This week we gave small informal presentations on our plans for the years’ project. Below is the transcript of my presentation, laying out what my aims are for this project and why it interests me.

As an artist, I find character and creature design extremely rewarding areas to experiment and play with. Something I have always found particularly interesting and inspiring is where these two areas overlap – i.e., creatures who are characters, or characters heavily influenced by creatures. As a result of this, I am keen to examine this overlap in more detail and really break it down to its principles to see what nuance can be found in this area.

As such, my research project is going to be:

“Identifying the key aspects of character animation necessary to differentiate anthropomorphic characters from everyday non-anthropomorphic animals, for the purpose of altering the audience’s perception of the character for different narratives.”

Simply,

  • What are the elements in animating a human/animal character which make the audience accept the character as more than just a mere beast.
  • Once identified, in what ways can these elements be used to play with the audience’s perception of such characters.

First, let me break down this question to indicate my aims for this research.

Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to something non-human. For my purposes I will be limiting this to bestowing human-like attributes to animal or animal-based characters.

It is also necessary to point out that anthropomorphism can encompass anything from animals who think and speak with human-like sophistication, e.g. the rabbits in Watership Down, to what are essentially fully human characters in terms of posture and anatomy, with an animal appearance laid on top of them (e.g. Blacksad). I will first and foremost be looking at characters occupying the latter half of this scale for the practical parts of my research, however the Watership Down type characters still have relevance for discussion.

Next, what do I mean by character animation? Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men’, sum it up as “The Illusion of Life” – through their actions and expressions, characters must seem to think and act with intent; the audience needs to be able to read their thought processes and emotions clearly in order for this illusion to be present. I will be focusing in particular on facial expression, gestures, and body language.

Lastly, how does the way a character is animated affect the audience’s perspective on the character? In the audience’s mind, what distinguishes a simple animal from a character with thoughts and feelings? My thought is that in investigating these questions, greater options are potentially opened for nuanced anthropomorphic animation at any point on a line from mostly animal to mostly human. This is useful because different narratives call for different levels of anthropomorphism and different emotional responses from the audience, depending on the needs of the story.

For example, I have an illustration of the Leopard-Man from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. How should this character move and behave to elicit the right reaction in the audience? In the narrative, this is an animal surgically altered by a mad scientist to be more human-shaped, so its behaviour and attitude should reflect that – in this case, then, relatively little human behaviour is perhaps needed. However, drawing from Masahiro Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley, the right amount of human influence could introduce a very effective ‘wrongness’ which could help sell the tone of this particular character and story.

A different narrative requires a different answer: I have some other characters who are humans who were cursed to have the heads of animals. Their behaviour is therefore going to be very human, as they are still human characters underneath their outward appearance. How, then, do we make that clear with the total lack of a human face? With normal human expression removed, how can that same level of intent and emotion be conveyed in an otherwise normal human character? What if, to add further nuance, one of these characters has been cursed for much longer and has spent more time living with an animal’s face, perhaps having forgotten some of her old human expressions in favour of more animalistic ones? What then is the right balance of human vs animal influence on her acting?

I hope to be able to shed some light on how we can work in such grey areas of animal/human character animation, according to what the narrative needs, by creating 3D models of example characters like this and testing different elements of character animation for their effect on the audience.

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