The difference between appealing animation and unappealing animation is not limited to subject matter, what matters is how you present the ideas, concepts, and emotional highs/lows to the audience—it’s about presentation. Learn more about this incredibly important principle from mentor and Disney Toon Studios animator Ethan Hurd!
What do cute fuzzy bunnies and the Joker from The Dark Knight have in common? They’re both incredibly appealing. I bring this up to get a simple idea out of the way before I continue this article. Subject matter has nothing to do with appeal, disturbing can be just as appealing as cute. The difference between appealing and not appealing is not subject matter, it’s what you do with it, it’s presentation.
If you look at the list of principles of animation by Frank and Ollie in The Illusion of Life you’ll see that “Appeal” lives at the bottom of the list. Number twelve. Like the old Sesame Street song “One of these Things is Not Like the Other,” it stands out. It’s different than the other principles.
Appeal is the culmination of all the other principles above it, plus something extra.
All of the principles have a clear definition, pictures you can point to with confidence and say “that is what that principle means.” But not appeal. Appeal is subjective, but despite its subjective nature, Frank and Ollie put it on the list. They didn’t do it to round out the list, to make it an even number. They did this because appeal is the most important principle of animation.
It’s my opinion that its position on the bottom of the list is not a mistake. Appeal is the culmination of all the other principles above it, plus something extra. That something extra is what I want to focus on. But before I can do that I have to explain why it is the culmination of all the other principles.
All the other principles are about creating believable animation, but we modify them to suit our needs. Take a look at these two pictures.
They’re both bouncing balls. On the left is a real world example of a bouncing ball, on the right is the cartoonish way we animate a bouncing ball. Note that in real life the squash and stretch is hard to see, but in animation we do it clearly. So if our goal is creating believable animation then why do we do it? We do it because it’s appealing—seeing squash and stretch shows change, change from one state to another, change can be appealing if done right.
Yes, you could argue that squash and stretch does happen in real life. Some of it happens when you hit the ball really hard and it is also simulating motion blur, but that’s not really the point. The point is: if, as animators, we are so focused on re-creating reality, we can often overlook appeal. If we do that, it doesn’t matter how accurate our animation is because no one will care. But if we include things like squash and stretch, the animation becomes more interesting to look at.
Let’s show another example. In the third act of Bambi, Thumper hops away from an attractive bunny and suddenly his brain registers the fact that she’s attractive, and he literally freezes in mid-air. Because Bambi is a film that is full of beautiful and realistic images, this Tex Avery-like freeze is kind of out of place with the style of the rest of the film. It breaks the rules of the world. There is no ease-in-out or overlap, just a bit of overshoot, otherwise physics literally stops. But no one thinks twice about it, because it’s funny. It expresses the emotion behind what has just happened and puts appeal above the believability of the event.
The same thing happens in The Avengers, another realistic live-action film. Hulk punches Thor, Thor flies off camera, and the whole thing happens in 3 frames (I counted). If we were to follow the rules of believable animation, these things could not happen. But they do because it’s appealing. It works and nobody second-guesses it. Just like the squash and stretch in the bouncing ball, making it more “realistic” would not improve the shot. It’s a creative choice that makes it interesting.
Appeal breaks down into two things: Order and Interest. Order is the design element/choice you make. It’s the pattern or logic you chose to apply to your movement, drawing, character design, layout, etc. Interest, however, is how you choose to keep the Order from becoming boring, it’s the variation, the surprise you choose to add to your pattern. So for me, the principles that come before appeal are the order or how you create believable animation, but the interest is what makes the shot beautiful.
This reminds me, someone once told me this definition of design: “Design is the logical selection and arrangement of visual elements for order plus interest.” -Fred Griffin. Really you can boil it down to order plus interest.
Let’s put this to the test. Look at these two pictures of Iron Man.
In both, he’s doing the same action. The one on the left is done with a lot more attention to detail, better perspective, better proportions. But the one on the right is much more appealing. It’s more dynamic, and you can see exactly what he is doing. The proportions are off and the perspective flattens out, but it does this in a way that helps better support the main action. You can feel what he is doing.
Let’s try that again. Here are two animations of Duck Dodgers saying the same line (well, nearly the same line). The first video is the original, and the second is what was done several years later.
I find the original to be much more appealing. It’s simpler—he does nothing but hang in the air and deliver his line, but adding extra movement to it like in the second shot adds nothing to the gag. In fact it takes away from it. It’s hard to know what you should be looking at or what he’s thinking. The clarity is gone.
As animators we are tempted to move things around. That’s our job right? We’re animators—we move things. But if we mindlessly move things around without making choices, the end result is unappealing animation. Instead, we focus on what we’re trying to say to the audience about who the characters are and what they’re feeling. If we make simple design choices we can make our work much more appealing to look at.
All the other principles are about creating believable animation, but we modify them to suit our needs.
Appeal is a huge topic and there’s so much more I can say about it, but I’ll leave you with this. As animators we tend to be attracted to rules and principles. These rules help us to know if we are animating “correctly.” There is nothing wrong with that, and I do it myself. But those rules can only tell you so much. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide which rules to follow and which rules to break. You do that by knowing what it is you are trying to say.
He’s one last example. This is two video clips, one is from All Dogs Go To Heaven and the other is from Cinderella. I chose them because they are both about each film’s villain berating their servant.
The All Dogs Go To Heaven clip is expertly animated, very impressive work. There’s a lot going on in this shot. The Cinderella clip has a lot less happening, but the message is incredibly clear.
Look at both, decide for yourself which you find more appealing. Then when you do your own work, approach it with appeal in mind. See if it improves your shot.
Click here to learn about the other principles!