“The delight of animation comes of the experience of movement, and the art of animation is, above all, that of movement”, writes Thomas Lamarre (2013: 117).

At the heart of our contemporary cinematographic understanding of animation are older meanings of animare, to make alive, fill with breath, to give motion to, especially air or the soul. Animation is understood today as a specialist function of processing, recreating and manipulating moving images, but I would argue the animator’s craft still revolves around a desire to represent life. While movement has been central to the etymological history of animation there is little work that focuses on movement and how we perceive it [1]. This is where engaging with developments in the sciences of psychology of perception and neuroscience can provide insights.

The history of the word animation identifies a combination of life and movement, or indeed, life through movement. Before the 1912 cinematographic use of animation the word described a certain kind of liveliness in living beings, a state of emotion and movement that exhibited life. By focusing on the various qualities of movement animation can create, I hope to draw a finer focus on the potentialities of movement in animation. If we consider findings from the sciences, we might better understand how certain movement qualities in animation are more engaging then others.

Humans have refined abilities to recognise life in movement. For example, we can distinguish the difference between moving leaves, dust and grass in our environs, and the animals or other sentient beings in those environs. Humans are fine-tuned to see biological movement over the dynamic movement of physics acting on the inanimate. Animation and animators can exploit, or fail to exploit this ability with a broad ranges of movement styles or qualities.

Let’s look at two examples: in computer animation, it is relatively easy to create the movement of dynamics (such as gravity, turbulence) as these are largely generated by algorithms that, once set into play, create mathematical representations of real-world movement with the quality of dynamics. On the other hand, we have movement that strongly suggests sentience, the kind of movement usually used in character animation, and the quality of movement here represents sentience. However, if we consider these qualities of movement in the context of animation, we do not require sentience to be represented with a character (be that an anthropomorphised teapot, sun, or dog); the quality of movement in an abstract object has equal power to engage us as sentient, if it moves with qualities that strongly suggests that.

It was almost forty-five years ago that the Swedish psychologist Gunnar Johansson became interested in the Gestalt nature of visual motion perception. Using visually depleted information in ‘point light walkers’, Johansson demonstrated just how hard-wired we humans are to detecting sentience in movement.

This video well explains Johansson experiments with point-light walkers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1F5ICP9SYLU

Forty-two years later, the cognitive neuroscientist and human behaviourist Catherine L. Reed completed an extensive review of the neuroscience of human motion detection (Reed 2013). Reed found that people ‘map’ the movement of others onto their motor centres effectively changing empathy into a reverse equation. In order to understand the movement of others, we base their movement on our own learnt experiences that associate motor and emotional content. Reed termed this “self-other correspondence”. In a similar way, we understand the movement of all sentient beings such as birds, animals, (and I would add, animated objects). Research in the perception of animals such as lions and pigeons reveals that “we as outside observers can often decide what is going on – who is doing what to whom – based just on the motions of the two organisms relative to each other” (Blythe, Todd, Miller, 1999: 257). Here the evidence shows that human perception is not limited, in understanding movement, to the human form alone. Indeed, in the stop-frame animation experiments of Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel (1944) characters were represented by simple geometric shapes. Witnesses reported very real relationships with the geometric shapes based on the movement alone.

Animators create various qualities of movement that stimulate (or not) the somatic response as discussed by Reed (2013). The successful creation of such movement is unique to animation, as animation can distort (or exaggerate) real movement, can represent it in the form of anthropomorphised character, or in the abstract form, but can remain somatically relevant. Animators manipulate animare and in so doing engage us in a somatic communication that transcends real-world movement.



Cholodenko, A. (2007). Speculations on the Animatic Automaton. In: The illusion of life II: more essays on animation, Power Publications, pp. 486-528.

Crafton, D. (2011). The veiled genealogies of animation and cinema. Animation6(2), pp. 93-110.

Blythe, P. W., Todd, P. M., & Miller, G. F. (1999). How motion reveals intention: Categorizing social interactions. In: G. Gigerenzer, P. M. Todd, & the ABC Research Group (eds.), Simple heuristics that make us smart, Oxford U P, pp. 257-285.

Lamarre, T. (2009). The anime machine: A media theory of animation. U of Minnesota Press.

Lamarre, T. (2013). Coming to life: Cartoon animals and natural philosophy. In: S. Buchan (ed.), Pervasive animation. Routledge, pp. 117-142.

Reed, C. L. (2013). Seeing you through me: creating self-other correspondences for body perception. In: K. Johnson & M. Shiffrar, People Watching: Social, Perceptual, and Neurophysiological Studies of Body Perception, Oxford U P, pp. 44-62.

Sobchack, V. (2009). Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being. Screen50(4), pp. 375-391.


Steve Weymouth is a lecturer in animation, whose interests combine research in learning and teaching, cross-disciplinary research in neurological perception of motion, and animation practice. His main focus is on the role the body plays in animation processes. Steve builds on his previous industry experience as a 3D CGI artist, including freelancing in Sydney and time in London at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. He has also worked closely with theatre and dance, and performance.


[1] See Cholodenko (2007); Crafton (2011); Lamarre (2009 & 2013); and Sobchack (2009) for further discussion.