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Analogy and Animation: A Special Relationship Part 2 — Think Like an Animator, Walk Like a Duck

Ellen Besen ponders the use of analogy in writing for animation in this, the second of a six-part series.

Last time we looked at how analogy works with art in general. Now its time to look at how analogy works with animation in particular. So here we go

Why are you doing this in animation? Stories about shootouts, kung fu fighters, little girls playing dress up; stories about people who are late for work and then miss the bus and have to run across town (only to discover that, yes, its a holiday) It seems like Ive dealt with thousands of project ideas like these over the years and I have asked this question more times than I can remember. It makes me wonder: do we really understand animation?

Lets say you are making a film about rebellion. You could do a story about a teenager who is so fed up with school that he flunks out and runs away and then one of his teachers goes after him and talks him into coming back. But this movie of the week approach barely scratches the surface of animations potential. Your film could just end up looking like an imitation of live-action and even a good imitation is, by its very nature, second best. If you are going to do more than scratch the surface, you need to start thinking like an animator.

And that means you need to understand that animation, like every medium, has a unique set of properties. Here are some of those properties:

1. The connection with caricature. From this we get two keys words: simplify and exaggerate. Interestingly, this doesnt just apply to design but to everything: movement, backgrounds, even camera angles and writing. 2.The role of movement. Sound and static elements are important but animated film communicates best through motion. 3.The relationship with fantasy. This is the medium where, at the outset, anything can happen and its through this property that we achieve magic. Other media can refer to metaphor but animation makes it real.

These three are important attributes and very useful for making better animated films. There is a fourth property, though, which is the most inherent and important by far. That is:

4.The relationship with reality. We all know that animation can take reality and play with it in any way imaginable. But we also have to understand that by its very nature, animation exists in an alternative world even when it tackles very realistic subject matter. Every element of animation is constructed, is essentially an illusion. And at some level the audience is aware of this fact. This gives us a lot of license, but it also gives us special responsibilities, as we shall see.

So what does any of this have to do with analogy?

Lets consider the first three characteristics. These work to enhance the quality of our films. To make the best use of animation, we can choose to incorporate them into every aspect of the film. However, this works best if we build the properties into the analogy from the beginning, rather than using them randomly at a later point.

Once we have a good working core analogy, we can begin to consider that fourth characteristic. This one is so deeply built into the medium, that there is no choice involved its just there. But those alternative worlds dont come from nowhere. We have to build them as we develop our ideas. This is where it becomes tricky, because to do that, we have to account for everything.

To make a strong film, we need to ultimately move from anything being possible to a logical, coherent structure in which only certain, well defined things (some real, some not so real) are possible. In other words, we need to give those worlds some rules.

This is a particularly vexing problem for animators. In live-action, there are a lot of givens. Even a live-action fantasy uses the real world as a constant reference point. But animated films are born in a void and so, nothing is a given. This gives us ultimate freedom in making our initial choices, but also gives us the responsibility of a god. We literally have to decide everything there is to know about the world we create from broad decisions, such as whether there will be gravity, to smaller details like whether four-legged animals will be able to use their front paws like hands. Here is where the well-chosen analogy comes to our aid.

An unthinking sitter and an unexpectedly aware sittee are explored in McLarens film. All A Chairy Tale images © 1957 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Analogies come with built-in properties and natural limitations, which makes them very useful for designing rules. We can also use them to decide whom our characters are, what they look like and what they should do to tell the story most effectively.

To see this in action, lets go back to our rebel story. Legendary filmmaker Norman McLaren provides an interesting model for this in A Chairy Tale (also directed by Claude Jutra), a story about a chair that doesnt want to be sat on and a man that wants to sit. Lets see some of the ways the core analogy helps to define the film.

First, the analogy gives us the stars of the show. Rebellion depends on one element dominating another. A man and a chair, unthinking sitter and unexpectedly aware sittee this is a nice setup for rebellion. We do have a tendency to take for granted the very objects that we depend on. And while we may feel dominated by some of the things we own, such as computers, an object that exists to be sat on is a clear symbol of submissiveness.

Of course, an even more debased object that comes to mind is a doormat. But this helps illustrate the importance of looking for those animation properties, in this case, the role of movement. The object is the hero of this film and needs to be able to communicate its frustration to the audience.

A doormat could be brought to life, but making it sympathetic might be a stretch. A chair, however, with its four legs and upright stance, has a sense of character a body map built right into its design. This allowed McLaren, who used pixilation of a real chair, to come up with simple, perfect gestures that conveyed the chairs feeling with surprising force.

So the analogy narrows the hero down to a chair, which then leads to the question, what kind of chair? And would it have made a difference?

Perhaps there was too much dignity in an upholstered armchair the kind that sits in mens clubs and at the head of the table?

How about an office chair? That would have presented some nice movement possibilities: spinning and rolling but maybe that would have interfered with our belief that the chair was self-motivated.

This speculation only confirms the wisdom of McLarens decision. He went with a plain wooden chair, a solid symbol for the common man or a lowly creature or perhaps a powerless child, all of whom nevertheless deserve dignity. This choice also creates the most contrast, in terms of status, between the two characters, which then heightens the drama.

And here is another example of those animation properties: the use of caricature. The basic chair, which is well matched to the stripped down but extremely accurate style of animation, is like a logo in its simplicity by the end it really is a visual symbol of the overlooked downtrodden.

The basic wooden chair comes to represent a visual symbol of the overlooked downtrodden in A Chairy Tale.

As for the rules, they were defined and held to: it is essentially the real world except that a chair can move, within the boundaries of a real chairs unaltered structure and can have feelings that are expressed through that meaning. The rules dont have to be elaborate, and you dont need lots of them just the right ones that bring the story to life and add the element of fantasy.

Speaking of animated wooden things that come to life, it would be interesting to compare the chair to Disneys Pinocchio in terms of the rules of design, movement and behavior go have a look. You might be surprised what you find.

Now, lets think about a variation on A Chairy Tale. How about a pencil that rebels against a writer? Rebellion is still the theme, but with a new slant because a pencil is all about communication. So this piece could look at censorship or the responsibility of the media, to name just two possibilities.

Try thinking of some other themes that could grow out of this new analogy, as well as specific character traits, performance strategies and the rules. Remember that the key is to let the new information grow out of the analogy. This will give the material a built in logic that really helps development.

To get you started, ask yourself questions that will give you specific details such as:

  • what kind of writer and what does he/she write?
  • what kind of pencil and how does it rebel?

For example, is this the story of a speechwriter for a tyrant and the intrepid pencil that secretly rewrites the speech or the story of a childs crayon that aspires to fine art?

Well return to this idea at a later date and see how it might be developed.

Of course, there are many other ways to tell a story about rebellion. How about a baby chick born into a family of ducks? At the beginning, the chick might try her best to conform, but, overtime, she becomes completely frustrated. We could look for our key action by thinking about the most extreme contrasts between ducks and chickens the ability to swim being the most obvious one.

So once we pick a hero, as defined by the analogy, the specific nature of both the conflict, and the elements which will communicate that conflict, will be defined as well. Even the choice of details will be narrowed down by the properties of the analogy. The rebellion of a dog is different from the rebellion of a child or a banana or a pair of scissors, all by their very nature.

An important point here is the use of animals or objects as the heroes this is one of the ways fantasy (or analogy made literal) can come into play. If our ideas always seem to feature human characters, we may be missing out on some of animations best potential. By this, I dont mean that you should stick one of those sickeningly cute anthropomorphized animal sidekicks into your stories to justify the animation. Just dont be afraid to explore the possibilities of non-human characters.

These principles extend into non-narrative and even abstract animation as well. We can still define themes and marry them with abstract characteristics, which will help us develop a different kind of alternative, yet logical, world.

What about other approaches though, such as Warner Bros. cartoons where characters actually go against the built-in expectations? Ah, but that is also a logical strategy, to take someone elses logic (like, say, Disneys) and turn it on its head. Maybe we can call that anti-analogy.

Even those kung fu and teenage runaway stories can be given a true animation treatment. Think about Richard Conde or look at the films of Borge Ring, for example. Ring thinks of his films as slices of life told with animation. But, again, he has an animated strategy that makes them work: the characters internal, emotional lives break out of the boundaries of reality in a very consistent way. And that is analogy at work as well.

Finally I should say that, though I have laid out quite a few working principles here, all rules can and should be broken. But even that needs its own logic. The key is that first you need to understand the rules and then you can break them. Just dont run with scissors.

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.