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.

Michael Dudok de Wit: Please let me share a few quite personal and subjective thoughts and conclusions on the subjects of metaphors and metamorphoses. These thoughts come mostly from my experience as an animator and filmmaker, and from my observation of my close collaborators. Watching films at animation festivals, I tend to focus more on the individualistic, artistic films, where exploration and the subjective are highly valued, and less on mainstream animation. Over the years, I have happily worked in both domains, moving gradually from mainstream to individualistic projects and not the other way round.

Regarding the description of metaphor, I am comfortable with the one mentioned by Gabrielle Dulys, “a comparison between two (conceivably) dissimilar things”, but I prefer the first line of Aristotle’s famous definition: “metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (1984, p. 251). That line applies to verbal communication, and for the art of animation, I would adapt it to something like: metaphor consists in giving the thing an expression that belongs to something else.

When we look at metaphors in verbal language, we have to make a distinction between a new metaphor and an established one, sometimes called a dead metaphor. A new metaphor is creative and takes us by surprise, which is usually enjoyable. It can instantly improve our understanding of something, or it can bring life to a familiar subject. It can affect our emotions. But soon the surprise wears off. The original meaning of the word is largely forgotten, while the meaning of the metaphor itself becomes gradually normalized. If the metaphor survives, it becomes a word or an expression that is so well integrated into everyday language that we may not even realize that we are dealing with a metaphor. Examples are: I see what you are saying; it was hell; her eyes were shining; understanding and even the word metaphor itself.

The English language is rich with established metaphors, and we simply can’t talk about abstract things, about our feelings, about taboo subjects, about hidden subjects, and about totally new subjects without the use of metaphors. According to linguists Lakoff and Johnson (2003; 1999), all meaning is essentially metaphorical. Interestingly, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist (2012) points out that new metaphors are understood by the brain’s right hemisphere, while established metaphors are understood by the left hemisphere.

As has been mentioned by Carmen Hannibal and Gabrielle Dulys, a metaphor is like a metamorphosis. I agree with that comparison when I think of new metaphors because something in our beliefs or in our understanding goes through a transformation. How often do we come across new metaphors, though? Meanwhile, established metaphors are used in abundance, I can’t see them as metamorphoses. The transformative effect, if it has ever occurred, is already long gone.

However, some established metaphors preserve an essence of the original meaning of the word, in a subtle way. For example, when I hear the term of affection honey, as in “Honey, I’m home”, the word does not remind me of the actual substance of honey, but somehow, there is still a subtle quality, like a faint memory of the original meaning of the word, and the same applies to many other metaphors. Swear words and insults are striking examples. The sound of the word plays a role too. I find it difficult to be very precise about this faint memory.

But even so, regarding verbal communication, there is a huge difference between the initial, temporary impact of a metaphor and the life of that metaphor afterwards. Also, when we start digging a bit into the origins of metaphors, we realize that we can’t separate our use of metaphors from our expression of reality; they are the same.

While I am talking about the English language, I have observed the same in several other European languages and a Japanese-English translator confirmed to me that the same applies to the Japanese language. I can’t imagine how any verbal language can possibly exist without metaphors.

I think that the same distinction between new and classic metaphors applies to the art of animation. However, animation is much more complex because it can use several modes of expression, such as acting, design, film editing, storytelling, music and sound effects, as well as dialogue of course. According to my latest count, an animated film can communicate through up to thirteen modes of expression simultaneously, each one using metaphors in its unique way. On top of that, the interactions between the different metaphors are full of creative possibilities. The distinction between old and new metaphors in animation is therefore much less clear than in verbal communication.

A few examples of established metaphors in animation are: tweeting little songbirds, typically representing happiness; sharp, exposed teeth, typically representing evil; standard manual gestures used by the characters; a particular manner to position the character, small-sized in the center of the screen to represent loneliness; a slow cross-dissolve between scenes, indicating the passing of time, for instance, and discordant music, symbolizing fear.

Figure 1. A still from The Red Turtle © 2016 Studio Ghibli, Wild Bunch, Why Not Productions, Arte France Cinéma, CN4 Productions, Belvision, Nippon Television Network, Toho.

What is special about animation is that an old metaphor can easily be recycled into a new metaphor since it can be expressed in a new style with fresh originality. I believe that filmmakers are conscious of many of the metaphors in their projects, and of the chemistry between the metaphors, partly because they are keen to be aware of them and they have the time to explore them, and partly because they are helped by their collaborators. But nobody is capable of clearly seeing all the metaphors while they are making a film. This is not only due to the sheer volume of metaphors, but also to the difficulty in identifying them because so many of them are fluid, indistinct, elusive, or open to interpretation. Instead, filmmakers work with many metaphors – I would guess most of them – on an unconscious level, relying on their intuition, their feeling, as they usually call it. This feeling can, at its best, function as an efficient and accurate guide for the filmmaker, and importantly, it can also be recognized by the filmmaker’s collaborators. At its worst, the feeling is faint, fuzzy, and unstable.

Instead of the term unconscious, I like the term semi-conscious because creative people are conscious that something feels right, that something is working, but they may not know exactly why. They may discover the reason at a later date, or they may never know it. With my own films, it has happened quite a few times. Typically, in the two-year period following their completion, I would have sudden insights into the meaning of certain symbols that were used in the film. These moments of insight always fill me with awe for the creative process. They strengthen my belief that many symbols come from the unconscious, in particular the collective unconscious.

Just as most metaphors are created semi-consciously, most metaphors in a film are perceived semi-consciously by the spectators because they can feel them, as it were.

As I just mentioned, metaphors are often hard to identify because they are indistinct or open to interpretation. They can cancel each other out or change each other. Colors are good examples. All colors can have metaphoric value, including blacks, greys, and whites. But when we watch a film, do we know which colors are metaphoric and which are not? Often, we don’t even know if we are perceiving a metaphor or not, like we are often unclear about metaphors in verbal communication.

Figure 2. A still from The Red Turtle © 2016 Studio Ghibli, Wild Bunch, Why Not Productions, Arte France Cinéma, CN4 Productions, Belvision, Nippon Television Network, Toho.

Metamorphoses in the art of animation can be used for their entertainment value, for their narrative value, or for their metaphorical value, or all three at the same time, of course. The entertainment qualities are obvious. These are typically surprise, shock, humor, visual elegance, exoticism, and magic. I am generally referring to the surreal, supernatural metamorphosis, popular in fairy tales, mythology, and fantasy, where a character or an object undergoes a profound transformation, such as a pumpkin turning into a carriage (Cinderella, 1950), Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs (Spirited Away, 2001) and the transforming head in Bill Plympton’s short film Your Face (1987). The narrative value is quite obvious too, I believe. The metaphoric value, however, is a bit more elusive, but when it is there, it can be profound. Hayao Miyazaki for instance is a master at creating interesting metamorphoses that touch us on a deeper, symbolic level.

Why are surreal metamorphoses more popular in the art of animation than in the other branches of the film industry? Firstly, animation has a vaster choice of creative tools. Secondly, while a surreal metamorphosis is generally challenging for the spectator who tries to believe the character, or tries to believe the solidity of the objects, animation is good at inviting the spectator to suspend his or her disbelief.

One striking and rather unique use of metamorphoses in animation is the animated transformation from one scene to the next, I mean where the complete screen undergoes a hand-animated metamorphosis. This expression is used beautifully in many films, like the shorts by Caroline Leaf (for instance in The Street, 1976) and Frédéric Back (for instance in The Mighty River, 1993). We appreciate seeing these metamorphoses, I believe, because they have elegance and originality. They also contribute in a unique way to the fluency of the storytelling.

We are used to seeing cuts between scenes, and we appreciate their dynamic efficiency, amongst other things, but standard cuts are hard, aggressive, like small shocks, both on the visual and the narrative levels. Animated transitions between scenes on the other hand are loved for their organic, flowing quality. The animators often choose to use curved or semi-circular movements. In my experience, just like the movements of a great dancer can touch me emotionally, so can the movements of a beautifully animated transition between scenes.

Apart from the surreal metamorphosis, there is also another kind of metamorphosis in the art of animation, the non-surreal kind, let’s say the realistic kind. Unlike surreal metamorphoses, realistic ones are more ubiquitous and natural. They can be political, like someone’s change from conservative to progressive, social, cultural, psychological, religious, etc. and I am also referring to the transformations occurring in nature and in everyday life. For instance, the change from day to night is a metamorphosis, and so are the change of a bare tree in winter to a leafy tree in spring and the one from childhood into adulthood. Waking up from sleep can be seen as a subtle example of metamorphosis and so can walking through a gate into an open space. If we are interested in subtle metamorphoses, we notice an abundance of examples.

The interesting thing is that realistic metamorphoses are not necessarily seen by the creators and by the spectators as metamorphoses. They can be seen as an expression of growth or decline, as an evolutionary process, or simply as part of a narrative language. While the surreal metamorphosis is usually easy to identify because it is bizarre, the realistic metamorphosis can be harder to discern because it is less surprising and the beginning and the end can be imprecise. The metaphoric value can therefore be less clear as well.

We can identify certain metaphors and certain metamorphoses in animation, as we can identify other elements in animation, and we can study them and draw conclusions. Identifying them and judging them can also be of great value during the process of creating a film. This focussed approach takes place on one level. Meanwhile, on another level, we can be aware of the bigger perspective, the more inclusive, holistic perspective where all the separate elements are interdependent, ideally blending together organically into a rich, seamless whole.

I suggest that most spectators have a preference for the holistic perspective because they choose to abandon themselves to the film, in order to identify more easily with the story and with the emotions. It is different for the filmmaker. In my case, when I am working on a film, or even on a single illustration, I am switching back and forth between both levels all the time, often many times per minute (it is actually hard to observe the frequency because any notion of clock time is absent when I am active on these levels). It is almost as if I am two modes of consciousness working in tandem on the same project, and both modes are totally indispensable. I have the impression that this approach of observing both the individual elements and the whole is the most common approach used by filmmakers.

I truly believe that we are all profoundly attracted to metamorphoses in films, but why are we? They are very much part of our existence: the realistic metamorphoses in everyday life and the surreal ones in our dreams and in our imagination. There are several reasons why we are attracted, and the deepest one I can think of so far is that most of us want our lives to grow, we want our lives to become more just, more meaningful, more fulfilling, or just happier. We basically want to experience some kind of profound transformation, and expressions of transformation in films remind us of that, consciously and unconsciously. On a subtle level, they can even encourage us, inspire us and make us wiser. This applies to both surreal and realistic expressions of transformation in films.

Just to be clear, as much as we are attracted to change, transformation, and the unknown, I believe that we are also attracted to the opposite: stability, order, and the known. The two opposites belong to each other, and each one of us negotiates in his or her unique way the dynamic between these opposites.

My conclusion so far on the relationship between metaphors and metamorphoses in animation is that metaphors can have a transformative, metamorphic effect on our understanding and metamorphoses can be metaphors. The three subjects, metaphors, metamorphoses and animation, are huge, however. I find the chemistry between them fascinating, but too complex to come to simple conclusions.

The authors are interested in your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.

Also, don’t forget to check out the blog on September 27th for part 3 of the roundtable!


Aristotle (1984). The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. Intro. by Edward P.J. Corbett. The Rhetoric trans. by W. Ryhs Roberts, The Poetics trans. by Ingram Bywater. English, 1st. New York: Modern Library College Editions.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. With a New Afterword. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2012). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain And The Making Of The Western World. Reprint edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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.