Animation - it's character building

In our last blog post we talked about how every object tells a story. But what ties people’s emotions to a story to make them desperate to hear the next bit? Not just the story arc. Raiders of the Lost Story Arc would have been a flop. No, characters are what drive the emotional reactions of the viewer to a story. The viewer invests their emotions into the characters. So, when it comes to making an animation about, say, embedding culture change in a newly merged company, our job at Cognitive is to populate the story with engaging characters. There you go – easy! Another explainer video in the bag, time to put our feet up and snuggle on the sofa with a box set of Game of Thrones…

But wait! It’s not that simple. The dilemma for the visual storyteller is ‘how do we create an engaging character that an audience can relate to in a 2 minute whiteboard animation without falling into stereotypes?’. We’ve talked about the problems of cliché with images such as the lightbulb and the jigsaw piece, so presumably a stereotype is just as bad? Not necessarily… The original meaning of the word comes from the process of duplicating metal plate in letterpress printing. The duplicate printing plate, or the stereotype, is used for printing instead of the original. It comes from the Greek words ‘stereos’ meaning ‘firm’ or ‘solid’, and ‘typos’ meaning ‘impression’. So in other words creating a firm impression – which is a good thing, right? Again, not necessarily…

Today this ‘firm impression’ is associated with preconceived and oversimplified notions of characteristics typical of a person or group. Stereotypical depictions of people are used negatively in propaganda. These ethnic stereotypes and simplifications are commonly portrayed in jokes and, unsurprisingly, such inaccurate generalizations often cause offence. So, not such a good start when you’re trying to engage your audience unless your client is a tub-thumping wannabe dictator.

But where does that leave us with stereotypes? Should we leave them alone? No. Like Darth Vader, they might seem thoroughly evil, but we can sense the good in them. Used carefully, they are an essential tool in the visual thinker’s box of tricks. At pretty much any given time of the day at Cognitive you’ll find one of our illustrators or animators depicting a person. In a short film, we need almost instantaneous character recognition, so it’s vital that we can quickly reflect those recognisable elements of human behaviour in our characters in order to communicate effectively. Carefully using stereotypes allows us to do this, because they are easily recognisable and create immediate familiarity with the audience.

Stereotypes give the animation maker instant physical characteristics like the clean-cut, square-jawed hero or the heavy-browed, beady-eyed villain. Human characteristics can be symbolized by physical appearance. At a glance, you can see who’s the goody and who’s the baddy. It doesn’t even matter if the stereotype doesn’t exist – really, when did you ever see an actual robber in a black and white striped shirt with a mask and a bag of swag or a cop with a truncheon, Bobby’s helmet and whistle? In fact, if the video scribe leaves out certain characteristics in occupational stereotypes, the audience can feel a bit cheated. We want to see that pirate with a wooden leg, hook, eye patch and parrot – even though he’d clearly be one of the unluckiest pirates ever!

So stereotypes can help us quickly build characters and hook the audience in to the story. The nice thing is, we can also play with them and switch things around. Like Henry Fonda’s clean-cut, blue-eyed, but thoroughly evil, villain in Once Upon A Time In The West, turning the expected on its head leads us down interesting paths, which can give us a rich source of comedy or tragedy. 

But character building isn’t just about using stereotypes. Keeping it real can pay dividends. We often base our character illustrations on our clients and their staff - after discussion with them, obviously! This can be especially powerful if a film is being used internally within a company. The audience has an instant recognition of their bosses or colleagues, which in itself increases engagement with the animation. Even if the film is being shown to third parties like prospective clients or business partners, the richness gained from basing characters on real people gives the film a realism that again drives engagement.

Taking characters from film, TV and art to make a point also gives you instant access to the viewer’s subconscious. Using Del Boy to illustrate a dodgy deal or Corporal Jones to tell us not to panic can give you an ‘Oh yeah, I get it – that’s clever’ moment. You can simultaneously make a point, bring in a lot of cultural references that come with the character, engage the audience and make them feel clever that they ‘get’ the allusion (which makes them feel good about themselves and as a result more positive about the message you’re trying to convey).

And the great thing is, these characters that can help you in so many ways don’t even need to be central to the plot of the animation. One of the reasons our RSA Animates have been so successful is because we populate both background and foreground with instantly recognizable, but fun and sometimes quirky characters. So there we are - characters are the animation maker’s friends and vital to bringing an animation to life.

Anything else we could have said about character, but missed out? Just post your thoughts to our Facebook page.  Right, now it’s time for that Game of Thrones box set…