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Animation is often described as the 'illusion of life' captured within a sequence of static images. Through a certain phenomenon, called 'persistence of vision', the human eye perceives the optical illusion of motion between the frames, by blending an after-image of the frame seen first with the image that comes next. At this point, an important parallel between the way animation is created and how American comic books are drawn can be made. In a similar fashion to cartoons, comics are series of consecutive drawings. However, they present only key actions and scenes to the attention of the reader. Despite leaving the inbetweens of the depicted actions out, comic books still succeed in telling a story. According to the studies of Paul Wells (Understanding Animation, 1998), the exact same American print media industry in the late 1890s helped the animated films gain, what he calls, their 'initial vocabulary' in terms of storytelling. As a result, the dominant part of the cartoon production between 1913 and 1917 was exactly based on adaptation of the comic book style. This made the audience familiar with the basic conventions of narrative, such as continuity of the story, the appearance of the same selection of characters from scene to scene and their basic ways of expressing emotion and action. Further in the timeline of animation's development as an art form a constant opposition between live-action and cartoon cinema can be observed. While both film forms took advantage of the advance of technology, animation was more concerned with illustrating meaning behind things rather than just realistically representing them as in its live-action counterpart. The tool-kit which the animators had at hand, enabled them to show the subject matter in a more subversive manner, beyond realism, which was well acclaimed by the viewers and led to establishing animation's key position in the entertainment industry. In this text I will seek to outline the most notable narrative strategies which animators employed in a selection of award winning short animations in order to keep the public entertained by telling amusing stories in a way no other medium could apply.
One of the earliest definitions of a narrative was given by Aristotle in his 'Unities'. He suggested that 'A narrative should be created within a "unity" of time, place and action - that is, it should all take place in the same location, in real time, and with all action moving towards a logical (and moral) conclusion.'
This was elaborated in the narrative theory of a Bulgarian structuralist Tzvetan Todorov, which he worked upon from the 1960s onwards. He introduced a refined structure of a story by explaining how the sequence of events starts with a state of equilibrium, a calm establishing period, during which series of events cause distress, thus problematising the situation until a new equilibrium is reached. Depending on the arrangement and frequency of usage, these basic elements can produce a variety of narratives. Nowadays, the predominant part of the animation production has a linear progression of calm states, followed by conflicts that are resolved until a climax point in the storyline is reached.
Escalation in the intensity of the story being told is also evident.
While this is a common way to format a storyline, it is by no means the only artistic direction the animator could undertake. Often such an orthodox construction system of a story with clear beginning and ending is disregarded in favour of more symbolic and subversive means of expression, creating a more abstract approach to storytelling.
Apart from that, it is also possible to have the full range of narrative elements such as establishment, conflicts, climax and resolution but to decrease the amount of another very intrinsic resource animation works with - time. Such approach is utilised with the help of a narrative strategy called condensation. It makes possible the creation of short animations, where the transition between the introduction, established context of the story and the outcomes of the various conflicts is set only within a very limited period of time.
A good example of compressing a significant amount of narrative within just six minutes is the award-winning short animation by Tomek Bagiñski from 2002 - 'The Cathedral' (Polish: Katedra). It is based on a science fiction story by a prominent Polish author Jacek Dukaj. During its pre-production stage, the full list of ideas reached the considerable count of 400 pages, later on polished to 80 pages of completed script and ultimately reduced to just 2 pages of screenplay so that it could fit into the form of a short film. By setting this restriction in time, the author challenged himself to re-create a visual tale, which can be told with just one sentence, while still retaining the mood of the original screenplay. Prioritising the expressiveness and feeling of the whole story over retelling the actual story line is one of the main features that add to the beauty of a short film. The synopsis of The Cathedral can indeed be told in just one sentence: 'Story of a pilgrim who comes to the Cathedral on the border of the known world. He wants to find answers. He finds tranquillity.' The story is driven mostly by a strong visual narrative, rather than acting. It defines a dramatic conflict, showing the audience the relationship between the character and his surroundings, building a level of tension as he progresses through the cathedral by means of changing colour scheme in a very contrasting fashion - starting from aggressive colours, through dominant darkness with patches of light until the protagonist finally reaches a stage fully lit by the sun.
Another narrative technique adding to the drama of the whole sequence is the masterful use of sound. It virtually commands the audience to react in a certain way to what is happening on the screen by creating overall mood and atmosphere. Since The Cathedral features no voice acting, the viewer's attention is strictly drawn to the feelings the ambient music creates. It is also used as a form of editing, providing anticipation for events to come, helping the animation director with the transition from one visual composition and narration to another and finally setting the overall speed of events, escalating towards the story's climax.
Being a three dimensional animation, Tomek Bagiñski's first film makes use of another very distinctive feature of narrative construction - fabrication. The sole purpose of this technique is to visually replicate the materiality and the physical properties of the real world, thus forging an alternate meta-reality within the context of the narrative. This brings the overall believability of the animation to a higher level, helping to navigate the audience's eye throughout the initially familiar environment and then creating a whole new set of experiences from it.
Another creative example of appropriate narrative strategies is the Belgian animator's Mathieu Labaye short film 'Orgesticulanismus'. It is Mathieu's tribute to his late father who suffered from a multiple sclerosis and was consequently confined to a wheelchair until the last of his days at the age of 55. The animation itself once again favours the representation of an abstract idea instead of holding to the conventions of rational storytelling. Over a time-span of 9 minutes and 29 seconds it lets the audience delve into the beauty of its intricate locomotion and chaotic sequence of events. Featuring a sporadic voice-over from Labaye's father expressing his thoughts on being unable to move or to communicate others how he feels, the animation aims to extend the power of his speech with illustrating mundane everyday movements during the first half of the narrative. Simple actions such as taking a bath or sitting on a chair, acted out by characters of different ages and sex march across the screen in a loop, as the focus is on the constant repetition. Although the actors seem to act freely, they are in fact tied to the boundaries of the screen frame by solid lines. During the establishment of the animation, Mathieu cleverly paints a picture of his father and lots of other people around the world being unable to move. This is done by means of associative conjunction, crafting a sensible meaning out of seemingly unrelated sequence of images, and synecdoche - instead of depicting his father's disability in particular, he achieves the same sense and scale of pain through metaphoric and symbolic ways.
Halfway into the film, an abrupt change of scene setting takes place, as the rhythm and pace of the action increases almost to the level of climax. A change of the visual narrative also accommodates for the transition to a new, brighter phase of the piece. Through flickering metamorphosis from frame to frame, at a much faster pace compared to the establishing scenes, the protagonist starts to dance erratically, implying that he found inner freedom and a new set of possibilities within his own reality and space. Metamorphosis serves as a destabilisator of the narrative's problematic agent and also as a way to lead the story to a final equilibrium by adding a sense of surrealism to the film. Even though Orgesticulanismus makes use of a few very appropriate techniques in the palette of animated storytelling, the actions of its characters does not set foot beyond recreating the naturalistic everyday movements the audience is familiar with. Therefore it is not a good example of maybe the most intrinsic aspect of the animated form - acting.
When discussing acting and performance, it is imperative to make a reference towards the continuous studies of Konstantin Stanislavski. He was a Russian actor, director and administrator at the Moscow Art Theatre, who invested many years in studying various aspects of the subtlety of human behaviour in relation to acting. The final product of his work is known as 'Stanislavski's system'
- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation, Routledge, 1998, p. 17
- Narrative Theory, http://sismedia.wetpaint.com/page/Narrative+theory, 8.11.09, by MrRyanSIS.
- Ibid., Narrative Theory.
- Jacek Dukaj, The Cathedral, http://dukaj.pl/English/ReadingRoom/TheCathedral , 2000.
- Interview with Tomek Bagiñski, http://www.maxunderground.com/tbaginski_interview, 16th Septmber 2003, no author named.
- Official Platige Image website, info page for 'The Cathedral', http://www.platige.com/index.php?lng=en&tu=27