Making shapes: how we read movement in animation

Posted on 24/01/2014


Humans can perceive an amazing level of organic, human motion from the simplest of animations.

Presence 1.1 from Universal Everything.

I think this is why animation is still so powerful. With relatively little movement, we can communicate actions, emotions and moments.

Having spent an evening at the DANA Centre’s motion perception talk, I’ve a couple of ideas why this is:

Simplicity and focus

Animation (drawn, computer generated or 3D) forces you to create, or recreate a scene. While painstaking, it also gives you complete control over every element.

Rebuilding/redrawing the world from scratch is actually the perfect way to filter out the unnecessary movement and focus people’s attention. With this you can highlight an individual action or exaggerate it, directing the viewer’s focus where you want it. It’s as if animation is for control freaks.

Relying on the imagination

The best animations are not automatically the most realistic. My favourites are the more surreal (Belleville Rendezvous) or, as a kid, the most human (Mr Ben, Rhubarb and Custard). The less real, the more your imagination gets involved, and the more you engage with the scene.

Which is partly why I can’t get excited about CGI. The effects they create are impressive, but the more like real life they are the less you notice it. To fully appreciate CGI, you have to be conscious of it – to know that it’s not real and reflect on that fact. Which is a pretty disengaged way to enjoy a story / sequence.