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Animation as Storytelling – A Filmmaker’s Perspective

Written by Kabeer Khurana, 13th September 2020

Long before I got into live-action filmmaking, my first experience with cinema was as a young budding animator. Of course, back then I detested the amount of patience that was required for an animation film. But still, the medium gave me freedom to think outside the box, to create the impossible and to take over the imagination of the audience with magical, visually dense motion pictures accompanied by equally elevating music. Everything about the way animation films were made was so different from the creative process behind live-action. A good live-action film, to my understanding, is either personal or authentic, in order for it to be relatable. The process behind animation is exactly the opposite – there is purposeful intent to take a fantastical leap into a universe which isn’t possible to replicate by live-action, even though the basic tenets of storytelling to touch, move and inspire remain the same. The audiences coming in to watch an animation film understand that they’re entering a different dimension for the next ninety minutes, escaping into another world altogether. However, the question that always crossed my mind was that, if animation as a medium is inauthentic and ingenuous for adult audiences, was what is it about the medium that still makes it enjoyable for audiences to connect to? 

Emotion

At the breakfast table last week, my father told me a story. It was his first week at animation school in Sheridan College (Canada), and the students were told to paint large charcoal sketches for their life drawing class. He was careful, patient, and more formalist in his approach, while he noticed that the others in his class – the more experienced ones – were scribbling abstract forms on their large canvases, following the lines of action, gestures, and emotion of the nude models in their drawings. He scorned at them initially, wondering to himself how they had even made it to art school in the first place. A jury took place soon after, and the renowned artist Barry Parker was convened to moderate and critique. To dad’s surprise, the sketch with the most visceral, abstract and confident strokes garnered the maximum appraisal, while those who had carefully detailed their sketches were neglected. The test was not to draw perfect shapes or contours, but to capture the emotion and rhythm of the human body in it’s nude form. The lesson he learnt from this was a much larger philosophy – that cinema isn’t a cerebral, formalist or left-brained process, dictated by rules, boundaries or structure, but a visceral, abstract, expressionist one. Those who can learn to capture the musicality of spaces, bodies, the world at large, and their relationships, are the ones who eventually become filmmakers of consequence. The concept, socio-politics and philosophy – the meaning of the piece of film – is undoubtedly important, but always plays out in the background. At the fore of any film are characters, relationships and their emotions.

Scene from Disney’s Fantasia

Imagination

Growing up in an environment that fostered visual literacy, I learnt to carefully understand not just the technicalities of making a film, but also colour palettes, textures, shapes and the art of imagination. Since animation usually begins where live-action ends, the art of its construction primarily involves world-building and a great amount of visualisation. I grew up watching a lot of Disney films by the National Film Board of Canada, and the early works of Films Division. I understood early on that animation storytelling is starkly different from conceiving in live-action. Animation storytellers usually revel in the surreal, the exuberance of life, gags and slapstick, gimmicks, exaggerations and other whack. When Oscar-winning animation producer Derek Lamb (who worked with the National Film Board of Canada at the time) was invited to my parents’ engagement in 1997, he brought his video camera along. In the milieu of the grandeur of Indian weddings, he noticed dad’s pet dog growling and clawing for attention, lost in the mania and madness of all the planning and preparation. Derek decided to shoot their wedding video through the confused eyes of that dog, an idea perhaps I can only imagine an animation filmmaker come up with. On the other hand, an FTII-trained conventional filmmaker would’ve set himself out to capture the wedding madness as it is (the more true to life, the better the film), without any creative gimmicks. Animators, unlike other conventional filmmakers, are trained less to be thinkers but to become dreamers, idealists and spiritualists, more than anything else. They don’t care much about reality or society or politics. Most of the ones I had met while growing up were fairly happy-clappy, toony and apolitical individuals – privileged as you may call it, that too had its own charm.

Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux, and the use to image multiplication for the first time on screen

Aesthetic and Form

In a brief stint that I did at an architecture school a few years ago, one of the first rules of design that we were taught is that form follows functionality. As a young animator even then, I remember completely rejecting that teaching. It was always my firm belief that form and functionality are not in fact mutually exclusive sets, but one and the same thing. But how does this connect back to storytelling? I believe that the functionality of any film – the story, messaging and subject – is always further driven in by the form the film takes – the style, aesthetic, colours, dynamism, in each scene. What better way to change mindsets than by showing and telling, as opposed to using words, language and a lot of jargon to convince people to your line of thinking? In my experience, therefore, it is critical for every live-action filmmaker to hone their creative, imaginative and visual faculties as well – which is to say that every filmmaker must also understand the basics of animation. Largely where Indian filmmakers lack is in their ability to use different visual forms to communicate their scenes, landscapes or ideas more effectively. It is important to first identify the visual form that a certain exposition or scene requires, that would best suit that particular form of communication, and then to apply it effectively. For instance, pixelation can be used perhaps as an effective visual tool to set a scene, instead of using more staid and cliched forms of blocking shots. Or perhaps a puppet animation sequence in place of a conventional flashback.

The possibilities with animation are unlimited. It allows one to conceptualise environments and characters that live action simply can’t do, and as a consequence, opens the door towards an infinite number of stories each imbibed with their own wholly unique set of emotions.

Experience Further: A transcendental piece that has inspired some of my work. As Stanley Kubrick says – cinema should be more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The meaning, verbalization – all that comes later.

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Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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