Portraying the Collector in Film, Animation & Games


A review of Immaterial Materiality: Collecting in Live-Action Film, Animation and Digital Games, by Kara Lynn Andersen.

The object of study in Kara Lynn Andersen’s dissertation in Film Studies is the cultural activity of collecting, as portrayed in entertainment media such as live-action fiction film, animation and digital games. Her main objective is to perform a study of the three media’s various ways of depicting collectors, collections and modes of collecting. According to Anderson, divergences in approaches to and stances towards the phenomenon can (at least partly) be explained by the ontology of the media form in question. Based on analysis of a wide range of fiction films, animations and digital games dating from the last two decades, the dissertation presents a multi-faceted picture of how collecting objects is depicted in entertainment media – and what this can say about the characteristic traits of live-action film, animation and digital games, respectively.

The dissertation starts out with an introduction to the study’s research design, explaining the framework of her study to be film studies; her starting point being the presumption that live-action film “employs in a contradictory manner the stereotype of the socially deviant collector, but at the same time valorises the public collection (e.g. the museum)” (p. 3); and the scope of her study being cinematic depictions (live-action and animation) of collection, contrasted by depictions found in digital games.

Ending her introduction with a short presentation of the films and games that are to be analysed in later chapters, explaining how these contribute to the overall study, Andersen advances to an wide-angled examination of the cultural phenomenon of collecting in Chapter 2. She starts out by presenting overviews of the history of collecting from the mid-1600s onward, and theories explaining both various types of collecting and what purposes the activity serves, both private and public. Here, Andersen draws on the works of Susan Pearce and of George Ellis Burcaw on museums and collecting. This form a backdrop for discussing the apparent stereotypical depictions found in entertainment media, particularly those of the collector, often portrayed as a socially inept male loner using assembled objects as substitutes for human interactions, or worse – portrayed as a souvenir collecting serial killer. At the end of the Chapter, Andersen circles in on what seems to be of particular interest to her: the question of whether there is a difference between material and immaterial collecting. “Can words images or ideas be objects?” (p.34) she asks, before giving the question an affirmative answer. To Andersen, collecting is best understood as an attitude toward things – physical or immaterial: as a way of ordering and valuing information.  This reflection leads her onto the final track of Chapter 2, a track oriented towards the digital museum and the database, and a discussion of reflections on the subject as expressed by Lev Manovich and by Andrea Witcomb.

From introducing general perspectives on collections, collecting and collectors, Andersen devotes the next three chapters to case studies. Chapter 3 compiles readings of five films, chosen as examples to support her main arguments. Among the films one finds examples of the obsessed and unscrupulous collector, as in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), the collector as the socially inept male, as in Lieb Schreiber’s Everything is Illuminated (2005) and the “obtainer,” such as the character Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s films. In these films Andersen identifies types of collectors that in her opinion are out of step with the shift towards a fan-oriented culture as argued by, for example, Henry Jenkins, ascribing the fan as collector a certain social status – something she actually finds an example of in Stephen Frear’s High Fidelity (2000).

In addition, Andersen elaborates on the topic of the museum as a public institution, by presenting a close reading of the two Night at the Museum films (Shawn Levy 2006/2009). Building her case on classical film theorists such as André Bazin and Siegfrid Kracauer, Anderson states that “films and photos share with museum collections an emphasis on close scrutiny of objects” (p. 54), but in the two films directed by Levy she finds a metaphor for the two photographic media after the digital turn, in the way the museum seems to inevitably have to transform from a place of preservation to an arena where the experience is pushing the preserved object in the exhibitions aside. This aligns with the observation that film is no longer to be regarded as an indexical medium displaying objects or persons preserved by camera, but a playground for the coexistence of indexical imprints and CGI (computer generated imagery).

In Chapter 4 Andersen makes animation her object of study. Mirroring the structure of the previous chapter, she starts out by discussing what animation is, both within the frames of the analogue cel animation style made famous by Walt Disney and the digital imagery dominating present animation.  She demonstrates that animation is to be understood as a style of cinema, rather than a separate medium or genre. Furthermore, the understanding of the differences between animation and live-action film as the difference between transformation and fantasy versus preservation and realism seems to be under siege, with CGI being an important post-production component in live-action films of today. Andersen moves on to contextualise animation as an expression of both media and consumer culture by underlining the close connections between animation and merchandising, and in the wake of that, also the aspect of collecting spinoff products as part of fan culture practices. The similarities between live-action film and animation set aside, the films chosen for discussions (The Little Mermaid, Toy Story 2, WALL-E and Curious George) exemplify that collecting and collections are often being depicted from other points of view in animations. The readings of the films spur questions like what is the purpose of collecting, and which objects is to be regarded as being suited for collecting, or valued as part of a collection? (The Little Mermaid and WALL-E) – and should objects perhaps rather be used to bits, rather than being preserved and displayed? (Toy Story). As with Chapter 3 on live-action film, Andersen also ends her discussions on animation with an example of the depicting of the museum as an arena for the practise of collecting, expressing what Andersen regards as an out-dated, imperialist view on the institution (Curious George).

In the last chapter of the dissertation Andersen turns to digital games, again to discuss the purposes and meanings of collecting, as well as the nature and history of the media in question.  Andersen presents a convincing line of argument claiming that collecting in digital games serves rather different purposes than in film and animation, and seems to fulfil other goals than the ones described in works theorising collecting as a cultural practice. Andersen reflects this with a shift in focus in her discussions, now addressing modes of collecting in digital games, exemplified with titles as dissimilar as Katamari Damacy, Animal Crossing and Kindom of Loathing. Collecting constitute a fundamental way of developing the game character’s skills and a way of completing quests, in addition to enhancing the player’s in-game resources. The differences in the ways collecting are depicted and the purposes it serves in a game’s narrative on one hand and its gameplay on the other, becomes quite apparent through Andersen’s analysis of the material.

After having addressed the media of digital games in Chapter 5, where the player’s engagement in and fascination for in-game collecting adds a productive, final perspective to the thesis’ overall discussion, Andersen ends her dissertation with a short afterword. Here, she ties in the elaboration of the dissertation’s main subject matter by drawing a parallel between the particular interests in the object found in early cinema, and digital game’s interest in the same. Andersen’s hope is that her dissertation will become part of a larger project examining the role of material objects in entertainment media – a project that also will have to include television, both fiction and non-fiction.

Immaterial Materiality: Collecting in Live-Action Film, Animation and Digital Games presents a diverse study, informed by a plethora of perspectives. With its original take on the dissertation’s subject matter and with its combined use of theories assembled from museology, film studies and visual culture, Andersen’s work is bound to attract interest across many fields of study, and to be a source of inspiration for further studies.

Sara Brinch
Department of Art and Media Studies
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Primary Sources

– A selection of live-action films, animation film and digital games used for analysis.
– Theories on museology and the phenomenon of collecting, represented by Susan M. Pearce (Museums, Objects and Collections, 1992, Collecting in Contemporary Practice, 1998), G. Ellis Burcaw (Introduction to Museum Work, 1997), Tony Bennett (The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics, 1995) and Andrea Witcomb (Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum, 2003)
– Theories related to the field of visual culture, represented by works of Walter Benjamin, Lev Manovich, Erwin Panofsky, Vivian Sobchack and Susan Sontag
– Film theory, represented by works of André Bazin, Sergeij Eisenstein, Siegfried Kracauer, Laura Mulvey and Stephen Prince.
– Theories related to digital games, represented by publications written by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska.

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh, 2009. 229 pp. Primary Advisor: Lucy Fischer.


Image: Wall-E costume. Wikimedia Commons.

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