Ellen Besen ponders the use of analogy in writing for animation in this the first of a six-part series.
Why are so many film ideas so hard to develop? We struggle and struggle, twisting the material this way and that, trying to bring it to life, all to no avail. So why do these ideas just lie there? Something essential seems to be lacking, but what?
The missing ingredient is often a simple but surprisingly powerful one: analogy. When an idea is supported by a strong analogy it's so full of life it seems to leap off the page. Not only that, but, guided by the analogy, such ideas are easier to develop.
In this series of articles we will look at the special role analogy plays in animation: how it works with the principles of animation writing; how it supports character and plot; how it helps to focus every element of the film toward communicating an idea. We will also examine how analogies are created and try our hand at creating some ourselves.
You walk into an art gallery and find yourself confronted with two wall hangings. One is an unframed metal grid rendered in gray and black. Behind it is the artists dissertation about the meaning of the piece: something about the risk of pretentiousness in modern art. The second is an almost identical grid set roughly in an ornate gold frame. Upon closer examination, you realize that the frame has just been propped there temporarily and what you are inspecting so carefully is a heating duct. Strangely you still find this second piece more compelling than the first.
What just happened here? The idea behind the first piece, as explained in the dissertation, is interesting enough, so why does the second one seem more engaging? Silly as it is, the framed heating duct actually communicates a pretty complex idea about the nature of art in the modern world, about context and function and relative value. In other words, it inadvertently deals with the same subject matter as the official piece of art.
So the difference between the two is not what is being communicated but how the communication is being achieved. The first piece tells you its message through its dissertation. Would you have understood what it was about without the written explanation? Maybe, but maybe not. The second piece communicates on its own terms, without any additional information. In essence, it shows you the information.
So show me, dont tell me. This is an expression we use a lot in animation. The show me approach uses such elements as contrast, action and indirect language to communicate in a manner that engages our senses and involves both thinking and feeling. As such, it is a very powerful form of communication.
Any one of the above elements is a discussion in its own right. Such discussions often focus on performance. However, there is another element in the show me vocabulary that not only enhances performance but, more importantly, can be used to build the platform which will support that performance. Tucked away under the surface of much successful art and storytelling, we discover the foundation of the show me approach in the form of a seemingly simple tool: analogy.
The dictionary defines analogy as an agreement or a likeness in certain respects, a correspondence. Obviously, this is too broad a description for our purposes. What about the analogies we had to write in high school: shes light as a feather; the silence was as thick as a fast food milk shake that sort of thing? A something is like a something is the basic formula. However, what we need here is a core analogy, which can serve as the root of communication. So what exactly do we need to compare?
To create a core analogy, we need to discover a correspondence between two elements: a theme and a vehicle through which we will communicate that theme. The nature of that correspondence is quite specific. The theme and the vehicle must share certain characteristics but with a key difference: the theme expresses the characteristics abstractly or figuratively while the vehicle expresses them physically or literally. This is our analogy equation.
So how does this lead to communication? Lets try saying this in a different way: the vehicle expresses, in physical form, the same qualities as the abstract theme. In this way, the vehicle translates the theme into a physical form, which allows it to be given physical expression. Once the theme material has been given physical expression, it can be demonstrated visually, aurally and through movement. So through analogy, the theme can now be expressed in the show me language of art.
Now lets watch the translation process in action. The process can start with either part, so lets begin with the theme. What if you were commissioned to do a piece about determination? How would you go about finding a way to communicate this quality? Lets see how the process of creating an analogy helps to solve this problem.
First we need to break down the theme into its component parts. Were looking for a way to describe the theme that gives it a physical presence. So determination could be described as persistence in the face of difficulty. Persistence could be shown as an action and difficulty could be shown as a resistance to that action. So our equation becomes:
Determination = Persistent Action + Resistance
Now we have something we can illustrate, for example, a dog pulling (persistent action) on a leash (resistance) or a child begging for a treat from her mother. Notice that the nature of both the persistence and the resistance varies between the two examples yet both communicate determination.
Of course, there are many ways you could illustrate this equation. See if you can think of some. There are also other ways to do the breakdown. You could, for example, reverse the formula so that it becomes resistance in the face of difficulty. How about The Tortoise and the Hare? The tortoise illustrates persistence (how?) but what kind of difficulty does the hare represent?
To further illustrate these points, lets go back to our art gallery. Can we now see how the properties of a heating duct could create an interesting analogy for the idea of pretentiousness? Could there be a better vehicle than one that is literally full of hot air?
So this equation becomes: Pretentiousness = being full of hot air (here we tap into the wonderful world of figures of speech) = a heating duct.
What else is full of hot air? How about a hot air balloon? A head is shaped like a balloon so how about a pretentious man whose head fills up with hot air whenever he starts speaking? Notice that, in this example, we have added an additional analogy (a head is like a balloon) and then tied it back to the main theme.
Heres another word for pretentiousness: floweriness. Which brings to mind, of course, flowers. So how about a garden in which one flower is obsessed with being more flowery than its fellow plants?
In the reverse process, we begin with an analysis of the vehicle. Try this for the garden or the man with a head full of hot air. Can you match them with other themes?
Note that there is always more than one way to translate any given theme or vehicle. The key is in the accuracy first of the breakdown and then in the match between the characteristics of the theme and the vehicle.
What else should we keep in mind when developing a core analogy? In a good match, the shared characteristics will provide insight into the theme. To achieve this, we have to now consider our audience. Does the theme have relevance for its intended audience? Is the audience familiar (consciously or subconsciously) with the relevant properties of the vehicle? Essentially, we are using analogy to create symbols and symbols can work on a private or a public level.
Our own lives are full of private symbols: a token given in childhood by an influential person, a special song or a piece of knowledge that is not widely known. These things have meaning to the individual, but they do not automatically have meaning to the audience at large.
On the other hand, there is a vast range of common knowledge to be found within any defined group of people. The audience brings its whole life with them when they look at a painting or watch a film. Within that material, there are many elements that can be successfully harnessed to an analogy because we can count on them to be understood by everyone.
So part of our job is to distinguish between private and public symbols and use them accordingly. Public symbols give us the advantage of immediate identification. Private symbols can be made into public ones through effective communication, but they demand more explanation. A film like Adaptation takes obscure but fascinating information about orchids and builds it into an effective analogy, while a film like A Bugs Life works with the knowledge we all have about insects.
It also helps to understand how the various properties of different media interact with analogy. Every medium has specific attributes, which can be harnessed towards more effective communication. If we look at our analogies for pretentiousness we might notice that the heating duct works well as a static image while the man with a head full of hot air is an idea that implies movement. A static analogy might work better in painting or sculpture while one that lends itself to movement might be more suitable for dance or animation.
Finally, we need to be aware that in arriving at a potential analogy, we move from a general theme to a specific illustration of that theme. Each specific illustration has its own characteristics. From these characteristics flow specific ideas, which can be used to guide the development of a project from its foundation to completion. Think about the hot air man versus the ostentatious flower. You could use each of these analogies as the basis for a story about pretension but what different stories they would be.
Analogy can make the internal, external; the abstract, concrete and the invisible, visible. Thats powerful magic, indeed. And in narrowing down ideas to a specific form, analogy begins the process of building a world, which can contain a story and generate a performance. This gives analogy a special relationship to animation. Animators need to build alternative worlds with all their rules and create performances that go beyond dialogue. In this, analogy is a guide par excellence. In the next article we will look, in detail, at how analogy marries with the special properties of animation, and not only helps develop a show me performance, but provides the planks for the stage as well.
Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.