6. Discussion

This section begins with a discussion of style. I argue that all things exhibit a style and it is useful to think of 3D animation as a stylistic exchange between the style of an animator and the style of other things.

Part of this exchange involves the style of computer hardware and software. Due to its inherent granularity, computing incorporates the style of a variety of things which operate at different scales and on different levels. At a level above electronic circuits and digital objects is the software’s architecture and interface which have been designed to afford a particular user experience. Above this, is the style of product marketing and practices promoted by help menus and user forums. A detailed analysis of how each of these things/elements interact is beyond the scope of this research, however, the inherent flexibility of digital objects and the dominance of a default 3D style suggests that marketing and user experience design (UX) often dominate a conversation. My research has shown that custom tools and unorthodox practices can help users escape this domination and interact with a digital medium which feels (stylistically) different.

The style of a 3D animation can be changed with the click of a button which leads us to believe that style and content are separate. But this is not entirely true because a work communicates on the level of style, not only through what it represents. This is especially the case with unfinished, sketchy works. Comparing my experimental animations with the default visual style (exemplified by Pixar), I find that mine are more sketchy and recognisable things are harder to pin down. This ambiguity highlights how viewers bring their own style to a work and how meanings emerge between the two. Like the exchange between animator and thing, there is an exchange between the style of a viewer and the style of a work.

Phenomenological enquiry is the starting point for my experimental animations but we can see that the finished works embody a distinctly non-human gesture reminiscent of digital objects and object oriented programming (OOP). This insight leads us to consider OOO, which conceptually situates humans on the same level as other things (including physical, digital, real and imagined things). OOO focuses as much on the relationship between (inanimate) things as the relationship between human and world.

Merleau-Ponty’s work encourages us to regard the making and viewing of 3D animations as a stylistic exchange and similarly, OOO allows us to think in terms of collectives and entanglements. Rather than seeking deliberate, detailed representations, my research explores how animations can emerge from entangled relations.


For Merleau-Ponty (and for Heidegger), a successful artwork communicates primarily on the level of style, not through what it represents. In other words, an image or an animation embodies a particular attitude or comportment toward the world, communicating “at a level more fundamental than the sense making judgements of the mind” (Gilmore, 2005, p. 302). It is this “pre-objective” level of communication to which Merleau-Ponty is referring when he says of a Lascaux cave painting that, rather than seeing it, I see according to it, or with it (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 164).

Bacon is expressing a desire to communicate on this level when he says he wants to bypass the brain because he is after something “more poignant than illustration” (Sylvester, 1975, p. 17). According to Bacon, paint that is illustrative “tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain,” while paint that avoids illustration “comes across directly onto the nervous system” (Sylvester, 1975, p. 18). Noting that it‘s difficult to exactly define the difference between paint that is illustrative and paint that is not, he says that “It’s something to do with instinct” (Sylvester, 1975, p. 18) – and here Bacon is referring to both his instincts as a painter as well as the instincts of a viewer. The process of making a non-illustrative painting involves the instincts of the painter and the finished work communicates on an instinctive level with the viewer.

Figure 6.1: Dug the dog from Pixar's film Ratatouille (Bird, 2007). Image sourced from

In 3D animation there is a default visual style exemplified by the work of Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar films exude a kind of dogmatism or self assurance which resonates with the “classical world-view” described by Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty, 2004, pp. 31, 106). This world-view believes in the possibility of a rational understanding of things (and the world) that holds true for all places and all time. In Pixar animations, individual things (e.g. a collar, an eyeball, a tongue or an individual hair on a dogs coat) are rendered clearly and distinctly and (although they move within the frame) are stable throughout the timeline. Pixar films elicit an emotional response, but not because the status of things and the connections between them is troubled. If we cry watching a Pixar film it’s because we are responding to a carefully designed narrative which unfolds within a fully calculable and stable world.

Merleau-Ponty explains that the dogmatism of the classical world view is implicit in classical works of art whose meanings are unequivocal (Merleau-Ponty, 2004, p. 31). He contrasts these works with Cezanne’s paintings which give things their “unsurpassable plenitude which for us is the definition of the real” (Merleau-Ponty, 1993a, p. 65). Even more than classical paintings, Pixar productions are seamless because they are rendered with mathematical precision. Created by teams of talented individuals, in these films every pixel has been accounted for and has a definitive role in telling the story. This visual style depicts a world in which categories of the intellect have already been applied; things are settled and (on a stylistic level at least) the viewer feels “somehow relaxed” (Merleau-Ponty, 1993a, p. 66). I appreciate these films for their high production values but watching them makes me feel claustrophobic.

Figure 6.2: Still from Whippet in the Sun.

Through a series of experimental animations I have moved away from the default 3D style (exemplified by Pixar) toward something more sketchy and incomplete. In these animations precise meanings and forms are harder to pin down because (recognisable) things emerge and subside. Things move and change throughout the timeline so that stable orders and easy definitions are consistently disrupted.

Comparing “Dug the Dog” (Figure 6.1) with Whippet in the Sun (Figure 6.2) we can see that my 3D model is incomplete and inaccurate; it is a mere sketch; an inadequate response to an inexhaustibly rich dog/thing. Though a cartoon dog, Dug is comprised of components that ordinarily define dogs. His tail, ears, nose, tongue, and each hair on his body are all rendered with detail and precision. Whippet in the Sun is more ambiguous and leaves more room for interpretation, highlighting how meanings emerge between a viewer and a work.

More than a highly finished work, Merleau-Ponty suggests that a sketchy or incomplete work invites viewers “to take up the gesture which created it” (Merleau-Ponty, 1993b, p. 88). Compared to painters of the classical era, who use standard representational techniques and achieve a high level of finish in their work, modern painters such as Cezanne and Klee display a startling “tolerance for the incomplete” (Merleau-Ponty, 1993b, p. 88). Critics of the day apparently complained that modern artists presented sketches as finished works. Merleau-Ponty explains that modern paintings have an unfinished quality, not because the artists are lazy or inept, but because (like Bacon many years later) they want to communicate with viewers on the level of style and instinct.

Like these modern paintings, my experimental animations are also sketchy and incomplete. We could say that my work invites a viewer to take up the gesture which created it. But what is this gesture? Where does it come from and whose gesture is it?

Obviously the gesture of the artist or animator plays a big part in the creation of a work. Typically, it is a painter’s physical gestures (movements of the arm and hand) that leave marks on a canvas. If a painting is sketchy or incomplete, brushstrokes remain visible and viewers get a sense of the actions that they embody. A painter’s physical movements leave a trace for viewers to gear into or inhabit.

Just like the way that they walk or sign their name, the way that a person moves a brush or a stylus (or mouse) is part of their personal style. The link between personal style and physical gestures makes it easy to understand how a painter’s style is embodied in the physical artefact (the painting) which they create. A painting communicates (at least partly) at the level of the brushstroke and a painter’s brushstrokes easily embody her style because her physical movements leave a physical trace.

As we have seen in this research, the relationship between physical actions, visible outcomes, and personal style is not so simple for 3D animators. For us, the mapping between actions and outcomes is something to play with and explore rather than something to be taken for granted. It is therefore important for 3D animators to remember that a person’s style doesn’t only manifest as physical movements.

A person’s style is evident in the way that they move, but it is also evident the way that they think and the way that they see. For Merleau-Ponty, style describes the way a person gears into the world; it describes the particular way that the world shows up for them. Perhaps more than my physical gestures, experimental animations presented in this document embody my style of thinking and seeing.

Statements by software companies (Pixologic, 2015) encourage us to think that what makes an animation unique is the user’s ability to exercise an idiosyncratic imagination. The insinuation is that 3D software allows users to make their (inner) mental images visible to others. But if we accept this idea then we are in danger of forgetting that learning to use 3D software means learning to see and think in a particular way.

Rather than focusing on style as physical gesture, or style as idiosyncratic imagination, my experimental animations have shown that exploring style as response is a fruitful line of enquiry. A user’s style is evident in their ongoing, intuitive response to tensions perceived in the world and in their work. Capturing a user’s intuitive decisions (and using them as raw material) is one way to create animations that embody a user’s particular style. This research has involved creating custom tools and I would like to suggest that a user’s style can be embodied in custom tools as much as in animated works.

As a way of understanding the role of these custom tools, we can make an analogy between computer coding and mixing paint. Changing the feel of the medium and the trace that it leaves, mixing particular consistencies of paint is one of many activities involved in making a painting. Similarly, coding custom 3D tools is a way of changing the feel of the software, changing the data that the software stores, and changing how that data is used (e.g. how the data is modulated to form an image displayed on a screen). Although I started with a general idea, query or need, each of my custom tools was created through an improvisational process and I sometimes found that new tools suggested new practices or practices suggested new tools.

Human beings exhibit a style and so do other things; For Merleau-Ponty style is what makes a thing what it is. Linda Singer explains that “style is that which secures the harmonious flow of adumbrations which grounds the movement from the thing-seen-from-a-point-of-view to the thing seen” (Singer, 1996, p. 160). Loosely speaking, style is Merleau-Ponty’s answer to Husserl’s search for essences (i.e. the style of a thing is what persists below accidental surface appearance). By saying that style is what we respond to in a thing, Merleau-Ponty (2002, p. 523) is emphasising that things don’t normally appear to us as a collection of qualities or traits; in everyday experience, a thing’s style moves us on a bodily level.

In 3D animation, there are many practices through which the style of particular things is overlooked. For example, as 3D animators we normally try to set aside our relationship with things (e.g. their physical proximity or personal significance) and we usually describe things in terms of attributes which have been defined by someone else. Whether describing a car, a billiard ball, a plant or a dog, we tend to break things into component parts and we work with digital images of things rather than with things that are physically present. As described in section 4 of this document, my attempts to respond to the style of particular things have resulted in numerous alternative practices.

Given that things in the world, and the world as a whole, already exhibit a style, Jonathon Gilmore describes creative practice as a type of debate where the style of things enters into an exchange with the style of the artist (Gilmore, 2005, p. 306).

The dominance of a default 3D style (epitomised by Pixar) indicates that standard approaches to 3D software can obscure, reduce or level the style of the user and of other things. Everything (whether human, animal, animate or inanimate) exhibits a style and style is the level at which communication occurs. This deep understanding of style encourages us to explore 3D animation as a stylistic exchange and escape the grip of the default 3D style.

Like all things, computer software and hardware exhibit a style which calls for a particular response. For example, to see the screen, tap the keyboard and hold a mouse, we intuitively hold our bodies in a certain way. Many 3D practices have emerged as a response to software and hardware design. One way that I tried to push the boundaries of these practices was by working outside but when I did so I needed to sit down on a chair or on the ground.

Merleau-Ponty emphasises the role of the body in human experience and his thought is useful for understanding how users respond to computers (and to other physical things) and how viewers might respond to a work. Merleau-Ponty is primarily interested in how humans (and animals) perceive, but computers are complex machines with a lot going on below the surface (i.e. beyond the realm of our perceptual capacities). Animations presented in this document invite a viewer to take up the gesture which created the work, and it is apparent that this gesture is not only mine. These works embody the gestures of many non-human participants.

For Singer, Merleau-Ponty’s thought explains how: “The style of a musical instrument consists in those particulars to which the musician must adjust when he plays” (Singer, 1996, p. 160). A violinist moves their bow and it presses against the violin’s strings. The musician responds to sounds as well as the weight and texture of the wood and, meanwhile, the strings bend under pressure from the bow. The musician interacts with their instrument and the instrument’s components interact with each other. For phenomenology, these two types of interaction are completely different but for Object Oriented Ontology they are very similar. My works are about the way that I experience things and object oriented ontology insists that they are also about the way that things “experience”, comprehend, or translate each other.

Non-human gesture

Object oriented ontology is a term coined by Graham Harman and it has its roots in Heidegger’s thought. In his 2002 book, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of objects, Harman expands upon Heidegger’s tool analysis to describe an ontology of objects (Harman, 2002). He initially calls this school of thought object oriented philosophy and later refers to it as object oriented ontology (or OOO for short).

Some interpretations of Heidegger (e.g. (Dreyfus, 1990, 1992)) read his tool analysis as a vote for praxis over theory but Harman insists that Heidegger’s essential point is that neither theory nor practice exhaust objects. Whether I consciously study a cup or use it to drink coffee, the cup object itself always has plenty of surprises up its sleeve. No amount of conscious reflection or theorising about the cup can entirely capture it, and neither can any amount of intuitive interaction. No matter how far it fades into the background of everyday use, the cup could surprise me at any moment by breaking or burning my lip. Harman insists that objects are deeper than all their possible relations.

Heidegger’s insights reveal that objects withdraw from human consciousness and Harman extends this to say that objects also withdraw from each other. This is a move that Heidegger would not have liked.

Ian Bogost, a critic and creator of computational media, explores concepts from OOO in much of his work. In his book Alien Phenomenology; or what it’s like to be a thing, Bogost wonders “What’s it like to be a computer, or a microprocessor, or a ribbon or a cable?” (Bogost, 2012, p. 9). Bogost is particularly interested in the “experience” of inanimate things and his descriptions of how computer hardware components interact remind me of some of the non-human gestures at play in my work. My animations are about the way that I experience things and, according to Bogost, they are also about the way that things “experience” each other. Bogost’s “platform studies” investigates hardware and software as actors and insists that a digital work has to be understood in the context of the computing system with which it was made (Bogost, 2012, p. 100).

Bogost’s is an alien phenomenology because he wants to understand a thing “on its own terms” (Bogost, 2012, p. 10) rather than describing a thing from his (human) point of view. Bogost wants to know what it’s like to be a thing and he thinks that computers can give us a special insight into this question.

Bogost creates video games that make arguments and express ideas using computational processes (Bogost, 2010, p. 6). These are games which represent worldly logics with computational logics. Computers allow us to explain processes with other processes and Bogost suggests that this is very useful for an alien phenomenologist. The implication is that by exploring how things work and by crafting (computational) models of things we gain insight into what it is like to be a thing. Reading Bogost’s work alerts us to unprecedented opportunities afforded by digital media but it also brings up a number of questions.

Does a focus on worldly logics mean that Bogost seeks to be impartial; is impartiality possible and is it desirable? Is Bogost alert to surprises while he works? Do viewers get a sense of the withdrawn when playing/viewing his games, or do Bogost’s computational models end up being dogmatic? Further exploration of these questions is beyond the scope of this research but could be pursued in future work.

Rather than “object”, Bogost prefers the word “unit” because it doesn’t have material connotations. Using this word also helps us imagine how objects are comprised of other objects and phenomena are the “emergent effects of the autonomous actions of interrelating parts of a system” (Bogost, 2012, p. 25). He explains that a unit is like a machine, it does something. What a unit does, or what it can do, makes it what it is. Like Harman, Bogost insists on the autonomy and withdrawn nature of objects, stating that “units remain fundamentally in the dark about one another’s infinite centres” (Bogost, 2012, p. 30).

Bogost’s description of the way that units interact reminds us of the particles in Flocking Whippet (Figure 4.17and Figure 4.18). Isolated and unique, a unit is an enclosed system which becomes part of another system. Bogost explains that emergence and complexity is an after effect of hidden logics (Bogost, 2010, p. 10). Each particle (or unit) in Flocking Whippet operates according to its own internal logic and the (complex) flocking phenomena is an emergent property resulting from each unit’s simple coded rules.

Bogost’s description of units reminds us of digital objects and his work illustrates similarities between object oriented ontology and Object Oriented Programming.

Humans have a very special place in Heidegger’s thought but, for OOO, human beings are just one type of object. Harman insists that physical things, digital things and fantastical things, although not equally real, are all equally objects. Harman’s quest for a philosophical system “which is able to speak of all objects and the causal relations with which they become involved” (Harman, 2010, p. 5) results in what Levi Bryant calls a “flat ontology” (Bryant, 2011, p. 246) or a “democracy of objects” (Bryant, 2011).

Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty focus on the (special) relationship between humans and things, but OOO treats this as just one type of relation. Admittedly it is a complex example, but for OOO human perception is no different in kind that thing-thing causality. In other words, the way that I perceive an object (or a thing) is no different in kind from how one object “perceives” (or interacts with) another. All objects partially interact while always holding something in reserve. I can never fully describe, fully use, or fully understand the cup in front of me and likewise the cup can never fully grasp (or exhaust) the table.

OOO blurs the boundaries between humans and other things and encourages us to think in terms of collectives and entanglements. This move disturbs the assumption that, as empowered humans we can/do/should freely manipulate things for our own purposes. By placing humans on the same level as other things, OOO troubles human exceptionalism.

Blurring boundaries

Human exceptionalism is a term that describes how we continually come up with stories about what makes humans superior to, and different from, everything else. In a short paper called “Against Human Exceptionalism” (Pickering, 2008), Andrew Pickering describes how these ideas have changed over the centuries. At various times we have assumed that it is the soul, reason, consciousness, language, knowledge, or representation that makes humans different from other things. Pickering suggests that discourses of exceptionalism impoverish us and its time that we moved away from this preoccupation.

3D software is designed to feel empowering and, for proficient users, it’s easy to assume that the software is at our command. Instead of focusing on humans as actors in the world, Pickering prefers to talk about “dances of agency” (Pickering, 2008, p. 3). This term describes a reciprocal and transformative back and forth between human and things. Pickering explains “that dances of agency have their own inner dynamics and an emergent quality—in dances of agency we find out about and react to the unexpected” (Pickering, 2008, p. 4). As creative practitioners it’s easy to assume we are the ones that act upon (or manipulate) things but, reflecting on work done in this research, Pickering’s description of a distributed agency seems more accurate.

All things engage in dances of agency, i.e. all things engage in “performative and adaptive interactions with their environments” (Pickering, 2008, p. 4). Pickering’s term therefore avoids the obsession with human specialness.

Another theorist who believes that notions of human exceptionalism limit us is philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway. She insists that being human is always “becoming-with”; this includes becoming with other people and becoming with technologies. In recent work she is particularly interested in how we become with other species (Haraway, 2008). For Haraway, human exceptionalism “is the premise that humanity alone is not a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies” (Haraway, 2008, p. 11). Trying to create “limited only by your imagination” (Pixologic, 2015) would be a deluded ambition for Haraway because we could never become based on our own autonomy. Haraway’s insights highlight that, along with computer software and hardware, Ginger has a part to play in who I am and in my work.

Human exceptionalism relies on distinct boundaries (e.g. between animate and inanimate, human and non-human) and, thanks in part to digital technology, many of these boundaries are today being blurred. Despite this blurriness, human exceptionalist assumptions are encouraged by the design and marketing of 3D software. Statements by software companies emphasise the agency of human users, implying that our dreams can become reality and our idiosyncratic imagination can be (transparently) rendered visible to others (Autodesk, 2012; Pixologic, 2015). As free-thinking human actors, we are encouraged to assume that we are the ones in control. These statements imply that we float above the material world and can use 3D software to express something that exists in our minds. Escaping the obsession with human exceptionalism requires that we reject this narrative of empowerment.

Tolerance for the incomplete

By keeping human beings at the centre of all relations, phenomenology (arguably) doesn’t trouble anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism. Whatever its limits, I have found phenomenological enquiry to be useful. The shift in focus, from how phenomena appear to how they appear to a living person, has been enough to disrupt my habits of practice and has helped me to question the authority of algorithms, i.e. to notice what is left out of representational models.

Phenomenology insists that we are always embedded in a meaningful world. Our knowledge of things, of the world or of ourselves can only ever be partial because we can never achieve an objective viewpoint from which to gain a full understanding. We can perhaps progress toward this objective but we can never finally get there. Through a series of short animation experiments, I have found that returning to things themselves promotes a certain humility which is evident in the work on a stylistic level.

The default style associated with 3D animation reveals a world that is dogmatic and sure of itself. Merleau-Ponty suggests that, by exercising a tolerance for the incomplete, we can add “a new dimension to this world too sure of itself by making contingency vibrate within it” (Merleau-Ponty, 1993b, p. 88). In this research I have paid close, caring attention to all manner of things and have worked with contingency. In contrast to the default 3D style, my sketchy, incomplete works acknowledge that our understanding of digital objects will always be incomplete and so will our algorithmic modelling of the world.