Animation Unleashed


To this day, I still recall the longest line I ever stood in for a movie. It was a cold evening in Seattle in 1961 and the line snaked completely around the block for the opening of 101 Dalmatians. What especially stood out to me that night were the weary looks on the faces of the parents – my own included – who probably wished they were doing anything but spending money on a full-length cartoon.

Who could have predicted that by the 21st century the combined sophistication and entertainment value of animated movies, TV shows and video games would win legions of adult fans not only seeking to recapture memories of childhood but to escape the workaday world’s stress through a fantasy portal requiring little concentration. Bringing this form of artistic expression to “life”, however, is much harder than it looks, says author Ellen Besen, author Animation Unleashed

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: Let’s start with a little background about your professional journey.

A: When I was young, I was dedicated to a career in theatre. That all changed as I started college at Sheridan Institute (just outside Toronto) and signed up for their Classical Animation Program. While the program was in its infancy when I enrolled, it’s now recognized as a world leader in digital media programs and its School of Animation, Arts and Design is the largest postsecondary arts school in Canada. I taught there on and off for 16 years and prior to that was a director/filmmaker at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Today, I teach at various international film festivals, write books on animation and continue to produce and develop animated short films. In 2008, Animation Unleashed was published by Michael Wiese Productions and today I’m working on another MWP book, this time on storytelling/filmmaking techniques for animated and hybrid films.

My film credit highlights include Sea Dream (Director/Filmmaker- NFB; festival award winner; featured regularly in MOMA’s family film programs); Slow Dance World (Director/Filmmaker together with partner L. Baumholtz – Independent; multiple award winner); Illuminated Lives (Director/Filmmaker- NFB); and Stroke (Director/Filmmaker- commissioned; currently working its way around the festival circuit).

Q: What attracted you to the medium of animation and how did you first break in?

A: I always liked animation – particularly Warner Bros cartoons and NFB films – so when I stumbled upon Sheridan’s animation program, I thought it might be interesting and put it on my application as a second choice. I quickly discovered, though, that it was a good fit. I came into the program with a background in art, music, dance and a lot of background in theatre. None of it quite added up to anything that motivated me. But animation became like a prism that took all these divergent skills and focused them into one creative force. Once you actually see the movement you created from nothing, there’s a good chance you’ll be hooked, and I was!

Breaking in was relatively easy in the 1970’s both in television and with government contracts. By the time I was 23, I landed a freelance contract with NFB and began work on Sea Dream. In school, we were taught the mechanics of animating and some very basic use of rhythm and that was about all. Over the years, I’ve had my own revelations about this art, especially in the precise use of literal analogy and around the capacity of animation to work outward from a core analogy to focus every visual and aural aspect towards extremely multilayered yet highly accurate communication. I’m very fortunate to be able to apply these lessons learned not only in my own creative projects but with my students and at festivals and conferences.

Q: Tell us about Animation Unleashed.

A: Animation Unleashed touches on the mechanics of the craft and but really focuses on how animation should communicate through every stage of production from core idea to end credits. I’ve been teaching the principles of animation filmmaking for many years and found over time that only a handful of factors generally tended to predict both the ease of production and the degree of audience impact. Key factors which promote success include the incorporation of animation’s inherent properties into the deepest fabric of content and the use of vivid and very accurate analogy as a foundation for communication.

I wrote the book to help make these factors better understood. It’s primarily a book of applied theory intended as a problem-solver for every stage of production. At the same time, it’s also of interest to animation lovers who would like to deepen their understanding of the medium.

Q: How do you view animation’s relationship to other graphic forms of storytelling such as editorial cartoons, comic strips and graphic novels?

A: All these forms are graphic which means they share certain key properties. They’re all highly visual which places responsibility on creators to make the visual elements vital. They also all have  potential for an aural element (though only animation’s is literal) and they naturally inhabit created, rather than recorded, worlds with all the creative responsibilities that characteristic implies. Animation, however, is real-time based which adds the complications of movement and literal rhythm/ pacing while completely altering the nature of “performance”. It means that the delivery of material is controlled more fully by the creator than by the audience in terms of performance detail, sounds, where the eye lingers and for how long.

At its core, the distinction is between storyboard versus the comic book/strip panel format. Because these two elements resemble each other, it’s easy to assume they’re the same thing, therefore pointing to a key bridge between these art forms. Leaping over this particular gap is trickier than it seems for students. For the animator, the storyboard is only a blueprint for a film in which the images laid out on a page will actually replace one another on the screen, linked by movement, rhythm, etc. Thus, when animators create or read a storyboard, they have to keep this in mind to translate the information in the board into film terms in order to understand it properly and to think in terms of action from the very beginning of project conception.

On the other hand, for the comic artist, that page of panels is the end product. The relationship of one panel to the other and of each panel to the whole can be created by and refer to a number of complex factors, but all the info required is already there on the page for a reader to take in.

Q: Which would you say is more challenging – to adapt a cartoon or comic strip (i.e., Dick Tracy, Spider-Man, Dennis the Menace) to a live-action feature or to take a popular film franchise such as Star Wars and turn it into an animated weekly series?

A: In general, I’d say that the first one is trickier. This is because animation can successfully mimic the most essential elements of live action more easily than the other way around. Individual cases depend, however, on the nature of the source material. Dennis the Menace translates easily from strip to live-action film because the source material exists in an essentially realistic world. The surreal Popeye with its exaggerated design and other worldly storylines is more problematic. If you try to bring it closer to reality, the essence of the source material disappears. Try to emulate the surreal aspects in live-action and the results are grotesque, and not in a good way.

The live-action to animated series transition faces its own special challenges. Animation can’t easily handle the nuanced performance of live actors. That being said, since the films franchised this way are more typically big action-based, such as Star Wars, this is usually not an insurmountable issue. Animation can readily recreate the unreal aspects of such films (in simplified form) and adequately mimic the real elements.

Q: For study purposes, provide us with some examples of animation projects adapted from a different medium that have done particularly well. Conversely, what are some that have failed?

A: Many of Disney’s earlier features were adaptations from traditional fairy tales or books. Each of those stories had a specific use of fantasy and a strong central theme which translated well into visual, action-based symbolism. The translation process managed to keep the thematic foundations intact or to convert them to ones that fit as well in their own way.

More recent Disney adaptations haven’t been as successful. The Princess and the Frog demonstrates how a failure to grasp – by analysis or intuition – the deeper emotional themes of a story combined with the absolute freedom of the medium lead to a wildly overdeveloped, overly complicated and ultimately less satisfying end product. Highly filigreed plotting which keeps adding elements deep into the second and even third acts is one of the surest signs a film lacks a firm foundation.

An interesting comparison can be found in Disney’s two versions of 101 Dalmatians: the early 1960’s animated classic and the mid 1990’s hybrid. Because key changes were made in the structure of the world inhabited by the story, the hybrid doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the classic. One change in particular completely changed the real trajectory of the hybrid adaptation and that involved how the dogs and animals in general were treated. In the animated version, animals can talk to each other (even cross species) and to the audience. This allows the dogs to bring us into their world, allows them to function as the story’s true leads and places the POV of the story entirely in their paws. This opens the door to fantasy, originality, full development of the animals as characters and audience empathy with their plight in the face of human fallibility.

In the hybrid, the animals can’t talk which reduces them to little more than props. Unable with this combination of elements to develop the second act into a narrative following the animals’ clandestine rescue mission, the creators press supporting characters into action – two bumbling henchmen who spend most of the movie being dropped off cliffs into piles of manure.

Q: What story would you most like to see developed for animation?

Animated features haven’t fully made the leap into personal, adult content that comic books and graphic novels achieved in the last 30 years. We’re getting closer but in many ways are still waiting for the powerful individual voices to emerge. In that vein, it might be interesting to see Maus translated to the screen, in part because it takes elements strongly associated with cartoon animation in their traditional roles (sympathetic, underdog mice and evil cats) and uses them for a much darker, infinitely more personal approach to storytelling.

Q: Let’s talk about animation’s transition from a minor art form to a major player including its changing relationship with reality.

A: The animation breakthrough to prime-time TV in the late 1980’s, combined with the advent of specialty TV channels, were critical factors. It took a new generation not only of animators but of producers and administrators to allow a show like The Simpsons the chance to prove the old maxim wrong. In the wake of its success, many other prime-time animated series followed. Two other factors are the production of more sophisticated family features such as Toy Story that the whole family can enjoy and blending animation seamlessly with live-action footage.

Q: What are some of the factors that go into the decision of making animated characters look like actual humans versus caricatures?

A: So far, 3D is creating excitement and mood enhancement but nothing really intrinsic. In 2D film, the general POV is shared with the whole audience – distorted perhaps by where in the theatre you’re sitting but essentially a shared experience. In 3D, the vantage point is individual and each member of the audience experiences it this way. This is a significant difference with all kinds of story potential, barely tapped to date. If this potential is harnessed, 3D could settle in as a serious tech advance, at least until a new technology emerges.

Hybrids are nothing new – they go back to King Kong and the groundbreaking work of Harryhausen. But the flexibility of the new tech for mixing the two elements and the seamlessness of the end result is opening up the field for hybrids. The main issue I have with many hybrid films is that the creators don’t understand how to set up alternative worlds that support story. A film such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button showcased lovely effects creating some magical screen moments but completely missed the boat on the story implications of its main effect. On the other hand, Amelie – whose director came from a background in animation – handled the hybrid approach with grace and accuracy.

If you’re going to take viewers to a new universe, every detail has to be considered and nuanced for its thematic implications. When nothing is a given, then everything is up for grabs. Every detail has to be chosen with care since every detail has potential intended or unintended symbolic meaning. It’s best to make these meanings intentional. It’s an extra load of responsibility that falls on the creators that can’t be avoided once the break from reality has been made.

Q: Given the amount of technology available today to entertain children (and a lot of adults!), how has the proliferation of cartoons, anime and video games impacted their ability to identify and interpret embedded themes in stories? 

A: While audiences are inherently more sophisticated in their level of media literacy, I don’t think the vast proliferation of media and tech has bolstered their ability to “read” the hidden elements in stories more clearly than in the past. All audiences get the underlying messages if they’re effectively communicated, but that gut reaction only happens if the media pieces strike a real chord with the audience. The awareness of that process is not only not growing – it may, in fact, be going backwards. Much of the material being thrown at audiences encourages only the narrowest, most stereotypical thinking. Getting pros to move beyond their clichéd thinking when it comes to their own work is one of the most challenging tasks for a mentor, so it’s not surprising that much of the work created by amateurs succumbs to the same tired thoughts they’re being sold over and over again.

Q: How can screenwriters that want to use animation as a vehicle for their plots make it a more active – versus passive – experience for their target market?

A: When the animated elements serve only as window-dressing, the entire project is weakened. Take, for example, the talking animal sidekick in an otherwise realistic story or the endless talking headshots accompanied by wall-to-wall dialogue. The first weakens the narrative fabric by undermining the foundation logic of the story and short-changing creative possibilities, usually leading to more generic, predictable storytelling; the second is merely animated radio. In both cases, the creators have failed to harness animation’s inherent power. Dialogue and animation which each play distinctive yet related roles require audiences to listen and watch with full attention in order to understand what’s going on…and I think most would agree that a fully engaged audience is what we all want! In other words, rediscover and develop action-based storytelling beyond more car chases.

Q: It was Hitchcock who’s credited with saying that the elements of a compelling film could still be followed if the sound were turned off. Does this same suggestion apply to animated works that seem to rely heavily on explanatory dialogue and music?

A: Even more for animation than for live action because of its graphic nature. Check out One Froggy Evening for virtually wordless communication of a complex story- brilliant!

Q: What genres and themes do you think lend themselves best to an animated world and why?

A: There really is no genre or theme which couldn’t be handled by animation. The key lies more in how the material is handled: (1) in the awareness that a new world that properly contains and supports the content has be successfully conceived, built and maintained; and (2) in the acute awareness that this is animation and not drawn reality. This remains true even when the story is apparently reality-based.

Q: What do you see as the future of animation?

A: In about 15 years, animation will have totally escaped its old reputation as a minor, limited form suitable mostly for children. It will have grown up with the young adult audience which discovered it (quietly) in the late 1960’s and this changed attitude will have trickled down through the following generations. Consequently, we’ll have educated audiences of all ages who are open to the full potential of this medium. Interestingly, digital technology which is a significant factor in the rise of hybrid filmmaking allows all film to be manipulated at the frame level. In other words, in a digital world, all film becomes animation, at least to some degree

We can hope that the outcome of all the above will be an explosion of creativity including many more well crafted small animated features. But it will also, most certainly, be harnessed for its economical advantages as well.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about the craft of animation? 

A: I think it’s now imperative that every film and video student (and professional preferably) should study animation as part of their training. Too many live action folks (filmmakers and stars) still look at animation as they do children’s books. Because of its graphic nature, it looks much easier to master than it really is. They would do themselves and the media-consuming public a favor by gaining some understanding of how animation really works!