Animation is an image-making practice that can change our ideas, experience, and view of the world. Both metamorphosis and metaphor are powerful means to realizing this capacity. In the broadest sense, metamorphosis can be characterized as a striking change of something, which in animation often appears as a visual transformation. Being one amongst the different meaning-structures under the general term ‘figurative meaning’, metaphor strongly influences language, human thought, and the visual arts because it can generate a new understanding of common ideas. Members of the Society for Animation Studies’ Special Interest Group (SIG) Figurative Meaning and Metamorphosis in Animation came together online to discuss the potential relations between these two areas of study since, at first glance, the terms metamorphosis and metaphor seem to refer to quite distinct phenomena.

How are metamorphosis and metaphor related?

Figure 1. The figure of a man transforms into a bird in the Scott Free logo. Animation by Gianluigi Toccafondo. © 1998 Scott Free Productions.

Gabrielle DuIys: I feel like metaphor is a kind of metamorphosis. By this statement, I do not mean to essentialize this relationship or imply a level of hierarchy between the two words. After all, there are many instances in which the two phenomena are beautifully and indistinguishably folded into one another. A notable and obvious example is the use of the metamorphosis in the Kafka classic of the same name to analogize absurdity itself with the experience of Gregor Samsa transforming into a bug. If we take metaphor at its most basic and fundamental definition, it is essentially a comparison between two (conceivably) dissimilar things (Britannica 2017). This act of comparison isn’t necessarily one of metamorphosis or transformation (though you could argue that even the act of applying a new value or framing onto a subject necessarily results in a change). However, it appears to me that an experience of metamorphosis occurs as we begin to shift our perspective in how we examine the original subject through this kind of comparison. For example, when we describe someone as having a ‘sharp wit’ (a metaphorical phrase that has been normalized in our everyday speech), we are associating abstract notions of intelligence with images and sensations of sharpness, perhaps, eliciting feelings of jabbing, piercing, and penetration. Yet, when we conceive of the word ‘wit’ on its own, at least in my mind, we do not necessarily associate the word and its meaning with this same level of evocative and, at times, palpable imagery described above. In that regard, metaphor forces the thinker to transform their thought and elevate the object or idea from its natural or assumed state. It challenges us to rethink our world beyond face value. It would, then, make perfect sense that metaphor tends to have such an intertwined relationship with art, as it is most commonly an artistic device utilized by artists of all types as a vehicle to challenge our ideas, experiences, and expectations.

Figure 2. An outline of the difference between metaphor and metamorphosis according to Andy Buchanan. © 2021 Andy Buchanan. All rights reserved.

Andy Buchanan: I think that in both cases, the artist, or writer is seeking to evoke a transference of properties from one entity onto another. A metaphor may achieve this without transforming the object of perception directly. So additional concepts might be evoked through narrative elements, structure, or voice. And I think metamorphosis achieves this more directly – the new concepts are evoked by an actual transformation of the perceptual object. I do not think this necessarily implies that metamorphosis is less subtle.

I am unsure about the implications of different media and media techniques and how they might integrate with this idea. I have often thought of (and described) metamorphosis as a medium-specific property of animation, at least in its actual, visual manifestation. I have struggled to uncover significant counterexamples. It demands time as a substrate upon which the transformation is written, as well as some material properties that allow an unconstrained transformation. But it seems that metaphor can be deployed in any narrative form, and perhaps even more broadly than that (such as metaphors expressed in musical themes) and perhaps even in media without temporal dimensions (such as metaphor delivered in color schemes, shape design, and so on).

Carmen Hannibal: The definition of a metaphor as “a comparison between two (conceivably) dissimilar things” is one amongst other possible definitions of metaphors from academic literature. My question is, therefore, what school of thought the definition of metaphor is drawn from? 

However, Gabrielle has a very interesting point in that “metaphor is a kind of metamorphosis”. As they mention in relation to language, the use of metaphors may greatly affect our capacity to think about (and I would add, to understand) the world, insofar that we experience a change to our way of thinking (metamorphosis) about how we come to perceive “the object or idea” when we “examine the original subject through this kind of comparison”. To a large extent, I would agree with this function of metaphor to describe reality anew with additional information. Whereby the sudden change to our perception of reality caused by the metaphor is understood informally as an idea about a transformation in thought and perception, similar to the biological process of metamorphosis in the natural world. In my doctoral research, I am focusing on Paul Ricœur’s (2003) take on novel metaphors in written language, which he presented as the solution to an absurd predication at the level of the sentence. For Ricœur, the change to the point of view comes not from a comparison between two words and their associations. He argues instead that it results from a fitting response by the reader to the tension between two opposing interpretations of the meaning of a sentence.

The question is now, as Andy suggests, to what extent does this change in our thinking relate to the idea of metamorphosis more generally in relation to the visual and to that of moving images? I believe that both Gabrielle and Andy provide great insight. The function of metaphors can indeed be studied in its own right. So can the idea of change in terms of ‘metamorphosis’ in thought and vision without necessarily granting any metaphorical implications. However, the change, metamorphosis, to our perception of reality that results from linguistic metaphors hold much potential for investigating how we come to understand moving images, such as animated images. The reason that these two terms are put together in this SIG is, of course, to initiate such discussion as we are having right now in the hope to discover productive intersections between moving images and comprehension that arises from figurative uses of language and visual images. Not only metaphor alone.

Finally, I would propose that if Ricœur is right in saying that “with metaphor we experience the metamorphosis of both language and reality” (1973, p. 111), then we may also be required to consider metamorphosis, a change, in terms of visual images. That is to say that we do not only need to understand the change, metamorphosis, of thought and perception, but we will also need to identify the visual metamorphosis, the visual change, in moving images that demonstrates the metaphorical. Which is different from metamorphosis as ‘merely’ an aesthetic effect. More specifically in terms of how metaphors as a ‘strange predicate’ from a Ricœurian tradition may occur in moving images is, of course, still open for debate.

Erwin Feyersinger: In addition to what you have all said about how metaphors involve transformations, I want to point out that we can also look at how metamorphoses are used as (conceptual) metaphors in animation. I distinguish, in narratological terms, story-level metamorphoses from discourse-level metamorphoses (Feyersinger 2017, pp. 103ff.), and, while these two types of metamorphosis are connected in animation and the latter can be used to represent the former, metaphors work differently in the two cases.

A story-level metamorphosis involves the transformation of a diegetic character or object into somebody or something else, as, for example, in stories about Pygmalion, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or She-Ra. As these metamorphic events can be represented with various visual and non-visual media, they are not unique to animation. Even in animation, they can happen offscreen. Regardless of the medium, these stories and their constituents can be seen as complex metaphors for human experiences, such as creativity, creation, use and abuse of power, loss of control, desire, psychological problems, and much more.

It is, however, with discourse-level metamorphosis that animation unleashes its full potential. A discourse-level metamorphosis in animation is the transformation of the visual representation itself, in the extreme case regardless of what the images signify. This notion of metamorphosis is what Andy has referred to as ‘visual manifestation’ of metamorphosis and includes what Norman M. Klein (2000) has termed ‘ani-morph’ in Vivian Sobchack’s book Meta-Morphing (2000). Discourse-level metamorphoses are especially interesting when the interpretation of what the images represent becomes ambiguous, multistable, or even paradoxical. Animated images can thus become metaphors for everything that changes, everything that is dynamic, transient, unstable, or uncertain – on a small and large scale. This capacity of animation to give a concrete visual expression to all kinds of changes is one of the reasons why animation can be such a powerful, versatile, and insightful form of communication.

An animated metamorphosis furthermore enables a seamless connection of distinct visual elements, which can also be used in the case of metaphors, for example, in an in-depth exploration of one metaphor as the film displays various aspects of the source of the metaphor. A common conceptual metaphor used in animation is “life is a journey”, which offers a rich conceptual frame for condensing the life stages of a human being into ever-changing events along a journey (Forceville & Jeulink 2011). As Carmen shows in her analysis of Signe Baumane’s 2014 film Rocks in My Pocket (Hannibal 2017), a visual metaphor is sometimes introduced by a metamorphosis – in her example, when the head of a character turns into a light bulb to signify intelligence. Similarly, metamorphosis makes a fluid change from one metaphor to the next possible, or, in the terminology of conceptual metaphor theory, a metamorphosis of the source domain that expands and changes how we understand the target, i.e., the subject of the film (Forceville & Paling 2018, p. 116).

The authors are interested in your thoughts on the initial question and their responses. Please leave a comment below.

Also, don’t forget to check out the blog next week for part 2 of the roundtable!


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia (2017). “Metaphor”. In Encyclopedia Britannica, URL: Last accessed 1 September 2021.

Feyersinger, E. (2017). Metalepsis in Animation: Paradoxical Transgressions of Ontological Levels. Heidelberg: Winter.

Forceville, C., & Jeulink, M. (2011). “The Flesh and Blood of Embodied Understanding: The Source-Path-Goal Schema in Animation Film”. In Pragmatics & Cognition, Vol. 19(1), pp. 37–59. DOI:

Forceville, C., & Paling, S. (2018). “The Metaphorical Representation of Depression in Short, Wordless Animation Films”. In Visual Communication, Vol. 20(1), pp. 100–120. DOI:

Hannibal, C. (2017). “Subjective Perspective as Creative Metaphor in the Animated Film”. In mediaesthetics – Journal of Poetics of Audiovisual Images, Vol. 2. DOI:

Klein, N. M. (2000). “Animation and Animorphs”. In V. C. Sobchack (Ed.), Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Ricœur, P. (1973). “Creativity in Language: Word, Polysemy, Metaphor”. In Philosophy Today, Vol. 17(2), pp. 97–111. DOI: 10.5840/philtoday197317231.

Ricœur, P. (2003). The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. Trans. from French by Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin Czerny and John Costello. 3rd edition. London: Routledge.

Sobchack, V. (ed.). (2000). Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Andy Buchanan is an anima­tion artist and animation researcher, originally from Melbourne, Australia, where he earned his Ph.D. from RMIT University (Plasmatic: Improvising Animated Metamorphosis, 2016), and is currently assistant professor of Computer Graphics Technology at Purdue University. Buchanan’s scholarship and creative work explore the potential of digital animation for creative exploration and expression, combining studies in the history and theory of experimental art and animation with contemporary practices in the latest digital applications.

Gabrielle Dulys is a non-binary animation scholar and artist who will be starting as a MEXT Graduate Research Scholar at Yokohama National University this fall. They received their Bachelors from the University of Chicago and a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Their work straddles the boundary between practice and theory, with theoretical interests primarily in Japanese animation, the Other, performance, and gender.

Erwin Feyersinger is the co-director of the Research Center for Animation and Emerging Media in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He is the initiator and one of the coordinators of the interest group AG Animation of the German Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft (Society for Media Studies). His current research focuses on data visualization, science communication, film studies, and animation studies, following semiotic, cognitive, and narratological approaches. He has published several books on animation, including the monograph Metalepsis in Animation: Paradoxical Transgressions of Ontological Levels.

Carmen Hannibal is a Ph.D. Candidate in Animation at the Royal College of Art and convenor for the Society for Animation Studies affiliated SIG Figurative Meaning and Metamorphosis in Animation. Her research project ‘The Living Metaphor in Animation’ critically examines theoretical debates that lie at the intersection between animation studies, metaphor studies, and modern hermeneutics to aid the analyses of analog and digital experimental animated shorts. She has published in mediaesthetics – Journal of Poetics of Audiovisual Images, Animation Studies, and the online educational resource platform Fantasy/Animation.