We love movies because they allow us to escape from our reality, to project ourselves into impossible worlds and parallel universes. We long for adventure, love, excitement and answers to personal quests. The magic of cinema, and especially of animation, resides in making you believe what you may (or may not) see, and over all, feel it.
As Antonio Damasio writes, “we’re not thinking machines. We’re feeling machines that think” (Damasio, 1994). And animation can be a media of communication and introspection of the most invisible area of ourselves: our soul and psyche. In order to get to know it, we thus need to learn and be in touch with our emotions and feelings.
Feelings come from the interpretation of the emotions in our bodies and serve us as internal guides to communicate and connect with others through empathy, exactly as movies and stories do. Stories prevail because they have a reason to exist. As Brian McDonald said, “having a point gives your stories resonance”. Storytelling connects us, not just visually, but also spiritually and physically at the present moment of sharing an experience, where our brains happen to synchronize. As the latest results of Scientist Uri Hasson show, the speaker and listener’s brains pair during storytelling (Hasson, 2016), and movies affect our brain when we view them (Hasson, 2008). Animation helps to connect our body and our mind within the self-narrative that our brain creates after every experience. During the creative process of an animated story we become the observer of the main character’s thoughts and feelings, which can be our own. Here, animation is a vehicle of metacognition, an awareness of our own thoughts, emotions and motivational processes.
As part of the “neurally inspired behavioral therapy” proposed by the neuroscientist Richard Davidson (2012) a series of mental exercises are designed to alter the emotional trait that the patient wants to change. This is similar to the approach used at the The Animation Workshop (Denmark) and the University Polytechnic of Valencia (Spain), where, during art productions, animation and education are intermingled to develop self-awareness, critical and creative thinking.
Being a true animator implies to know the psyche of a character besides the body’s mechanism. It goes beyond learning software or the 12 principles of animation. It is about acting from inside out as we re-interpretate the world from outside-in. As animators, we observe with the mind of a scientist and feel with an artist’s heart to make our characters act with coherence. We are conscious about the world that we create. “Without consciousness there would, practically speaking, be no world, for the world exists as such only in so far as it is consciously reflected and consciously expressed by a psyche” (Jung, 1958).
From my cross-cultural work experience as an animator and researcher, I define animation as a social emotional learning media, as a language of the invisible anima, since animators are also artists who work the expression of the soul. How abstract can we get from this?
Every day the industry is more interested in studying emotions and how cinema affects our brains, characters and behaviors. Far from selling products or being a tool for those interested in manipulating with private agendas, the real cinema was born out of the need to keep sharing stories and being a reflection of our society, exposing its light and shadow. And animation has been covering abstract subjects considered dark, such as for example depression. How experiences shape our personalities as we grow up and cope with changes is well exposed in Inside Out (2015, by Pete Docter); Walt Disney Animation Studios’ animated short Reason and Emotion (1943, by Bill Roberts) constitutes a good predecessor to the visualization of how the hemispheres of our brain interact and affect our behavior; The Story of Menstruation (1946, by Jack Kinney), a forgotten interesting work from Disney, mixes animation, science, and education to reveal how our hormones affect our mood and feelings during the process of puberty. All these films visualize the invisible emotions and biological changes in our bodies, but what about the soul of a movie?
Big animated productions like The Book of Life (2014, by Jorge Gutierrez) or the recent Coco (2017, by Lee Unkrich) expose the strong emotions that our memories carry and how they influence others, even after life. We are our memories, collective and individual stories full of emotions that connect us and pass knowledge to others. Not dissimilarly, the stories of Miyazaki’s works contain their own spirit. As we see in Spirit Away (2001) or My Neighbor Totoro (1998), he brings into consciousness human aspects of the anima working the emotions of the characters and scenes without almost any dialog. Through relationships, family, love, greediness, nature and so on, he truly reflects the spirit of the Japanese culture. Analogously, The Secret of Kells (2009, by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey) or Song of the Sea (2014, by Tomm Moore) depict the spirit of the Irish culture, folkloric tales that preserve memories from our ancestors.
Animating is more than bringing to life a character or a scene. It is also about the whole spirit of a production that makes you get into that world. It’s invisible but it does happen when we feel touched by the story. If we can learn to reflect on the relationship of emotions with our thoughts and acting, we will gain a wider perspective and use an intuitive language, as animation is, to comprehend and mediate both, the inner and outer world of the invisible. Furthermore, we can create stories with a soul as we discover our own.
Davidson, R. and Begley, S. (2013). The Emotional life of your Brain. London: Hodder.
Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes’ Error. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Ekman, P. (2012) Emotions Revealed. London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd.
Huerta, M. (2015) ‘Through the Lens of Filmmaking’. Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation : https://www.edutopia.org/blog/through-the-lens-of-filmmaking-merle-huerta (retrieved on February 19 2018)
Jung, C. (1958) The Undiscovered Self. The Individual’s Understanding of Himself. Oxon: Routledge & Kegan. Kindle Edition.
McAdams, Dan P., Josselson, J. and Lieblich, A. (2006). Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative. Washington: American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.
McDonald, B. (2017) Invisible Ink. Omaha, Nebraska: Concierge Marketing Inc.
Metacognition. (2015). CambridgeInternationl.org, Cambridge International Examinations: http://www.cambridgeinternational.org/images/272307-metacognition.pdf (retrieved on February, 17 2018).
Ramachandran, V. (2012). The Tell-tale Brain. New York: W. W. Norton.
Schore, Allan N. (2016). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self. New York: Routledge.
Zull, J. E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Inma Carpe is a visual development artist/animator and a professor at the Animated Learning Lab, The Animation workshop in Denmark. She keeps workshops and collaborates with other countries developing international projects and studying the connection between animation and affective-cognitive neuroscience for self-development and communication, focusing on emotions and mindfulness based on the creative process of animated films. She is currently undertaking a research between Denmark and the UPV, Valencia, Spain. Her personal work in animation reflects an interest in collage, blending animation with fashion illustration, sciences and education. She is an experienced freelancer for international publishers, animation studios and film festivals in Hollywood.