news • 22 March 2024

Why Animators Should Tell a Story

Written by Alexander Williams

Dean/Director of Animation and Visual Effects

Every Shot Needs an Idea. Animators should always imagine clearly what their shot is about before they start to animate. 

Animators are actors, with a pencil, or a mouse. Like stage or screen actors, animators must always think about what the character is thinking and feeling. Who is the character talking to, and what is the scene about? What do they want, and what do they fear?

Unless these questions are asked, and answered, the scene will tend to feel empty of meaning, and lack compelling interest.  Start by writing out your scene as a short story. 

What is the character thinking and feeling?

Animators working on a movie tend to have it easy; someone else writes the script, and figures out what each shot is about.  But when we are working alone, without a script, just relying on our own imagination, we have to find the meaning in our work ourselves. This means figuring out the back story to the scenes we are animating. Crucial questions we should always ask ourselves include:

  • Who is the character talking to?

  • What is the context of the scene - what specifically is going on?

  • What do the characters want? What do they fear? 

  • What are they feeling? What is their primary emotion?

  • Where is it taking place?

Consider the shot below, by Escapee Elena Scala.

Animation by Elena Scala

Why Do We Care?

This is a shot that works on an emotional level. We care about the girl, and what she is going through. I asked Elena if the character was talking to her boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, and Elena replied sharply "no, it's her sister!". Elena was telling a story that she fully understood, possibly (though not necessarily) because it was something drawn from her own experience.  Because Elena has fully thought out the scene, including the character off-screen, and what the conversation is about, the result is a shot that has meaning, and an emotional register.

Find The Emotion

Animation isn't just a technical exercise; it needs to work on an emotional level. If we don't care about the characters, then the result is dry and meaningless.

What is the Shot About?

So, before you start animating, figure out in your head the specifics of what the shot is about, and what the characters are thinking and feeling. Sometimes it helps to give them names, and write down the back story of the shot, so you know exactly what it's about.