A shot from animation film 'Epic' by Idris van Heffen, 2011.
MINIMALISM EQUALS EMPATHY? by Idris van Heffen From an early age I was fascinated or more so enthrilled by almost all of the action packed animation series of the 1980's and 1990's. Now they're considered as classics from a previous era. Animations like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Transformers, He-man: Masters of the Universe and the Thundercats grabbed and moulded my imagination. In retrospective, they moulded me for a life filled with pure epicness. Being a person with strong sense of justice and a lust for adventure, I have been fascinated by epic illustration and animation. Following these interests and my inherited passion for design, I graduated in illustration. After graduating I soon discovered that illustration and design are a part of a saturated industry in which hundreds of students graduate every year. And with the globalization of the world through the internet, all illustrators are now able to showcase their work worldwide, creating a highly competitive market in which being conspicuous is difficult to achieve. Another problem I encountered within the field of illustration is the apparent apathy of audiences. Through different media, modern people are confronted with 10.000's of new images every day. In order to cope with the huge volume of visuals that need to be processed by the human mind and psyche, people have become emotionally distant or apathetic towards visuals like illustrations. Images don't seem to be able to captivate and emotionally engage audiences. Although globalization and our (visual) culture make people apathetic, nevertheless people want to be emotionally engaged.
Dave Meslin, advocate for civil affairs in Canada, talked about modern day apathy during a TED conference. According to him apathy is not a characteristic of people, but something created by those presenting. "People are discouraged to engage, because obstacles and barriers prevent them from doing so". - Dave Meslin In my vision a part of the solution for visual apathy is found in animation. In comparison to static imagery, animation is a media which, if used correctly, can create an emotional connection or empathy with its audience. For a static image, like illustration, all the conditions have to be just right, context, setting, lighting, surrounding, situation and everything else. The passive nature of non-moving visuals in combination with superficiality is the reason why an emotional link with an audience is not easily created. Animation on the other hand is an active media. With its moving imagery and living and breathing characters, it persuades the viewers to engage. To animate refers to the meaning 'to give life'. Or in other words to create the illusion of life by means of movement of inanimate forms. One can conclude that within this creation anything is possible, anywhere and at any time. That is what makes animation so alluring, the possibility to bring to life any and all ideas one can think of. Although all forms of animation have the potential to make use of endless fantasy one form of animation is best used, animation with a plot or narrative animation. With the use of narrative, fantasy can best establish itself. One might say everything exists by the notion of contrast. Without darkness, there is no light. In the same regard, there is no fantasy without 'reality'. As narrative animations are built around characters, rules need to be formulated. Reality should in this case be described as normality or norm. Through the breaking of this artificial norm, an extraordinary situation can be created. Thus making story based animation ideal for use of fantasy. As Paul Wells mentions in 'Thinking about animated films': "The tension between belief and disbelief is integral to the achievement and effect of animation as a form." - Paul Wells Having established that narrative animation is most suitable to convey fantasy, I want to narrow my opinion to one specific genre, epic animation. A word now globally recognized and used in language is best translated as 'surpassing the usual or ordinary, particularly in scope or size'. An epic is traditionally a genre of poetry. In modern times the epic genre is found in many art forms, from novels to video games to films. The stories are centered around heroic characters while they depict difficult struggles, like war and other efforts on a great scale and often over a long period of time. To make use of an epic storyline, its necessary to understand the mental evolution of the hero. In the first act of the story the heroic protagonist will show weakness, in the middle act he will show courage by conquering his weakness. And in the final act the hero will fight and sacrifice himself to show physical and mental strength. These hero's seen in almost every story are examples for society, because of their moral excellence. I can remember when I was a child wanting to be one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles defeating the evil Shredder. Needless to say heroes inspire. Analyzing the main structure of an epic storyline one can notice its similarity with a 'three act structure' used for scriptwriting. To be more precise it's the same. Epic poems for example from the Ancient Greek form the foundation for modern day scriptwriting. The tension arcs, created by the struggles of the protagonists through the three acts, build tension. At the end of every act struggles will accumulate and end in a climax. This way every act also consist of smaller tension arcs. Through this whole process the audience will empathize with the characters and feel the story.
Often in modern day illustration and animation content is neglected. There is only focus for superb visuals, generated by advanced digital technologies. It's a the quick solution for 15 minutes of fame. But this superficial approach only creates a superficial connection with the viewer, which on the long run will create apathy. It's important to understand why themes and storylines work in combination with certain visuals and how they are best applied. When applied correctly even the most visually ugly animations can produce an emotional response as Irish animator David O'Reilly proved with his animation, Octocat Adventure. Wanting to find a solution for superficiality and visual apathy I asked myself: 'How do I encourage engagement with an audience?'. As mentioned earlier by advocate Dave Meslin, apathy is not a characteristic of an audience, it's something created by the people presenting. Everybody who has been to an art exhibition will have at least asked him- or herself the following once: 'But what does it mean?'. A part of modern art isn't able to communicate its values clearly and directly. It somewhat rejects its audience. It's of vital importance for pieces of art to communicate its content in a way that it can be understood. Of course this depends primarily on the content that the creator wants to convey. For example, an abstract painting will likely want to communicate a more indirect and raw emotion in comparison to a more informative textual piece of art. In any case, the presentation needs to fit its message and the way the viewer perceives. The same idea of clarity of content applies for a lot of narrative animations. If a plot of an animation isn't understood, people will loose interest and will for example start skipping to the end. The solution for engagement is found in one of the ways animation communicates, with its design. The designs of animations need to be reduced of its visual barriers. To put it bluntly, it needs to be simplified. The constant visual noise produced by unnecessary details in a design has to be removed, leaving only the essentials. As minimalist architect Claudio Silvestrin says: “Minimalism is not a style, it is an attitude, a way of being. Itʼs a fundamental reaction against noise, visual noise, disorder, vulgarity. Minimalism is the pursuit of the essence of things, not the appearance.” - Claudio Silvestrin The term minimalism is often used in combination with product design and architecture, but is also used in other forms of art including animation. Making works of art minimalistic ensures clear communication. Its a form of visual articulation. For me minimalization resulted in specific forms and visuals. Roughly said, visuals can be divided in four elements: shape, line, color and composition. First there is shape. Any form, even the most complex ones, can mathematically be reduced to simple geometric shapes. Two dimensional geometric shapes are for example rectangles, triangles, and circles. In essence a geometric shape is all the geometrical information that remains when location, scale and rotation are removed from an object. Making the shape easily recognizable.
An example of minimalization of form. 'Growth chart #3' by Tim Biskup, 2008
The second visual element in animation is line. A way to simplify lines is to make them consistent. You can create consistent lines by restricting a line to one single weight or thickness. The third essential element is color. Important to know is that a high contract between colors results in higher visibility for the viewer. Looking at an animation shot, someone will firstly be drawn to the highest contrast. If this is used, one can direct the viewers attention to a specific subject. I often chose highly saturated colors to make shot designs vivid and attractive and keep the attention of the audience focused on the aimed at elements. The fourth and last design element is composition. Composition is the overall arrangement of the previous mentioned visual elements. Again it's important to know how to simplify and make shots more readable. For extra attention one can place the subject in the center of the composition to immediately attract attention. Other methods to minimalize compositions are for example to make use of symmetry and doubling. Readability has a lot or maybe even everything to do with perception. Wanting to simplify imagery it's also necessary to know about perception of audiences. An important phenomenon which has to be considered in minimalization is anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is when human characteristics are added to non-human forms. For example when in stories animals act like humans or when wind is given persona. “There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves... We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds.” – David Hume, The Natural History of Religion (1757) Applied to animation design this can highly increase functionality and communication. Knowing what is needed to create an animation character which can convey emotions can
reduce the visual noise of character design. A humanoid character design will likely communicate its emotion by facial and bodily expressions. First there is the face. Essential for human facial expression are eyes, eyebrows and a mouth. Of course additional facial elements and shapes will increase the readability of the expressed emotion but they're not obligatory. Knowing this, even a simple square can be communicate human emotions. Than there is the body. Another way anthropomorphism is used in animation is by communicating with body expression. With body expression I mean, expression through body posture and gestures. An famous example of this is a technique used by the Walt Disney animation studios where they teach animators how to give non-human shapes, like the flour sack, expression. The 'flour sack exercise' displays how even the most inanimate objects can be made to convey different attitudes and emotions. Bringing designs back to essential elements and trying to convey emotions is a method to cope with apathy. Because of globalization and mass production people are longing for personality. Animators, artists and even businessmen are again looking to convey authentic emotions and messages. Not from the perspective of making money, but from a perspective of sharing. They want to reconnect with their audiences. Telling epic stories with minimalistic animations is for me a way to reconnect and hopefully inspire. And tell me honestly, isn't simplifying something we all crave for? At least I do.
Sources Literature David O'Reilly Interview by Idris van Heffen Playgrounds festival Tilburg Oktober 2010 David O'Reilly Essay Basic Animation Aesthetics Objects Magazine Germany August 2009 Paul Wells Understanding Animation (1998) London: Routledge 2003 Interview David O'Reilly Interview by Idris van Heffen Playgrounds festival Tilburg Oktober 2010
Internet Dave Meslin The antidote to apathy TedxToronto http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html