot involving the creation of a mate for the monster, and the resultant murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.  This does not mean, however, that Frankenweenie shies away from an exploration of monstrosity and horror.  Indeed, while Sparky himself is not depicted as a true monster, the film is replete with images of monstrosity.  These come particularly in the form of the creatures that Victor’s classmates bring to life: pets and other icons of familiarity, domesticity, and innocence (sea monkeys, a fluffy white cat, a dead hamster) who become snarling, terrifying, rampaging beasts.  The image of these monsters running amok through the fairground of New Holland encapsulates the film’s transformation of its source material.  This scene is only tenuously connected to Shelley’s plot, yet it resounds with Frankensteinian questions and dilemmas, particularly as they might be understood by children: When you have created your monster, what are you going to do with him/her/it?  And what happens if your monster (your game, your story) escapes your control?  While exploring the lighter side of monster-making, then, the film also explores the darker side of play, re-interpreting the Frankensteinian themes of creativity, perishability, and the life/death boundary so that they are seen from a child’s perspective.

Paratexts, intertexts, and the complex world of Frankenweenie

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

While not a notable box office success, Frankenweenie received a generally positive critical reception.  The film is rated highly – at 87% – on the aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes, and is frequently described by reviewers as an enjoyable product for both children and adults (see, for instance, Paatsch 2012; Chang 2012; Mazmanian 2012).  Occasionally, charges of simplification are levelled at the film: Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes Frankenweenie as “a sentimental kind of retro gothic lite, appearing under the Disney banner” (2012), while A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes that “the movie, a Walt Disney release, also feels tame and compromised” (2012).  Other reviewers found the film dark enough to be entertaining, with many making positive mention of Burton’s ability to balance the sweetness of a children’s story with the darkness of a horror film.  Leigh Paatsch in the Herald Sun, for instance, commends the film for “deftly balancing blatant eeriness with a chipper cheeriness that excuses many a macabre event” (2012).  Lou Lumenick in the New York Post praises the film for its “creepy but basically sweet humor” (2012), as does Matthew Bond in the Daily Mail Australia who describes it as “strange, but also touching and lovely” (2012).  In Time magazine, Richard Corliss addresses the film’s boundary-crossing quality when he notes approvingly that “Frankenweenie’s message to the young” is that “children should play with dead things” (2012).

This positive reception sets Burton’s film apart from other recent children’s films that play with horror tropes and characters, such as the aforementioned Hotel Transylvania and Igor, both of which received lukewarm reviews.  Hotel Transylvania in particular was frequently criticised for its shallow approach to the narratives it draws upon, including Shelley’s Frankenstein (see, for instance, Reynolds 2012; Collin 2012).  L. Kent Wolgamott in the Lincoln Journal Star (2012) observes that while Frankenweenie did not perform as well at the box office as Hotel Transylvania, it is “by far, the superior film” (and he contextualises this comment by urging readers not to “consider box-office returns to be the only measure of a film’s success”, adding that with Frankenweenie Burton has created a “masterpiece”).

Some reviews of Frankenweenie mention the construction of a child’s eye view.  Adam Mazmanian in The Washington Times, for instance, identifies this as the means by which the film “draw[s] in young audiences”, adding that its “knowing winks at horror-movie history will appeal to grown-ups” (2012).  It is interesting that Mazmanian feels the need to separate the film’s audience into these two distinct categories, and that he distinguishes the “adult” and “child” sections of the audience by an ability (or lack thereof) to “get” the film’s intertextual references.  Wolgamott takes this further, praising the film for its references to classic horror movies but adding “that’s not anything the preschool through middle school animation crowd is going to get, or could possibly care about” (2012).  Both critics agree that intertextuality is a means by which Frankenweenie resists simplification and becomes something more than a light and fluffy children’s film.  At the same time, both critics produce distinct readings of the film’s child and adult audiences, and locate the qualities of media literacy and cultural awareness (which might enable the decoding of the film’s intertextuality) squarely within the adult space.

It is certainly true that Frankenweenie is littered with intertextual references: to other texts in the Frankenstein mythos (particularly the films of James Whale), to films in Burton’s oeuvre (such as Edward Scissorhands), and to texts in the horror genre more broadly (such as the Japanese monster movie Gamera).  This is coupled with a playful self-reflexivity that we often see in filmic adaptations of Frankenstein.  As Esther Schor (2003) has pointed out, adaptations of Shelley’s novel – from the early stage productions to the first known Frankenstein film in 1910, and beyond – often depict the monster’s coming-to-life in a spectacular and self-referential way; most filmic versions, in particular, play upon what William Nestrick (1979, 292) has termed the “myth of animation” – a thematic link or bridge between the Frankenstein tale and cinema’s own powers to bring a still image, body, or scene to life.  Frankenweenie, of course, is an animated film, and this brings new meaning to Nestrick’s “myth”.  The technologies of movie-making and, specifically, stop-motion animation are spectacularised in the image of Sparky’s coming-to-life, adding another layer of intertextuality to a film already rich with cultural references.

It may be tempting to assume, as do Mazmanian and Wolgamott, that children are excluded from this intertextual conversation.  Indeed, it has become increasingly common for children’s films to engage in a dual mode of address, enchanting children with stories, songs, and imagery while offering jokes, intertextual references, or clever moments of self-awareness to adults.  The implication is that long-suffering parents should be rewarded for watching films with their children or otherwise lured into the watching process by the promise of adult-centric entertainment.  Burton’s film is somewhat different because the intertextual references are closely bound to the narrative – they are less an amusing aside for adults than part of the film’s very fabric.  They are also, potentially, a means of encouraging audiences to connect with the source material.  While Frankenweenie does not openly strive to generate reverence for (or even awareness of) Mary Shelley, her novel, and the act of reading Frankenstein, it arguably promotes a more complex form of literacy that speaks directly to the process of adaptation itself.  By referencing the movies of James Whale, in particular, Burton positions his film within a web of Frankenstein texts and also destabilises the primacy of Shelley’s novel as source text: adapting Frankenstein, we are told, is a complex business that involves the engagement with already apparent intertextuality rather than the “recovery” of a single source text from out of the depths of adaptation history.

It is likely, furthermore, that many of the children who constitute Frankenweenie’s primary audience are able to decode the film’s intertextual references due to their familiarity with the horror genre and its tropes, characters, and conventions.  As noted above, children have traditionally been locked out of the horror genre; in recent years, however, encounters between young audiences and horror have been initiated through a plethora of child-friendly horror texts: as well as Hotel Transylvania and Igor, these include the films ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012) and Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, 2009), the video game Plants vs Zombies (PopCap Games, 2009), the books and television series Grossology (Sylvia Branzei, 1992-1997; Nelvana Limited, 2006-2009), and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl books (2013-2015), as well as older but still relevant texts such as The Simpsons (which frequently lampoons the genre through its “Treehouse of Horror” episodes).  Meanwhile, imagery and tropes from the Frankenstein tale have been so pervasively circulated in popular culture for such a long time that children are likely to have some degree of familiarity with the tale even if they do not connect it to its original source.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for children’s texts to make passing reference to the tale and its characters (for instance, an episode of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants is entitled “Frankendoodle”, while Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books contain a character named “Frankenbooger”).

It is also likely that children today are familiar with complex levels of intertextuality and are adept at negotiating intersecting currents of media; thus Cathlena Martin writes of the “overlapping intertextual nature of children’s culture” (2009, 86).  In her analysis of the transmedia adaptation of the novel Charlotte’s Web, Martin claims that an enjoyment and understanding of intertextuality may come more naturally to today’s children, who “experience transmedia stories on a regular basis” and therefore “no longer view the printed text as the only way to experience [a literary classic such as] Charlotte’s Web”, whereas adults are more likely to “resist multi-media adaptation, relying on the supremacy of print text as ‘high art’” (2009, 88).  This returns us to the concept of “fidelity” to an original text, and suggests that in discussions of adaptation for children fidelity is likely to be a concept imposed by adult readers and critics rather than something inherently understood or valued by children.  If this raises concerns over the disappearance of “the book” as a cultural object, it also demonstrates that “simplicity” is not a concept that sits well with the highly interconnected, transmedia quality of children’s culture today.

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled "Return of the Vampire Cat".

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled “Return of the Vampire Cat”.

Interestingly, the promotional material for Frankenweenie played upon this ability in young audiences to understand and enjoy intertextuality.  Elliott reminds us that “[t]ie-in merchandise produces and distributes the culture of Disney beyond the cinema” (2014, 195); yet the marketing campaign for Frankenweenie took a very different route from the usual toys, games, and Happy Meals associated with Disney and with the process of Disneyfication.  Instead, the film was promoted through such unusual means as the release of six mock B-movie posters each featuring one of the child characters together with the monster he/she creates (including Night of the Were-Rat: a Tale of Terror featuring “Edgar E. Gore” and Return of the Vampire Cat featuring “Weird Girl”).  These promotional texts not only foreground the film’s child protagonists (as opposed to its adult characters) but serve to locate “childhood” within the parameters of the horror genre and within monster-movie history.  If entryway paratexts guide and instruct our viewing of a media text, as Gray (2010) suggests, these posters invite us to connect childhood with monstrosity in a way that “preps” us for the viewing of Frankenweenie itself (whether we are adults or children).  They also underscore the overall playfulness of the film and relatedly its resistance to the processes of Disneyfication and simplification.  Due to the foregrounding of the child characters, furthermore, the posters specifically address child audiences and clearly include them in the film’s intertextual conversation.

Another key aspect of the film’s promotion was the release of a free e-book entitled Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  Designed for audiences of all ages, the e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews, with particular emphasis on the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky (who we can view as a sketch, a 3-D model, and a finished “product”).  In this way, the e-book allows children access to Nestrick’s “myth of animation” and to the idea of animation as a “bridge” between the narrative and the technology of Frankenweenie.  The e-book also makes the film’s intertextuality more evident.  It begins, for instance, with a foreward by actor Martin Landau accompanied an image of the character he voices (Mr Rzykruski); Landau discusses his previous collaboration with Tim Burton, the film Ed Wood, and his role in this film as Bela Lugosi, star of the horror classic Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931).  A pop-up button informs us that Landau’s character is also “a nod to Vincent Price, the late actor known for his iconic roles in various horror films” (Disney Book Group, 2012).  The e-book thus enables or enhances the ability of any audience member (including children) to decode the film’s intertextual references – and even, arguably, leads young audiences back to the various source texts that inspired Frankenweenie.

In this way, the film (together with its promotional material) both assumes and encourages a level of cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and, more broadly, the horror genre itself.  As this analysis has demonstrated, the film’s intertextuality works together with its paratexts to cultivate an awareness of what lies beyond its own textual boundaries.  Frankenweenie thus imagines and constructs its audience to be a media-literate and curious child.


Prior to the release of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the thought of an animated film based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and released under the Disney banner might have horrified literary purists and fans of horror cinema alike.  An animated Frankenstein, in which darkness and moral conflict are replaced by cute animal side-kicks and catchy songs, may well have been taken as a sign of Disney’s cultural domination and its ability not just to appropriate literary material but to colonise sites of literary and cultural meaning.  Burton’s film, however, demonstrates that “Disneyfication” is not the only route to adapting a literary classic for children, and that the transformation of such a tale within the space of a child’s worldview need not involve a simplification process.  As noted above, we can contextualise Frankenweenie within a recent trend in media and popular culture that has seen the horror genre re-imagined for young audiences; yet Burton’s film can be read not just as an example of “horror for kids” but as a startlingly successful transformation of a previously inaccessible tale in line with the concerns that define a child’s world.  Importantly, Frankenweenie’s most powerful images are not cartoonish renditions of monsters and mad scientists – they are the images of Victor grieving for Sparky, and of the neighbourhood kids struggling to control the monsters they have unleashed.  These themes of loss, and of losing control, are central to the film’s re-imagining of a classic horror tale according to a child’s eye view.  In this way, Frankenweenie makes Frankenstein accessible to children and also gives adult viewers a sense of what horror, otherness, and monstrosity could mean to a child.


Works cited

Annunziato, Sarah.  2014.  “A Child’s Eye View of Where the Wild Things Are: Lessons from Spike Jonze’s Film Adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Picture Book.”  Journal of Children and Media 8 (3): 253-266.

Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells.  1995.  “Introduction: Walt’s in the Movies”.  In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 1-17.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Bond, Matthew.  2012.  “Dr Burton’s gothic horror has a heart: Frankenweenie is touching and enjoyable”.  Daily Mail Australia, October 23.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Bradshaw, Peter.  2012.  “Frankenweenie: first look”.  The Guardian, October 11.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Brooker, Will.  2012.  Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Buckingham, David.  1996.  Moving Images: Understanding Children’s Emotional Responses to Television.  Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Chang, Justin.  2012.  “Review: Frankenweenie”.  Variety, September 20.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Collin, Robbie.  2012.  “Hotel Transylvania review”.  The Telegraph, October 11.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Corliss, Richard.  2012.  “Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie Movie Review: A Re-animated Delight”.  Time, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Elliott, Kamilla.  2014.  “Tie-Intertextuality, or, Intertextuality as Incorporation in the Tie-in Merchandise to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (2010)”.  Adaptation 7 (2): 191-211.

Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  2012.  Disney Book Group.  Accessed August 20, 2014.  Available at

Gaiman, Neil.  2006.  “The Bride of Frankenstein”.  Neil Gaiman (official website).  Accessed 14 June 2013.  From Cinema Macabre, edited by Mark Morris.  Hornsea: PS.

Gray, Jonathon.  2010.  Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.  New York: New York University Press.

Hastings, A. Waller.  1993.  “Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid”.  The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1): 83-92.

Johnson, Barbara.  1982.  “My Monster/My Self”.  Diacritics 12: 2-10.

Lavalley, Albert J.  1979.  “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 243-289.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leitch, Thomas.  2003.  “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory”.  Criticism 45 (2): 149-171.

Leitch, Thomas.  2007.  Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to the Passion of the Christ.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Lemire, Christy.  2012.  “Frankenweenie Review: Tim Burton Reminds Us Why We Love Him”.  The Huffington Post, October 2.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Lumenick, Lou.  2012.  “‘Frankenweenie is a Monster Piece!”.  The New York Post, October 5.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Martin, Cathlena.  2009.  “Charlotte’s Website: Media Transformation and the Intertextual Web of Children’s Culture”.  In Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities, edited by Rachel Carroll, 85-95.  London: Continuum.

Mazmanian, Adam.  2012.  “Movie Review: Frankenweenie”.  The Washington Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Mellor, Anne K.  2003.  “‘Making a Monster’: an introduction to Frankenstein”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 9-25.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Napier, Susan J.  2000.  Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke – Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation.  New York: Palgrave.

Napolitano, Marc.  2009.  “Disneyfying Dickens: Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol as Dickensian Musicals”.  Studies in Popular Culture 32 (1): 79-102.

 Nestrick, William.  1979.  “Coming to Life: Frankenstein and the Nature of Film Narrative”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 290-315.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paatsch, Leigh.  2012.  “Film review: Frankenweenie Enchants Adults Too”.  Herald Sun, October 25.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Reynolds, Simon.  2012.  “Hotel Transylvania Review”.  Digital Spy, October 9.  Accessed August 6, 2014.

Sayers, Frances Clarke.  1965.  “Walt Disney Accused”.  Horn Book 41: 602-611.

Schor, Esther.  2003.  “Frankenstein and Film”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 63-83.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, A.O.  2012.  “It’s Aliiiive! And Wagging Its Tail – ‘Frankenweenie,’ Tim Burton’s Homage to Horror Classics”.  The New York Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.…age-to-horror-classics.html?smid=tw-nytimesmovies&seid=auto&_r=0

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón.  2008.  “Teens, Shakespeare, and the Dumbing Down Cliché: The Case of The Animated Tales”.  Shakespeare Bulletin 26 (2): 37-68.

Shelley, Mary.  1993.  Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Smith, Sarah J.  2005.  Children, Cinema and Censorship: from Dracula to the Dead End Kids.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Stam, Robert.  2005.  “Introduction: the Theory and Practice of Adaptation”.  In Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 1-52.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Townshend, Dale.  2008.  “The Haunted Nursery: 1764-1830”.  In The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders, edited by Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis, 15-38.  London and New York: Routledge.

Waldby, Catherine.  2002.  “The Instruments of Life: Frankenstein and Cyberculture”.  In Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, 28-37.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Wells, Paul.  1998.  Understanding Animation.  New York: Routledge.

Wells, Paul.  2007.  “Classic Literature and Animation: All Adaptations are Equal, but Some are More Equal Than Others”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 199-211.  Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whelehan, Imelda.  1999.  “Adaptations: the Contemporary Dilemmas”.  In Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 3-19.  London and New York: Routledge.

Wolgamott, L. Kent.  2012.  “Frankenweenie a box-office bomb, but superior film”.  Lincoln Journal Star, October 10.  Accessed August 6, 2014.…b-but-superior/article_42409e82-89b9-5794-8082-7b5de3d469e2.html.=

Zipes, Jack.  1993.  “The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood”.  In The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes, 17-88.  London and New York: Routledge.

Zipes, Jack.  1995.  “Breaking the Disney Spell”.  In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 21-42.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.


Films cited

Burton, Tim.  2012.  Frankenweenie.  USA: Walt Disney Pictures.

Leondis, Anthony.  2008.  Igor.  USA: Roadshow Entertainment.

Tartakovsky, Genndy.  2012.  Hotel Transylvania.  USA: Columbia Pictures.

Whale, James.  1931.  Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

Whale, James.  1935.  The Bride of Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.



Erin Hawley teaches in the Journalism, Media, and Communications program at the University of Tasmania.  Her current research interests include children’s media culture, adaptation, and media education.

Politicizing Eye tracking Studies of Film – William Brown


This essay puts eye tracking studies of cinema into contact with film theory, or what I term film-philosophy, so as to distinguish film theory from specifically cognitive film theory. Looking at the concept of attention, the essay explains how winning and keeping viewers’ attention in a synchronous fashion is understood by eye tracking studies of cinema as key to success in filmmaking, while film-philosophy considers the winning and keeping of attention by cinema to be a political issue driven by economics and underscored by issues of control. As such, film-philosophy understands cinema as political, even if eye tracking studies of film tend to avoid engagement in political debate. Nonetheless, the essay identifies political dimensions in eye tracking film studies: the legitimization of the approach, its emphasis on mainstream cinema as an object of study and its emphasis on statistical significance all potentially have political connotations/ramifications. Invoking the concept of cinephilia, the essay then suggests that idiosyncratic viewer responses, as well as films that do not synchronously capture attention, might yield important results/play an important role in life in an attention-driven society.

In this essay, I wish to put eye tracking studies of film into dialogue with a more political approach to film, drawn from film theory, or what, for the benefit of distinguishing film theory from cognitive film theory, I shall term film-philosophy. In doing so, I shall draw out what for film-philosophy are some of the limitations of eye tracking, including its emphasis on statistical significance, or what most viewers look at when they watch films. I shall argue that we might learn as much, if not more, about cinema by paying attention not only to statistically significant and shared responses to films (what most viewers look at), but also to those viewers whose responses to a film do not form part of the statistically significant group, and/or to films that may not induce in viewers statistically significant and shared responses. In effect, we may find that there are insights to be derived from those who look at the margins of the cinematic image, rather than at the centre, even if those viewers are themselves ‘marginal’ in the sense that they are pushed to the margins of most/all eye tracking studies of film viewers. There is perhaps also value to be found in looking at ‘marginal’ films. In this way, we might find that idiosyncratic responses to a film or films is as important as the shared response. I shall also argue that there is a politics to the idiosyncratic response, especially when it is put into dialogue with film theoretical/film-philosophical work on cinephilia, and that as a result there is also a politics to eye tracking and its emphasis on statistical significance. I shall start, however, by looking at the state of eye tracking film research today.

On 29 and 30 July 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) – the same American academy that distributes the so-called Oscars – held two events under the combined title of ‘Movies in Your Brain: The Science of Cinematic Perception’. The events included contributions from neuroscientists Uri Hasson, Talma Hendler and Jeffrey M. Zacks, psychologist James E. Cutting, directors Darren Aronofsky and Jon Favreau, editor Walter Murch and writer-producer Ari Handel. The host of the first evening was psychologist Tim J. Smith, whose eye tracking studies of cinema have arguably become the best known and most influential over recent years (see, inter alia, Smith 2012a; Smith 2013; Smith 2014). Through these events, as well as through coverage of these events in fashionable journals like Wired (Miller 2014a; Miller 2014b), we can see how eye tracking – together with the study of film using brain scanning technologies such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) – is clearly becoming important for our understanding of how films work. This in turn means that such studies are surely important to film studies.

For a detailed history and overview of eye tracking, explaining how it works and what it tells us about film, I cannot do better than to guide readers to the afore-mentioned work by Smith. Smith has soundly demonstrated, and with great clarity, how the human eye moves via small movements called saccades, and that in between saccades the human eye fixates. It is during fixations that humans take in visual information, with fixations being linked therefore to attention and to working memory; we tend to remember objects from our visual field upon which we have fixated, or to which we have paid attention. Clearly this is important to the study of film, since viewers typically attend only to parts of the movie screen at any given time, and not necessarily to others or to the whole of the screen (and the surrounding auditorium). Can/do filmmakers exert influence over where we look, for how long, and thus what we remember about a film – with those memories themselves lasting for greater or lesser periods of time? And if filmmakers do influence such things, how much influence do they exert and through which techniques? These are the questions that eye tracking technology can help to answer – and scholars like Smith do so with great skill and eloquence.

My aim, however, is not simply to reproduce findings by Smith and others who have used eye tracking devices to study film. In order to construct a theoretical argument concerning the importance of the idiosyncratic, or ‘cinephilic’, response to a film or films in general, as well as the importance of a filmmaker not necessarily ‘controlling’ where a viewer looks, but instead allowing/encouraging viewers precisely to look idiosyncratically, cinephilically, or where they wish, I need instead to bring the scientific and ‘apolitical’ use of eye tracking devices into a political discourse concerning the nature of cinema, power, hegemony and the issue of cinematic homogeneity and/or heterogeneity. This is a controversial maneuver – in that it will bring together two areas of film studies that often seem to stand in ‘opposition’ to each other, namely cognitive film theory and a film theory that still plies its trade using Continental philosophy, or what for the sake of simplicity I shall term film-philosophy. My desire is not simply to be controversial, however. Rather it is to engage with what eye tracking means to film studies, both currently and potentially in the future.

To begin to bring eye tracking studies of film into the ‘political discourse’ mentioned above, I shall relate an anecdote. A semi-regular response from colleagues in film studies, when I tell them about eye tracking studies of film viewing, is that eye tracking doesn’t tell us anything about films that we didn’t already know. Is it a surprise that we tend to look more often at the center of the screen? Is it a surprise that we typically attend more to brightly illuminated parts of the screen than to dimly lit ones? Is it a surprise that we tend to direct our attention towards human faces when watching a film that features human characters? Anyone who has consciously thought about what they do while watching a film will be able to tell from memory alone that these things are all true. As a result, eye tracking studies of film can sometimes be filled with what, at least to the film student/scholar, are truisms. By way of an example, Paul Marchant and colleagues say that ‘these strategies and techniques… [capture] the audience’s visual attention: focus, camera movement, eye line match, color and contrast, motion of elements within the shot, graphic matching’ (Marchant et al. 2009, 158). On my print-out of Marchant et al.’s essay, my own apostil next to this assertion reads as follows: ‘Do we not know this already (otherwise cinema would not have developed these techniques)?’ Many, if not all, film viewers will know simply from experience that these techniques help to guide their attention, even if they are blissfully unaware of the relationship between eye fixations, attention and memory. Of course, it is pleasing to have our introspective responses to/our intuitive knowledge about cinema ‘scientifically’ confirmed (to a large extent, but not entirely – about which, more later); but essentially, so my colleagues’ argument goes, eye tracking studies tell us what we already know.

Now, even if I myself find some eye tracking studies of film to be ‘truistic’, I nonetheless believe that eye tracking studies of film are of great importance. However, their importance is perhaps in playing a role that is different from the one that eye tracking studies of film seem to give to themselves, which is as a key component of cognitive film theory. Instead, I think that eye tracking studies of film are important for film theory, or what today is termed film-philosophy. I shall explain the distinction between cognitive film theory and film-philosophy presently.

Little in this world is uniform, and so by definition I generalize when I say that the basic tenet of cognitive film theory is, with David Bordwell and Noël Carroll’s Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996) serving as its figurehead, for film studies to move towards a theory of cinema based on the analysis of films themselves, and away from a film theory that uses cinema as a means of confirming or denying a Lacanian understanding of the human and/or an Althusserian/Marxist conception of contemporary capital. In spite of cognitive film theory’s lack of uniformity, eye tracking studies of film are nonetheless part of cognitive film theory’s project to help us to look at cinema ‘as it is’, and not to use cinema as a political football. Conversely, film-philosophy is in general informed by the kinds of Continental philosophers, often though not limited to Gilles Deleuze, that cognitive film theorists reject, and it engages not just with films ‘as they are’, but with the politics of films.

Now, to claim that we can isolate films and film viewing from a human world that is perhaps always political, and to claim that we can then analyse films ‘as they are’, is perhaps absurd: films ‘as they are’ are part of a political world, and cognitive film theorists are not unaware of this, just as film-philosophers are not incapable of scientific analysis. However, how much politics is allowed into the analysis of films perhaps informs the broad distinction between cognitive film theory and film-philosophy, as I hope to clarify by looking briefly at the role of attention in the work of two scholars, Tim J. Smith and Jonathan Beller. In his ‘Attentional Theory of Cinematic Continuity’ (AToCC), Smith (2012a) uses eye tracking studies to demonstrate how filmmakers capture and maintain viewers’ attention, with certain techniques, mainly those associated with continuity editing, being more successful than others. Meanwhile, in his Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Beller (2006) suggests that capturing attention is not necessarily an aesthetic, but rather a political project: the more attention a film garners, the more success one will have in monetizing that film, with the making of money becoming the bottom line of cinema. Beller does not appeal to some early cinema that did not attempt to elicit viewers’ attention and thus make money; such an early cinema did not necessarily exist. Rather, Beller argues that cinema has always been part of an economy that is based on attention; indeed, cinema plays a key role in naturalizing this attention economy, meaning that cinema has not always been necessarily capitalist, but that the capitalist world endeavors as much as possible to become cinematic, to capture our attention as much as possible in order to ‘win’ the economic race, since capturing eyeballs means making money. Smith explains how attention is captured; Beller offers an explanation as to why. Even though filmmakers rely on natural processes in order to capture attention (Smith), the process of consistently trying to capture our attention (‘cinema’) is not natural, but political and economic (Beller).

James E. Cutting, in commenting on an earlier draft of this paper, says that the results of eye tracking studies of film, which reveal how filmmakers capture attention, are

big news… because almost nothing else does this – not static pictures (photographs, artworks), not class room behavior by teachers, not leaders of business meetings, and often not even spectacles of various kinds (sporting events, rock concerts, etc); even TV is typically not as good as the average narrative, popular movie. (Cutting, signed peer review 2014)

If cinema is indeed better at capturing our attention than these other media, and if in some senses it is better at capturing our attention than those parts of the world that do not feature such media – i.e. if cinema is better at capturing our attention than reality – then cinema, and the making-cinematic of reality in a bid to capture attention, to make money and/or to influence people (Cutting compares cinema in particular to teachers and to business leaders) is profoundly political. It is profoundly political because learning about how to capture attention – learning about how cinema works – is tied to the shaping of our material reality (putting screens everywhere) and to controlling attention (encouraging us to look at those screens, and not at the rest of reality). Cognitive film theory is apolitical; film-philosophy, meanwhile, engages in the very political dimensions of cinema. Eye tracking studies of film tend to position themselves as part of the former; my aim here is to bring them into dialogue with the latter.

If eye tracking studies of film tend to position themselves as part of a would-be apolitical approach to cinema, then in their investigation into cinema, they are nonetheless conducting an investigation into politics, as per Beller’s equation of cinema with politics highlighted above. However, while eye tracking studies of film position themselves as apolitical, politics do creep into eye tracking studies, especially through what I shall call their absences. What is more, these politics do relate to film-philosophy’s ‘political’ approach to film. In order to demonstrate this, I shall begin by analyzing how eye tracking studies of film have sought historically to legitimate themselves.

Early in an essay that gives an overview of eye tracking studies of film, Smith asserts, without naming any, that the hypotheses of film theory ‘generally remain untested’ (Smith 2013, 165). In this almost throwaway comment, we perhaps find important information. For in asserting that eye tracking is what can help us to ‘test’ out some theories of film, as Smith goes on to do in relation to Sergei M. Eisenstein’s writing about his own film, Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938), he perhaps overlooks how film theorists often (but perhaps not always) try (though not always with success) to construct their theories based on the films that they have seen, studied and perhaps made, and not the other way around. That is, Smith seems not to consider that watching films is itself a means of testing our theories about films – without the need for eye tracking devices. On a related note, while he does consider filmmakers like Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Edward Dmytryk and others as ‘experimentalists’ of sorts (who have tested their own theories), Smith also does not fully acknowledge that the history of cinema can itself be seen as a prolonged ‘test’ in what ‘works’ or ‘does not work’ with audiences – with that which ‘works’ being regularly adopted as either a short- or a long-term strategy by the film industry, be that in terms of re-using storylines, adopting a specific cinematic style, employing bankable film stars, using topical settings, engaging with zeitgeist themes and so on. Instead, it is Smith’s intervention that will validate or otherwise that history of theory and practice, and which will confirm what filmmakers, and perhaps also many audience members, have probably known for a long time, even if putting their knowledge into practice sometimes proves harder than we might imagine (because otherwise films would presumably not have ‘mistakes’ in them).

Now, it’s natural that a (relatively) new approach to studying film would need to legitimize itself in order to gain credibility and following – and Smith clearly charts the c30 year trajectory of eye tracking in film studies since the 1980s onwards (Smith 2014: 90). Nonetheless, if the history of cinema is not ‘test’ enough for Smith, then implicitly a claim is being made here about what constitutes a ‘real’ test, and, by extension, what sort of person can carry out a ‘real’ test. In other words, eye tracking, and the cognitive framework more generally, here legitimizes itself as being a tool for verifying (scientifically) what previously were ‘mere’ and speculative theories (these are my terms) – with the people qualified to carry out these tests being neither filmmakers nor audience members, but psychologists. By justifying eye tracking in this way, Smith is not just making a statement of fact (eye tracking demonstrates that viewers look at the same things at the same time during films made using the continuity editing style), but he is also – I assume unintentionally – making an implicit value judgment that carries political assumptions regarding what constitutes a/the most legitimate framework for learning and knowing about film. If, as per my anecdote above, I can and do know the same things via introspection that eye tracking tells me, then why is introspection not equally legitimate as a framework, even if the former involves less visible labor, and certainly less sexy imagery, and thus does not seem to involve any real ‘testing’?

Eye tracking thus seeks ‘politically’ to legitimate itself as a tool for film analysis. To be clear: eye tracking is legitimate, but it is also always already making claims about what constitutes knowledge: introspection is not knowledge, while science is – even if both can lead to the same understanding. Importantly, in producing visible evidence (the afore-mentioned ‘sexy imagery’ of colored clusters of eye-gaze on scenes from films), then eye tracking studies are also always already cinematic, by which I mean to say that they affirm a system whereby the visual/the cinematic (here are pictures of attention being captured) are validated above invisible (here, introspective) approaches to the same knowledge. This in turn always already affirms the process of cinema and attention-grabbing as being the (political) system that is most powerful.

If eye tracking affirms a politically cinematic world, in that cinematic forms of knowledge are more valid than invisible, i.e. uncinematic, ones, then within that cinematic world eye tracking might also, and in some respects implicitly does, legitimate some forms of cinema over others. This is suggested by the way in which eye tracking studies look predominantly at Hollywood/mainstream cinema in their analyses of film. For example, in his AToCC, Smith (2012a) cites a diverse range of movies, including L’escamotage d’une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin/The Vanishing Lady (Georges Méliès, France, 1896) and L’année dernière à Marienbad/Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, France/Italy, 1961), but eye tracking data are given mainly for contemporary Hollywood films, including Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA/Hong Kong/UK, 1982), Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2000) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2007), with Smith suggesting that continuity editing is the form of cinema best suited to capturing attention.1

The absence of eye tracking data on those other, non-Hollywood films is perhaps telling, as suggested by two respondents to Smith’s essay, who query how his theories would apply to different cinemas, including the avant garde (Freeland 2012, 40-41) and, at least by implication, Japanese cinema (Rogers 2012, 47-48). Eye tracking would of course yield important insights into avant-garde and other forms of cinema, but that information is not offered here.

Furthermore, Smith’s suggestion that continuity editing is the form best suited to capturing attention, also prompts Paul Messaris and Greg M. Smith to argue that continuity editing violations, in particular jump cuts, are quite regular and not particularly detrimental to the continuity of the film viewing experience (Messaris 2012, 28-29; Greg M. Smith 2012, 57). Malcolm Turvey, meanwhile, argues that the film viewing experience is always continuous, meaning that the ‘continuity’ of continuity editing ‘is not continuity of viewer attention per se… but rather the manner in which films engage and manage that attention’ (Turvey 2012, 52-53; for Smith’s riposte to these responses and more, see Smith 2012b).

These responses highlight how filmmaking ‘perfection’ (an absence of continuity errors) need not be fetishized too much; audiences are quite happy to watch films with continuity errors (many of which they will not notice). Furthermore, many audiences love what Jeffrey Sconce (1995) might term ‘paracinema’ – i.e. ‘trash’ cinema and ‘bad’ movies – be they intentionally ‘bad’ or otherwise. In other words, it would seem that as long as audiences are primed regarding how they should receive a film (or, in Turvey’s language, as long as their attention is managed and then engaged in the right way), then you don’t need to care about and can even love the stylised acting, the ropey mise-en-scène, the unmotivated camera movements, the strange edits and the story loopholes of, say, The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA, 2003), supposedly the worst film in history. Under the right circumstances (with the right management/ preparation), it would seem that audiences can like pretty much anything, including a 485-minute film of the Empire State Building (Empire, Andy Warhol, USA, 1964). In other words, while in his AToCC Smith mentions Méliès and Resnais, and while he engages with Eisenstein and other filmmakers elsewhere, the AToCC puts an emphasis on mainstream Hollywood cinema and its predominant system of continuity editing, since this cinema elicits a synchronicity of response, or control over attention, in that viewers attend to the same parts of the screen at the same time – while also often failing to detect edits done in the continuity editing style (see Smith and Henderson 2008). There is a seeming bias here towards mainstream, narrative filmmaking, the engrossing nature of which is lauded at the expense of other cinemas.

Let us move away from Smith in order to demonstrate how this bias is not his alone. Jennifer Treuting suggests that ‘[t]he use of eye tracking… can help filmmakers and other visual artists refine their craft’ (Treuting 2006: 31). In some respects, this is an innocent comment; I have no doubt that eye tracking can help filmmakers and other visual artists to refine their craft. But suggested in this ‘refinement’ is also the move towards validating the mainstream/continuity style at the expense of its alternatives. A combined eye tracking and fMRI study carried out by Uri Hasson and colleagues also makes this clear: much fuss is made over how work by Alfred Hitchcock elicits greater synchrony (‘inter-subject correlation’) in viewers than does an ‘unstructured’ shot of a concert in Washington Square Park, a film that is simply a ‘point of reference’ and which ‘fails to direct viewers’ gaze’ (Hasson et al. 2008, 13-14; emphasis added). My reference above to Warhol’s Empire here becomes apposite: what Hasson and colleagues dismiss as a ‘point of reference’ and as a ‘failure’ in various respects defines one of the great experimental films. Perhaps ‘marginal’ films like Empire should also be considered successful – but at achieving something different to the work of Hitchcock, and perhaps Hasson’s film is not a ‘point of reference’, but an experimental work that equally inhabits the totality of films in the world that we shall call cinema.

If Hitchcock ‘succeeds’ in controlling viewers’ attention, while Warhol by implication ‘fails’, then eye tracking becomes implicitly/inevitably embroiled in not just what film is, but in what film could or should be – as Treuting’s suggestion that eye tracking might feed back into filmmaking also makes clear. This suggests that there is a politics to eye tracking film studies, particularly in the UK where universities are increasingly relying on ‘impact’, particularly on the economy, in order to survive: they don’t just observe films, but feed back into how films are, or should be, made, by exploring what is ‘successful’ in terms of eliciting attention, getting bums on seats and thus making money. In some respects, eye tracking in particular and cognitive film theory in general are now dragged back towards the Marxist approach to cinema that cognitive film theory initially sought to reject: it, too, shapes/seeks to shape cinema just as Marxist film theory in effect lobbied for alternatives to the mainstream. However, where Marxist film theory lobbied for a rejection of mainstream cinematic techniques, eye tracking studies seem to validate them – and to suggest that filmmakers might ‘refine their craft’ by adopting/intensifying them. Saving the thorny issue of ‘control’ and ‘influence’ for later, there is still a political dimension to this potential validation of mainstream cinema techniques, because it reaffirms the economic hegemony of one style over others and it also validates in some degree a homogeneity of product (and of audience?) – all within a ‘cinematic’ economic system that is itself predicated upon gaining attention. Cinema is both business and art, but if art is one thing it is unique/different, and so a move towards homogeneity is a move towards the reduction of art in favor of business. If it requires an artist rather than an academic to make this clear, then Darren Aronofsky’s apprehensive response to Hasson’s work at the AMPAS events hopefully serves this purpose: ‘“It’s a scary tool for the studios to have,” Aronofsky said. “Soon they’ll do test screenings with people in MRIs.” The audience laughed, but it didn’t seem like he was joking, at least not entirely’ (Miller 2014b).

I have so far argued that cinema is political, that eye tracking studies have required some political maneuvering in order to legitimate themselves, and that the focus on continuity editing/mainstream cinema by eye tracking studies may also have a political dimension. However, are eye tracking studies themselves without methodological politics, in that they simply report findings? I wish presently to suggest that eye tracking research does have methodological limitations – which is why I asserted above that eye tracking film studies are only to a large extent and not entirely reliable – and that these limitations also have a political dimension. The methodological limitations are not simply a case of potential inaccuracies regarding the type of eye-tracker used, determining how long the eye needs to be still for a fixation to take place, what algorithm is used to measure this, or how accurate is the eye-tracker in determining where exactly the eye is looking – all ongoing issues with eye tracking technologies (see, inter alia, Wass et al. 2013; Saez de Urabain et al. 2014). It is also a case of issues of statistical significance and the politics thereof, particularly what I shall call the temporal politics, and to a lesser extent the social politics, of eye tracking. In relation to the latter, many eye tracking studies involve students in order to carry out their research (e.g. Tatler et al. 2010; Võ et al. 2012). As a result, the findings might pertain not universally, but to population members who are of a certain age and, if we can say that university students tend to be from more affluent backgrounds, a certain socioeconomic status. In relation to statistical significance, meanwhile, all studies tend to discount those viewers who do not look where the researchers want them to look; for example, in a study of where people look when viewing moving faces, only 87 per cent of fixations targeted the face region when shown a moving face with sound, with that figure dropping to 82 per cent when shown a moving face without sound (Võ et al. 2012, 7). Of course, when what one is investigating is where people look when they look at faces, it is correct to discount those 13-18 per cent of fixations that were not directed at the face. But the point is that similar discounts happen all the time, not least in the process of averaging that we see in various experiments, including those mentioned by Marchant et al., Hasson et al., and Smith. And yet, where neuroscience is based in large part upon the study of anomalous brains – from autists to damage sufferers to perceived geniuses – psychologists engaged in eye tracking tend to go with force majeure and report the average, or what most people do. There may however be in human populations a ‘long tail’ (to use the terminology of Chris Anderson, 2006) that may not in any one experiment be statistically significant, but which over a number of experiments might begin to show patterns that could help us to understand vision and attention in a more ‘holistic’ fashion.

To continue by way of another anecdote: a film scholar took part in an eye tracking film study at a leading European university. Upon completion, the colleague conducting the study told the scholar that they looked in completely different places – generally at the margins of the screen – to where most of the other participants looked, and that their participation was therefore useless to the study. If we can say that the film scholar looked (perhaps deliberately) where others do not look, then to what degree is film viewing a matter of, to use Turvey’s language, management and engagement? That is, do film scholars look differently at films, perhaps even at the world? And if so, what can we make of this?

The Russian ‘godfather’ of eye tracking studies, Alfred Yarbus. famously published in the 1960s that setting viewers different tasks will completely modify where they look at an image (Yarbus 1967; see also Tatler et al. 2010). There is much to extrapolate from this. For while eye tracking studies will use terms like ‘naïve’ to define how participants are unaware of the aims of the study, when it comes to film viewing, humans are rarely naïve at all. Advertising, reviews and other publicity materials are always – at least on an implicit level – telling us how and where to look at films, just as the media and our conspecifics are telling us how and where to look in the real world. Now, it may well be that humans who have never before seen a movie have little trouble understanding Hollywood cinema, as affirmed, inter alia, by both Messaris (2012, 31-33) and Smith (2012b, 74). Nonetheless, our attention is not just managed and engaged in the cinema, but it is also managed and engaged for the cinema, and I have not read any studies where psychologists showed a non-Hollywood film to first-time audiences and in which those audiences had trouble understanding the film; that is, these studies affirm nothing about the comprehension of continuity editing per se, although they might affirm that humans can understand cinema without training – as is presumably affirmed worldwide everyday as the first film shown to children is not a Hollywood film but a Bollywood, Nollywood, Filipino, Chinese or other movie; what is more, the studies perhaps only affirm the cultural hegemony enjoyed by Hollywood, in that psychologists present a Hollywood and not another film to those first-time viewers – and then use that research to affirm Hollywood’s economic primacy as being a result of its filmmaking style and not also as a result of historical and other factors. As Cynthia Freeland reminds us in her response to Smith’s AToCC, James Peterson in Post Theory argued that

a common feature of avant-garde film viewing – one that usually passes without comment: viewers initially have difficulty comprehending avant-garde films, but they learn to make sense of them. Students who take my course in the avant-garde cinema are at first completely confused by the films I show; by the end of term, they can speak intelligently about the films they see. (Peterson 1996, 110; quoted in Freeland 2012, 41)

In other words, as per my assertions re: The Room above, it is quite possible that humans would quite easily watch – and enjoy – all manner of different films, but that they do not because their attention is not ‘managed and engaged’. Again, this is a political issue, because if it is true, then it is about who can afford to use the mass media to manage and engage the attention of the most people in the quest for profit – meaning that alternative approaches to filmmaking are forced either to adopt the same system of filmmaking to compete, or they are pushed to the margins where the struggle to find audiences – because people are not prepped to watch them. The scholar at the European university has had a long education in film, and this potentially helps to manage and engage differently how they attend to them; their ‘statistically insignificant’ response might well be important in helping to demonstrate how we can not just view different/marginal films, but also view mainstream films differently.

Cutting and colleagues suggest that film editing correlates with a 1/f pattern, with 1/f (one over frequency) referring to the ‘natural’ amount of time that humans attend to objects in the real world (Cutting et al. 2010). In other words, the suggestion is that Hollywood editing rhythms reflect human attention spans – ‘evolving toward 1/f spectra… [meaning that] the mind can be “lost”… most easily in a temporal art form with that structure’ (Cutting et al. 2010, 7). Now, since David L Gilden only came up with the 1/f structure in 1995 (Gilden et al. 1995), it remains untested, and untestable without a time machine, as to whether the human attention span itself changes over time, or according to culture. That said, if cinema has always been going at about the pace that human attention was working, and if cinema cutting rates have accelerated since the 1930s and through to the present era, then attention spans may well interact with culture, and even be shaped by our media.

I often ask my students how long they should look at a painting for. It’s a trick question, because of course there is no right or wrong answer. It is my (untested) hypothesis, however, that the amount of time humans look at paintings has been shaped by the media, including films; that is, in galleries, I see people look at paintings for about the average duration of a film shot (four to five seconds) – although recently they have begun to look at a painting for about the amount of time that it takes them to take a photo of that painting with their mobile handheld device.2 Smith, citing Cutting’s work, suggests that

[i]n an average movie theatre with a 40-foot screen viewed at a distance of 35 feet, this region at the centre of our gaze will only cover about 0.19 per cent of the total screen area. Given that the average shot length of most films produced today is less than 4 seconds… viewers will only be able to make at most 20 fixations covering only 3.8 per cent of the screen area. (Smith 2013: 168)

Given that paintings vary in size, one cannot rightly say how long it would take to see a ‘whole’ painting. But if one looks at a cinema-screen sized painting for 4 seconds, then one would, after Smith, fixate on about 4 per cent of that painting. In order to see the whole painting, then more time is needed, just as more time is needed to take in our natural, rather than cinematic, environment, since we also only ever see a small proportion of that at any one time.

Relating to film the foregoing foray into painting, we might add that, given that we do not take in visual information while saccading, and given that saccades have a duration of 20-50 miliseconds (Smith 2013, 168), this means that we do not take in visual information for 0.7 seconds during every four-second shot. At 90 minutes in length, there are on average 1,350 shots per film, meaning that we do not take in visual information for 15 minutes and 45 seconds per film – blinks and turning away from the screen for snogging and toilet breaks not included. If spatially we only see 3.8 per cent of the screen during a shot, and if we only see 82.5 per cent of a film’s duration, this means that we see around 3.14 per cent of the average (Hollywood) film (no spooky π references intended).3 To be clear, these statistics apply not just to Hollywood: I would only see 3.14 per cent of Empire if I were to watch it at the cinema, too. But since it is a film comprised of a single-seeming shot and a static frame, Empire clearly encourages viewers to look for longer at the space within the frame, while Hollywood arguably does not give viewers the time to do so, since the content and duration of images is concerned uniquely with story-telling, and not with anything else. This in turn affects for how long we think that we are supposed to look at objects in our everyday lives, if for the sake of argument my gallery hypothesis be allowed to stand. Neither paintings, nor Empire, nor the world itself is organized to be seen ‘cinematically’, even if Empire is undoubtedly a work of cinema. That is, they all invite contemplation, but what they often receive is a shot-length of attention before they become boring (Empire perhaps deliberately so). Neither paintings, nor Empire, nor large swathes of the world itself controls our attention in the way cinema does; there would be much more idiosyncrasy and less synchrony of attention when looking at Empire than at a mainstream film. If the proliferation of screens featuring cinematic techniques is the making-cinematic of reality in the services of capital, then the refusal to attend to paintings, Empire and the world itself suggests not just that our attention is controlled while watching a film, but that our attention is working at a ‘cinematic’ rhythm – a rhythm that Empire uses the very apparatus of cinema in order to try to break.

The ‘temporal politics’ that I mentioned above, then, is to do with the management and engagement of attention rhythms/patterns not just in cinema, and not just for cinema (we are prepped to be movie viewers), but also by cinema for the world (people pay attention to paintings in galleries about as long as they would attend to a film shot/as long as a film shot would allow them to attend to it, before ‘cutting’, or turning away, likely getting out one’s phone, the screen of which one can also cut across with the swipe of a thumb). Politics rear their head again as homogeneity of attention span, perhaps even of life rhythm, jump into bed with the political and economic concerns that govern the structures of our society. Almost certainly in an unwitting fashion (this is not a conspiracy), validating certain cutting rates and attentions spans over others becomes an issue linked to social control, and the economic bottom line of both cinema and perhaps society as a whole. Eye tracking studies of film are part of this political ecology.

A final throw of the dice. Those of us engaged in education are of course part of a system that prepares our students for the real world. But I am personally also committed to encouraging my students sociably and communicatively to develop their individuality, to become ‘idiosyncratic’, to look at the world differently and various other notions that have long since been corporatized disingenuously as advertising slogans. Being a film teacher, I do this through encouraging my students to look differently at films. Hollywood films employ techniques that do not encourage us to look differently at movies; instead, our attention (and our brain activity) are synchronized. What is more, the idiosyncratic viewers that do look at films differently (the European film scholar) are discounted from eye tracking studies for not conforming to the norm (for not confirming to us what we already know, even if not through a scientific framework). Not only might we encourage our students to look at the world differently (to become the idiosyncratic, perhaps ‘educated’ viewer), but we might also encourage our students to make films differently, since films can also play a role in encouraging us to see the world differently, to become ‘idiosyncratic’ individuals (Hasson’s research involved the production of an interesting avant garde work, regardless of his own thoughts on the matter). Perhaps eye tracking (and fMRI) studies can help in this by turning their attention not to the majority, but to the minority, to the marginal people who look, both figuratively and literally, at the margins of the screen, and at marginal films. And this perhaps involves slowing attention down, and making it (willfully?) deeper rather than rapid and superficial. I know that the longer I look at a painting, the more the power of its creation comes to my mind, the more I marvel at it and also at the world that sustains it. In other words, it brings me joy. As I repeat often to those students who do not seem committed to participating in my classes: the more you put in, the more you get out.

Would to educate (to manage and engage attention) both in the classroom and through making and showing different sorts of (slower?) films not simply replace one trend with another, and itself be prey to political issues regarding what type of ‘idiosyncrasy’ is best? Of course, such questions are going to be of ongoing importance and would need constant attention. In relation to eye tracking film studies, though, the introduction of a ‘temporal’ dimension might help enrich our understanding of idiosyncrasy. The spatial information that idiosyncratic eye-tracks give to us is chaotic and without pattern – and thus of not much use to the psychologist; however, there may well be temporal patterns that emerge when we consider ‘idiosyncrasy’ as a shared process (to be encouraged?), rather than as a reified thing to be commoditized.

Paul Willemen has written about cinephilia as being the search for/paying attention to otherwise overlooked details in movies (Willemen 1994, 223-57). Meanwhile, Laura Mulvey has argued that DVD technology allows the film viewer to develop a deeper, cinephilic relationship with movies, since she can now pause and really analyse a film – by ‘delaying’ it/slowing it down (Mulvey 2006, 144-60). To look idiosyncratically at a movie is thus to look ‘cinephilically’; it is to look at cinema with love, perhaps to look with love tout court – but in this instance at cinema. My argument comes full circle, then, as we bring cognitive film theory, via eye tracking film studies, into contact with film theory/film-philosophy, exemplified here by Mulvey as a major figure from the Screen movement/moment. There is no I in eye tracking – but if we can accept that eye tracking studies of cinema are embroiled in a political discourse (and a political reality) concerning which films are validated as better than others and why, then perhaps by putting an ‘I’ into eye tracking, by looking at the idiosyncratic in addition to the statistically significant, then we may be able to bring about different ways of seeing and making films.


  1. The exception is Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Spain/Argentina/ Denmark/Germany/Netherlands/Italy/USA/UK/France/Sweden/Finland/ Iceland/Norway, 2000).
  2. One of my peer reviewers took issue with the speculative nature of this suggestion. The other agreed with it.
  3. Note that I insist on the term ‘visual information’ – since film does not just engage us visually, but also aurally and via other senses (as Freeland, 2012, also reminds Smith in her response to his AToCC essay).



Anderson, Chris. 2006. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion.

Beller, Jonathan. 2006. The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. Lebanon, N.H.: Dartmouth College Press.

Bordwell, David. 2010. “Now you see it, now you can’t.” Observations on Film Art: Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, June 21.

Bordwell, David, and Noël Carroll. 1996. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cutting, James E.. 2014. Peer Reviewer’s Comments. Received October 1.

Cutting, James E., Jordan E. DeLong and Christine E. Nothelfer. 2010. “Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Film.” Psychological Science 20:10, 1-8.

Freeland, Cynthia. 2012. “Continuity, Narrative, and Cross-Modal Cuing of Attention.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 34-42.

Gilden, D.L., T. Thornton, and M.W. Mallon. 1995. “1/f Noise in Human Cognition.” Science 267:1837-39.

Hasson, Uri, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmeyer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin and David J. Heeger. 2008. “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 2:1, 1-26.

Marchant, Paul, David Raybould, Tony Renshaw and Richard Stevens. 2009. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? An eye tracking evaluation of dynamic scenes.” Digital Creativity 20:3, 153-163.

Messaris, Paul. 2012. “Continuity and Its Discontents.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 28-33.

Miller, Greg. 2014a. “How Movies Manipulate Your Brain to Keep You Entertained.Wired, August 26.

Miller, Greg. 2014b. “How Movies Synchronize the Brains of an Audience.” Wired, August 28.

Mulvey, Laura. 2006. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion.

Peterson, James. 1996. “Is a Cognitive Approach to the Avant-Garde Cinema Perverse?” In Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, edited by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, 108-129. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Rogers, Sheena. 2012. “Auteur of Attention: The Filmmaker as a Cognitive Scientist.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 42-49.

Saez de Urabaín, Irati R., Mark H. Johnson and Tim J. Smith. 2014. “GraFIX: A semiautomatic approach for parsing low- and high-quality eye tracking data.” Behavior Research Methods, March 27, pp. 1-20.

Sconce, Jeffrey. 1995. “‘Trashing’ the academy: taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style.” Screen 36:4, 371-393.

Smith, Greg M. 2012. “Continuity Is Not Continuous.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 56-61.

Smith, Tim J. 2012a. “The Attentional Theory of Continuity Editing.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 1-27.

Smith, Tim J. 2012b. “Extending AToCC: A Reply.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 71-78.

Smith, Tim J. 2013. “Watching You Watch Movies: Using Eye Tracking to Inform Cognitive Film Theory.” In Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, edited by Art P. Shimamura, 165-191. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Tim J. 2014. “Audiovisual Correspondences in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky: A Case Study in Viewer Attention.” In Cognitive Media Theory, edited by Ted Nannicelli and Paul Taberham, 85-105. London: Routledge/American Film Institute.

Smith, Tim J, and John M. Henderson. 2008. “Edit Blindness: The relationship between attention and global change blindness in dynamic scenes.” Journal of Eye Movement Research 2(2):6, 1-17.

Tatler, Benjamin W., Nicholas J. Wade, Hoi Kwan, John M. Findlay and Boris M. Velichkovsky. 2010. “Yarbus, eye movements, and vision.” i-Perception 1:7-27.

Treuting, Jennifer. 2006. “Eye Tracking and the Cinema: A Study of Film Theory and Visual Perception.” SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal 115:1, 31-40.

Turvey, Malcolm. 2012. “The Continuity of Narrative Comprehension.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1, 49-56.

Võ, Melissa L.-H., Tim J. Smith, Parag K. Mital and John M. Henderson. 2012. “Do the eyes really have it? Dynamic allocation og attention when viewing moving faces.” Journal of Vision 12(13):3, 1-14.

Wass, Sam V., Tim J. Smith and Mark H. Johnson. 2013. “Parsing eye tracking data of variable quality to provide accurate fixation duration estimates in infants and adults.” Behavior Research Methods 45:1, 229-250.

Willemen, Paul. 1994. Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Yarbus, Alfred L. 1967. Eye Movements and Vision. Translated by Basil Haigh. New York: Plenum Press.


William Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Roehampton, London. He is the author of Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (Berghahn, 2013) and, with Dina Iordanova and Leshu Torchin, of Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010). He is the co-editor, with David Martin-Jones, of Deleuze and Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). He is also a filmmaker.

The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs – Hampus Hagman

Norman in Psycho.

An animated gif uses the Graphics Interchange Format to create movement from still images. The outcome is a short clip with jerky motion that has been described, quite aptly, as a “digital flip book”.[1] The device has been around since the 1980s, but due to its bite-size format, the ease of circulating it, and the availability of tools for creating one, the gif has in the last few years returned to become a widely popular item on blogs and tumblrs. Content-wise, animated gifs frequently consist of a few frames culled from a pre-existing movie. This brief moment is then looped in order to give the impression of a (somewhat) continuous movement. What is noteworthy about these mini movies is that they, quite often, focus on the “minor” moments of a film, such as, for instance, scenes from Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) with Hattie McDaniel rather than the more memorable scenes of, say, the “Frankly, dear, I don’t give a damn” caliber.[2] Of course, the more iconic scenes get heavily referenced as well, but due to the brevity of the format, gifs are more suitable for mannerisms and gestures than “big” dramatic moments. The gifs that work the best are therefore those that manage to withdraw themselves from being representative of the films from which they are sourced in order to create a logic and economy of motion wholly their own.

It has been suggested that the compressed nature of the gif is ideal for our contemporary culture of distraction.[3] According to this view, the “video-shorthand” of the format corresponds to a cultural tendency toward ever-increasing abbreviation of information output and decreased temporal commitment.[4] Are we to believe, then, that gifs are part of the same contemporary logic that makes us prefer the quickness of twittering to the more time consuming activity of writing a blog post? Considering that gifs appear frequently on microblogging platforms such as Tumblr, maybe so.

But I think we miss something crucial about the attraction of the gif if we only take it to be a cultural symptom of our hectic times. The gif is more than just an easy means to share clips from favorite TV shows or movies in unaltered form. That the gif would be little more than a less time consuming, shorthanded replacement for the movie that it references is contradicted by the fact that, more often than not, the technology is used to alter the content of the original, sometimes beyond recognition. The gif, in other words, is more a matter of creation than recycling. At the heart of this creative intervention lies a recognition of cinematic movement as a force of differentiation and metamorphosis. As I will argue, the impetus behind the animated gif is as old as cinema itself.

Some historians and theorists of the moving image have pointed out that before film was organized into narrative sequences and stories, what enthralled filmmakers and spectators alike was the sheer fact that the images moved.[5] The central procedure of the gif consists in the restitution of fascination with the fundamental element of cinema: movement. It thus reveals a commitment to cinema rather than a devaluation of it. The animated gif is characterized by the attempt to make movement strange again, to assert a power of movement all its own, liberated from the responsibility of making it mean and carry out narrative goals. This inclination can be stressed by viewing the animated gif as a form of gesture.

In his short essay “Notes on Gesture” philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that “the element of cinema is gesture and not image”.[6] A true gesture, suggests Agamben, is neither a means to an end nor an end without means, it is means as such, the manifestation of pure mediality. Cinema¾at least in its earliest manifestation and the chronophotographic experiments that paved the way for it¾liberates human movement from being purposeful, it is the exhibition of the medium of movement for and by itself. Stephen Crocker lucidly brings forth this point:

The effect of Muybridge’s photographic and filmic experiments such as Man Walking at Normal Speed was to take recognized gestures and, through the technical capacity of film, to remove them from the sensory motor schemas and purposes in which they are usually embedded. Early film and photography revealed the sheer taking place, or the “means” of human embodiment. The arm swinging is no longer part of a march. It is simply an arm swinging, arrested in its being toward some completed activity. If it were allowed to continue in its stride, the swing would be a means to carrying out some ambulatory goal. Removed from its terminal point, however, it is simply a gesture, a means of moving the human body in a yet to be determined pattern. This decontextualization of movement allowed a new understanding of human embodiment, which spread into psychology, physiology and other sciences. For Agamben, it suggests that cinema is not defined by the image and the dialectic of reality/representation, so much as its ability to display the “pure mediality” of our actions.[7]

However, it should be noted that narrative cinema tends to subordinate the gesture to the larger whole in which it is embedded and through which it receives its meaning. Hereby, the gesture is not allowed to stand by itself “decontextualized”, in the word of Crocker’s elucidation but becomes goal-oriented and causal in nature. As Benjamin Noys points out, Agamben is quite hostile to narrative cinema. His sympathies rather lie with avant-garde cinema since it more prominently exhibits the medium as such. Appropriately enough for our purposes, Agamben regards repetition of images as a way to “free the gestures within them”.[8] When gesture is liberated, its pure mediality manifests itself as potential, and because of this, Agamben sees in the gesture a political and ethical dimension.

As noted above, the gif, too, employs repetition not as a principle of sameness but as a principle of difference. By virtue of its looped repetition, movement is displaced from the circumscribed meaning it had in its original context and never reaches its narrative telos. When this happens, one is able to see beyond the representative content of movement and instead become aware of the altering force of movement to produce other meanings. I would like to argue, therefore, that the animated gif emerges in recognition of this pure potentiality of the gestural motion of cinema. By liberating a moment from its hosting narrative, the gif restores to cinema the gestural quality that has been veiled by its causal embeddedness. The gif can be said to perform the sort of decontextualization that Crocker writes of, and thereby cinematic movement is rebooted—given a second life as it were—outside the strictures of the narratives from which they originate. Hereby, the original meaning of a movement or gesture counts for little. Rather, it is the potential of movement to be put to other purposes that is asserted. Can we not, then, see the gif as a means to salvage the gesture from a cinema that has rendered it merely a means to an end and values it mainly for its accomplishment of narrative goals? A great many gifs are based on films with strong linear and causal structures. But what they do is to take hold of the excess inherent to them, to the effect that their original meanings are subverted, or at least opened up to recontextualizations.

The site GIFuniverse revels in this excessive power of movement.[9] The principle of repetition is here not only deployed temporally, but also spatially. Combining the successive repetitiveness of the gif with the spatial juxtaposition of the split screen, the whole screen is here filled with row upon row of pulsating, rhythmic and dancing imagery, all set to an accompanying musical soundtrack. The images displayed are of decidedly varied origin and content (amateur home videos appear next to clips from films and television; animation next to live action; scientific models next to low-brow visual gags) but their musical setting makes the visual field less chaotic than one might imagine. It is rather as if all the images were interacting components in a common rhythm: as if one were witness to some heterogeneous balletic choreography. Before the contemplation of specific content or the identification of visual forms can take place here, what strikes the viewer is the sheer excess of movement.

Cinematic culture has always been fascinated with the transformative and autonomous powers of movement. In his essay, “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion”, Tom Gunning relates how the invention of cinema was welcomed by the changing aesthetic ideas of movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Spearheading a lot of the new thoughts on movement was philosopher Henri Bergson, whom Gunning approvingly quotes: “In reality, the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the change of form: form is only a snapshot view of transition.”[10] In line with such thinking, the Symbolists and the Futurists saw “motion as force in itself, a plasmatic energy that creates form rather than simply moves them about”.[11] Gunning takes Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances as the exemplary demonstration of this metamorphic dimension of movement, but early cinema too celebrated movement for its own sake, with little or no narrative concerns. This leads Gunning to speak of movement as a matrix of meaning rather than meaning itself.[12]

So, is this detour through early cinema meant to imply that the animated gif heralds a return to a more “pure” state of the moving image? Blogger Kelli Marshall suggests something along these lines.[13] Indeed, as Marshall points out, on a technical and receptive level gifs do bear striking similarities to early cinema, or even proto-cinema: they are silent, they are viewed in private (Marshall is here making a comparison to the Kinetoscope in particular and how it allowed for viewing by only one person at a time) and they run on a loop. But, in addition to Marshall’s account, what is most striking about many gifs is their almost fetishistic fascination with pure movement, something they share with early cinema. The capacity of movement to transform is celebrated in many gifs. Through the circular continuity of the loop, a familiar bodily activity is rendered strange and bereft of regular sensorimotor causality. Through such forces of repetition and extension, the gif seems to tap into the matrix of movement that Gunning writes about. Gunning’s account leads us to recognize the excessive character of cinematic movement, which entails that it can take on meanings different from the one that it has reified into by serving as an agency of causal structures. Viewing the gif through the lens of Agamben’s gesture underscores this matrixial quality of movement, its dimension of pure mediality. As we shall see, however¾and this is where the digital component enters the equation¾the gif carries the gesture of movement to an ethical level beyond mere subjective cinephilia. The main difference from earlier cinema is that the gif makes our fascination with movement communicable and shareable, rather than just being the source of private consumption.

But before the gif can enter into circulation we must shed light on the logic that produces it in the first place. We must, in other words, explore what aspects of the film experience may count as “gestural”, and how these may be allowed to stand by themselves even in the face of films that work to neutralize them.

Methods of extraction: cinephilia and excess

One of the fundamental dictates of textual analysis is that the part is interpreted in light of the whole. For the cinephile, on the other hand, it is of little concern how something may or may not fit into the objective structures of meaning. Christian Keathley, quoting Paul Willeman, defines cinephilia as ”what is seen [that] is in excess of what is shown.”[14] Cinephilia is hence a stance of dissociation; of taking a detail from a movie and extracting it from the flow into which it is embedded. It is, as Keathley argues, a form of fetishism. The “cinephiliac moment” has nothing to do with those scenes inscribed into our collective memory banks, which is to say moments that are designed to be memorable, such as, for instance, the shower scene in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). It is on the contrary those moments of purely subjective enjoyment, whose precise appeal may be difficult to communicate to others. The gif can be regarded as a way of visualizing this subjective fetishism for a wider public. The animated gifs that are encountered all over the internet very seldom tell a story: on the contrary they seize hold of those purely excessive moments that carry little to no narrative purpose.

There exists a minor tradition in film theory that seeks to shed light on those moments of films that are not contained by more dominant signifying structures, but that are, simply, excessive. In the essay “The Third Meaning”, Roland Barthes ponders a collection of stills from Eisenstein’s films and wonders just what it is that affects him about them. He reaches the conclusion that beyond the “obvious meaning” contained in the informational and symbolic levels of a film there exists a third meaning that is not as easy to pin down. He attempts to capture this dimension by writing about how different stylistic elements in the mise-en-scene interact with one another. There is one still in particular that attracts Barthes’ attention. It is of an old woman from Battleship Potemkin (1925), and in it, Barthes finds that there is something striking about the purely formal relation between the lines of the woman’s headdress, her closed eyelids, and the shape of her mouth. To the scientific mind, Barthes ruminations may appear completely arbitrary, but this is exactly the point. The obtuse meaning escapes objective determination, it has its base in subjective reaction. Despite his assertions to the contrary, Barthes appears a proper cinephile when writing: “I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. […][This] emotion is never sticky, it is an emotion that simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotion-value, an evaluation.”[15]

Barthes points out that the “third meaning” might only be accessible through the film still, the fragment. In the normal course of watching a film, the third meaning is drowned in the flow of images. However, as we can see from Keathley’s text, the cinephile knows how to cling onto these fleeting moments and details, even in the process of viewing a film. One reason that s/he is able to do so is because the cinephile is prone to repeat viewings.

Kristin Thompson has built upon Barthes’s discussion of the third meaning in order to develop a “concept of cinematic excess”. Excess is that which is not contained by a film’s unifying structures: “At that point where motivation fails, excess begins.”[16] Thompson suggests that one way to become aware of excess is through experimental films that examine already existing films, rearranging and repeating their components and bringing forth other qualities than those relating to narrative. After discussing films that have proceeded along these lines, such as Ken Jabob’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969) and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (late 1930s), Thompson disclaims that she “mean[s] to imply that the spectator or critic will be led to aesthetic creations of their own as a result of watching for excess.”[17] And yet, this is precisely what has happened. A gif do not require particularly sophisticated technology. Anyone can make one: software is available for free online and there is an app on the iPhone.[18] The availability of means to intervene into a movie¾to dissect and reconfigure its components¾has entailed that the excessive details from movies that were previously stored in the private memory banks of individual cinephiles have now become public property. By intensifying the excessive moments through repetitive looping and posting them online, viewer has now become purveyor of cinephiliac moments.

Some sites manifestly thrive on the excessive details of cinema. The blog If We Don’t, Remember Me wears its cinephile tastes on its sleeve.[19] Originator Gustav Mantel here posts shots from classic films such as The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963), and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) to mention but a few. The technique he uses to present them is called “cinemagraph”, which makes use of the gif format, but is visually different from traditional animation uses of it in that it can more properly be described as a combination of still photography and video. The results are “living movie stills”, as Mantel calls them: images that are essentially still but for a small part. Many of the images collected on the blog appear, at a casual glance, completely still. But attending to them long enough, something suddenly jolts into motion.


In an emblematic image, Edward Norton from Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) sits with his eyes closed in an airplane chair—as if frozen in a dream—for what appears to be a quite significant amount of time. Suddenly, the image springs into motion the very same moment that he opens his eyes to directly face the viewer.[20] The effect is not unlike the moment in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) when, in the midst of a film composed of still images, there is a sudden eruption of movement as the girl opens her eyes. The coinciding of the opening of eyes with the moment of animation makes the sequence resonate with symbolic implications in regard to the gif’s repurposing of cinematic movement. According to one of the founding stories of cinema, the first exhibition of the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896 started with a still image. Only after a while was it jolted into motion to render the impact of movement all the more striking. Similarly the cinemagraph explores the relation and difference between stillness and movement in order to let the viewer see movement anew with, as it were, freshly awakened eyes.

Even though the creators of the technique of the cinemagraph states that it was “born out of a need to tell a story in a fast digital age”[21] it is used more frequently to intensify a moment that may have little to no narrative purpose. The animated gif can therefore be seen as a properly cinephiliac gesture, underscoring minor moments that are lost in the more regular circumstances of viewing a film. Consider, for example, two gifs of Marlon Brando, the first from A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), the second from On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). The first intervenes in a flirtatious scene between Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) and Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). Brando leans toward Leigh and cracks a little smile. Decontextualized and looped, the original meaning of these gestures never reaches their assigned destination. Instead, Brando here takes on an almost vampyric quality, appearing as if about to take a bite out of Leigh.[22] In the clip from On the Waterfront, Brando points to his nose while chewing gum and arching his eyebrows.[23] Nothing more significant than that. Here meaning is drained from the image to the extent that it is difficult to make any sort of determinations or analogies as to the proper content of these gestures whatsoever. Rather, it’s all about the gestural interplay of the lines and shapes of the image: the way Brando’s profile lines up with the angle of his finger and the way that his arched eyebrows serves as an exclamation mark to this little fugue of movement.

“The third meaning: Brando demonstrating the excess of movement”

That it is Marlon Brando that appears in these clips is therefore highly symptomatic from the viewpoint of excess. His method acting offers a gallery of eccentric mannerisms and excessive gestures, all ripe for cinephiliac appropriation. Originally, of course, Brando’s technique was developed in view of lending psychological depth to his characters, and hence meant to be deployed in the service of narrative. But as Kristin Thompson notes a propos excess, “stylistic elements may serve at once to contribute to the narrative and to distract our perception from it.”[24] Once we are consumed by the excessive detail it parts way with the (objective) story and enters into another (more subjectively defined) story. This is why Thompson regards excess as counter-narrative.

Trying to describe the strange, twitching movements contained in these clips I find myself struggling to find words. This is not exactly the stuff of high drama, which is why it is quite hard to capture the exact appeal of the gif, or even offer an adequate description of it. Their reconfiguration of human embodiment by technical means places them in the Freudian category of the “uncanny”: they are both familiar and unfamiliar. The meaning they communicate is indeed “obtuse”, to use Barthes’ word. Barthes suggests that the obtuse third meaning cannot be described, that it resists meta-language. It is a “signifier without a signified” and, as such, can only be indicated by “pointing” to it rather that representing it in words.[25] This is why, according to Barthes, the third meaning is where the specifically “filmic” resides. The third meaning accentuates what language is not: the part in a film which escapes the grasp of words and therefore asserts itself as a wholly different medium. This returns us to Agamben’s gesture. The gesture displays nothing more than its own potentiality, it has no meaningful content. The gesture displays nothing more than its own potentiality, it has no meaningful content. Gesture is about suspending and supporting, about “enduring” rather than accomplishing and carrying through.[26] The gif asserts this supportive power of movement through its presentation of looping as a method of continuation.

Looping as enduring

Most gifs do not offer closure. As I have suggested above, their purpose is not to capture an event in its entirety, where beginning and end are clearly marked, and the loop is just a way to show the sequence all over again. The point is rather to make the looping structure enter into the perception of the content. The challenge of the gif is to isolate a moment from a film that is compatible with the technique’s looping structure. To this end, the most successful gifs make use of the repetitive or circular motions already present in the original source. It is no coincidence that animated gifs are frequently used for porn. The repetitiveness of the thrusting motions in porn makes the intervention of looping nearly indistinguishable from the original content. In these cases, the gif carves a slice out of a fleeting moment of movement and extends it to a hypothetical infinity that is already a logical possibility of the activity inherent in the original source. The satisfaction is that of isolating a moment of motion that appears self-sustaining, closed in on itself in a perfect loop. They can hereby be said to employ excess as a method of suspension and continuation. Through this logic we are presented with, for instance, Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” stirring his White Russian in The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998),[27] or Charles Foster Kane’s resolute clapping in a scene from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)[28] extended, hypothetically, ad infinitum. The natural repetitiveness and circularity of these kinds of activities puts them in close proximity to the artificial manipulation of looping. What is striking about these extensions of movement is their excessively useless character. Their purpose is not to represent anything or carry some point across. It is simply to sustain a basic motion for as long as possible.

“Motion as sustaining force: The Dude locked in a perfect loop”

There are, of course, “punch-line” gifs that carry a more explicit purpose. In these cases, a movement is altered by the structure of the loop in order to suggest a repetitive action with a meaning that subverts the original content. It is popular, for instance, to loop a hip movement in order to give it a sexual connotation that it does not have in original form.[29] But in both its extending and altering modes of movement the gif can be said to explore movement as nothing more or less than a sustaining force. The motions produced by these gifs are not inherent to the original sources. Nevertheless, we are able to read them as continuous activities. But the movement is neither a means to achieve goals beyond itself (it is not employed to carry out narrative goals), nor is it an end (to be quite literal about it, the looped gif does not come to an end: as is evidenced by the examples above, movement can here be extended to a hypothetical infinity). Agamben writes: “What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.”[30]

“The punch-line gif: the altering power of movement: Twilight”


Gesture as circulation

This is what the gif does: it shows movement as pure support; as the medium that carries actions and events. It is not a matter of communicating a particular content, but of showing movement as a medium of communicability as such. In itself, it is pure becoming and process, and this is key to understanding its success as an item of networked circulation. Through its decontextualized status as pure medium, it is free to enter into many different contexts. Gifs are frequently used to answer a question from a follower on a blog. In these contexts the gif can be supplied with a more definite meaning. When the gif is recontextualized as a response to a question, the excess set free at the first stage is “sutured”, given a home as part of discourse, and is hence supplied with a more definite meaning. [31] We might say that in these cases, the empty signifier of the gif is completed with a signified with the consequence that pure gesture is reified into image. But the reason it can do so is that it is recognized in its pure mediality in the first place. Recontextualization is hence only a by-product of a preceding decontextualization of movement. And it is this momentary suspension of movement that makes it resonate in many different contexts and hence spurs on its circulation. The gif presents movement not as a vehicle for achieving a particular goal (for instance narrative closure) but as pure mediality and communicability.

If we may so bold as to call the art of the gif an ethics of cinema, it is because it emerges in recognition of movement as a medium of support and circulation. The gif is gestural not only in the sense that it, in a cinephiliac manner, feeds off and liberates the gestures of cinema, but also in the sense that the gif itself gestures toward further use. The distributive chain of movement as gesture that the gif performs, and which I have here attempted to sketch, can be summarized thusly: a (cinephiliac) viewer recognizes an element of excess in a movie. By “giffing” it, this element is detached from its original meaning, but not, necessarily, in order for it to take on another definite meaning. What is released at this creative stage is simply movement as a deterritorialized force. Posted online, another viewer recognizes the strange and altered form a (possibly) familiar moment from a film has taken, and hence becomes aware of movement as pure potential. Quite literally, it gestures to him or her. Maybe this viewer has a blog and decides to use the gif for his or her own purposes. Now, integrated into a personal discourse, it can receive a temporary meaning. But another viewer can put it to other purposes. Hence, the gif can achieve many different closures in many different contexts rather than one absolute, determinate meaning. Hereby the gif asserts the generalizable character of gesture, its status as example. As Stephen Crocker writes: “to stand out as an example, the phenomenon must be able to suspend its own functionality and purpose, because only then can it show how it belongs to the set. What it displays in that case is not only its own singularity, but also the thing in its medium of activity.”[32]

Showing the thing in the “medium of activity” demonstrates a potential and can hence instigate further activity. This is why Agamben attributes to gesture an ethical and political dimension. The gif can in accordance with this be considered an ethical gesture not only in the sense that it liberates and re-potentializes cinematic movement, but also in the sense that it gestures toward further circulation and sharing of the moments of cinema.


Agamben, Giorgio. “Notes on Gesture” (1992), in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning” (1970), in Image-Music-Text, transl. by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Boston: University Press of America, 1983.

Cubitt, Sean. The Cinema Effect, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Gunning, Tom. “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion: Body, Light, Electricity, and the Origins of Cinema”, in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, eds. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003.

Keathley, Christian. The Cinephiliac Moment”, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, issue 42, 2000.

Oudart, Jean-Pierre. “Cinema and Suture”, in Screen, 18 (4), 1977.

Thompson, Kristin. “The Concept of Cinematic Excess” (1981), in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


Online References

Alexander, Leigh. “Why We Love Animated Gifs”, posted May 24, 2011 on

Crocker, Stephen. “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben” published 3/28/2007 on

Marshall, Kelli. “Animated Gifs, Cinemagraphs, and our Return to Early  Cinema”, posted on June 8, 2011 on

Nelson, Noah J. “So Long Animated GIFs, Hello Cinemagraph”, posted  April 20 2011, on

Noys, Benjamin. “Gestural Cinema: Giorgio Agamben on Film” in Film-Philosophy Journal, Vol. 8, No. 22, July 2004 on

Wortham, Jenna. “Instant Loops of Images, From an iPhone App”, posted  April 7, 2011, on the New York Times blog,


Blogs and Tumblrs

3 Frames:

A Pebble in my Shoe:

Bye Gurl, Bye:

Everything You Love to Hate:

Fuck Yeah Reactions:

GIF Party:


Gif World:

If We Don’t, Remember Me:

Reaction Gif:

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot:



[1] Jenna Wortham, “Instant Loops of Images, From an iPhone App”, posted April 7, 2011, on the New York Times blog,, checked November 9, 2012.

[2] See the blog A Pebble in my Shoe:, checked November 9, 2012.

[3] Leigh Alexander, “Why We Love Animated Gifs”, posted May 24, 2011 on Thought Catalog, checked November 9, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See for instance Sean Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Cubitt proceeds from the pure difference of movement¾which he conceptualizes as “the pixel”¾ as the theoretical and historical first principle of cinema which is only secondarily tamed by narrative.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” (1992), in Means Without End: Notes on Politics trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 55.

[7] Stephen Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben” published on, 3/28/2007., checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[8] Benjamin Noys, “Gestural Cinema?: Giorgio Agamben on Film” in Film-Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 22, July 2004., checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[9], checked November 9, 2012.

[10] Ibid. 87. Bergson’s quote is from Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Boston: University Press of America, 1983. 302.  

[11] Tom Gunning, “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion: Body, Light, Electricity, and the Origins of Cinema”, in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, eds. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003. 80.

[12] Gunning beautifully sums up Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances in these words: “As the embodiment of Symbol, she was meaning divorced from specificity, an image unmoored by reference or representation, becoming purely the flow of movement in all its sensuality and its constantly changing, evocative pursuit of analogy – the pulsing matrix of meaning itself.” 81. See also p. 85.

[13] Kelli Marshall, “Animated Gifs, Cinemagraphs, and our Return to Early Cinema”, posted on June 8, 2011., checked November 9, 2012.

[14] Christian Keathley, “The Cinephiliac Moment”, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, issue 42, 2000. Available online:, checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[15] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning” (1970), in Image-Music-Text, transl. by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 59. Emphasis in original.

[16] Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 135.

[17] Ibid. 141.

[18] See, checked November 9, 2012.

[19], checked November 9, 2012.

[20] Come to think of it, many of Mantel’s clips revolve around eyes that are suddenly opened to look out at the viewer. See for instance clips from Psycho, Darjeeling Limited, Moon, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Orlando, Solyaris, Alphaville.

[21] Noah J. Nelson, “So Long Animated GIFs, Hello Cinemagraph”, posted April 20 2011,, checked November 9, 2012.

[24] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”. 134.

[25] Barthes, “The Third Meaning”. 61.

[26] Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”. 56.

[29] See for instance, checked November 9, 2012.

[30] Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”. 56.

[31] I am here riffing on the theoretical notion of “suture”, popular in the 1970s and 80s. According to the importer of the term into film theory, Jean-Pierre Oudart, the purpose of the reverse-shot in film is to answer the question that is posed for the spectator in a previous shot. Suppose, for instance, that we are shown a shot of a landscape. After a moment’s enjoyment of this view, the spectator soon begins to wonder why it is being shown to her or him. The reverse shot gives the answer to this query, because in it we are usually shown a character to whose vision the previous shot supposedly belongs. One image hereby bestows meaning upon another, to the effect that the spectator is released from interpretive responsibility. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Cinema and Suture”, in Screen, 18 (4), 1977. The blog Everything You Love to Hate is notorious among its followers for its “cheeky” use of gifs in response to questions and comments. Some examples:,,, links checked November 9, 2012. On a related note, there are entire blogs devoted to “Reaction gifs” that just seem to cry out for re-appropriation. Some examples:, and, links checked November 9, 2012.

[32] Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions”. Unpaginated.



Hampus Hagman is putting the finishing touches to his dissertation, which examines the split screen as a meta-reflexive device for the management of unrepresentable content. He is also a freelance writer.