Moving Pictures: How Animation Engages Our Emotions


The world of animation has given us some of the most memorable characters in history. It’s provided us with highs and lows, laughs and tears, heartache and heartbreak.


At times, animation can stir emotions in a way that live action just can’t. While in a live-action film, you can manipulate lighting, sound, costume, and general aesthetics, you are still limited by the confines of the space and the actors you use.


However, animation is not limited by what is physically there, so as a medium it offers more tools which can be used to pull at our heartstrings, and generate fierce emotional responses. Highlighting certain elements of a scene or a moment in an animation manipulates the viewer in a way that a live-action production often can’t.


But how is it that a sequence of drawings, or a collection of pixels, have that much power over our emotions?


Like most other elements of animation, it all started with Disney.


In 1934, Walt Disney held a meeting with a collection of animators, and proceeded to pitch them the idea of a fully animated feature-length film. Until this point, animated shorts had been all the rage; generally they were a collection of slapstick and vaudeville-style cartoons designed as ‘fillers’ to entertain audiences before the feature film at movie theatres.


What Disney was suggesting was revolutionary. He wanted to see if an animated film could generate the same emotional response as a live action feature.


Disney wanted to step away from the stylised Betty Boop design, and create more relatable, emotional characters.


Live actors were brought in to allow the artists to explore realistic movement, colour schemes, and facial expressions. During the 3 year production period of what eventually became Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney and his team began to come up with the successful formula that has become synonymous with all subsequent feature-length animations.


How Do They Do It?


Imagine your typical Disney Princess; their eyes are often bigger than their waist, while their small facial features (such as their nose and chin) make them appear more childlike. Their proportions are specifically designed to generate an emotional connection known as ‘baby schema’.


The theory of ‘baby schema’ is that humans are hard wired to respond to ‘cuteness’. It’s the same psychology that makes us say ‘awwwww’ when we see a puppy, or a new-born baby.

Pixar in particular have adopted this practice, and have used the power of CGI to take it to new heights.


Their characters, human or otherwise, have oversized, glossy eyes and small features, while their films tend to focus on subjects we can all relate to – such as youth, family, friendship, and the passage of time.


Using CGI allows animators to focus on a particular heightened moment of emotion from a character, exaggerating an expression in a way an actor could never achieve. It allows us as an audience to have no doubt of the intent or feelings of a character at any given time – we are in effect being drip fed and manipulated in how we react emotionally to what is essentially a set of pixels.


With the film ‘Up’, Pixar were so confident in the power of their animation that the first 20 minutes of the film had no dialogue – only a montage of the aging process and the ups and downs of everyday life. This sequence had such an impact on audiences that psychologists studying the formation of tears have used the opening sequence to induce crying in their case studies.


From Big Screen To Small Screen


The method of connecting with an audience by using the ‘cute factor’ has fed through into most aspects of popular animation for all ages, and has made its way into modern day marketing strategies. For example, think of John Lewis’ Christmas adverts, or the ‘sleepy Oleg’ campaign from Compare The Market.


Some of the most memorable advertising campaigns over recent decades have used some element of digital enhancement – whether it is in the form of creating a fully-animated character, or manipulating a dog’s mouth to sing along to an advertising jingle.


Statistics have shown that companies who use an animated character in their advertising campaigns have seen dramatic increases in their overall sales, with many becoming market leaders in their particular fields.


This just goes to show that the cuter your character or mascot is, the more recognisable and memorable your brand can be!

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