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The Four F’s and Other Animated Truths

Character animation is really not the illusion of life, but the illusion of “intelligent or motivated life” and takes advantage of four universal truths about how the mind works.

At last month’s Ottawa Animation Festival Disney-themed art auction, “Disney Made Me Do It,” local artists were asked to create a work inspired by Walt and his animated off-spring.

Sharon Katz did a drawing of a hand-mixer, “Blenderman,” the kind of appliance you would find in the kitchen of your home or in the Beast’s Castle, had “Beauty and the Beast” been set in the 21st century.

Sharon is a video installation artist, animator and painter who has been creating works that speak to the liminal edge between fantasy and reality, disturbing and comfortable, danger and safety, for more than 30 years. Most of her works are portraits of common, domestic objects that seem to be at the cusp of becoming something else.

She manages to pinpoint the line, shape, tone that is both emblematic of the object and yet most vulnerable to being overtaken by something else. This flittering edge between what something is and what it may become is the basis of the animation.

“Blenderman” is on Mylar, a coated polyester sheet that is closer in texture to the cels used in the classic Disney animation than to paper in an art studio. The mixer is seen in profile, with its blades on the left, its handle on the right, and its electric cord jutting out below.

It doesn’t take long for the viewer to see a prominent nose from what was first seen as a handle, and begin to infer what kind of character is this, and who is it going to beat. And thus starts what Disney animators called “the illusion of life.”

Character animation is really not the illusion of life, but actually the illusion of “intelligent or motivated life.” Animation, especially character animation – where the character can be anything from a person to a spoon to a sponge and everything in between – takes advantage of four universal truths about how the viewer’s mind works.

  1. We (actually most animals) are hardwired to spot a face in anything (from clouds to toast). In other words, some “thing” can become some “one.”
  2. We (actually most animals) are hardwired to look for signs that the some-thing/some-one is based on what I call the “4 F’s of Human Survival”: Is it a Friend, Foe, Food, or F*ck. Our emotions are primed to respond to these signs.
  3. We (and many primates) are hardwired to develop a “Theory of Mind.” This allows us to deduce that some-thing/some-one is just as capable as we are to have beliefs, intentions, devise plans or plots that could benefit or harm us. Most children develop a Theory of Mind along with imaginary play and empathy.
  4. When the above truths are presented together, either by nature or by the skilled hands of an artist/animator, we infer that what one is seeing has motivated action or "agency.”

That that something could be something else underlies imagination and all creativity. The best of animation (and art) allows the viewer the option of switching between “seeing” and “seeing as if.” This switching is a kind of mental animation, of something morphing back and forth. All it takes for the viewer to be engaged in this animated game is what viewers are hardwired to do anyway, and a few, well-placed lines, tones, and shapes.

The kind of abstract realism of 2D animation in early Disney cartoons, perhaps an aesthetic driven by the technological and practical constraints of the time, has much to teach us about how animators create those few, well-placed marks on paper, cel, screen or Mylar to get the viewer’s mind engaged in the game.

Stay out of Sharon’s kitchen.