Animated Storytelling: Creating Animations & Motion Graphics

Liz Blazer uses storytelling to engage audiences across many mediums. She is a filmmaker, art director, designer, animator, and educator. Liz has worked as a development artist for Disney, a director for Cartoon Network, a special effects designer for MTV and an art director for the Palestinian/Israeli Sesame Street. She is the author of the new book Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps For Creating Animation and Motion Graphics.

As an independent filmmaker, Liz explores storytelling by making animated documentary shorts. Her animated documentary Backseat Bingo traveled to 180 festivals internationally and won many awards including an award from the HBO Comedy Arts Festival, the International Documentary Association, and Animation Magazine. When she’s not working on new films or updating her Animated Storytelling” Facebook page, she is teaching college students about the joy of bringing their ideas to life through animation.

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Q: What makes for a compelling story in animation?

Structure is often overlooked, but is hugely important in animated storytelling. Whether your piece is a fairytale with an obvious beginning, middle and end, or an abstract music-and-color piece featuring blue squares that turn into red circles, compelling animation requires a clearly structured story. A strong structure begins in pre-production with storyboards. It’s best to map out your entire piece before you begin working on selected scenes. Planning will manifest itself as “intention,” and audiences will be more willing to go along for a wild ride if they can sense an underlying structure. 

Q: What makes for a compelling animation?

A great animated story exploits the limitless possibilities of the medium. Story requires a strong plot, human themes, interesting conflict, relatable characters, and a sense of a new journey. But a compelling animated story is also playful, taking full advantage of the elasticity of the visual form. Animation can be magical, so once you know what it is you are trying to say, utilize the many visual ways it can be expressed. Challenge yourself to create worlds, defy gravity, flip from factual to fantasy, and transport audiences to places they never imagined.

Q: As people spend more time on digital media channels, designers and art directors are using animation in design and animated storytelling to engage people. If you were to teach a workshop in animation or motion, what would you stress?

I always focus on strong storytelling, but one aspect of directing for animation that is often undervalued is the selection of the animation technique. Selecting the right technique can be the key to expressing your big story idea, can amplify the very soul of your story, and if used inventively, can set your project apart from the rest. The goal here is to find the tools that assist in illustrating your story’s metaphors, and the materials that best communicate your message.

When technique is in harmony with story it becomes a most essential storytelling device. This is as true in long-form animated narratives as in motion shorts. Take Apple’s memorable iPod’s “Silhouette” commercials (2004 –2008). They feature simple pared-down 2D motion graphics that embody the clean, simple design of their new iPod. The technique focuses the eye on hip dancing figures and their iconic earbud wires (moving to a fun soundtrack). The story is clear: Apple’s new product is stylish, fun, and is all about the music.

Solidarités International and BDDP Unlimited’s PSA “Water Ink” (2012) is another beautiful example of the synthesis of technique and story. The PSA was created to build awareness about the threat of tainted drinking water around the world. By animating illustrations drawn with dirty liquid, a powerful metaphor emerges as the images appear on screen. The technique becomes the story, a well-planned marriage between medium and message.

Water ink _ BDDP Unlimited and Solidarités International – UK from ici Barbès on Vimeo.

Successful directors belabor the techniques they use in each project, and for good reason. Choose the wrong technique and your film may feel like you’re driving with square wheels; choose right and you’re gliding down the freeway.

Q: Why is experimentation is an essential step in animated storytelling?

Love that question! Perhaps more than any other film medium, animation provides a breeding ground for experimentation. Not only are your image-making options infinite but the process allows for wild swings at the bat that perhaps no other medium offers. Experimentation not only helps you define the visual language of your piece, but very often leads you to the defining moment in your story.

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Skeptics fear the word experimentation—they feel it implies whimsy, which they believe is synonymous with wasting time. But if that’s how you feel, then simply replace the word experimentation with the more scientific phrase “Research and Development.” Because that’s exactly what it is. Even the oldest and most sacred techniques and methods can benefit from a fresh round of experimentation. 

Q: What is the best advice you have ever given or received about animation and storytelling?

Hone it in! Animation is wonderful because it is a limitless storytelling medium. The freedom can be dizzying. But it can also overwhelm burgeoning animators, causing stasis. Quality animated storytelling is all about “honing it in” and being intentional about your plan. A safeguard against being overwhelmed by animation’s limitless choices is planning. Most failed projects reach that low point because a director began animating before answering three essential questions about the project: What is it? What does it look like? And What is it made of? So before jumping right into your masterpiece, take the time to define your “big idea,” and map out your story from beginning to end, considering layout, color treatment and sound design.

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Q: How do you create an interesting, consistent and believable animated world?

Audiences will be eager to explore whatever bizarre, new environments you create. But once you introduce your world (and all of its strange rules), you must commit to those rules fully, or risk losing that audience forever. Here’s what you need to define in your world for audiences to suspend their belief and stick with you to the end:

  1. Your world’s time and place – Is it past, present or future time? Define it, and respect it.
  2. Your world’s physical laws – Does it resemble earth, or does your world have a whole new set of physical rules? If so, never forget to follow your own physical laws!
  3. Your world’s day-to-day life, technology etc. – think through what tools, transportation and communications are commonplace in your world.
  4. Your world’s social laws – The values and beliefs of the inhabitants of your world. Why use our boring, dated social laws when you can create your own? But if you do, never deviate!
  5. Your world’s visual laws – New space, line, shape, color, contrast and texture must be established early as visual rules of your world. Make them unique, but make them intentional and consistent.

These “laws” will provide a foundation for whatever far-flung chaos you envision, and will help give your world a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude. Follow your own laws religiously, and your audience will believe in your world, and your story.

AnimatedStory_lores 1Excerpted from Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps For Creating Animation and Motion Graphics by Liz Blazer. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved by Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press. 

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