Traditional And Contemporary Animation Animation Essay


This research paper aims to give an overview of some of the methodologies used in traditional and contemporary animation by professional animators during the last century. It aims to identify and explore the basic techniques that animators use to bring characters to life. The methodologies presented here are not concerned with alternative ways of animating such as Rotoscoping or MotionCapture, rather, focusing on the fundamentals and principles that make a character both compelling, in the sense that people can empathize with them, and understandable, in that their actions can be seen as an attempt to satisfy their desires given their beliefs. The results of this study show that certain fundamental techniques are crucial to bring a character to life.


I, Jonathan Hearn, state that this research document, to the best of my knowledge, contains no material which has been written by any other person except where due reference is made in my bibliography.


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I would like to thank Andy Love, Realexis Christofides, Phil Howlett and Rob Antill for their continual effort to help me and give feedback in and out of the tutorial sessions. Thank you to Marina Miron for proof reading every draft. Thank you also to Dax Norman and Sean Myatt whose insightful knowledge into professional animation and puppetry helped me to further develop my research.


The purpose of this research document is to further my knowledge of animation, most notably how animators make a character act and how acting leads to evoking deep emotions from the audience. Ascertaining specific techniques used by animators is thus a focal point of my research project. Thomas and Johnston (1981, p.15) suggest that "[c]onveying a certain feeling is the essence of communication in any art form. The response of the viewer is an emotional one, because art speaks to the heart".

Through the medium of animation this paper will examine how animators fill characters with life. Subsequently, every animator faces a complex venture which requires the character to be believable for spectators, and to achieve a certain degree of identification between the spectator and the given character.

"Believable acting means that the audience feels that the character's actions are the result of their own inner motives and not the animator's inner motives; that the character feels, thinks and reacts consistently according to its personality and mood." (Meir, 2002a, online).

Successful employment of animated characters implies a variety of factors an animator should take into account, such as the twelve principles of animation developed from years of experience by Walt Disney's 'Nine Old Men' and carefully planned choreography, that is to say characters' movements and gestures. Therefore the most challenging task for any animator is not only to follow direction of a character in the script, but also to attribute meaningful actions that will bring it to life.

The following research project will seek to discover and assess methodologies, which are commonly used during animation process for awaking emotions and how these are applied to character animation.

Background to the research

Creation of animations is a process which has evolved over many centuries. Especially in the last century where incredible developments started taking place. But along the way, animation had its peak and declining stages shifting from traditional 2D animation and stop motion to contemporary methods as 3D and flash animation.

"Man always has had a compelling urge to make representations of the things he sees in the world around him. As he looks at the creatures that share his daily activities, he first tries to draw or sculpt or mould their forms in recognisable fashion... he attempts to capture something of a creature's movements... ultimately, he seeks to portray the very spirit of his subject. For some presumptuous reason, man feels the need to create something of his own that appears to be living - something that speaks out with authority - a creation that gives the illusion of life." (Johnston & Thomas, 1981 p. 13)

The foundations of animation principles were created by a group of animators who worked for Walt Disney during the early Disney hey-day. The group was called 'Nine Old Men'. Two of the 'Nine Old Men', Ollie Johnston and Frank Thompson, examined and explained twelve basic principles of animation in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation which is now referred to as the "Bible of the industry" (Lightfoot). Their 'twelve principles of animation' adhere to the basic laws of physics but also deal with emotional timing and character appeal; although originally intended as a guide for traditional hand-drawn animation, it is still widely used and regarded as standard practice in computer animation industry.

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At SIGGRAPH 87, John Lasseter (1987 pp. 35-44, 21:4) presented a paper called Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation. In this paper he listed the 11, instead of 12 for traditional animation, most important principles of animation which were; "Squash and Stretch", "Timing and Motion", "Anticipation", "Staging", "Follow Through and Overlapping Action", Straight Ahead Action and Pose-to-pose Action", "Slow In and Out", "Arcs", "Exaggeration", "Secondary Action" and "Appeal".

Research Question

What techniques of acting do animators use to bring characters to life and make them more believable to the audience?

Survey of literature and works

Throughout my research indications that animators use certain principles of animation to bring characters to life grew more and more. The seminal study in this area by Johnston & Thomas in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, illustrates that twelve principle methods which adhere mostly to the laws of physics, create the illusion of a character that is alive.

Furthermore, drawing upon Johnston & Thomas, Lasseter (1987) extends the argument maintaining that for the contemporary form of animation, mostly concerning computer 3D animation, only eleven of the twelve given principles play a relevant role. Therefore the majority of them are still related to traditional and contemporary animation. The principles of animation, regardless of the employed medium, are very practical giving an animator a chance to create more credible characters.

Recently, Martell (2009) used methods from the twelve principles in practice to create his a short film Pigeon: Impossible, for which he also made a video diary describing the various techniques related to his work, in order to show the importance and impact of his methodologies. Anticipation, being one of the twelve principles of animation, was used by Martell to describe how an animator could show that a character is involved in thinking process before conducting an action. Further, an animator can control the physical elements of a character by manipulating the time margin of an action, that is letting a certain amount of time pass before such action occurs.

Additionally, in another episode from his podcasts, Martell examines the "motion language" of a character. He covers the development of animating a character with consistent and unique personality arguing that every character has a "power centre" which has a big effect on the characters personality, for instance, "nervous people tend to react with their head first, whereas confident people start with the hips." (Martell, 2009, online) This summarises many points from the twelve principles and illustrates them with clips from his short film.

In 2003 Ed Hooks published the first book on acting specifically for animators. This book Acting For Animators is a guide to performance animation which examines the theory and procedures of acting but addresses it to animators and relates them to the animation industry, for example, in real life it may be that an actor gets a line wrong so they have to start again and rerecord the action again. However, in animation the action occurs frame by frame so the same kind of error doesn't occur. Therefore the original method of acting in real life isn't relevant to animators. Hooks' book is an asset to animators searching for a way to improve their animations and his approach to the subject give animators a much called for skill in the industry.

Also, George Maestri discusses many important areas of computer animation in Digital Character Animation volume II: Advanced Techniques. Most notably on the subject of "acting" he outlines the importance of creating empathy for the character so that the audience is connected to the character emotionally, in different ways.

In his book, Maestri uses an important reference to Stanislavski who describes the magic if which poses the question "What would I do if I were in these circumstances". This thought process places animators into the mind of a character making them think about the character's feelings or actions.

Maestri also shares Meir's opinion about emotional responses suggesting that they are a result from stimuli. Furthermore, Maestri discusses the feelings of empathy that a good character should project onto the audience, regardless of character's role. be it a hero or a villain. "The scariest villains are the ones who appear to be real to the audience." (Maestri, 1999. p.131)

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Further, two e-books written by Shawn Kelly and released by his online animation school company called Animation Mentor (found at were very useful to me. Animation Tips & Tricks volume 1 and volume 2, are a collection of techniques which professional animators from companies such as ILM and Pixar use to create films and TV shows.

The book is a guide that covers a wide range of subjects from the first stages of planning an animation right to the areas of skills and talents that companies look for in animators.

Theoretical approach for selecting data

To further my understanding I will go through the literature of multiple writers to find answers which are relevant to my research question and for my investigation, respectively. Scrupulous reading for the subject I intend to research will broaden my knowledge and help me explore avenues of similar, related subjects which I have not had the chance to encounter before.

Most of my data will be attained from secondary sources such as books, journals, conferences, web pages, and podcasts. Primary research in the form of interviews with working professionals may also be included. This will, as an added benefit, provide me with a current source of information rather than an outdated one which is often the case with the secondary sources. Furthermore, I shall incorporate exploration of other disciplines in their broader context, but always in relation to the topic of study, such as acting, since it is a more mature craft which shares its traits with the area of my topic and thus more knowledge can be obtained.

Description of proposed practice

The practice-led component of my enquiry will consist of six artefacts. The artefacts will test the ideas which I will have obtained from this research document. Each artefact has a deadline of two weeks and must not take longer than two weeks to complete, therefore, they should be very clear and concise and shouldn't take the observer/participant too long to complete either. The first artefact will involve creating survey(s). This is a good place to start to get a broad understanding of my enquiry. The other artefacts will involve creating very short animations of approximately ten seconds, as making anything of a greater length is not conceivable to animate, set up lights and render on time. Therefore, the collection of short animations will focus on the key techniques that are written in the research document. The aim will always be to set up a similar kind of tests as to facilitate comparison, thus drawing clear conclusions based on my findings which will provide me with an in-depth body of primary research.


Animators have only one resource to extract their ideas from, which is the real world. Everything which inspires animators comes through their senses leading to inspiration and desire to recreate observed things. An excerpt from the book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation posits that "[m]an always has had a compelling urge to make representations of the things he sees in the real world around him." (Johnston & Thomas, 1981, p.13)

Some animators film themselves while they play the dialogue through with others or on their own. This planning method is a good way to attain reference specifically for the animation that is needed.

In the article "Acting and Animation", the author Meir (2002) describes an animator as "an actor with a pencil, not a draftsman that acts." Meir's explanation is from the perspective of a traditional animator although it can be transcended from the medium of the traditional pencil, to keyframes in 3D software. This suggests that an animator does not simply draw what he reads in the script and sees in the storyboard, rather, he must make the character act to bring it to life.

Meir raises this interesting point which is that the animator cannot get everything he needs to bring a character to life from the script or storyboard alone. Reactions, personality and mood to be able to read the character must all come from the animator. In this example, Meir (2002a) attempts to break down the thought process he would go through and suggests that other animators do likewise when they are faced with this task.

"The storyboard shows a character entering the frame, and looking angrily at another character... does the character enter slowly? Quickly? Determinedly? Hesitantly? Does he stop suddenly or gradually? Did he know the other character would be there, or does he spot it in the scene? Is he furious, or merely dissatisfied? What sort of anger is it - helpless (like a child's anger towards his parents), or superior (like a parent's towards his child)?"

The specific types of anger, as an example, are not things which can be conveyed straight from the script to the audience, this is where the animators interpretation would step in. If it were a live action film these descriptions would be based on the actor playing the part of the character. "In our animation we must show not only the actions or reactions of a character, but we must picture also... the feeling of those characters." Disney (Johnston & Thomas, 1981, p. 463)

According to Meir (2002a) "[b]elievable acting means that the audience feels the character's action are the result of its own inner motives". Furthermore, he constructed a list which an animator should work on in order to give a sense of 'believability' to his/her character. His list includes the following points: "Feel", "Think", "React", "Consistency", "Personality" and "Mood".

"Feel" is to look for the consciousness or 'inner feeling' of the character. Hence, portraying defined feeling such as happiness and sadness, or moving the character around according to the twelve principles will not be enough.

"Think" shows the character making a decision or leading into an action. Opportunities to show the thinking process should give depth and complexity to the character, thus making it more believable. The term think can also be implemented by use of simple anticipation techniques. The anticipation that takes place inside the character's head should first be a "motion or beat" (Martell, 2009, online). It will inform the audience that the character thinks before performing an action. Martell (2009, online) illustrates such a phenomenon on an example of anticipation from his short film Pigeon: Impossible, in episode fifteen of his podcasts. He posits that "the eyes ask the question first. Usually the eyes are the very first thing to react, then the face and then the body."

"React" gives a character a motive for the action. Making sure an animator knows what the character is reacting to and why, will make the reason for the action seem more believable. It also tells the audience more about character's personality, perhaps giving more information to the audience about character's archetype.

"Consistency" is important for it gives credibility to a character. Reactions should remain consistent. In other words if a character is an extrovert, it should stay extroverted without trying to act shy unless a clear reason is given or such an action is in context in the script.

"Personality" is like getting to know a character as well as you know a family member for example. Animators should learn and know what their favourite food is, what they are afraid of or what addictions they have. These personality traits add more reason to their reactions.

Finally, "Mood" is a temporary effect or change in the characters personality. It is not the same as personality since the mood might wear off eventually, but similarly to the personality it can also be a determinant factor of character's reactions.

Expressions are an important area for animating believable characters. Animators need to create the illusion that a character has a brain, and that the brain is in control of all the character's features. Kelly (2008) tells us that "[d]ifferent parts of the face need to affect each other, and be affected BY each other." As we are fully aware of our own and others facial features, the audience will notice any strange motions in the face that do not usually occur. Furthermore Kelly writes that this is "[e]xactly the same way you make sure your character's body doesn't look like a bunch of independently moving limbs, your face is a series of connected bits that all work together to communicate with the world around it." (Kelly, 2008, p13)

The advice presented here is all connected with natural human responses. Simply by paying close attention to our surroundings, we find out how things move and it is the role of the animator to enhance the responses to make it easier for the audience to read. It is important that the emotions read clearly to the audience so that they are not missed. One possible way to ensure full comprehension of emotions would be to use exaggeration (Perdew, 2008)

All these complex techniques are an essential part of animators' toolsets used for adding credibility and liveliness to their characters. Acting skills are what differentiate good animators from great animators. As Carlos Baena denotes "[t]he animation skills themselves, with time, you learn them little by little. The acting part of things...the choices you have your character do, that's where the true skill relies... Some animators at Pixar, I don't think of them as animators anymore, I think of them as actors." (Baena, n.d., online)


My research, aimed at discovering techniques which animators use to evoke emotions from spectators, has certainly fulfilled its purpose by unfolding a vast amount of methodologies for influencing emotions through animations. Beginning from the early days of animation, the methodologies and techniques have evolved into animator's common practice.

Evidently, animators dealing with these methodologies have to go through a rigorous thought process and posses the skills to be very artistic and creative in the way they move a character. The style of animation can greatly differ between very realistic or completely beyond fantasy, but always, the animator's task is to evoke the key emotion which is empathy in the audience. In this respect methodologies employed are highly dependent upon different characters and different scripts.

Therefore it is rare for animator's to go through the same process with two or more characters. Hence, animators have to maintain flexibility of their ideas and retain previously discussed knowledge as a guide to creating characters with realistic (inner) emotions. Only then such a character, epitomising a real being, has its full potential to appeal to audience's emotional level.