By Oliver Gaycken, PhD (University of Maryland) and Ethan Parnass
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.(Fig. 1)
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.”
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.”
As an example of this greater visual excitement, the film proceeds to show a series of Armitage’s anatomical images: of the eye, of the inner ear, and of the hand. After a brief look at images of the anatomy of the head, neck, and oral cavity (presumably the immediate reason why the film found its way into the collection of the American Dental Association), at seven minutes and 25 seconds into the film, Armitage reproduces a fertilization scene from a film for which he served as a background artist, Steps Towards Maturity and Health (1969). Steps, which Armitage describes as exposing schoolchildren to “an inner world of wonder,” was produced by Disney for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, as part of their Health Series. This film was far from an isolated instance of Armitage’s contribution to an educational product, as he worked on many nontheatrical films: Fill ‘Er Up! (1959), a promotional film about gasoline for DuPont; Rhapsody of Steel (1959), produced for US Steel; Mr. Digit and the Battle of Bubbling Brook (1961). Another Disney educational film to which Armitage contributed (as layout designer) was Man and the Moon (1955), an episode of the Disneyland television series directed by Ward Kimball that featured visions of spaceflight as conceptualized by Werner von Braun, who appears in the episode. (Fig. 2) Man and the Moon is a good example of a persistent association that Armitage made use of, namely, the links between outer space and inner space.
Man and the Moon also was part of the vigorous promotional apparatus Disney had created to publicize the early years of Disneyland, and Armitage also helped design rides for the park, particularly Storyland. This wide range of activities—from various forms of painting to ride design to informational images—is indicative of Armitage’s engagement across media that characterizes his entire career. Furthermore, Armitage certainly worked on more films than are listed in current filmographies. For instance, he mentions in an interview having worked on the creation scene for Man’s Search for Happiness, a film that was produced for the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964–65 World’s Fair. The wide variety of media on display in Anatomical Animation is an illustration of Armitage’s own syncretic synthesis of styles and forms.
In its final third, Anatomical Animation shows illustrations for sets from the film Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966) paired with production stills. Fantastic Voyage was a landmark science-fiction/exploration film in which a crew of researchers are miniaturized to the cellular level and injected into a patient’s body in order to destroy a deadly blood clot. Armitage went to 20th Century Fox to work on the film, probably via a recommendation by either Ub Iwerks or Art Cruickshank, both Disney artists who were also working at Fox. As the film’s production illustrator, Armitage utilized his knowledge of human anatomy and his artistic ability to create stunning and unique images that the film’s production designers turned into three-dimensional sets. Seeing his paintings realized in three dimensions was a source of pleasure for Armitage, “Being a frustrated muralist, it was great! Probably bigger than any wall I could get to paint on. The idea was to think big and paint small. That really satisfied me.” In Anatomical Animation, Armitage emphasizes the film’s power to function as a popular-scientific medium, noting that in Fantastic Voyage “tens of millions of people were exposed for the first time to the unbelievable wonders of their own body.” The National Library of Medicine itself has repeatedly engaged with both Fantastic Voyage and Frank Armitage. In 1963, when the film was still in development, the Library “advance models” for the film; in 1966 NLM hosted another exhibit about the film coincident with its release, and in 1984, Armitage exhibited “six large paintings depicting the retina in progressive stages of modern abstraction, two works showing the artist’s conception of the neuron jungles of the brain, and a number of sketches and paintings related to surgery and the blood and nerve cells of the hand.”
After Fantastic Voyage, Armitage worked not only on nontheatrical films, as mentioned above, but also as a freelance medical illustrator. One of his most high-profile projects was his contribution to a five-part 1970 feature series in Life on “The Brain.” The first two articles featured electron-microscope images by photographer Lennart Nilsson alongside Armitage’s drawings. The first installment featured finely detailed pencil drawings by Armitage of various brain structures—e.g. the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus—that were executed in a style similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks. In the second installment, the focus was on neurons and their function as opposed to the brain as a whole. Here Armitage’s drawings highlight specific details of filament, vesicles, and neural connections in colorful, three-dimensional images (for an example, see again Fig. 1). In this article, Armitage’s drawings shifted from pencil sketches to a more vibrant and colorfully highlighted art work “closer to Jackson Pollock,” as Life editor Ralph Graves would have it. Here, too, Armitage’s images drew on his previous experiences as a muralist and background painter. Particularly interesting is that Armitage designed and built his own device to produce the images, which adapted a famous Disney innovation, the multiplane camera. As Graves described it, “It consists mainly of several layers of glass, each separated by about six inches of air space. By increasing the number of glass layers, Armitage can extend the physical depth of his drawing to as much as three feet, creating a truly three-dimensional effect.”
The quality of immersion remained a hallmark of Armitage’s imaging. As he noted about a series of illustrations for Omni in 1984, “My aim is to give the impression that you are there, a Lilliputian standing amid those colossal nerves, arteries, and tissues.” Armitage’s collaborators also noted this quality of his work. “There are some good (medical) illustrators around who make either sharp or pretty pictures, but Frank has a flair and a great feeling for plastic, three-dimensional form,” said Dr. Arnold Scheibel, professor of anatomy and psychiatry at UCLA, who consulted with Armitage on the Life illustrations and collaborated with him periodically thereafter. Schiebel’s appreciation of Armitage’s “flair and great feeling for plastic, three-dimensional form” signals a particular ability to represent dimensional space. And Armitage found other methods to create a multiplane effect in his medical illustration over the course of the 1970s and 1980s by using acetate layers that could be flipped up or down over the base image (Fig. 3). This interest in images that contain a spatial depth as well as the particular interest in the structure of the brain explains the presence of what is otherwise a rather inscrutable image in Anatomical Animation, a brief tomographic time-lapse of the human brain. This image was created by the UCSD neuroanatomist Robert B. Livingston, with whom Armitage collaborated, contributing to Livingston’s The Human Brain: A Dynamic View of Its Structures and Organization (1976), a milestone film in the field of neuroimaging. Armitage returned to the Walt Disney Corporation in 1977, this time to the “Imagineering” division, which concerned itself with the design of theme-park rides and murals for the growing number of parks in Disney’s global empire. Armitage worked for Walt Disney Imagineering for over a decade, and he was heavily involved in developing a ride called Body Wars at EPCOT Center, where he contributed to the project as the concept illustrator. The ride was originally about guests entering the body and the immune system trying to protect itself by combating the invading riders. Some executives, however, felt queasy about this framework, and the project was handed over to George Lucas, who developed a new storyline for the ride (which contained strong similarities to Fantastic Voyage). Body Wars opened on October 19, 1989, as part of the Wonders of Life pavilion.
From his initial engagement with the Mexican mural arts, to his work in various capacities for the Walt Disney corporation, to his affiliation with a number of educational media companies and researchers, Frank Armitage demonstrated a persistent interest in uniting the informative and beautiful. As he says at the conclusion of Anatomical Animation:
“My goal was to make the presentation as beautiful as it is informative. Today in the field of medical communication I feel very strongly that the concept of informative beauty is a goal worth striving for.”
As a coda, I can add a final bit of information about this film’s history and purpose. Natalie Doolittle, a medical illustrator who is Armitage’s granddaughter, suggested in an email that Anatomical Animation stems from a lecture Armitage presented at the Association of Medical Illustrators annual conference. I have contacted the AMI to consult the conference proceedings for the years 1969–71 and will update this entry if we receive more information.
|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.|