My (not necessarily THE) Principles

What is it about animation that moves us so much? Why do I love one scene in a movie and feel less strongly about the next? What is it about the animation of those scenes that speaks to me, and how can I incorporate those things into my work?

Some time ago I decided I’d try to boil down my process into a simple set of broad principles. And while these aren’t as specific as the fabled 12 or 20 or however however many principles from whatever list you subscribe to, I feel that for myself, they’re a pretty good start at understanding what I look for in animation. Everyone needs their own set of criteria; these are mine. It’s by no means a complete list, but anything else I can think up thus far I’ve found I can slip under one of these umbrella categories.

My five in order of importance, least to greatest (at this point in my education anyway):

DESIGN — or perhaps another word for appeal. I hate putting this guy at the bottom of the list, really I do. But in the shower this morning I decided that’s just how the cookie crumbles. Imbuing a character’s image or motion with a solid sense of graphic design, making it appealing, is no doubt of great importance. It makes the scene easy on the eyes and intriguing to look at. It’s also one of the hardest things to put your finger on in any graphic medium. What makes a Milt Kahl drawing so damned appealing? You can go into lengthy mathematical discussions about proportion, straights against curves, arcs and arrows, you name it. But I defy anyone to come up with a formula that explains how to draw (or pose) appealing dogs, or apes, or puppets, the way Milt, or any other great animator can. As important as design is though, it comes in behind:

PHYSICALITY — The audience’s belief that a character lives and breathes starts in the belief that a character moves right. Every great animated film or scene conveys a set of rules that govern the characters and objects which reside within it. The world of My Neighbor Totoro has different rules than Pinnochio’s, which has different rules than that of The Incredibles. But each film’s characters move and behave in a way that’s consistent with their peers. This is not to say they all move the same (cardinal sin, if you ask me), but that in their own way they obey the rules of the same world. It’s important, no doubt. But not most important. Next up is:

ENTERTAINMENT — Even if an animated character lacks a sophistication in design or a sense of weight in his surroundings, you can get away with it if it’s entertaining. It’s another hard one that’s hard to explain in simple formulas. And one that many artists and studios are only too often seduced by. These scenes and films seem to cry out, “love me! I’m gonna entertain you!” You know the animation I’m talking about. The stuff that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, and a sense in your gut that you’ve been taken advantage of. Nevertheless, a scene that’s entertaining will linger in one’s memory longer than the next. That’s important, and not just to your reel, but to the audience’s sense of satisfaction after having sat through your film. The right balance is key. Pick your battles, but do not under any circumstances allow it to supersede:

CHARACTER — The illusion of life, as it were. And only #2 on the list? Sit tight. By this I mean, are the thoughts going through your character’s head consistent with their place on that character’s arc in the film? If I, the audience can’t make out what exactly is going on in that character’s head, and understand why he or she feels that way, forget it. You’ve lost me. Will an impartial audience member be shaken out of their suspension of disbelief by your scene? Are you substituting cliche for subtext? This is the point where “entertainment” will start to elbow its way to center stage if you let it. It’s so tempting to squeeze as much out of a scene as you can, but you cannot let it get in the way of your character’s clear, rational thought process, and you certainly can’t let it interrupt numero uno:

STORY — no surprises there. The single most important criterion that you must not let suffer under any circumstances. More important than any character’s consistency, more important than any scene’s entertainment value or appeal, if you fail to convey the story point of a scene, you fail to tell the story. And that’s really what this medium is all about: telling a relevant story that will affect an audience. It’s the whole reason animation and indeed movies themselves were invented in the first place. An audience must be able to follow the story. And this is where showing your animation to your peers is vital. You can find ten different people that will give you ten different opinions on your animation’s appeal, but if half of them can’t understand what’s going on, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

So I’m sure many of you disagree with the set of criteria here, and probably with the order of importance I’ve decided upon, but hey, that’s what the comments section’s for! Happy animating….

Dr. Hathaway