In my animation studies, I’ve come across a particularly intriguing aspect of the field that is often taken for granted. Among animators, storyboard artists, and character designers, you’ll often hear people solicit feedback about how well their work “reads”.
In a complex medium like animation, it’s crucial to know whether or not the audience understands the basic idea of what an artist is trying to convey. When something “reads”, it means that a member of the audience can instantly understand what’s going on with minimal time to absorb the information. They may not understand why something is happening right away – that’s usually something that the story will answer at a later point. But they need to be able to understand what’s happening on the screen.
Imagine a scene in which a brave hero is facing off against an all-powerful villain in their final confrontation. What goes into creating a scene like this? From a character design perspective, you would need to make sure the villain looks terrifying. Perhaps the villain would be an enormous monstrosity. Or perhaps the villain would be a cold, calculating human, seated on a throne high above our hero.
Whatever character comes out of it, the villain would need to read as a powerful being, who has the power to utterly destroy our hero. From a storyboard artist’s perspective, the camera angle should be at a low angle, emphasizing the scale of the villain in comparison to our hero. The animator would then need to refine the poses of the hero – not a straight, rigid line, but a defiant, curved spine that challenges the villain’s authority.
The list can go on and on, with environment art, color and lighting, visual effects, soundtracks and dialogue. But this just goes to show how intensive it is to communicate a single, simple idea. It all boils down to single question: Does it read? If any one of these elements is visually misleading, distracting or confusing, the director will ask for different iterations. Scenes need to be re-storyboarded, sets need to be re-colored, characters need to change their outfits or be re-animated altogether.
A character that reads well clearly conveys their personality from their body language, clothing, facial features, and colors. Even from a still pose, the silhouette of the character should convey key characteristics that tell you what the character is like. A character designer might spend hours iterating on the character, trying to get the details right.
It naturally follows that the animators and artists tend to embrace the idea of exaggeration. If you exaggerate certain features of a character, the character will become more distinct and memorable – and they will read more clearly. Often times, these features can be used for comical effect, as well.
Exaggeration is considered to be one of the most important principles to master in the art of animation.
It’s a vital part of designing a character, creating the beats of a storyboard, and in the animation of the character itself. It takes a skilled artist to translate a character’s essence into a visual form, particularly one that reads well to everybody.
But what happens when a character’s only “personality trait” is their race? Or their gender?
Throughout the history of animation, we’ve seen this issue resurface again and again. When you combine the need for clarity with the desire to exaggerate, but you don’t have a well-developed character, problems begin to arise. You will often end up with a one-dimensional design. Worse, without spending the time to develop a unique character, artists tend to fall back on lazy stereotypes.
Stereotypes, of course, are very easy to read. It’s in their very nature to rely on generalizations, to caricaturize of entire groups of people. What starts as an undeveloped character can end up as a hurtful misrepresentation of real human beings.
To call any one animator behind these types of films a racist or misogynist would be missing the larger point. The truth is, most of these projects are created over an extensive period of time, with teams of hundreds of animators and artists. These misrepresentations are not driven by some sinister force. No, these designs tell us something infinitely more banal, almost disappointing.
It tells us that the storytellers are boring. It tells us that the storytellers are lazy, or scared, or simply disinterested in taking the time to develop something new. It tells us that the storytellers are looking to pre-established cliches for inspiration rather than challenging themselves to explore new spaces. It tells us that they were more concerned about how they wanted to say something rather than what they wanted to say.
Now, this isn’t to say that all artists involved in the story are this way, or that any movie with a single stereotypical character should be absolutely dismissed as worthless. After all, it’s possible to love one element of a film, like the special effects, and yet roll your eyes through the entirety of the story. But oftentimes this is a telling symptom that the director did not utilize the full talents of their team, or challenge their designers to create the very best film they could. Perhaps disappointing would be an apt word.
I find a special charm in animated films that defy these norms, films that are clearly a testament to the personal growth a storyteller experienced while making it. I admire storytellers who challenge themselves to tell the best story they can, to be bold and experiment with new styles and fresh subject matters. One production style I’m particularly fond of is animated student films.
Student animation, at most major art schools, is a very personal project. At CalArts, for example, students are expected to make a solo film each year as a project. Oftentimes, these films will experiment with boundaries and themes that are not often seen or talked about in major studio releases. One could say that they are somewhat less concerned with “readability” as they are with self-expression, although skilled students will do both at the same time.
As a member of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, I’m proud to have played a part in choosing which animated short films will screen during our programs. I believe that each of them are special in their aesthetic exploration and their bold self-expression. Below are descriptions of the short films I had the pleasure of curating:
By Camille Chao
ODE is a short film that is elegant in its brevity; In a short, beautiful, three minutes, the film captures the feelings of loneliness and tells a story of the fierce love that can make it go away. Chao’s tight keyframing, in conjunction with her exceptional cinematography and environment design, help bring the story to life. ODE will be part of the Let’s Talk About It program, screening on Sunday, Feb. 25th at 11AM in the Northwest Film Forum Screen 2.
By Jennifer Zheng
This touching short is an animation over the recording of an interview Zheng conducted with her mother. The film examines the diasporic experience of an immigrant and the culture that is lost over generations. Zheng’s bold colors and hand-drawn style add a raw, almost childlike honesty to her work. TOUGH will be part of the Her Resilience program, screening on Saturday, Feb. 24th at 5 PM in the Northwest Film Forum Screen 2.
Leave With Me
By Mel Wong
This film pushes the boundaries of reality and imagination through the lens of an ostracized child. Despite the film’s experimental nature, it manages to capture a tender learning experience that will feel familiar with many viewers. It’s hard not to admire Wong’s mastery of aesthetics; her seamless blending of claymation-style 3d animation and traditional 2d underscores the uncomfortable experiences of the protagonist. LEAVE WITH ME will be part of the Blood, Guts and Ghosts, Oh My! Program, screening on Saturday, Feb. 24th at 8 PM in the Northwest Film Forum Screen 2.
By Pierre-Jean Le Moël & Eva Jiahui Gao
This short, set to a pulsing beat, inspires an exhilarating rush of power and determination. The story revolves around a revived woman seeking vengeance for her murder. The aesthetic quality of the film is impressive; its sharp, sleek design and disciplined use of color match perfectly with the tone of story and soundtrack. OURO will be part of the #GoodTimes program, screening on Saturday, Feb. 24th at 11:30 AM in the Northwest Film Forum Screen 2.
By Jackie Lee
This short is easily the most adorable one of these selections. The story is about a wandering child and her pet llama as they assist strangers with their sewing and crafting skills. Lee combines a storybook aesthetic with arts and crafts textures in order to create a delightful backdrop for the film. This, combined with the playful sound design and appealing characters, result in a wholesome experience that will leave you smiling. SEWING CIRCLE will also be a part of our #GoodTimes program, screening on Saturday, Feb. 24th at 11:30 AM in the Northwest Film Forum Screen 2.