Animation is a time-based 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.
Carmen Hannibal: I found what Michael said very helpful to gain an understanding of the concepts from different approaches other than purely theoretical debates and academic discourse. This approach from the industry side of things greatly helps to show me how animators and filmmakers themselves may struggle with and/or deal with the topics. It also makes apparent how they seek inspiration and new theoretical frames to try out different things, such as their own conceptual ideas and practical considerations. This, in turn, generates dialogue and fosters what comes to mind for the viewer and the maker.
Michael Dudok de Wit: From my experience as a filmmaker, most animators work without exploring the philosophical and theoretical perspectives on animation very much, other than the need to put into words and communicate one’s intuitions, creative choices and become more conscious about processes. I used to share this approach for a while, but I have changed gradually, because I wish to articulate my more subtle feelings with team members and because I am curious. Animation is a culture and an art form that touches us deeply if we are open to that, and I want to understand that. Thanks to this virtual roundtable, I have been looking a lot at my thoughts on these subjects and at the gaps in my conscious understanding. The subject of metamorphosis is also new to me as an observer, although I have created many in my work where I simply know what feels right and what feels wrong. However, observing and asking why a metamorphosis is present as a choice is very stimulating to me. My opinions on the subject are not conclusive and my exploration is still an ongoing process.
Johannes DeYoung: I have just finished reading Dan Torre’s book Animation – Process, Cognition and Actuality (2017), which has focused my thoughts on the relationship between movement and form. The cognitive approach presents a model for how perceptual information is processed in distinct parallel streams – that is, perceptual information related to motion, form, and color are processed separately, while understanding is actively constructed from the component parts. Semir Zeki writes about this in great detail in his book Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999). One part of Torre’s book that has captured my imagination relates to the kind of metaphors that can happen in assigning meaning to something like abstract movement. Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider’s “Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior” (1944) is a famous example of this phenomenon, in which a circle moves in relation to a group of lines (which form a kind of box structure) and two triangles, without sound. Despite a lack of sound and pictorial representation, a relationship is implied through the movement of shapes. The triangles appear to move in pursuit of the circle – an oppositional relationship is suggested. From this, I find it compelling how motion can be completely divorced from form. Meaning is not inherent in any action but is rather assembled through a rebus-like arrangement of component parts. For example, how we might recognize the motion of a friend at a great distance or in silhouette, or how we might assign gender to a motion. This relates to the cognitive phenomenon of processing and storing information, which can also factor into artistic decision-making. As such, the theory informs creative actions. I do not consider this an overwrought relationship, where the creative and artistic choices are made explicitly in relation to the theoretical texts. But, in some instances, the theory informs the creative process. Besides my interest in these subjects from a historical and a theoretical point of view, I am personally interested in how they inform my own practice. In my practice, I am interested in the unique ability within animation to deal with metamorphosis, distinct from live-action filmmaking insofar that it seems inherently part of animation practice since its early days, before cinematic storytelling. I pursue interdisciplinary approaches in expanded cinema working collaboratively with experimental sound artists and theatre artists. My angle into these projects is through animation and through bringing life to the forms we are representing. I also find connections between other fields where it becomes meaningful to think about what certain relationships entail, where we find ways for sound and moving images to meaningfully relate, for instance. This was the case for the project Every Possible Utterance (2019) at Pittsburgh MuseumLab where I collaborated with a collection of artists to enact an intermedia happening. We made a central display with projection-mapped surfaces, with a live band in the middle and performers off-stage, who drove animations that were projected onto the displays. The animation in this work is performed improvisationally through motion-capture, image-sound synthesis, and live mixing of pre-built animated elements. I am especially interested in the ability of animation to relate complex and evolving ideas through transformation, how distinct elements like motion and form combine to create meaning, and how complex ideas may be coded in symbols and iconography, whether literary or pictorially.
Carmen Hannibal: In regard to the relationship between theoretical texts and creative choices, it is for me one thing to talk about ideas and knowledge in an academic context that has specific discourses and requirements than to talk about the exact same ideas that one may pick up from any creative pursuit or any common sense approach to things. The difference lies in how much freedom you have to talk freely about these subjects. In an academic setting you are being judged on your knowledge, how you obtain, organize, and disseminate that. Whereas outside that specific context people are not necessarily that rigorous and suspicious of what you are saying or writing. Many of the insights that we can all arrive at are maybe the same – you do not have to be an academic to have great ideas. However, what is required of you to articulate the same ideas is just measured in a different way. This difference can sometimes get confusing. As Michael has pointed out earlier, animators know what they are doing in their practice. They do not have to have read a lot of theoretical texts to understand certain concepts. But there are just different requirements for how one is supposed to ‘pick up’ knowledge, whether you are a maker and/or an academic. This relation between theoretical texts and creative choices is therefore not necessary in a particular order or in some sort of hierarchy.
I have a background in character animation, and I started in animation school with the goal of becoming a world-famous animator. But my critical questions started to creep in, and I decided that I could not work for anybody who could not account for these questions. I then realized that the place to openly ask these questions is not in the industry but in an academic setting because there you are allowed to ask very basic things such as: what is storytelling? From my experience as an animation student at that particular school, I was trained to do other things than ask theoretical questions. I was supposed to be concerned with other tasks and critical thinking was pushed to the side in the program, which made some sense from an educational point of view. However, from my student experience point of view, it was frustrating to talk with fellow students because they were not curious about questioning the same things as me, although they knew about these aspects and were dealing with them to make animations and to come up with good ideas. For me, one of the insights from animation school was that there were some significant differences as to how we get to the same ideas. This area of discussion fascinates me because there is not always a simple answer to the entanglement of the conscious and the semi-conscious. I am also fascinated by how spectators – those who are not makers or academics – perceive meaning from the films. The scientific pursuit of disentangling these areas is maybe slightly false and maybe more about finding a fine balance between explanation and understanding.
Michael Dudok de Wit: Actually, some of my colleagues have expressed a genuine worry that too much philosophical reflection and too much questioning may have a negative impact on the creative flow. Speaking for themselves, they may be right, but it is not a worry that I share. It is crucial to me that my questioning is motivated by a passionate curiosity, almost as if I don’t have a choice. But meanwhile, it is not my experience that this questioning of how things work and how things affect us is interfering with my capacity to create.
Johannes DeYoung: I consider the relationship between critical, analytical, and creative processes, and what such relationship entails. For instance, I believe that creative flow warrants analysis. Like what it means when ideas and practice are in a state of creative coupling, where an artist is not consciously preoccupied with those relationships. There is surely a theoretical framework that informs that phenomenon. Like Michael, I also hear from some colleagues and peers that they do not want to engage in an overtly critical mode of thinking while in the creative process and act of making. Analysis may come at a different time, maybe upon reflection, or it happens in anticipation of what is going to be made. But there is a time when the studio door closes and the creative process happens, and that is often an entirely separate process from critical analysis. I have experienced pushback from students when introducing theoretical texts into practice-based classes, which I find puzzling. The important factor for students seems to be that they prefer to spend time in the creative flow that is experienced while making, rather than reflect upon and critically examine their media consumption habits. Personally, I find the balance between theoretical and practical approaches to animation to be very interesting and rewarding.
Michael Dudok de Wit: I believe that one situation which pushes some people to reflect more is when they reach a block in their creativity. Although I do not have any statistics on this, I suspect that it happens to many creative people sooner or later, more than we realize. I am talking about blocks that last for months, not just a few days when we suffer from exhaustion, but long periods when we fear that we may not come out of this creative void. We start asking ourselves: What is creativity? Why is this not working? How about trying out something else? What do I really want to express? And that is when we become more reflective. In my case, this was part of my evolution. As a young animator, I just wanted to create and in my animation course, which was a very basic course in the south of England, there was zero questioning of anything we did. It was just about the technique and about somehow finding out stuff by ourselves. For me, the serious questioning also began because I started teaching things that I knew from my experience, but that I had never really discussed before. That woke up something in me, and moreover, I became interested in aspects of the industry that previously had not drawn my attention.
The authors are interested in your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.
Also, don’t forget to check out the blog next week for part 4 of the roundtable!
Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). “Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior”. In American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 57(2), pp. 243–259.
Torre, D. (2017). Animation – Process, Cognition and Actuality. London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Zeki, S. (1999). Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Carmen Hannibal is a Ph.D. candidate in Animation at the Royal College of Art and the convenor for the Society for Animation Studies SIG Figurative Meaning and Metamorphosis in Animation. Her research project ‘The Living Metaphor in Animation’ critically examines theoretical debates that lie in 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.
Michael Dudok de Wit grew up in the Netherlands and has lived in London since 1980, directing independent animated films and tv commercials. He specializes in hand-drawn animation and his shorts have won numerous international awards, including an Oscar and a BAFTA award in 2001 for Father and Daughter. His most recent project, the feature-length film The Red Turtle, was a Wild Bunch/Studio Ghibli co-production, made in France with Prima Linea Productions. The film won the Special Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard, at Cannes Film Festival in 2016 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017. Michael also illustrates children’s books, and gives talks on animation at universities in the UK and abroad.
Johannes DeYoung is a multidisciplinary artist who works at the intersection of computational and material processes. His moving-image works have been exhibited internationally in major galleries and museums in countries such as Spain, Taiwan, Germany, USA, Canada, Ireland, and Australia, as well as being featured in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Huffington Post, and Dossier Journal. He is Assistant Professor of Electronic and Time-Based Media at Carnegie Mellon University. He previously taught at Yale University School of Art (2008–2018), where he was appointed Senior Critic and Director of the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, and at the Yale School of Drama, where he was appointed Lecturer in Design.