Esther Leslie

Animation and Fire

Rock on Fire

In 2022, a team of researchers examined fifty Upper Paleolithic limestone plaquettes from a cave in Montastruc. A form of mobiliary art, the rectangular tabloids have engraved images on them, including figurative or stylised animals, humans and humanoid forms, rivers or other landscape features and abstract or geometrical motifs. The surface of the plaquettes shows various types of damage and stress, fragmentation, recompositions and, around the edges of the stones, evidence of pink-coloured heat damage. This last aspect, the scorching erosion on the exterior of the rock, led them to conclude that the plaquettes had been placed close to fire. The researchers observe:

The plaquettes from Montastruc were likely positioned in proximity to hearths during low ambient light conditions. The interaction of engraved stone and roving fire light made engraved forms appear dynamic and alive, suggesting this may have been important in their use. 1

Small fragment engraved with the figure of a horse. Paleolithic; Montastruc, France. ©The Trustees of the British Museum via

Small fragment engraved with the figure of a horse. Paleolithic; Montastruc, France. ©The Trustees of the British Museum via

The plaquettes, then, performed something like the service of a digital tablet today, providing a surface for animated delight, with flickering movements, the play of entertainment, allowing for fascinated viewing. Human brains, this might suggest, have long enjoyed dreamy shifts of light and shadow, the illusions of pareidolic experience. The leaping of animals, the movement of figures, the twirl of patterns: animation as a cultural form might be much older than we have imagined. It comes from the fires around the caves of our first dwelling.

Fire as Ecstasy

The Soviet-era filmmaker S.M. Eisenstein was fascinated by animation, though he did not make any himself. In the 1930s, he wrote about Disney cartoons, trying to figure out what gripped him so much in a cultural form that was directed towards movement. Walt Disney’s animation moulds emotions, according to Eisenstein, by unleashing the plasticity of forms. Eisenstein affirms animation’s ability to range in any direction and embark on any exploit. Eisenstein seizes on the provisional quality of animation, which, for him, protests, in utopian fashion, against the rigidities and fixities of the world, the capitalist world. He associated the undulating and inconstant shapes of animation with the protoplasmic forms of primordial matter from cosmic origins. A plasmatic force, he argues, deforms all forms through time and stimulates an imagination of the emergence of any and every thing. This plasmatic form is present still in the world, most noticeably, he insists, in the form of fire. Fire, argues Eisenstein, ‘is capable of most fully conveying the dream of a flowing diversity of forms’. 2 Fire is ecstatic, which means, in Eisenstein’s vocabulary, drawing on its literal sense, beside itself or exiting from a normal state. The energetic, swirling movements of fire - and water – are an ecstasy in matter 3 - and art should wish to likewise flow from one state into another too with a mobility resembling water's heat-triggered capacity to become ice, water, steam 4. Fire, a destructive form is also, contradictorily, creative. Fire is ‘eternally changeable, like the play of tongues, mobile and endlessly diverse’, and it displays ‘omnipotence in the realm of the creation of plastic shapes and forms 5’. Fire is a form of animation. And so, in being a form of animation, it is also the most apt object for animation.

Animated Flames

Cartoons played with this thermal power. There is a sparse and brutal cel cartoon from 1926, ‘The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff’, also known as ‘When Hell Freezes Over’. Characters Mutt and Jeff lie in their parallel beds, freezing. They fight with each other over a tiny threadbare blanket, condemned as they are to an impoverished urban coldness. The Hell of 1920s America becomes, through a few twists and turns, the Hell of the underworld, for they seek firewood and meet the Devil instead, after tumbling through a hole in the earth’s surface. As cold as the bleak city above, Hell has frozen over. There is one flame left and the task of the uncouth, crooked men, Mutt and Jeff, is to keep it alight. What are they keeping alight? – that which should be Hell’s dreadful power to consume the sinful in flames, but is now a desired source of energy, a negation of icy worlds. The flame is one of the most lively entities within this cartoon of meagre surfaces and undeviating backgrounds. It directs the action, just as fire transforms matter. How might it transform those animate forms called humans?

Hearth of a heartless world

Let us return to now, suffused with knowledge of what has been. There have been new discussions within evolutionary and experimental psychology about the ways in which fire produced humanhood. Some have claimed that the fire that came to be used for cooking encouraged the development of language 6. The daytime topics of conversation, it is argued, might have covered practical matters, while the evening, when the fire was used as a source of warmth, was given over to storytelling.

We modern humans have, in a previous age, used the TV set for gathering and engaging with stories, talking sometimes with and against it. Sometimes, it was sited in what used to be the fireplace and people in the past called it the new hearth of the home. Another way of describing the TV was as a focal point in a room – ‘focus’ deriving from the Latin for fireplace. TV’s flickery warm colours licked our faces as we watched, lighting up a corner of the living room. More recently, after the invention of VHS technology - and now digital forms - it could be made into a fireplace, with the use of an animated roll of flickering flames. 'Fireplace For Your Home', by Netflix, is one version, available in 4K since 2015: a burning fire is shown from 'its beginning as logs into a full-blown and cosy hearth'. It comes now with a birchwood version, for extra variety. This is a fire that gives off virtually no heat and consumes nothing in its flames, but electricity.

Photograph taken by Esther Leslie, at Sleeperz Hotel, Dundee

Photograph taken by Esther Leslie, at Sleeperz Hotel, Dundee

We circle back to the plaquettes in the cave, not images of fire, but animations made by fire. And animations of fire, for in order to bring the thesis into our contemporary world the researchers drew in the ecstatic powers of animation, the ingenious techniques of 3D modelling, colour enhancement using DStretch© and virtual reality modelling. Old animation greets new animation and the matter of storytelling continues.

This text was commissioned using funds from the sale of unique artworks by Mater artists. The collection is still available and can be found here

1 Andy Needham, Izzy Wisher, Andrew Langley, Matthew Amy, Aimée Little (2022) Art by firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France). PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266146.

2 S.M. Eisenstein,  Eisenstein on Disney, edited by Jay Leyda, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1986, p. 24.

3 S.M. Eisenstein, Eisenstein on Disney, pp. 45-6.

4 Eisenstein takes up these discussions in his book Nonindifferent Nature: Film and the Structure of Things.

5 S.M. Eisenstein,  Eisenstein on Disney, pp. 25-7.

6 PW Wiessner, ‘Embers of society: Firelight talk among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen’. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Sep 30;111(39):14027-35. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404212111. Epub 2014 Sep 22. PMID: 25246574; PMCID: PMC4191796. and RI Dunbar, ‘How conversations around campfires came to be’. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Sep 30;111(39):14013-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1416382111. Epub 2014 Sep 22. PMID: 25246572; PMCID: PMC4191795.

Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck. Recent work on the biopolitical economy of dairy, - Deeper in the Pyramid: Share of Throat - with Melanie Jackson, is currently on show at Wellcome Collection's Milk exhibition: A book on anti-fascist radio pioneer Ernst Schoen is out soon with Goldsmiths Press, and a study of ICI and its impact in Teesside is being published by Palgrave Pivot. Her lo-tech website can be found here.