Review of Meike Uhrig (ed.). Emotion in Animated Films. New York/London: Routledge, 2018.
Emotion in Animated Films explores the rich territory of emotions and their representation within animated films, particularly with a view on emotions as represented within computer animation. Books on animation generally concentrate on reviewing specific films or take a view on the technical aspects of computer animation – so a collection of writings looking at a specific aspect of animation in the digital age is a welcome addition to the field.
In the “Foreword,” Chris Landreth notes that the intangible effects of emotional content make their way through the audiovisual form we see, in a way that can be very different from live action works. Uhrig notes in the “Introduction” that computer animation is now seen as an effective way to convey emotion, not just for commercial features, but also in more experimental works, or animation specifically being used to express a full range of emotions, for use in education or therapeutic settings. Finally, she places the research into emotions firmly in an interdisciplinary approach to computer animation.
Paul Wells’ chapter here is key in establishing a deeper understanding of the emotional content that can be found in animation. A driving force behind Wells’ thoughts on emotions and animation comes from perception, constructed from our Feldman Barrett’s idea of Constructed Emotional Theory (Feldman Barrett, 2017). The theory’s argument is that humans create ‘emotion concepts’ which are similar to cognitive processes and previous experience. These emotion concepts can be seen as shared phenomena based on the situation in which they are presented – which allows that animation can translate across cultures due to these shared emotion concepts. Wells also explores the concept of Fago, an emotional combination of compassion, sadness, and love. From these two concepts, Wells examines films that convey emotions, in each case addressing a different aspect of how we construct and relate to emotion through our lives. He outlines how we can assimilate emotional content from animations, how we build up an accumulation of understanding, allowing us to understand this content very quickly based on our expanding familiarity – affording us an insight into our own emotional engagement with a complex world.
Several of the other chapters in the book look at how emotion is communicated within animation from different perspectives. Kathrin Fahlenbrach and Maike Sarah Reinerth base their explorations within Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff 1987; Kövecses 2003), exploring how audiovisual metaphors and metonymies can convey emotions in both simple and complex ways, which reflect our own interacting, complex experiences of emotions. Patrick Colm Hogan’s focus is on emotion in art house cinema, with a case study on how animation addresses themes of gender, how it can be seen as superficial and malleable, while in a local context, the film can be exploring themes of sexuality, widening the viewer’s acceptance of these sensitive issues.
Nichola Dobson’s chapter is an exploration of creating (artificial) emotion through narrative, sound, performance, and color. Familiar narratives bring existing connections with the story to bear, such as Disney’s feature animations based on fairy tales. Dobson addresses the use of music and dialogue in animation – voice, and performance can be as powerful as facial expressions in conveying emotion. In a later chapter, Kayalini Bálint and Brendan Rooney address discuss the effects of shot scale, and if a close-up on the face is essential for conveying emotion. Their experiments would support that, while a close-up is not absolutely crucial, it does evoke a stronger empathetic reaction in the audience.
Sermin Ildirar Kirbas and Tim Smith approach the engagement with emotion in animation from first principles – examining how infants engage with animation. Their findings, that infants respond more readily when watching with their mothers, and that infants from 12 months onwards can determine the emotions being shown by fictional characters, will be of interest for animators working on projects aimed at children.
The final chapter, an interview with Felix Gönnert, examines his thoughts on animation, the use of VFX in films, character design and the study of emotion. While the questions were aimed at teasing out his insights, I found the answers frustratingly short, and would really like to have had some of the topics examined in much more detail.
A few of the chapters seemed much less engaged with the central theme of emotion in animation. Paul Ward covers the performative aspects of documentary more than the role of emotion, although he does illustrate how the performance in an animated documentary engages an emotional response in the viewer. Torben Grodas’ explorations on how we are affected by aesthetics focuses more on social interaction, and he argues that the animated form creates an ultra-social and ultra-intentional space. Finally, Kirsten Moana Thompson’s chapter looks at the Disney film Moana, but with little reference to emotion – she is much more concerned with the Tiki themes present in the film, and the technical challenges in animating complex surfaces.
Overall, the book contains a lot of useful material, which I would certainly make reference to in future teaching. While emotion should be the central theme, this is addressed to different levels in each chapter, and a couple of the chapters, while still interesting, seem to have only a passing connection to emotion. The chapter by Wells, in particular, gives a great introduction into how we can think about emotion in animation. However, the major element missing for me is any real investigation into sound – music, sound effects, dialogue – and how that conveys emotional content in animation. As we are talking about an audiovisual medium, this to me is a major element missing from the book. Although Dobson does have a brief section looking at music and voice, this is only a few paragraphs in the entire book. While I would recommend the book as a source for academic research on emotion in the visual elements of animation, I am disappointed by this lack of exploration of the audio elements, which surely must be acknowledged as a key part of any emotional impact made by animated works.
Dr. Andrew Connor is a Teaching Fellow in Design and Digital Media at the University of Edinburgh. His teaching and current practice center on 3D Animation and Virtual Environments, while his research interests include the fusion of sound and vision in audiovisual compositions, electroacoustic composition, and abstract animation, visual music, and the effect of performance space on audience immersion.
Feldman Barrett, Lisa (2017). How Emotions Are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kövecses, Zóltan (2003). Metaphor and Emotion. Language, Culture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: Chicago University Press.