Animation can represent change, even when this is invisible. Moreover, even deprived of the dimension of time, animation can recreate/represent variance and difference. Difference and variance is at the crux of the creation of animation’s illusion. Norman McLaren (in Sifianos 1995: 66) mentions the “manipulation of the differences between successive frames” as constituting the animator’s practice. If the series of frames is independent of an actual temporal succession (a change), it can portray the different aspects of a simultaneous whole.
Strata-cut animation exemplifies this situation. Its technique renders a series of frames by slicing through the length of an object. Since this object can be unprepared (i.e. “found”), the arrangement of frames can be partly independent of the animator’s manipulation, requiring from them only a visual register. Examples include some of Oskar Fischinger’s wax animations (see Furniss 2007: 54) and the Visible Human Project’s (1933) animated depiction of slices of frozen human bodies. In these cases, the shapes and duration of the images are largely in function of the form and length of the materials being cut. Thus, strata-cut animation visualizes differences and variations within a whole, converting a spatial continuity into a temporal one for the viewer’s perception.
However, it is not analogue but digital moving images which have made extensive use of animation’s capacity to visualize difference and variance, temporal or not. Due to their spread, the most salient example are graphic user interfaces. The latter use animation functionally. As designers Al Hazwani and Bernard (2016) point out, animation can serve semantic functions, “reflecting and reinforcing semantic relationships” of interface elements. They also note that, “when you add animations, an interface isn’t a series of screens anymore, but a collection of semantic components inside a single, continuous space.”
Besides functionality, animated transitions permit to experience and use the simultaneous parts of a virtual space. The manipulation of differences that McLaren (in Sifianos 1995: 66) mentioned is put to use here: with animation users navigate through the different states of a same application and relates these as parts of the interface’s whole . This navigation is limited to the linear perception of the users; nevertheless, it grants them access to the different but co-occurring virtual states. Hence, users may go back and forth between screens, icons, and functions.
An analogy would be if the frames of strata-cut could be accessed from any of its slices and in relation to the material of which they are part, yet, instead of arbitrary slices, the cuts of the interface correspond to discretional elements (e.g. icons, programs) and states (e.g. display, operational). For instance, when the user selects a display icon that then expands to a full screen interface, there is a cut from one to another “slice” of the pre-programmed/possible states. Other digital instances, like information visualization, also make use of this continuity to represent different states (see Fisher 2010), however they deserve separate examination.
Ultimately, the abstract diagrammatic space of the interface becomes continuous through animation. Thanks to it, it is not only mentally built but is functionally inhabited.
Al Hazwani, A. & Bernard, T. (2016). “Motion with Meaning: Semantic Animation in Interface Design.” Originally published in Interaction Design, January 19, 2016. Republished in alistapart.com http://alistapart.com/article/motion-with-meaning-semantic-animation-in-interface-design (accessed 20 August 2016).
Fisher, D. (2010). ‘Animation for Visualization: Opportunities and Drawbacks’. In: J. Steele & N. Iliinsky (eds.). Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts. O’Reilly, pp. 329-352.
Furniss, M. (2007). Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics. Bloomington.
Sifianos, G. (1995). ‘The Definition of Animation: A letter from Norman McLaren’. Animation Journal 3(2), pp. 62-66.
Oslavi Linares is a MA student of Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He graduated with a major in Cultural Practices from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada. His studies revolve around animation, documentary film, and Latin American moving images. He also reviews animations for the blog Cinetalk.net.
 By interfaces’ animation I refer to the pre-programmed movements that respond to the user’s motion capture; however, I do not consider Motion Capture animation. I consider the movement of a pointing device rather a reconstitution of existent movement, not an animation. For an elaborate argument on this please refer to my article: “Criteria for Defining Animation: A Revision of the Definition of Animation in the Advent of Digital Moving Images”, 2015, http://anm.sagepub.com/content/10/1/42.short