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Analogy and Animation: Rise Up

In this final part of a six-part series, Ellen Besen examines our relationship with the audience.

Ellen Besen

Ellen Besen

What do audiences want? And why should we care?

There seems to be a consensus that the American public doesnt particularly like adult animation and that they dont take easily to anything new. Because of this, studios keep making the same pictures over and over again and wont look twice at anything innovative. This, in turn, is a source of helpless frustration among animators.

If you accept that this perception of the audience is true, then the studios position seems quite logical. After all, they are about profits and this seems to be their best guarantee of financial success. But is this the whole truth? And true or not, as animators, it is our only choice to suck it up?

There is a dance that goes on between audience and film. In fact, to me, a film doesnt really feel finished until it has been seen several times by an audience. So what is the true nature of this interaction and how much room does it have for variation? The status quo puts the audiences perceived expectations at the top of the list. But is that really what the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience should be? After all, it is one thing to be aware of the audience, quite another to be their slave.

Popeye grabbed the hearts and minds of audiences during the Great Depression. © King Features Syndicate Division.

Popeye grabbed the hearts and minds of audiences during the Great Depression. © King Features Syndicate Division.

Now the studios will say that they are just giving the audience what they say they want, as proven by box office and market research. But that is precisely where I have a problem because this fails to take into account that most audiences dont actually know what they want, they only know what theyve seen.

Real want is usually under the surface, often only revealed when an audience responds to the film in front of them. And the belief the studios are banking on that what the audience wanted yesterday is always what they want today doesnt take into account that audience response is affected by circumstance and circumstance is always changing. Is it a coincidence that an Everyman hero like Popeye was so popular during the Great Depression or that The Simpsons were so quickly embraced after a decade of sickly sweet family comedies?

There is also the fact that, while audiences may know when they dont like something, their ability to say why they dont like it is limited. This reminds me of some students who complained that their teacher needed to wear more make up, when what was really bothering them was the lack of color in her teaching style. Comprehending the audience at this level demands a leap of understanding. But before we can make that leap, there are other things we should understand first.

Things like how audiences receive information: what part of the screen they tend to look at, how quickly they absorb information, how well they understand animated film language.

And we need to know what they know: which references are a given and which wont be understood without further explanation.

We need to consider how subject matter marries with animation and how that interacts with audience expectations, as well. Animation is well suited to fantasy, which lets us make the audiences dreams and nightmares, mythical past and projected future almost real.

Audience expect unreal things to happen in the unreal world that animation creates. South Park © Comedy Central.

Audience expect unreal things to happen in the unreal world that animation creates. South Park © Comedy Central.

Animation also marries well with caricature and from that to satire and parody. In vaudeville, an actor slips on a banana peel. In animation, he slips on a banana peel and lands on a trampoline which bounces him off a cliff into the path of an oncoming train which flings him in front of a bulldozer which flattens him like a pancake. This is the same license, which allows shows like The Simpsons and South Park to go places no live-action show could ever go even in this licentious age.

The audience not only accepts all this from animation, but actually expects it. This is precisely because it is so clearly not the real world that even a three year old can figure it out. And in a non-real world, non-real things should happen.

In fact, there are all kinds of expectations built into animation. Lets say one of our characters is an octopus. If instead of using the movement possibilities those flexible tendrils imply, we treat the character like a cardboard cutout, that is a failure to meet the hidden expectation. And the audience will be disappointed that we didnt deliver on what we promised.

The Simpsons serves as an analogy of the Everyman struggle to live life the best way he can. TM & ©1999 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved. Cr: Fox

The Simpsons serves as an analogy of the Everyman struggle to live life the best way he can. TM & ©1999 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved. Cr: Fox

Of course, with this level of understanding, we can also choose to play with the audience. For example, we can build gags that intentionally reverse audience expectations about layout, camera moves, character design or timing.

So first we need to understand how the audience responds to animation in general. Then we can consider content.

If we really want to reach an audience, we have to tap their hidden desires. That sounds mysterious until we realize that, in this regard, we are part of the audience. We also have hidden desires, many of them shared with the audience. The key difference is that we have the means to articulate them. So rather than second guess the audience, our job is dredge our own souls and hone our intuitions about what stories are worth telling. This is where great work comes from, the kind that no market survey can accomplish.

What then is the nature of these hidden desires? Audiences want to be surprised. Or told something they didnt know. Or didnt know they knew: they want the shock of recognition. They want to be shown a way to think about their current obsessions or their constant obsessions. And they want to have an experience that takes them beyond the boundaries of their own lives.

Lotte Reiniger and her fellow artists pushed the boundaries of animation. Courtesy of William Moritz.

Lotte Reiniger and her fellow artists pushed the boundaries of animation. Courtesy of William Moritz.

So how do we go about revealing what hasnt been seen before or examining what the audience wants to examine without knowing they want it?

One way is to look beyond standard thinking and see the world with fresh eyes, like a two year old seeing her first pineapple and thinking it is a giant pinecone. Another is to take raw life and try imposing some order.

Life is repetitive and often formless. One of fictions roles can be to restructure or reconsider real events in order to reveal deeper patterns and themes. With animation, we can go beyond the mere restructuring of reality. We can slice it, dice it, add feathers or scales, blow it up or shrink it down, turn it upside down or inside out. We can, in fact, do anything we can imagine to it. The ways in which we choose to reorder reality can both reveal meaning and be meaningful in their own right. This can also be an unexpected gateway, a process, which triggers a spontaneous leap to the real message lurking underneath the surface.

Analogy plays an important role in this. Nature loves an analogy: it is inherent in the natural world where our circulatory systems resemble the roots and branches of trees which themselves resemble forks of lightening and the Earths own circulatory system of rivers. And its built into our behavior as when human culture follows its instincts and creates football teams that mimic the team strategies of sperm.

We dream in analogies: our minds seem to be structured to deal with material this way. Cultures around the world produce mythologies and poetry and narrative to explain the world. People who have been traumatized instinctively transmute their pain into symbolic thoughts and actions. It is one of our deepest coping mechanisms, so how can it not have power?

So we have the opportunity to do much more than cater to the audiences desires. We can clarify them, reinforce them or challenge them. Instead of just having a conversation with the audience where you only reiterate what is already consciously known, you initiate a much more satisfying conversation where secrets are revealed and new information is added to the mix. You set in motion a process of discovery in which both of you and the audience participate, creating an altogether more sophisticated and interesting relationship. All this without precluding entertainment, if that is your goal.

The practice of only giving the audience what they say they want not only doesnt guarantee success, it almost certainly precludes big success. What audiences will support is work that speaks to them. But remember that our job is not to cater. Sometimes we provide a mirror and sometimes we need to take the lead. And that means taking risks.

Some studios and distributors are beginning to take chances on innovative animation but they are still too cautious in their approach. Great animation depends on trusting ones instincts and then taking those leaps. As animators, we can accept the status quo and just keep falling into cliché or we can take some chances and blow the roof off with our crazy ideas.

Ultimately it is up to us. The history of this medium is full of people who challenged the status quo: Willis OBrien, Lotte Reiniger, Walt Disney, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, the folks at UPA, Norman McLaren, Caroline Leaf, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Sylvain Chomet, to name just a few.

Wouldnt we rather be on their team? 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.