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.
Johannes DeYoung: Technique is such a big factor in the education of animation studio practice. Yet, regardless of the process involved, I foremost consider intention and the construction of meaning through active decision-making at the moment of creation. Technique and mechanics are important, but only in their service to ideas. Michael, how do you do that for yourself and how do you communicate it to others once you have committed to an idea and you are in that ‘channel’ to see the idea through?
Michael Dudok de Wit: I enter a zone that is highly creative, a zone of feeling and intuitive thinking. But I step out at regular intervals; I literally sit back, I become rational, and I question all the decisions that I have just made to see whether the ideas really fit. Some of the nicest ideas are very quickly rejected because they simply do not fit. They are kept for later reconsideration. I’m talking about the activity of creating stories, but it is the same process with the creativity and the clarity of my animation and when I’m working with film language. When I work side by side with a colleague and we both look at the same things, like when we are aiming to untie a knot in the story or aiming to improve the elegance of the film language, we try things out and we talk. Some of these exchanges are highly intuitive but not very articulate. Others are the opposite, where we are very articulate but we are uncomfortable with just feeling the solution. This has taught me a lot. My solution to communicate my vision to others is simple: I do the script, storyboard and animatic by myself, and it is in a visual style that is relatively close to the final design and the final layout. When the animatic is completed and the production team is assembled, my collaborators should receive a strong idea of my vision thanks to the animatic. With our feature The Red Turtle (2016), I skipped the storyboard phase and I worked years on the animatic, first alone and then with just a few very strong collaborators.
Johannes DeYoung: In relation to my own experience, I am always thinking of ways to introduce improvisation and chance. Like automatic drawing or writing from Surrealist methodologies to bring life into practice. Since so much of animation practice is dedicated to bringing life to some form on the screen or on the page, the relationship is important to me, and I am always interested in hearing how other artists and practitioners approach studio practice.
Michael Dudok de Wit: I am very much into the traditional step-by-step process in animation. I have colleagues and friends, such as Paul Bush and Steven Subotnick, who do more of what Johannes describes. Such as introducing new processes, in which they do not know where they are going, but where the process will inform them. I like to compare it to music because I often compare filmmaking to creating music. There are some forms of music, such as improvisational jazz, where the musicians may explore the unknown, not just variations on familiar themes, but much further than that, and there too, the process will inform them. I much admire this fast, improvisational approach to animation, but it lies outside my experience. It must be highly stimulating for Johannes’ students to try new techniques or approaches, such as switching hands and interacting in an unusual way with other people, because they are in a phase where they have to find out who they are in relation to a creative occupation and what their unique skills are.
Carmen Hannibal: Michael, I noticed that you wrote about 13 ‘modes’ in animation. Based on my own research, I have a very different view, but I would like to hear from you if one of those modes could be sound or music.
Michael Dudok de Wit: Yes, these would be two modes. One is sound, another is music. There is storytelling, acting, design, music, choreography, editing…
Carmen Hannibal: Colours?
Michael Dudok de Wit: Not so much. That would be part of the set design. There is the mode of movement, which reminds me of experimental dance, and which is not the same thing as acting. Like, what kind of movement do you choose, the angular, the round movement, the subtle, amplified, organic, etc. There is dialogue. Then there are two more, which I cannot remember right now. I am aware that I am using the modes symbolically, metaphorically, although not exactly in the same manner because sound has different limitations than choreography, for instance, since it is very expressive in one way, but not in other ways. All the modes are symbolic to me. Design is obvious because it is pure drawing. Storytelling is also obvious, and so is verbal communication. Music is too. The use of timing, however, is more subtle; although it is very rich in creative possibilities, it is harder to identify the symbolism of timing.
I am also aware that the modes are interacting with each other so that music can contradict what you see visually, especially when you see something very dramatic. A classic example of this is Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran (1985), which contains a battle scene where we see soldiers attacking a castle. Instead of using drums for sound effects or dramatic music, he uses classical music that is relatively not dramatic. I recently saw the same technique used in a Russian film named Dear Comrades (2020). Here, the two symbols contradict each other in a similar manner and that can create a very interesting effect when it is used consciously. When it is created by mistake, it may weaken the film. As a creative person, I feed on mistakes big time, because creating a film is non-stop trial and error. When it is too predictable and too planned, it does not satisfy me. I need to try something new, find out what is not working and why it is not working, or be surprised etc. The trial-and-error method, together with serendipity, allows for incredible discoveries.
I originally wanted to be a musician and this may explain why the notion of timing that we understand in music, the narrative improvisation in music and the rich emotions that we can express in music are all the time in my mind whilst working on a film. Although I play blues myself, I do not want to make films about blues music. But there is a similarity, especially in regard to timing, the highly sophisticated timing of music and the highly emotional timing of music, which I also find in animation.
Carmen Hannibal: In regard to the connection between animation and sound and music, I now work within an academic context wherein I first and foremost look at metaphor from a theoretical perspective. I am very interested in what metaphors are, how they work as phenomena in themselves and how they are applied to and understood in writing and images, still and moving. Partly inspired by existing writings on the subject, such as Suzanne Buchan’s (2011) take on visual and cinematic metaphor in stop-motion animation. When it comes to discussing music, my question is more at an abstract level when I am asking, what is sound? Is it part of the film; is it a necessary part of the film? Is it part of creating meaning in film? For me, having looked at sound and metaphor and meaning creation, it is a component that I have taken out of the equation because it is very complex. I also think that in terms of a theoretical point of view these modes belong to a certain approach to how meaning is created, which one can make counterarguments for because it is based on how we create and perceive knowledge. It is for that reason an epistemic question when we are asking, do we perceive the film as sensory inputs of different modes? Or do we perceive the film as a whole? And, with the latter, therefore, understand the film as a more general experience of a way of existing? I suggest two texts as a good starting point to think about these questions. The first is the article, “Metaphor and the Categorization of the Senses” (2009), which is a philosophical discussion that my second supervisor Clive Cazeaux wrote. The second is the book chapter “Cinematic Metaphor as Poiesis: The Movement-Image as Starting Point” (2018), from linguist Cornelia Müller and film scholar Hermann Kappelhoff who discuss how we can start to perceive the images. Can we divide them into modes or modalities? How could we start to perceive meaning? What is the starting point for discussion?
For me, the questions about animation, sound, meaning, and metaphor are already very controversial from a metaphor theory point of view. As soon as we talk about how sounds can help to construct metaphors, we also have to ask, what is the epistemic basis to support that theory? Because that will determine how we then analyze and discuss how meaning is created within a specific work. These approaches are theories, they are very abstract, meaning that you can approach the same film with different theories and get a completely different analysis. This is in part why I am doing my research, in so far that I want to demonstrate that there is already a theory that is being used, but that there is also another theory that we can explore and exploit to get a grasp on these questions. My take on the relationship between animation and music and sounds then really depends on what we are looking for, how we understand the film and how we want to break it down and analyze it. If we want to watch films, we watch them. But if we want to understand them from a theoretical point of view, we have to somehow have some theoretical conceptual ‘hooks’ to start from. I think that sounds do play an interesting aspect in animation, yet the question is, how do we describe these as an entity? And how does that entity then play into the larger discussion on metaphorical meaning-making?
I believe that these questions also pertain to the whole question about whether we can pin something down that is part conscious and part subconscious. That is again part of the whole dynamic between trying to explain something and trying to understand it at the same time, which is somewhat always interconnected. This way of addressing the dynamic is something I draw from the hermeneutic traditions that I am using in my research project, which centers around that continuous question that Paul Ricœur (1976) takes up about how to explain things to understand and to understand in order to explain. In regard to Michael’s point about getting more of an application out of some of that theoretical thinking, especially the book chapter, “Cinematic Metaphor as Poiesis: The Movement-Image as Starting Point” (2018) builds around more concrete analysis of specific films. I think that one thing is a philosophical debate about metaphor and another thing is to take some of that discussion into a context and explain how these theoretical insights then work in film.
Michael Dudok de Wit: The older I get, the more sensitive I become to metaphors, although I do not have a clear explanation as to why that is the case. It is a wonderful sensitivity and I am much in awe of the symbolic value of everything in life. I notice that I sometimes see symbols where other people do not, and I try to understand what the differences are between my own perception and the more general perception of symbols, metaphors, signs, and analogies.
Buchan, S. (2011). The Quay Brothers: Into a Metaphysical Playroom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cazeaux, C. (2009). “Metaphor and the Categorization of the Senses”. In Metaphor and Symbol, Vol. 17(1), pp. 3–26.
Müller, C., & Kappelhoff, H. (2018). “Cinematic Metaphor as Poiesis: The Movement-Image as Starting Point”. In Cinematic Metaphor Experience – Affectivity – Temporality, pp. 19–39, in collaboration with Sarah Greifenstein, Dorothea Horst, Thomas Scherer and Christina Schmitt, Volume 4 in the series Cinepoetics (English edition) ed. by Hermann Kappelhoff and Michael Wedel. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.
Ricœur, P. (1976). Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. 2nd ed. Fort Worth: Texas Christian 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.