by Karl Cohen

For over a quarter of a century I’ve been asking my cinema students on the first day of class “what is surrealism and why is it important to animators?”   Even though most are cinema majors, I generally ask that question again before a brave student will risk raising a hand.  Often the first answers deal with vague thoughts about dreams and nightmares.  Eventuality the discussion leads them to realize surrealism comes from our creative imaginations and that for over a hundred years it has provided a good deal of the imagery for films.

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Thru The Mirror (1936)  (courtesy of BookMice)

I teach animation history at SF State and as the semester progresses the images my students see become more complex.  The earliest are simple black and white figures of Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown and Farmer Alfalfa, often placed in surreal situations.  Felix uses a rope to get to the planet Saturn in Astronomeous (1928).

Koko and Bimbo in Max Fleischer’s Earth Control (1928) go to the control room that controls Earth’s gravity and Bimbo pulls the switch marked do not touch.

By the mid-1930s there were amazing surreal cartoons coming from the Disney Studio.  They were in the new Technicolor process and some of their stories were quite sophisticated and outrageous. Disney’s surreal gems include Lonesome Ghosts,

and Modern Inventions with Donald going crazy when he discovers a world’s fair exhibit of wacky devices.

Thru the Mirror is an adventure based on the writings of Lewis Carroll brought to life with exquisite artwork.

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Years ago I interviewed a few animators whose careers began in the 1930s.  They were aware of surrealism’s influence on their work, but never called themselves “surrealists.”  In the mid-1940s Disney showed his appreciation of surrealist art when he hired his friend Salvador Dali to design a film, but it wasn’t completed in Disney’s lifetime.  His nephew Roy Disney discovered that the original contract stated that the artwork would have to be returned to Dali if the film wasn’t completed, so in 2003, to insure the corporation owned all the preliminary drawings and paintings the project called Destino was finished.

When New York’s Museum of Modern Art held the monumental exhibition “Fantastic Art: Dada, Surrealism” in 1936, the show included four works from the Disney Studio.  Items 536 to 539 in the show were “wolf pacifier, four frames from the animated cartoon Three Little Wolves 1936.

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Walt Disney was placed in the category “Artists independent of the Dada and Surrealists movements” along with sculptor Alexander Calder, Catalan sculptor Julio Gonzales, the Russian non-objective painter Kasimir Malevich, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, writer/illustrator James Thurber, cartoonist Rube Goldberg and about 40 other artists. There were 644 items in the exhibit.

Surrealism continues to play a dominant role in animation.  Pixar’s Oscar winning features include a tour inside a girl’s mind in Inside Out and talking and thinking cars and animals is several other features.  Current independent animation, and I see hundreds shorts each year, rarely includes correct, realistic human anatomy.  Artists rarely try to duplicate live action movements unless they are using the rotoscope (a tracing-device) or motion capture technology.  (Although Anomalisa by Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman is an ultra-realistic looking work, it includes a long and quite powerful surreal climax.)  Most young animators who start out thinking they are going to create a realistic masterpiece quickly realize a movie camera can save you from doing a lot of tedious drawing or trying to figure out how to build realistic puppets on a limited budget.

In animation you can establish your own rules for the world you create.  The audience will accept them if they like what you have created.  If you are brave or confident enough you can even explore the outer limits of your imagination.  Animation offers artists the freedom to create anything one can imagine.  Part of our enjoyment with this form of art is being surprised by it and if the surprise is surreal it may be memorable.  Remember, in animation anything can happen.

Although there are many exceptional films that avoid surrealism including most documentary films and cinéma vérité, the most financially successful films of all time are filled with surreal images and ideas. The public loves being entertained by Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and the top moneymakers include the Star Wars series, Avatar, Jurassic Park, and the Incredibles films. The only film on the current list of the top 20 box office champions that isn’t a fantastic surreal fantasy or science fiction work, is the ill-fated love story Titanic.

What distinguishes the film programs being presented in November in the Bay Area’s surreal celebration is the focus on the creators of works of art that are recognized for their have exceptional literary, cinematic or other forms of artistic merit. There are a few animated films being shown in the film series called “Strange: Surrealist Tendencies in Cinema,” the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (November 6-10). The evening entitled “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” features two works by Phil Solomon that take place in eerie digital landscapes and Our Lady of the Sphere by Lawrence Jordan who animates Victorian engravings to suggest exotic, anachronistic journeys. Another program features the work of Sidney Peterson an experimental filmmaker who, ironically, was a script writer for the maverick animation company UPA and on the never competed Fantasia II. There is no animation in “A Bundle of Bunuel” at the Roxie (November 23-24) in San Francisco but it is a treasure trove of mind-boggling visions. They are not commercial products made by Hollywood and TV Studios, but are works by creative artists who have expressed themselves visually in unique personal ways.  This month long series of personal visions is a truly remarkable celebration of surrealism minus the Hollywood or Las Vegas touch.

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In addition there are readings, lectures and other events at City Lights Bookstore, galleries and other locations around the bay area. A complete schedule is available at “Inside the Magnetic Fields, Surrealism at 100.”


In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

Read Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism.

Breton’s lecture “What is Surrealism” is a good companion.


Read more at MoMA’s Surrealism website.

Ryan O’Leary’s “How Surrealism Has Influenced the Animation Industry” is a good survey.

“When Surrealism Invaded Film: The Cinematic Contributions of Salvador Dalí” by Truman Hopper.


unnamed.jpg Karl Cohen has been teaching animation history at San Francisco State University since 1993, and has been writing about it since the late 1970s. A notable collector of animated films, he is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. As the president of ASIFA/San Francisco, he edits and writes for the ASIFA/San Francisco newsletter, read by animation fans around the world. He is currently writing a book on animated propaganda and has written for EatDrinkFilms.com about Pixar, classic Disney animators Marc Davis and Charley Bowers. Karl has compiled and presented dozens of programs of animated and live action shorts including “Surrealism in Animation.”

cineSOURCE Magazine recently featured an in-depth interview with Cohen.

He also has a monthly column on cineSOURCE. Here is a complete list of articles and the most recent with teasers.




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