Character animation research

This is a collection of various things from books I’ve been read this year. A lot of basic information that i just wanted to write down to have all in one place.


Character animation

Animated characters can be animated in different styles, from very believable and realistic performances to more cartoony exaggerated movements (e.g. rubber hose limbs), and everything that’s in between. It is the same with their design. I want to identify different characters from animations and look at what makes those performances realistic or cartoony, or a mix of the both. I also want to take a look at their designs and how that affects their performance, enhancing them or not.

I am going to explore the differences between different characters and evaluate them to try and gain a better understanding of character design and performance. So i think i am going to start by looking at:

  1. Animated characters who are animated in a realistic animation style.
  2. Animated characters who are animated in an exaggerated and cartoony style

And then for each of the characters I am looking at I can evaluate their design alongside the performances.

Realistic animated character performances

These are characters who are designed to look like real humans and must perform and react like realistic people. They are not able to squash and stretch as much and the animators have tried to make them move in a very believable way. Examples:

  • Disney characters (e.g. Cinderella).
  • Jungle book (Basically all the animal characters in the most recent live action film)
  • Guardians of the galaxy (e.g. Rocket Raccoon)

In live action films it is important the animated characters fit into the human world around them and give extremely realistic performances so they do not seem out of place or weird (unless of course that is the point) and are believable to the audience. So from their design to their movement their performance must be seamless, otherwise there is a risk the audience will not connect with the characters and the scenes they are in wont have the intended impact. This means that animators and the artists who work on these characters have to make sure these characters are as believable as possible and realism is one of the most important things when it comes to animating these characters.

Cartoony animated character performances

These are characters who are designed to look like exaggerated versions of the things they represent (whether that’s animals or humans). They can move and squash and stretch and morph in unnatural ways, while still making total sense to the audience. Sometimes they do totally impossible things, depending on their character abilities, and yet their performances are still totally believable and invoke the same feelings and reactions from the audience. Examples:

  • Roger Rabbit from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (The film really utilises the cartoony aspect of this character to show the difference between him and his human actors. Narratively this works so well because in this world there is also a toon world and the two can travel between them and the performances are meant to be at odds with one another).
  • Jake the dog from ‘Adventure time’ (This is a character who can morph into other objects and has noodly limbs which can stretch and squash into all kinds of shapes and move in unnatural ways).
  • Mickey Mouse. (Mickey has changed over the years so specifically early Mickey Mouse animations which utilised rubber hose limbs).
  • Popeye characters (Olive Oyl is a pretty extreme example of rubber hose limbs and is very cartoony in her performances – at one point being wrapped around herself many times like a wet rag being wrung out)
  • The Triplets of Belleville (which utilises rubber hose and strange movements in the opening of their film as a sort of homage to early animated works, then has a style shift which becomes more believable. The cyclists also have really exaggerated designs and performances as they are quite animalistic in their movements to evoke certain feelings from the audience).
  • Spongebob Squarepants (It’s almost like there are no rules for this character, in style and performance, as the animators revelled in doing strange and wonderful things with pretty much all the characters in this animation).
  • The Warden in Superjail. (He actually has rubber hose limbs which make him stand out from the other characters more – which is on purpose because he is such a weird character and is meant to highlight his zanyness).

There are characters who are a mix of believability in their movements and design. They can look totally weird and unreal but their performance is rooted in realism, or they can be totally realistic looking but perhaps they move in cartoony and unnatural ways. I would even suggest that all animated characters ultimately utilise a cartoony style sometimes and a realistic one at other times. They have the freedom to do something more experimental and can exaggerate the actions and movements of these characters a lot more than if they were trying to make them behave like actual real people or animals. The audience knows these characters are not real and that is not the point, which means their performances are less likely to be undermined by their design and movements. If the audience is aware that they are cartoon characters off the bat then they are not surprised by anything that character can do, and cartoon rules can apply. One of the best things about cartoon characters is that they can break a lot of rules of believability. They can be fatally injured and then be totally fine in the next frame, they can pull their bodies around in unreal ways that break the laws of physics. That sets them apart and lets you explore things differently because they are not bound by the same rules that everyone else is.

The question “is this character believable?” is quite abstract, and needs to be better defined to be properly understood. In the paper ‘Metrics for character believability in interactive narrative’ it is proposed that the dimensions for this are: behaviour coherence, change with experience, awareness, behaviour understandability, personality, visual impact, predictability, and emotional expressiveness. There are many different things to consider when reviewing a characters performance but these are some metrics by which we can examine this further.

Behaviour coherence: How logical a characters behaviour is, not their internal state, just their performance. The characters performance must be somewhat logical to be believable.

Change with experience: How a characters performance changes as outside events impact them. If we are trying to get a believable performance out of our characters then the way they interact with the world and objects around them will have to make sense and the audience must be able to empathise with their decisions.

Awareness: How a character perceives the world around them will affect how believable their performance is to the audience.

Behaviour understandability: The characters actions must express their inner workings and thought processes and relay that to the audience.

Personality: The characters behaviour details which define them as an individual and make them unique. Their own personal quirks and characteristics which form their distinctive character and informs their behaviours.

Emotional expressiveness: The extent to which the character expresses its emotions, and how that affects how the audience will react to their performance. From a really expressive character, to

Visual impact: The amount by which the character draws the audiences attention. Whether that is with unusual cartoony designs or realistic looking characters – both will affect how the audience will react to them.

Predictability: The effect predictability in the character performance has on believability. Extreme predictability and extreme unpredictability in a characters performance will effect how believable that characters performance will be to the audience.

By measuring believability with these different factors it should be easier to evaluate different characters performances and hopefully more informative by the end of it. There are of course many different ways to get the same understanding of a characters performance from an audience, as long as the audience understands what is meant to be happening and why then that is what is important to the performance.


The psychology of character animation

I want to look at what goes on psychologically when you’re engaging with an animated character, and the psychology of audience responses to an animated characters performance.

How does a characters design affect how an audience is going to react to them? I would imagine that with a realistic looking character the audience expectation is that they are going to give a very realistic performance. If that is going to be subverted in a big way then what effect does that have on the audiences feelings and reaction to that character. If the character is cartoony in design i would think that the audience expectation is that the characters performance will reflect that and not to expect total realism. I would like to look into if a cartoony character who is supposed to make the audience empathise with a tragedy begins to move in a more realistic way, is that more effective in those moments than an exaggerated and unnatural movement? I would assume it is, but i want to look at some examples and evaluate what it is that works in those particular moments.

I think in some ways all animated characters are exaggerated and real-world physics are bent and broken to make the characters performance believable. There are times when even really unrealistic cartoony characters will move in very natural ways to evoke specific reactions from the audience, and vice versa. But looking into when and why is important for me to understand when to utilise these different techniques and styles and inform my own animating style and ability.


Various things to consider when animating a character


Timing is really important when it comes to animating a characters performance. It is central to all kinds of performance and film-making as it runs through all elements of visual moving imagery. Timing is about conveying information to your audience so they can follow the action. Suspense can be created by delaying things from happening with a characters performance, a sense of complacency can be created in your audience through repetition, and then making the character do something different. It is so integral to everything you do when it comes to character performance.

Key framing and animatics are really important when making any animation so that you get that timing just right. Once you are happy with the key frames you can move on to inbetweening and finalising the performance in your animation.


Actions made by a character will look more believable if you use anticipation prior to the main movement. It serves the purpose of signifying to the audience that something is about to happen with the character. This is important so that the audience is looking where you want them to look and expects it, rather than missing the action altogether. Even if the action is supposed to be a surprise the audience must be informed by some anticipation so they can follow the action appropriately.

How much anticipation you want to put on an action depends on how much force is being applies to the movement, how fast it is, how surprising the action should be, whether the anticipation is taking place during a movement or is initiating a change in direction during movement and whether the movement is anticipated by the whole body or just a part of the body.

A fast, violent movement, for example, would require a larger movement of anticipation compared to a slower movement. Anticipation is utilised in cartoony style performances to really exaggerate those movements.

Follow through is also something that needs to be considered. When a character initiates a movement the follow through is made by the extremities of the body, such as the hair and items like clothing on the character. The type of thing that is following through will change how it follows.

When animating an arm moving, to achieve fluidity animators can ‘cheat’ by breaking the joints. This where you animate the arm moving and the elbow or wrist joints follow in unnatural and impossible ways. When moving an arm quickly you can also distort the drawing to suggest speed, which is known as ‘smearing’ or motion blur. The movement is too fast to capture, which can happen in live action recording as the arm is moving so fast it blurs.

The amount of anticipation used considerably affects the speed of the action which follows it. If the audience can be led to expect something to happen then the action, when it does take place, can be very fast without losing the audience. If they are not prepared for the action which is about to take place they may miss it altogether. In some extreme cases if the anticipation is properly done the action itself needs only to be suggested for audiences to accept it.

Follow through

The animation of an extremity, such as draping clothes, a tail or a feather in a hat, is difficult to key at the same time as the character to which it belongs. Objects of this nature move to some extent move independently from the character to which they are attached. It is important to take consideration when animating a character who has these kinds of extremities to make sure the realism and movement looks natural.

Overlapping action

When a characters movement comes to a stop the individual parts of the characters body come to a stop at different times. This gives the impression that the character is alive, as coming to abrupt stop looks unnatural and stiff. Overlapping action is where a character goes slightly beyond the position they will come to a stop at and then adjusting back to that position – overshooting the final position.

Walk cycles

A walk-cycle is where the character is animated walking in place and then that walk is repeated – often with the background moving behind them while they stay in place. Walk-cycles are utilised in television series and computer games, because its a relatively small amount of work for a lot of screen time. In feature films walks will be animated from start to finish so they appear more natural. Walk-cycles can seem repetitive and robotic, so stylised walk-cycles are a good way to let the audience forgive their unnatural repeating nature.

When animating a character walking from a to b their pace must be taken into account. A standard walk-cycle consists of two major key positions, the stride positions and the crossover positions. The stride is when the foot is leading the other and ready to be placed on the ground, and the crossover is when the legs are crossing past each other. To complete a walk-cycle you need two strides. The arm and leg positions will always depend on the emotions of the character and the external influences on them. The shoulders will also twist with the movement of the character as they walk. Opposite shoulders and hips lead. A large amount of the twisting that happens when a character is walking happens at the base of the spine as it is the most flexible part of the spinal column.

The angle of the hips can also inform the audience about the character emotional state, albeit in quite a stereotypical way. If the trailing hip is higher and the leading hip lower with the spine curved forward it gives a negative angle to the body – which can visually represent the feelings of the character. In much the same way if the leading shoulder is angled higher than the trailing shoulder the top part of the body is pulled back and this can give an upbeat and positive feel to the walk. As a person walks they move up and down.

There are many different things to consider when it comes to walk cycles. External influences like weather or incline of the ground they are walking on will also need to be taken into account to make sure the performance is believable.

The up and down movement of the body should slow in and out of the key positions, but the forward movement of the body should be at a uniform speed, or the animation might ‘stick’.

In 2D animation, to animate in true perspective requires a complex understanding of the geometrical treatment of the subject. For dramatic effect when a character rushes towards or away from the camera a low horizon is preferable, as a high horizon creates a relaxed effect. In both instances the vanishing point must be established in relationship to the horizon, which represents the camera or the audiences eye level. The increasing or decreasing lengths of the strides must be worked out by defining measuring points for every few drawings. This sort of animation should be plotted out very carefully before attempting to begin animating. Variation in perspective can be achieved by lowering the horizon and changing the vanishing point during the animation. Weight must be evident in all perspective animation. Effective animation requires movement in space and an illusion of three dimensions, otherwise the character may appear to be too flat.


Movement can be exaggerated to make it more believable. Like in theatrical acting the performance is exaggerated, and it must be big and expressive for the audience to understand clearly what is going on. Film acting tends to be more subtle and restrained, and is used to inform different animation choices. Feelings are demonstrated to the audience via many different things, from tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, the music, camera angles – all these different things come together to help get the feelings of the character across and impact the audience in the way you want them to be. Animators have to understand utilise both these kinds of acting techniques.

Emotions can be experienced by a character very briefly or for more sustained periods. A mood can last for a long time or be quite fleeting. A character trait is something that is a part of the characters emotional make-up and influences how they act and gives the audience a clue about the character outlook on life and their personality.

The depiction of weight is fundamental to making a character performance believable. A character needs to be balanced correctly or it will look unconvincing to the audience. This can be utilised to make the characters internal emotions more obvious to the audience, for example if a character feels the weight of the world on their shoulders, they should be depicted as looking heavy and moving more slowly.

Asymmetrical postures are always more interesting and believable to look at than symmetrical ones. This is where the body doesn’t perfectly mirror itself. Unless you are trying to make something move unnaturally or like a robot it is something that has to be considered when making a character move.

Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was a choreographer, dancer and actor who was interested in all forms of movement. The Laban movement theory divides into eight basic parts.

  • Pressing. This movement is direct sustained and strong. Like when a character is pushing something it suggests they are determined and making an effort. This movement can be applied to a character who is determined and has a definite goal.
  • Flicking. This movement is flexible, sudden and light. It could be a delicate movement to any part of the body, and can happen suddenly. It can be used to suggest nervousness in a character, or reacting suddenly to things around them.
  • Wringing. This movement is flexible, sustained and strong. Like the name suggests it can be used to show a character wringing out wet clothes, but can also be interpreted to suggest internal emotions within someone who is worried about something, frightened or embarrassed.
  • Dabbing. This movement is direct, sudden and light, a bit like flicking but with a directness to it. It can be poking something or someone and can be applied to a busybody, bossing people around.
  • Slashing. This movement is sudden, strong and flexible. Like a slashing sword or whirling arms this movement can be applied to an angry character who is annoyed by something.
  • Gliding. This movement is sustained, light and direct. This movement has a definite direction to it, and can be applied to a quiet but confident character who is in control of themselves.
  • Thrusting. This movement is direct, sudden and strong. A bit like slashing but with a definite direction to the movement. This could be when a character is punching, the movement exists in short bursts of energy, either aggressively or with a more light-hearted nature.
  • Floating. This movement is flexible, sustained and light and has a more dreamy feeling to it. Like when a character is lost in a dreamlike state of happiness.

These can all be mixed and matched depending on what the character is supposed to be feeling and doing. Body language is so important when it comes to animating a character. The audience needs to understand the motivations of the character and that first and foremost happens without speech. Puppets are a good example of characters who cannot really change their facial expressions but can still portray different emotions with a skilled puppeteer. They can do so much with so little.

Open body postures, where the arms and legs are open and apart show the character is positive, while a closed body posture where the arms and legs are crossed can show the character is negative and rejecting things around them. A forward body posture, where the character is leaning forward can show they are involved and accepting something that they are being introduced to. Backwards body postures indicate a sort of passiveness to the character.

The four body postures combine to create the four basic modes: responsive, reflective combative and fugitive.

  • Responsive. When you want a character to display a combination of open and forward postures. The moods covered by this are happy, interested, engaged in and occupied with something, in love, wanting something, eagerness and liking something.
  • Reflective. When a character is in a reflective mood they should display open and backwards postures. They may be thinking about something, considering some options, evaluating stuff or feeling perplexed.
  • Fugitive. In this mood they will have a closed and backwards posture. This could be when they are feeling rejected, bored, sad or miserable, in denial, not sure of themselves, lying about something, wanted to escape or resisting an idea.
  • Combative. The character will display a closed and forwards posture. They could be angry, defiant, wanting to get a point over forcefully or in an argumentative state.

It is a good idea when you are going to be animating a characters performance to act it out yourself, and record it so you can review the footage and look at all the subtle things we do without thinking. It is important to get into the same head-space as the character you are going to be animating, so the performance can be as believable as possible. It’s a good way to get into the mindset of the character and really think about what you are about to animate and bring to life. It helps you to visualise things in your mind and see the product in real life so you can make the best decisions when it comes to animating the performance. If it is a cartoony performance you will perhaps make the body move in ways that we cannot naturally move in, but it is a good way to inform the movements you are going to be animating.

“Body language is the root (of animation) and fortunately it is universal.” Ken Anderson

What I think he means here is that body language is a language that is understood by everyone around the world. If you can portray with body language the emotion and feeling you are trying to, then it will be understood by anyone, anywhere. In the Animators survival guide Richard Williams describes showing the Oscar winning ‘A Christmas Carol’ to an Iranian audience, and they didn’t connect with it at all because they couldn’t understand it – but then a Chuck Jones animation was shown afterwards and it was a big hit. He says how they had tried to have as much body language in the film but were still left with Dickens literate story. He goes on to say that words should be kept to a bare minimum, as animators we should be first and foremost concerned with the characters body language. Make everything as clear as possible, we should feel as though we have only the body to tell the story.

Facial expressions

Facial expressions are a key part of getting your characters emotions across to the audience. Facial expressions are pretty well universal across all human cultures, and are how we gauge how someone is feeling. They can also be a way we mask how we are truly feeling.

Realistic or ‘true’ expressions tend to be involuntary and aren’t held for long periods. They can flit across the face as the person changes mood. So if you are trying to make the performance more believable and realistic you would want to take that into account when you are animating them.

On the most simplistic level there are eight basic emotions:

  1. Happiness
  2. Sadness
  3. Surprise
  4. Fear
  5. Anger
  6. Disgust/contempt
  7. Interest
  8. Pain

These can appear on the face individually or as a combination, happiness and surprise for example. A character design can also emphasise a certain emotion and should be considered during the design process when creating your characters. If a character is designed to reflect how unhappy they are, when this character displays a conflicting emotion it must be exaggerated to make up for the character design.

False expressions convey something other than how the character is feeling. Actors, liars, con artists and sales people are classic examples of characters who would use false expressions. The fake smile of a salesman as he is trying to convince you to buy something is a perfect example of false expressions.

There are so many more facial expressions that a character will have alongside the eight main ones. These include:

  1. Neutrality
  2. Shock
  3. Arrogance
  4. Exasperation
  5. Paranoia
  6. Bashfulness
  7. Disappointment
  8. Interest
  9. Sympathy
  10. Determination
  11. Curiosity
  12. Aggressiveness
  13. Hurt
  14. Prudishness
  15. Satisfaction
  16. Concentration
  17. Confusion
  18. Envy
  19. Anticipation

And so on and so on.

One thing that keeps being reiterated in my research is that body movements should be worked out and animated before you start with the facial expressions. When it comes to animating dialogue the mouth movements are the last thing you do after body and then facial movements. When you are animating a character who is talking the audience has to absorb more information so it is important not to overload them with too much information and activity. Sound travels slower than light which means you see something before you hear it. Animators will often animate their mouth shapes slightly ahead of the sound. This is not a precise science and is something that you need to play around with when you are animating it.

The eyes are the window to the soul, they are what the audience will follow and watch most closely. Our eyes are supremely expressive and we easily communicate with just our eyes alone. We can tell a story with just the eyes. Just turning the eyes can be just as dramatic if not more so than turning the whole body. When listening on the phone, for example, our eyes are flitting and moving all over the place, we rarely just stare in one direction for an extended period of time.

Cartoon characters in live action film

There is a lot of animation in live action films now-a-days and audiences have no problem believing their performances alongside their real-life co-stars. There is no problem with writing in these fantastical characters into live action films. Gollum from the lord of the rings is a great example an animated character who fits so beautifully into the rest of the cast. But i want to look at the cartoon characters who are meant to stick out from the rest of the cast while still rooting the audience in its believability.

Roger Rabbit from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ is a masterpiece in how a cartoon character can exist in the real world. It is slightly cheating because he and his other cartoon co-stars are meant to be cartoon characters. The universe within which the film is one that is shared between the cartoon world and the real world we all exist in. That’s the point. But Roger’s performance is so believable that audiences have no problem with believing this cartoon rabbit is actually interacting and existing in this real world environment.

There were many concerns when it came to having the cartoon characters interacting with the real world. They have to be lit correctly so they appear to actually be in the same space, the eye lines of characters has to match, and they have to cast realistic shadows. The cartoon characters have to seem like they are actually in this world even though we know they aren’t. The fact that they are moving around in weird ways is totally fine with the audience, and if they really seem to be existing in the real world then audiences have no problem connecting with them on an emotional level.



When considering the audience for your films and animations it is important to become familiar with a few different thing. Cultural, national and local contexts as well as age, values, motivations and experience are all things that should be addressed. It is important to understand the goals of your client, whether it is for festivals or professional work or perhaps the needs of development departments seeking programming for television. Technological issues are a factor as well, when creating animation for online exhibition the animator must think about the audiences ability to view work, given variation in computers software and speed of delivery. It is also necessary for animators to consider that the animation may be viewed internationally, so culturally specific references are likely to be missed. Stereotypes considered humorous on a local level might not play so well across the world, and could even be considered offensive in some extreme cases. Another aspect of audience consideration is the hearing and visual impaired, where the animation design can affect their ability to access the work.

If you are making an animated work for a specific audience, it is of course important to understand their perspectives of these viewers and not rely on personal opinions about what that group might like. Generalisations about peoples interests and motivations and desires too often fall into the category of stereotypes. In order to fully understand the intended audience, it is ideal to spend time with that group in some capacity. Observe the way they function, the activities they enjoy, the skills they possess and other related factors. These kinds of considerations may seem obvious, but to really get to grips with the piece of work you are trying to make every effort should be made to delve into that as deeply as possible so you can make the best informed decisions and represent what you are trying to do as honestly as possible.

Provocative work can often capture the public’s attention. As animator Nancy Bieman points out:

” Some of the most successful animation is the most controversial. What about South Park or The Simpsons? Controversy can be very popular!”

It can also inspire other important work. The eastern animators Yuri Norstein and Jan Svankmajer created films by defying the censors in their countries.


Animation as a medium of communication can entertain, inform, or persuade. However it also can represent intangible concepts, such as spirituality or the experience of death. As an art form it functions on an aesthetic level, perhaps for the purpose of being delightful, beautiful and profound. Frederic Back devoted his career to making films related to environmental issues – something that was close to his heart and he championed in his day to day life. As an artist defines the function of their work it is important to consider value. The artist should ask themselves what they are ultimately trying to achieve with their work. Is it a practice piece in preparation for future works, in which case it is an exercise in preparation future, possibly professional, animations. The animated piece might also have the practical value of being used to secure employment as part of a demo reel – which is something i am definitely trying to achieve with Pizzaguy. Being that this is the case i need to clearly portray the skills which future employers are going to want me to have. In some cases the value of the work is measurable, if the animation is to be sold then the number of copies bought and how much money is made is a good way to understand its value. In today’s world we can share our work publicly to a large audience online and another way to measure its value is in how many views it gets on whichever public social media platform you post it on and also you can gauge audience responses as another form of value. Business clients who hire animators are interested in the value of their work to sell products or promote a particular image. There is also the artist who is producing animations for personal pleasure and self-growth and discovery on technical, spiritual and intellectual levels. Truly exceptional works are not only highly personal, they also connect with viewers in a way that proficient, even ‘entertaining’ animation may not.

In my case with Pizzaguy i must consider what i am trying to get across to the audience and what the point of the animation is. At its core i think its a story about all of us. We are born into this world and it’s an emotional roller-coaster – its joyful and intriguing, we are curious and scared and it’s a lot to take. We must meet the challenges which we face and search for our own answers. Pizzaguy is brought to life and the being who brought him into this life abandons him. Pizzaguy is this cute little creature who i want to have an innocent demeanour, and a drive to tackle difficult things, like the trauma of being left alone in the world to deal with it on his own. How will he handle it? How would you handle it? These questions are at the core of what i want the full story of Pizzaguy to portray. The other side of the animation i am making is that of an experimental piece of animation. The 3D-printed run cycle and moving between worlds is something that i think will be visually interesting and allow me to play with different camera angles and lighting in different, and interesting environments. Hybrid animation is something that i has really engaged me and interested me – which is something i want to replicate for my audience. With my third year film Pinkguy i wanted to experiment with 2d and 3d animations and with this new animation i want to try and take it to the next level and really push my own ability to make a hybrid animation which still keeps a consistent design so it works as one piece of animation.


It is important to get outside influence and feedback when making a piece of film. The critical opinions of others are not right or wrong, they are a means to gathering opinions which can help you to consider things you otherwise might have overlooked. Feedback should be sought throughout the development of the art, so that any changes that are to be implemented can be done before it is too late. While close friends are a good source of feedback, finding objective and neutral reviewers is very important. A blind review, when people comment on works not knowing who created them or having no personal connection, will provide more objective results. The perspectives of experience individuals – teachers, mentors, professionals and so on, are often more useful as they are more likely to be able to articulate their reactions in a more meaningful way. Taking part in critical discussions of other artworks is another really useful way to develop your own self-editing skills and objectivity.

Character design

Many expectations about character design in animation come from the conventions developed by Disney. Its impact has been huge and is impossible to ignore. Despite Disney’s dominance its reign is certainly not absolute. Stylistically one of the earliest challengers came in the form of Chuck Jones at Warner Bros, and among others their stylised imagery and limited animation techniques and stories propelled by narration, which was quite unlike that of Disney, showed there was not just one way to produce successful animated works of art.

Whereas Disney has always championed more realistic character design, characters with a more iconic nature have been really successful as well. Images in comics and most animation, tend to gravitate between iconic and photo-realistic tendencies. The term icon in this way means any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea. Homer Simpson, and his yellow skinned family are iconic representations of people, and are recognised as human, even though they are unlike any people we’ve ever seen before, audiences had no problem identifying them and relating to their experiences on screen. Icons can create the greatest opportunities for viewers to identify with the character because, with their lack of specificity they easily accommodate the viewers self-perception.

In contrast abstract images lend themselves to a more generalised experience (sometimes suggestive of dreamlike states) and representational images create a more specific and therefore limited-perception of what the entity represents. Simply put, an iconic smiley face is more universal than a photo-like image of a blond, blue-eyed girl in her teens. Photorealism is everywhere in today’s cinema – especially in live action films which need the characters to live seamlessly among their human counterparts on screen. Rotoscoping, an animation process patented in 1917 by Max Fleischer, provides one example of animation which has tried to create realistic animation, (films like A scanner Darkly [2006] and Waking Life [2001] were animated films which utilised rotoscoping for their productions) but today we are able to utilise advanced computer programs to create highly photo-realistic animated characters and effects.

Character animation is the term used to describe conventions of character driven work released by most commercial studios producing features and television series. For a long time this style of animation was heavily influenced by Disney. During the 1930’s it shifted from the ‘rubber hose’ style – so called because characters moved in a rubbery fashion, without regard for anatomy, to a more naturalistic approach. This change was helped along in art courses that Disney arranged for the artists they hired in the mid 1930’s as it geared up for feature film production. In these courses artists viewed and analysed movements in films, observed and drew human and animal models, and discussed ways in which the body movements could suggest how a character feels. Motion was so important that Disney artists began to draw figures without mouths to test the action of characters during dialogue heavy scenes. The body had to be in sync with the words being spoken before moving lips were added.

The aesthetic of ‘squash and stretch’ as the body shifts shape for dramatic and comedic effect, became one component in the studios development of ‘personality animation’ – which included movement, as well as the design and voice given to a character to define it as a distinctive type. The Aardman film ‘Creature Comforts [1990] directed by Nick Park provides an example of personality animation in stop-motion animation. Each of the animals is given a distinctive personality, so that is becomes an individual, rather than an anonymous creature.


Narrative Design

The structure of an animated productions narrative design can be described in various ways.

Linear– the most common type of structure for features, TV programs and short films. Introduces the character(s), progresses to a conflict or dramatic/comedic situation, and ultimately ends with a resolution, with some type of character arc.

Multi-linear– A number of stories are told simultaneously, by dividing the frame into various parts of cross-cutting between scenes.

Interactive– (Sometimes called nonlinear) used for creating stories where the user influences the events in some manner. The story usually changes every time it is told. Basically like a choose your own adventure book – Black Mirrors ‘Bandersnatch’ [2018] is a great example of a film which uses this form of narrative.

Gag– Common in animated series for television. Although its underlying structure is generally linear, the content consists of a series of humorous events, often based on physical comedy, occurring in rapid succession with little concern for fleshing out the story.

Episodic– The story is broken up into parts, or episodes, and typically the same characters continue to appear. Some or all story elements may progress from episode to episode, this structure is typical of television series and web animation.

Compilation– A variation on episodic structure. A group of artists create the animated works based on a given topic which are then linked together in one film.

Cyclical– The ‘story’ returns to the point of origin, rather than characters moving towards a resolution and change in the character(s).

Thematic– An in-depth exploration of a topic that is not concerned with forward or even cyclical movement. Some motion-graphics can be considered thematic insofar as they primarily express a single image.

Effect– The primary purpose of the animation is to enhance another visual. Examples include effects on websites, animated overlays on a map, or special effects in live action films. Effects might not tell a story but they certainly are structured in that they have dynamic movement with a beginning and ending.


Timing is the part of animation which gives meaning to the movement. Movement can easily be achieved by drawing the same thing in two different positions and inserting a number between the two. The result on the screen will be movement but it will not necessarily be animation. In nature things do not just move. In animation the movement itself is of secondary importance – the vital factor is how the action expresses the underlying causes of the movement. With living characters external forces can cause movement, plus the contractions of muscles, but more importantly, there are the underlying will, mood, instincts and so on of the character who is moving.

The animators job is to synthesise movement and to apply just the right amount of creative exaggeration to make the movement look natural. Cartoons are a medium of caricature. Cartoons can be a dramatic medium as well. This quality can be achieved, among other means, by speeded up action and highly exaggerated timing. The difference between an action containing caricature, or humour, or drama may be very subtle.

There is a train of cause and effect which runs through an object when it is acted upon by a force. Animators must understand the mechanics of the natural movement of an object and then keep this knowledge in the back of their mind whilst they concentrate on the real business of animation.

When it comes to slow action in 2D animation the drawings must be very accurate or the drawings tend to jitter and become distracting to the audience. Fast action tends to suit this kind of animation best. It gives the animator an opportunity to create illusion of pace and energy. The faster the movement is, the more important it is to make sure the audience can follow what is happening. The action must not be so fast that the audience cannot read it and understand the meaning of it.

Accentuating a movement can be achieved in a number of ways. One way is with the introduction of visual effects. These effects can help to draw attention to the point the animator intends to make, especially if the movement is a quick one. The effect should be a visual complement to the movement and should grow out of the type of action on the screen. It should also be quick and not laboured, which could easily spoil the whole effect. In the animated film ‘Animal Farm’ [1998] extra effects were introduced to heighten the sequences dramatic excitement. The farmers whip-crack for example was a sequence of eight drawings on single frames. At the accent of the movement, which was where the curvature of the whip reversed direction, a three frame white ‘crack’ effect appeared. The accent of the gunshot movement was where the gun barrel suddenly recoiled and moved backwards – highlighting the power of the gunshot. The shot itself was made visible by a strong ‘swish’ effect followed by a slower puff of smoke as the fun barrel came forwards again.







Character Animation Fundamentals. Developing Skills for 2D and 3D Character Animation (Author: Steve Roberts) 2011 [Book]

The Animation Bible (Author: Maureen Furniss) 2008 [Book]

The Animators Survival Kit. (Author: Richard Willliams) 2001 [Book]

Timing for Animators (Authors Harold Whitaker and John Halas) 1981 [Book]

LINKS TO BE LOOKED AT LATER AND RESEARCH GATHERED FROM:,contains,character%20animation&offset=0


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