Animation, Bambi, Elizabeth Fais, Emotion Thesaurus, Frank Thomas, Lady and the Tramp, Ollie Johnston, Walt Disney
What animation taught me about storytelling…
I came to writing fiction through animation. Yep, I’m an animation geek, and proud of it! And as circuitous as my journey might sound … it’s not.
Good animation tells a story by showing emotion, the same as fiction. This image of Thumper (from Walt Disney’s “Bambi”) is a perfect example. You can tell Thumper’s been reprimanded by his slumped posture, his paws held behind his back, his ears laid back, and his head tilted downward.
Likewise, in this next image (also from Bambi) it’s obvious the two skunks are infatuated with each other by their posture, how they hold their hands and look at one another. Good storytelling immerses you in the lives of the characters, so that you feel what they are feeling.
The Walt Disney Studios developed the 12 principles of realistic character-driven animation back in the 1930’s. Those principles are still considered “standard” today. The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, is an insightful read on the history of how these principles were developed.
Writing with Emotional Impact
Writing fiction is not the same medium as animation (duh!), so the techniques a writer must use to immerse an audience are slightly different from the keys to invoking emotion in animation. But not so different. Really. I ask myself the following questions when I begin a scene. These questions are surprisingly similar to the questions an animator must resolve when animating a scene:
- What is the character thinking, and why?
- What is the character feeling, and why?
- How does the character express their feelings, and how does that vary with the different people in the scene?
- What is the arc of the character’s reaction to the circumstances?
- What are the character’s strengths and faults, and how do they manifest as a result of the circumstances?
When I understand what’s motivating a character and why, I can figure out how the character will react and what their feeling. I keep a copy of the Emotion Thesaurus handy to prevent myself from using worn out descriptions, or reusing the same ones over and over.
The Bella Note “Spaghetti Scene” in Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp is probably the best-loved scene in animation of all time. It became famous, because we relate to the characters’ feelings (even though they’re dogs). We feel their love for each other through their nuanced looks, expressions, and gestures. Magical storytelling in action! You can watch this remarkable scene here.
Tami Clayton said:
My favorite animated films are Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. I loved how the animators could convey heartbreak, loss, joy and fear in thae facial expressions and body language of fish and monsters. I’m still enjoying these films with my kids even though they are teenagers. They have a timelessness to them like so many other animated films.
Elizabeth Fais said:
John Lasseter, the driving force in Pixar when those films were made, studied under two of the animators that worked directly with Walt Disney (from Snow White on). He learned the principles of animation from the best, and he’s passing it on to the young animators today. I LOVED Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc.! I watch all the Disney animated features time and again. I never get tired of them.
Janice Heck said:
I think Disney’s “Bambi” was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I have seen it several times since, and I still love it. Yes, we easily idenity with the body language and emotions of these characters.
Elizabeth Fais said:
Bambi was such a great film, in so many ways. It was the first time anyone had dared to animate wildlife to that level of realism. Oh, and the backgrounds are simply stunning. To this day I cry whenever Bambi’s mother dies. Mostly because it’s symbolic of how mankind needlessly destroys nature. The fire that consumed the forest was quite an environmentalist statement … ahead of its time.
I love the part in Mulan where she decides to take her father’s place, prays to her ancestors, hacks off her hair and puts on his armor. It never fails to give me shivers.
Elizabeth Fais said:
Ah, yes. Mulan is one of my favorite Disney animated features for that very reason. I believe they call that scene “An Honorable Decision”.
Leonard Marks said: