Now that realism was the basis of the rapidly evolving Disney animation, providing a connection for the audience that more rudimentary cartoons could not provide and permitting them to recognize themselves in Disney characters as they recognized themselves in live-action stars or the characters in literature, Walt Disney was in the business of creating life. “Most people think the word ‘animation’ means movement, ” Ken Peterson, a Disney animator, once explained, “but it doesn’t. It comes from ‘animus’ which means ‘life’ or ‘to live.’ Making it move is not animation, but just the mechanics of it.” “We invest them with life,” Walt told a reporter of his animated creations.

Disney animations were of life, but they were larger than life too. What Walt sought was not an imitation of life as it was, which live-action films could do better than animation, but life as one could exaggerate it – a “caricature of life,” as Walt called it, rooted in realism but expanding upon it. Walt’s animated reality would not only be more outsized than real life, it would be simpler, clearer, sharper and finally better.

Taken from The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler.

Animation exaggerates, simplifies, caricaturizes, and abstracts something from the real. It’s a simplification and emphasizing notion.

So we have reality – which is amazing in and of itself, but can be very complex and ‘noisy’. By abstracting reality – we can do this by using film (live action) we can emphasize and simplify something from reality. So one could view film as one level of abstraction away from reality.

The actor/director/film maker (in the live action film) abstracts something from reality and tries to pull something out of reality that we can relate to but that they can emphasize. It’s a distillation process. If we get a live action film which is totally accurate to reality we don’t get much abstraction. We still get some abstraction due to the nature of film (or video or what have you), but a film that tries really hard to mirror reality will probably not be interesting to us. If we want to ‘watch reality’ then we’ll just do it on our own (why pay good money for that?). Even ‘reality’ TV shows are an abstraction or reality (through filming and editing). We are seeing a ‘portion’ of reality, that portion which the film maker wants us to see and experience… woven together to make something entertaining.

The next level of abstraction is animation. It is, as Walt says, an exaggeration of life (reality). It’s distillation at its extreme. Here we emphasize only very certain specifics, making sure we are still tied to reality, but going beyond it. That’s why I liken animation to painting. Good paintings do a similar thing, they abstract something from reality and show us that one main thing.

So let’s say we have some performance capture (where basically a computer captures the movements of an actor and they are ‘transposed’ to a 3d model). That performance capture is abstracted, but mainly on one level (at the actor level). The same level as a live action film. That is why motion capture is more like photography. It’s a level one abstraction. Animation is a much more focused abstraction – what I would call a level two abstraction. It’s much more simplified and emphasized. I think that as a result this is why animation is much more suited to (or perceived as belonging to) children.

This links to the post Mark Mayerson made regarding consistency. Mark reminds us that there needs to be a consistency between design and motion (where a toony character needs toony motion, or a live action character needs live motion). When you mix the live motion with a toony character (or vice versa) you get weird results. There also has to be, as Mark says, a consistency between acting and design. Simple characters require simple acting. Why? I think the reason is because of the levels of abstraction. If we are going to abstract something from reality, I think we want to keep on one level. If we mix levels of abstraction we get into trouble. A toony character with complex acting doesn’t work – it’s overacted. A live action actor acting like a toon doesn’t work (probably couldn’t be physically possible). A toony character moving like a live action actor doesn’t work.

I’ve always maintained that animation is all about convincing movement and acting. But I’ll add to that – animation is all about convincing movement and acting, but the movement and acting have to be at the same level of abstraction or we can potentially (and actually) confuse our viewers. They will be getting a mixed signal.