Still of medical illustration showing the interior of a human heart.

Informative Beauty: Anatomical Animation by Frank Armitage

Circulating Now welcomes guest bloggers Oliver Gaycken, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of English and Core Faculty in the Film and Comparative Literature Programs at the University of Maryland and Ethan Parnas, MD candidate at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Today, they shares some insights on an untitled film in the Library’s collection now highlighted in our newly redesigned Medicine On Screen resource. Dr. Gaycken will speak at the National Library of Medicine on February 28 at 2:00 p.m. EST on “Fantastic Voyages through the Historical Audio-Visual Collections of the National Library of Medicine.” His lecture will be live-streamed globally, and archived.

Like all major archives, the audiovisual collections at the National Library of Medicine contain mysteries. This essay will examine one item that lacks a title or any other identifying information and was cataloged as [Anatomical animation by Frank Armitage]. The acquisition records note that the film came into the NLM’s possession as part of a large accession from the American Dental Association in 1988. But other than these small bits of information, the archival record is silent. Fortunately, we do know who made the film. Frank Armitage was a mural artist, Disney animator, and medical illustrator. By tracing Armitage’s career, we can contextualize and elucidate Anatomical Animation.

Born in Australia in 1924, Armitage was studying architecture at Melbourne Technical College when he stumbled upon a book about Mexican mural painting. Intrigued, he dropped out of school and made his way to Mexico at the age of 24. As he recalled, “I just wanted to work on a large scale and [the Mexican mural] was the most exciting image I’d ever seen, apart from things that were done in the Renaissance and that was history. This was present-day and I had to be part of it.” While Armitage was living in Mexico, he won an international competition. The prize was an apprenticeship with the renowned muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom he helped with several major public artworks. In 1951, he immigrated to the United States, and in April of 1952, he began working for the Walt Disney Company. Armitage began his career at Disney working as an uncredited animator on Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955). He soon found his niche with Disney as a layout and background artist, roles that were in line with his experience as a muralist.

Armitage worked on several other Disney features during the 1950s and 1960s, including Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), and The Jungle Book (1967). During this period, Armitage also became interested in human anatomy. He took classes at UCLA, focusing on dissection and other human biological sciences. The combination of his background at Disney and his new training resulted in a unique form of medical illustration. As Armitage recalled, “I didn’t want to do the traditional medical illustration. I could never handle that. Everything is lit from the upper left and so rigid. So, I broke all the rules.” Armitage’s work for Disney in the late 1960s seems to show signs of having been influenced by his medical education. Consider, for example, the visual similarities between an Armitage background for The Jungle Book and his anatomical illustrations, in particular his attention to the branching structures of the tree’s roots, which resemble blood vessels in the brain.

The issue of influence goes beyond such visual rhymes, however. Armitage mentioned how his medical illustrations were influenced by production sets he was able to observe firsthand by walking around Disney stages in the 1950s—20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), and the TV series Zorro (1957-59): “That […] influenced my images, because what I did with anatomy was to create paintings that had an intimate look to them, where you feel that you are inside and surrounded by the anatomical portion.” What Armitage describes as “intimacy,” the feeling of being “inside and surrounded,” is an effect of drawing the viewer into the image, of enclosing the viewer within. It is akin to the visual “excitement” that Armitage mentioned when describing why he wanted to be part of the Mexican mural arts.

The importance of using images to explore is an initial thesis in Anatomical Illustration. As Armitage says in the voice-over commentary:

“I like to feel there can be great beauty in medical art, a beauty that really goes hand-in-hand with science, as we explore the infinite inner spaces of the human body.”

Still of medical illustration showing the interior of a human heart.
Anatomical animation by Frank Armitage
National Library of Medicine #8801174A

The film’s first three minutes provides examples of medical art’s beauty, moving from animated sequences of the heartbeat to a journey through the history of art, beginning with the Lascaux cave paintings. Armitage analogizes animation’s frame-by-frame control over the image with the individual brushstrokes of a painting, a specific example of his general tendency as an artist to work across media and to see similarities among forms of artistic practice.

In the art-historical section of the film, Armitage introduces a variation on his initial thesis, stating that the history of art is a history of “artists concerned with depicting scientific truths.” His examples include anatomical drawings by Leonardo DaVinci, microscopic anatomy by Jan Swammerdam, and drawings by Albrecht Dürer, whose work is, according to Armitage, “not scientific in the literal sense,” but reflects “tremendous curiosity for exact detail.” Similarly, Botticelli’s Primavera belongs in this lineage because the painting’s flowers are painted with botanical accuracy. Armitage’s narrative is a progressive one, a tale of “increasing accuracy” that can “create more visual excitement than ever.”…

To read the full essay and to see the film go to Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM historical audiovisual collection.

Oliver Gaycken received his BA in English from Princeton University and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He previously has taught at York University (Toronto) and Temple University. His teaching interests include silent-era cinema history, the history of popular science, and the links between scientific and experimental cinema.  His book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, appeared with Oxford University Press in the spring of 2015.

Ethan Parnass received his BA in Film Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently an MD candidate at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He is passionate about studying the connection between art and science, specifically film and medicine, and is a member of the Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration at GW. He is expected to graduate medical school in the spring of 2020 with plans to pursue a residency in Anesthesiology.

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