The Illusion of Life. Character Integrity and Performance in the Animated Form

Term Paper, 2017

76 Pages, Grade: 1




Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Literature Review

The Significance and Appeal of Animation

Stop-Motion Animation

Character Design and Construction

Character Performance

Performance Through Movement

Performance Through Voice

Performance from Pantomime Characters

Performance Through Anthropomorphism






I would like to give my sincere thanks and gratitude to Tony Bancroft, Jeff DePaoli, Victoria Gallant, Don Hahn, Brian Ferguson, Noland MacDonald, John Musker, and Jill Osier for giving their time and invaluable insights in aid of my research. I would also like to thank Professor. Murray Smith for his guidance and contributions throughout my study. I would lastly like to thank my Mum, Dad and Beckie for their support.


1 Still of Max Horowitz, Mary and Max (2009)

1.2 Still of Mary Dinkle, Mary and Max

1.3 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers (1993)

1.4 Gromit, A Grand Day Out (1989)

1.5 Wide shot of Max’s tracksuit, Mary and Max

1.6 Performance shot of Margaret Kerry, Ultimate

1.7 Performance shot of Margaret Kerry, Ultimate

1.8 Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie (1928)

1.9 Mickey Mouse, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ Fantasia (1940)

2 Still of Droopy and Wolf, Dumb-Hounded (1943)

2.1 Illustration of the twelve principles, Autodesk Knowledge

2.2 Still of Max’s walk, Mary and Max

2.3 Gromit’s ball-and-socket armature,

2.4 Chase scene, The Wrong Trousers

2.5 Still of May’s walk, Mary and Max

2.6 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

2.7 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

2.8 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

2.9 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

3 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

3.1 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

3.2 Still of Max’s panicked expression, Mary and Max

3.3 Still of Mary’s sad expression, Mary and Max

3.4 Close-up of Ariel’s reflective eyes, The Little Mermaid (1989)

3.5 Close-up of Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

3.6 Still of Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

3.7 Close-up of Max, Mary and Max

3.8 Still of Mary, Mary and Max

3.9 Still of Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

4 Still of Gromit, A Close Shave (1995)

4.1 Gromit and Feathers McGraw, The Wrong Trousers

4.2 Gromit, The Wrong Trousers

4.3 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out

4.4 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out

4.5 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out

4.6 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out

4.7 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out

4.8 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out

4.9 The Cooker, A Grand Day Out


The thesis investigates the reasons and motivations behind our emotional and affective responses to the animated character. In a form suffused with a self-conscious display of artifice and fabrication, there is a paradox of how we can respond to the animated figure in much the same way as a live actor and real life individual. The stop-motion form in particular provides doubt for engagement to occur, yet even with new and improving advancements of technology, this self-conscious, sometimes rough form holds a firm place in cinematic culture today. To fully understand the justifications and limitations of our engagement, I appeal to the motivations and skills of the animator in designing a character and making it a ‘performer.’ The study has revealed the goal of an animator is for believability more so than realism; ensuring every nuance of the character encourages an active spectator who is willing to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the film in order to enjoy and engage with it.

For some presumptuous reason, man feels the need to create something of his own that appears to be living, that has an inner strength, a vitality, a separate identity- something that speaks out with authority- a creation that gives the illusion of life.

- Frank Thomas and Oliver Johnston (Thomas&Johnston,1981:13)

There is no doubt that the animated form is pervasive in cinematic culture. Since its conception in 1906 as a hand-drawn animated chalk sequence (Humorous Phases of Funny Faces), animation’s highly effective and compelling synthesis of moving images and sounds succeeds in entertaining, telling meaningful stories, educating, and inspiring its versatile audiences. The cathartic effects of these animated films are even more extraordinary than those posed by live- action cinema, since the pictures are merely drawings or 3D models and therefore challenge notions of realism more than their live-action counterparts. The animated space is a familiar, safe environment that succeeds in extending our perception of the world by transporting us to an entirely new realm of discovery, imagination and intrigue. Within these creations of endless potential resides the animated character whose memorable design, internal ‘life’ and diegetic suggestions of movement “exceed the impossible” and resonate within us even after leaving the cinema (Tom Gunning cited in Buchan,2013:55). These animated figures are not ‘alive,’ yet they can exhibit autonomous agency and suggest distinct personality in such a way that encourages the viewer’s affective attention as though they exist. Whether an animated character is as physically consistent as a live actor, more caricatured, or simple in appearance should make no difference in aligning an audience to that character.

My study of the animated form’s affective impact will take its roots in advancements of existing cognitive study pertaining to this paradox of engagement. This research will both inform and progress my own cognitive study towards the animated character. The thesis will then proceed with a brief analysis of the significance and impact of the animated form. Within my investigation of the animated forms, I will afford particular close attention to stop-motion animation, as its self-conscious, and sometimes rough nature provides every reason to suspend our engagement, yet our responses to this form remain strong. Perhaps the most obvious conjecture to warrant engagement is the design and construction of a character. There are many ways to facilitate engagement, most credibly the music score, but I will focus exclusively on the craft of the artist; their intimate connection with a character’s design and performance as the most powerful and direct facilitator for engagement.

The detail of a figure’s design must instantly capture a viewer’s interest, and only then will they want to find out the internal structures of the character. It is the onus of the animator to create and manipulate the internal life of a character through suggestions of performance, in particular movement. Much like with a character’s design, the human eye is much stronger in capturing information than the ear, thus a great deal of life should come through a character’s performance, such as their actions and walk cycle. The voice renders particular credibility in the life of a character, owing to its authority as the narrative informer. Yet, animation, particularly stop-motion takes great care to work our engagement towards silent, ‘pantomime,’ characters; demanding an entirely visual emotional presence through performance in body language and gestures in the absence of a voice. Lastly, our readily available response to the human form is afforded by animation in their creation of anthropomorphised characters through expressive, personified visual design and performance.

My analysis will take its shape from study of the accomplishments of Adam Elliot’s 2009 feature, Mary and Max, with its embodiment of true to life issues, powerful character design and credible movement that brings a far cry from what we have been previously given in the world of Wallace and Gromit twenty years prior. I will then draw on the characters of the world of Aardman, such as Gromit’s performance in The Wrong Trousers (1993) and The Cooker’s anthropomorphised performance in A Grand Day Out (1989) in the discovery of the principles and efforts behind the progression from an inert construct on a blank sheet of paper or an empty 3D set to something that can indeed be recognised as a living, breathing, independent, emotional individual.


The opportunity for an emotional experience is one of the primary motivations for film- viewing. For many, viewing a film whether in a theatre or in domestic means is a pleasurable experience, with audiences willing to pay money in exchange for an experienced suffused with affect. Psychologist Hugo Munsterberg accurately acknowledged that to “picture emotions must be the central aim of the photoplay” (cited in Plantinga,2009:5). The emotional resonance of the animated form, as well as live-action, is certainly necessary to provide narrative information, capture and sustain a viewer’s attention with sensationalism and unforgettable characters, and make a film memorable after leaving the cinema. To understand the nature of our emotional relationship with animated characters in more detail, particularly how and why we respond to them, it makes sense to begin by understanding the concept of emotion; how it has been defined in existing scholarly articles.

In its most basic form, emotions are the manifestations of feelings derived from a particular circumstance, mood or attitude. Emotions can be experienced in brief intervals, like that of fright and amusement, or for an extended period, such as grief. Animation, especially Walt Disney animation, has long exercised its ability to capture an audience’s attention with brief ‘emotion markers’ as evident with the early Disney Silly Symphonies series (1929-39), which succeeded in providing witty and comical gags by use of lively characters, expert utilisation of timing and ‘mickey-mousing’ in all its features (Smith,2003:44). For this thesis, however, I feel the exploration of the animated form’s more nuanced and powerful emotional capacities is more worthwhile than a study of its brief emotional landscapes, particularly in the form of comedy. Frank Thomas and Oliver Johnston succinctly summarised this argument:

Spectators can laugh at a gag, be dazzled by a new effect, and be intrigued by something completely fresh, but all of this will hold their attention for barley ten minutes (Thomas&Johnston:21)

Within scholarly insight, there are generally two antithetical rationale behind an understanding of emotions. The first is the belief of emotion as, to some extent, derived from unconscious and automatic functioning. We can liken this thought to Greg M Smith’s thesis, which locates emotions as resembling instincts and reflexes by way of encouraging us to act with urgency in response to a stimulus (Smith,2003:19). If we were to encounter a predator in the woods, our instinctual emotional response of fear and alarm would allow us to run away from the animal. Our primary, basic emotions, such as anger, happiness and sadness, tend to fall into this rubric of emotions as resulting from habits of mind, such as memory, and innate responses (Barratt,2004:129).

Animation certainly recognises and takes advantage of the fact that our emotional responses can be partly elicited by unconscious “mental associations and memory traces”. (Plantinga:75).

Whether it be a distinctive piece of the soundtrack, a recognisable character trait, animation is coloured with nostalgia. A famous example are MGM’s Tom and Jerry (2002) and Chuck Jones’ Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner in the Merrie Melodies series (1949), in which a chase of sabotage is expected every time by the viewer by way of recurring visual jokes and consistent characters. Smith’s account should not be taken lightly, but is not pertinent to my own research of the more significant power and capacities of the animated form as conductor of very real, reverberant and universal affective engagement.

The second, and more recent inference is that of cognitive theory which infers of emotion as a phenomenon derived from “functional processes” of reason and rational thinking (Barratt:129). It is thought that our secondary and more complex emotions, such as love, pride, shame, jealousy and guilt, fall into this category. In line with the psychoanalytic roots of this thesis, cognitive reasoning is a sufficient study to an understanding of the effect of emotion. It asks the principal question: how can we understand the role of the viewer’s cerebral and affective processes in relation to the cinematic processes behind an animated film? Implicit in this discussion is the following paradox: how we can respond emotionally to a fabricated figure and be engaged with their plight while simultaneously aware of its nature as an imagined construction.

Due to the animated form’s fabricated nature, the viewer is constantly reminded that the onscreen character is not real, and yet any viewer can have no fault engaging emotionally with them as they would with a real individual. This has come to be known as the ‘paradox of fiction’ theory as originally posited by Colin Radford who believes an emotional response to fictions is “irrational, incoherent and inconsistent” (Barbero and Ferraris,2013:27) A basic premise of the paradox is as follows: many experience emotional responses to characters which they understand to be merely fictitious; in order to be moved by these characters, we must believe them to be real; but no person who knows a character to be fictional simultaneously believes they are real. The premise can be effectively focused on the animated form, and might work in providing a framework for solving such accounts in the form of three subsystems.

The first, referred to as the ‘illusion theory,’ has several structures of understanding in scholarly reading. The most basic and useful reasoning of this theory is put forward by Carl Plantinga who posits that for the duration of the film, the viewer mistakenly believes that the characters before them do exist (Plantinga cited in Allen and Smith,1997:370). It is correct to some extent to account that most films do implant an “epistemic delusion” in the viewer, temporarily alienating them from physical reality throughout the film, causing them to momentarily forget that what is onscreen is a mere construction (Plantinga cited in Allen&Smith:377). Yet Plantinga’s ‘illusion theory’ wrongly positions the viewer as naïve and unsuspecting regarding the ontological status of the characters and their narrative situations. We are fully aware that skeletons do not dance (Silly Symphonies) or that Tom and Jerry is not a real account of a cat and mouse’s feud with one another.

Realising the ‘illusion’ proposition flawed, Christian Metz prefers the term ‘impression’ to put forward a contemporary psychoanalytic proposal that positions the viewer’s relationship to the screen as one of ‘disavowal’: the viewer is aware of the film’s fabrication but believes it to be real only for the film’s duration (Smith,1995:42). Metz claims that the film subjects the viewer to episodic, dreamlike states, within which they believe the represented world and its occupants are real. During these states, the ‘credulous spectator’ temporarily replaces the awareness and consciousness of an otherwise ‘incredulous spectator’ (Smith,1995:42). Though Metz was applying a counterargument to Plantinga’s ‘illusion theory,’ the two work closely together, both implying a naïve, unconscious viewer and will therefore not apply to my own findings.

The correct position, and one that this thesis will follow, replaces a naïve, unsuspecting viewer with an active, conscious one who only believes the onscreen construct to be real by their willing suspension of scepticism and doubt. This attributes to the more recognised and influential phenomenon recognised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” in which a viewer voluntarily disregards their awareness of the unreality of the fiction in order to enjoy and engage with it (Barratt:5). Walt Disney Animation Studios producer, Don Hahn configures this idea:

We know elephants can’t fly and animals can’t talk but if the animation and character is plausible we, as an audience, are willing to suspend our disbelief and accept that drawing or CG character as a real flesh and blood thing (personal communication, 28th July, 2017) (see appendix A)

This idea determines the responsibility of the filmmaker or artist to define and permit the aspects of their craft that will give the greatest suspension of disbelief, so as to make the impossible not only possible, but believable. This concept of suspending our disbelief will be the driving force of my discussion of key skills in animation, such as timing and plausibility of character performance and movement, and the ability to anthropomorphise an object or animal in order to make the “unbelievable come alive” in such a powerful way that we are willing to suspend our judgements (Selby,2013:97).

The two remaining plausible theories, ‘pretend theory’ and ‘thought theory’ work concurrently with the favoured notion of a conscious, active and rational spectator. ‘Pretend theory,’ or ‘simulation theory’ as declared by Kendall Walton and Gregory Currie, posits that we entertain the idea of the fictional characters existing through a form of pretending, and ‘make believe’ (Plantinga cited in Allen&Smith:380). According to Walton, it is only in the form of make- believe, similar to a child’s pretend game, that we respond to the heroes of these fictions. He employs the example of a horror film; the fear the viewer experiences towards a monster or frightening situation is nothing more than ‘fictional fear,’ or ‘quasi-fear,’ and results from the viewer willingly joining the game created by the film (Sillett,2014:15). Ed Hooks supports this motion, claiming that it is in no way the effort of the fiction to ask viewers to suspend their disbelief, but instead asks the audience to “play along in a more child-like way” (Sillett:20).

Walton’s account is nonetheless subject to disanalogies. The main problem being the viewer’s implied lack of control and choice over their ‘second-order’ beliefs and emotions when viewing a fiction. Unlike a child mediating their game of pretend, the viewer cannot simply turn off their responses, or prevent themselves from being affected. It is not an option for viewers of a horror film to not have some form of frightened or startled response towards an antagonist. Noel Carroll notes that viewers are also not able to turn their emotional responses on either; such is the case for films that affect some viewers but not others (Carroll,1990). Pretend games require intention and thus there must be intention from the viewer when playing the pretend game of film viewing per Walton’s account. When an incident in a film shocks us or makes us anxious, we do not intend and consciously decide to feel those things. Film-viewing is therefore less a game of make-believe than it is a pre-conscious phenomenon automatically driven by certain visual stimuli.

The latter, ‘thought theory,’ as conducted by Carroll claims that the viewer is able to experience real affective responses by the thought of certain fictional characters and events being real, but we do not need to believe in the actual existence of a character or event to be moved by them. (Plantinga cited in Allen&Smith:370). A person’s response derives from the possibility of a character, rather than the reality of that character. So, rather than having to believe in the existence of an animated figure, we only have to “mentally represent” (Lamarque,1981), “entertain in thought,” (Carroll,1990:89) or “imaginatively propose” (Smith,1995) that they are real. For example, a person might wince at the thought of nails scratching a blackboard, or shudder when imagining insects crawling on them. More specifically, Murray Smith invites us to:

Imagine gripping the blade of a sharp knife and then having it pulled from your grip, slicing through the flesh of your hand. If you shuddered in reaction to the idea, you didn’t do so because you believed that your hand was being cut by a knife (Smith,1995).

The animated form, particularly that of Disney, indeed plays with our ability to vividly imagine through making the impossible, possible. This word, imagination is certainly an element greatly celebrated and valued by animation filmmakers and audiences alike. It is crucial to have this in abundance in the making of an animated film, as will be explored in further arguments throughout this thesis. An animated project is indeed constructed from the imagination of its makers, and fuelled from their passion for creativity, desire to bring vision and excitement to a project and a drive to share that creative vision to others. As Murray Smith recognised, the activity of the viewer in understanding, appreciating and interpreting an overtly fictional form like animation is indeed a predominantly imaginative one, demanding the aforementioned requisite to suspend their disbelief (Smith,1995,74). It is the appeal of the ‘thought theory’ of our cognitive engagement to the cinema that will drive the foundations of my study of animation.


Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive.

- Walt Disney (Thomas&Johnston:13)

Animation pervades a great deal of contemporary popular culture, exercising heuristic tendencies and pushing the boundaries with early projection devices for the illusion of motion and performance, such as the Zoetrope and Praxinoscope, or a pencil and computer mouse in recent years. Paul Wells is not wrong when he claimed that “animation is the most dynamic form of expression available to creative people” (Wells,2006:6).

Several obvious factors contribute to the growing popularity and appeal of the animated form, most notably is that it offers viewers a display of enlarged possibilities, no matter how impossible and unrealistic, allowing the viewer to escape their surrounding reality and become completely absorbed in the story world. Walt Disney Animation Studios director and animator, John Musker recognises this ability:

I know it’s a movie, I know I’m sitting in a theatre, but there is a kind of magic trick that happens and we surrender to that, and we innately want to hear stories that give us an escape from the world around us…it’s like an elixir that you drink, and you go into this world and you become part of that world while you’re watching the movie (personal communication, 28th July, 2017) (see appendix B).

A great deal of its appeal and fascination from adult audiences reflects the universal recognition of it as a medium that cultivates a much wider range of genres and subjects than that only appropriate for children. Director of Toy Story 3 (2010), Lee Unkrich sums up this goal as realised by Pixar:

People say ‘you’re making movies for kids,’ and I’m quick to say, ‘no, we are trying to make movies for everybody.’…At Pixar, our goal is to try to make films that appeal to everybody (Hooks,2011:42).

Indeed, the Wallace and Gromit features adapt to children who can respond to and enjoy the broad comedy and characters, while adults can appreciate the more sophisticated features, such as its parodies of heist films and thrillers as well as the visual puns, such as Gromit’s collection of records by Bach). Even some of the most poignant sequences in cinema history are that of animation, such as the death of Bambi’s mother in Bambi (1940), ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ segment in Fantasia (1940) and Carl and Ellie’s marriage montage in Up (2008). Unsurprisingly, as these examples indicate, much of animation’s success and recognition as a valuable art form is due to the greatest contributor in animation history, Walt Disney. Since the birth of Mickey Mouse, Disney animation has held universal appeal because the characters display emotions in a way that can be understood by everyone. Though this thesis will be proceeding with the stop-motion form, Walt Disney’s influence will help guide the study.

So far, it has been evident that a portion of an animated film’s ability to establish an affective relationship with its audience is dependent on the reciprocal relationship between viewer and artist; the viewer can suspend their judgement and doubt within the reasons given by the artist. Now that various scholarly accounts have established a brief yet useful account of what can connect a viewer to a fiction and the characters, further research will remain in the animation makers’ utilisation of this knowledge and efforts towards their own goals for viewer emotional attachment and engagement.

Much like my discussion on emotion, the most effective way to begin the study of animation should start with how we may define it. There are many definitions, but the most basic and obvious one positions it as a construction of either drawings, CGI or 3D clay or puppet models, that are crafted and produced individually before they are placed together in a temporal order, which ultimately creates the illusion of movement. It is indeed a remarkable occurrence to imbue a real or virtual object or drawing with the suggestion of self-propelled motion and simulation of life. Yet the liveliness of these images is initiated by the viewer as much as by the animators. The fast rate of this series of images allows the viewer to perceive them as one continuous moving motion. This optical illusion is known as ‘the persistence of vision,’ or ‘positive after images,’ and is one of the many contributions towards animation as a powerful and affective art form (Milic,2006:1). Put simply, the brain retains an image for a millisecond after it has been registered by the eye. A delay in our rate of perception allows another, slightly different, image to replace it, ultimately merging together to create a smooth, continuous flow of movement. What we are therefore actually seeing when we watch a film, whether animated or otherwise, is a series of still images- 24 or 25 every second- that is displayed in such rapid succession that the illusion of movement is created (Lord,2010:68).


I do not hesitate to say that in cinematography it is today possible to realise the most impossible and the most improbable things.

- Georges Méliès (Lord:23)


Much of animation’s power has been the pursuit of making models and images appear and move in a fluid motion while being entirely mediated by the hand of an animator. Stop motion is indeed most explicitly “in the hands of the people” (Priebe,2011:xvii). Especially with early versions of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit and the Creature Comforts series (1989), we can notably locate a fingerprint or two on the finished models. Stop motion may not produce the smoothest animation but this is part of the form’s appeal; it, like 2D cel animation, draws attention to the intimate craft of the animator. Most audiences do enjoy the unique quirkiness and little imperfections of this artifice. Aardman director and animator, Nick Park revealed he consciously left the various imperfections on his clay models, preferring a more homemade look.

Stop motion is certainly a highly self-conscious art-form and yet there exists in it a power that can somehow elate an audience, move them to tears, or amuse them. The effect of such a craft is not realistic but perhaps the physicality of the puppets and models as existing in real space gives them credibility and helps with their attraction. The process of bringing even the most prosaic of objects to life and displaying a whole collection of emotions is a powerful thing for such a medium to achieve. Author Kit Laybourne advocates this idea:

You can make a group of pencils roll themselves across your desk, have some salt and pepper shakers do a jig, or even make a roomful of chairs and tables play at bumper cars (Laybourne,1998:50)

Named “the father of all animation styles,” stop motion has and remains a pervasive practice in animation history, with its earliest conception by illusionist filmmaker, Georges Méliès in aid of his onscreen visual trickeries of invisible wires, smoke and trap doors, as evident in his masterpieces, The Man with the Rubber Head (1901) and Voyage to the Moon (1902) (Milic:165). Stop motion is indeed a form of tricks and illusions; the animator’s repositioning of the model is unseen to the viewer and the finished product of seeing inanimate objects move themselves about the screen and show personality is nothing short of a spectacle of wonder in which we can fully invest ourselves.

The process to achieve this spectacle is one of the most painstaking; each model is altered in very small increments between individually photographed frames which when played back in fast succession will create the illusion of the model’s self-impelled movements. Most importantly, the more nuanced the move in each frame, the smoother the model’s movements will be. Meticulous thought and preparation must be directed towards dressing the set appropriately for the mood of the film and its subjects, while also controlling conditions of the set to ensure every portion of the design works well while warranting easy access to the models themselves. With these in check, the animated stories that are produced by the popular practice of stop motion are not only convincing but often extraordinary. The masterful application of techniques, sense of drama and witty humour of the Wallace and Gromit short films perfectly embodies the extraordinary capacities stop motion can achieve.

As will be discussed further along the thesis, movement, in particular the treatment of metamorphosis, is central to any form of animation, but is perhaps most exploited in stop motion, since the root of the 3D model’s liveness is due its “continual emergence” from one image or point to another (Sillett:13). Metamorphosis adds a certain dimension to the animated style, whether stop motion or otherwise, opening and enhancing a wide range of modes of expression and bodily performances from the form’s characters, in turn eliciting a stronger sense of engagement. This idea of character movement will be treated with more detail during this essay as a significant principle of animation for viewer response.

Stop motion models over the years have been constructed from a whole variety of materials and textures, such as wood, rubber, paper, plastic and metal. Though the material that I believe has offered the animator the greatest potential for bringing an animated environment and character to life is the modelling clay, known as ‘claymation.’ The 3D clay model can be easily shaped and transformed through a wide variety of creative variations while still retaining a palpable and weighted appearance. Its pliable texture allows the animator to easily sculpt variations of a character’s bodily poses and facial expressions. The clay models themselves have a certain chunkiness to them which is certainly part of their appeal and charm. They do not dry out under the lighting rigs, and can stand independently for a long period of time, though animators will often design characters with short legs and large feet to ensure this, especially for those with the most range of movement, as seen with Gromit.


A puppet is not a miniature human. He has his own world.

- Jiří Trnka (Priebe,2011:75)

Adam Elliot’s 2009 Mary and Max is perhaps the most significant example of a full-length Claymation feature that succeeds in eliciting our emotional responses by pushing the boundaries in both the animated craft and narrative attributes. Its visual style is highly reminiscent of Aardman’s clay works save for the film’s sepia and grey hue. Having taken a full five years to create, and hundreds of handmade miniature props, clay models and sets to construct by hand, Mary and Max is a craft of artistic detail and progressive technique that intimately explores very real to life, and often taboo, themes, such as mental health conditions, loneliness, attempted suicide and alcohol abuse. The story is fashioned around an unlikely pen pal relationship between Mary Dinkle, a lonely 8-year-old girl living in Australia, and an overweight Jewish man with Asperger’s syndrome named Max Horowitz who lives an equally lonely, miserable life in New York. The pair find in each other a comfort formed from their mutual understanding of loneliness and unhappiness. They continue writing letters back and forth, following Mary through to adulthood, that ultimately progresses toward a poignant and heart-rending conclusion.

Much like Elliot’s earlier animated shorts, Harvie Krumpet (2003) and Ernie Biscuit (2005), the film is both sad and poignant. It captures the harsh realities of life while fully realising the joy of seeing clay models manipulated to achieve such sensitive portrayal of characters who are different. Elliot talks of his motivations for making the film:

I’m not interested in the usual animated fare and definitely never want talking animals or chipmunks in my films…I try to make films with depth, substance; films that deeply engage, move and make the audience think. If you want something light and fluffy then go to Disneyland (Desowitz,2009).

It may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that one of the most important principles in designing the appearance of a stop motion model or puppet is to construct it not only based on what it will be required to do throughout the film, such as face and body movements, but to reflect the desired personality. As the characters are generally the focus of the film, one of the biggest concerns for the animator working with a clay face should be to maintain its consistent appearance for the film’s duration. Though clay material is flexible and ready to use at an instant, clay models require a lot to maintain and can easily slip into unintended expressions and poses during a shot. For a character like Max whose personality is largely testified by prominent wrinkles under his eyes, it would have been a challenge to keep those wrinkles consistent throughout. This would have often required constant maintenance and when necessary, re-sculpting. Thomas and Johnston note:

Look for things in your character that make them so interesting that you end up loving them. They should be appealing to you; you are creating them. Endow them with all the great qualities you like that are consistent with their personalities; so that you will want to be around them (Sillett:21)

We can easily apply Thomas and Johnston’s above statement to any form of animation, in this case, stop motion. The eye of the viewer is instinctively drawn to a figure that is appealing and distinctive in appearance. A drawing or model that is poorly designed; too complicated or difficult to read will lack this appeal and may not invest the viewer into the narrative. Maria Reicher accurately notes that any fictional character must possess both ‘internal predicates’- the mental and emotional landscapes which dictate their behaviour; and ‘external predicates’- the visual details that inform the viewer’s understanding of that character (Sillett:17). It is after all the visual representation of a character’s internal properties, such as their goals, motivations, likes and fears, that are the central facilitator for an audience to align their sympathies with. Indeed, a striking amount of information about a character can be conveyed by a character’s appearance. To reach out to an audience, a character of any animated form should be designed in such a way that their core characteristics and an implied history are instantly revealed. To begin this process, many animators and designers construct a character’s shape and silhouette with the motive that these can determine that character’s personality.

Generally, we are cued to consider a sharp, angular shaped character as most probably evil, while a rounded, plump shape is more comfortable to look at and usually indicates that character as warm, friendly and sensitive. Indeed, part of Mary and Max’s likeability can be derived from their short, round statures. Most distinctive in Max’s design is the prominent round shape of his torso, which provides an amusing contrast with his thin legs that are slightly bent at the knee due to his weight. His ears stick out drastically at the side and when turned in profile, the back of his head does the same (Figure.1). Even at first glance, this is a very odd character, yet his look is distinctive and memorable. In similar fashion, Mary as a child is short and round. She is a rather top-heavy character, with her head proportionally bigger than the rest of her body. The frames of her glasses, as well as her chubby cheeks and rounded nose, stick out most prominently on her face (Figure.1.2). Her birthmark adds a nice touch to her memorable design, and her appearance issues that are revealed towards this birth mark only heighten our sympathies with her. The general concept is to “live and breathe the character” through the design; present to the audience exactly what would make the character come to life (Roberts,2004:178). Elliot clearly wants our sympathies to be aligned with these characters from the first instant of seeing them onscreen.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Both characters are generally rather simple in design but are capable of being easily identified due to their unique appearances. As was taught to us by a 1944 behavioural experiment conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, proving our successful engagement to simple geometric shapes, even the simplest models can evoke our responses. Most notably in stop motion is the character of Morph, who was brought to our screens by animator Tony Hart in 1977 and has been a stamp of Aardman studios ever since due to the character’s simple, friendly features, enthusiastic personality and warm orange colour. In much the same way, Gromit’s simple design is highly recognisable to many. In the evolution from A Grand Day Out to their most recent feature, A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), both Wallace and Gromit have undergone a considerable change in their design. Most noticeable is Gromit who is much more rounded, his brow is big and bold to emphasise the black beads of his eyes, and his nose has become stubbier. Overall, Gromit’s design is more cuddly and loveable (Figure.1.3) compared to his first appearance in A Grand Day Out (Figure.1.4). Though, as Nick Park notes, much of Gromit’s design was dictated by the restrictions of working with clay, choosing to turn him from a cat into a dog which would be chunkier and larger and thus easier to animate.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


The embodiment of animation is about suggesting the illusion of life and movement within an animated world. When designing a memorable character, it is equally important to concentrate on areas of the character’s body in which you want the viewer to instinctively be drawn to. In the case of Mary and Max, it is the value of their clothing and accessories that helps shape their personality and make them stand out as individuals. It is equally important that the characters’ clothing and accessories suit the character that the filmmakers are trying to convey to us. Charlie Chaplin famously remarked on his transitions into his characters through costuming at the Mack Sennett studio:

I had no idea of the character, but the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on the stage he was fully born (Thomas&Johnston:415).

The choice of Max’s simple, dark tracksuit clearly suggests that he finds security in wearing comfortable, loose-fitting material, while also conveying his lack of motivation and interest to venture outside the safety of his apartment (Figure.1.5). The one striking part of Max’s attire is the red pompom Mary had given him, which he rests on top of his Yamaka. The pompom not only marks the little speck of colour Mary has brought to his otherwise dreary life, but is also a subtle visual indication to the viewer of Max’s current friendship status to Mary.


Excerpt out of 76 pages


The Illusion of Life. Character Integrity and Performance in the Animated Form
University of Kent
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
illusion, life, character, integrity, performance, animated, form
Quote paper
Rose Walker (Author), 2017, The Illusion of Life. Character Integrity and Performance in the Animated Form, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Illusion of Life. Character Integrity and Performance in the Animated Form

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free