If you’ve spent as much time on YouTube or our website as I have, you can probably recall a stop-motion animation you’ve seen that looked really good. It was colorful, texturally interesting, and something about the motions really captured your attention. Movies like T-Shirt Wars and Sorry I’m Late are memorable because they are creative, but also because they are atheistically pleasing. The material substance of animations matters – the papers, clays, cloths and fabrics, bit of string, googly eyes – these materials make animations more pleasing, and thus more interesting.
Think about Wile E. Coyote chasing after the Roadrunner for a moment. Why is it funny when the Coyote runs off the edge of a cliff, pausing in mid air, before plummeting to the ground? Part of the reason we enjoy these animations is that they take our realities, the physics of our world, and bend them slightly to create parody. Basing the motions of the cartoon on the world we directly perceive – people running, jumping, falling – allows us to connect ways in which Wile E. Coyote moves. However, the connections we see between his motions and our own are broken when he runs off the edge of the cliff. Bending of physics like this challenges our perception, and this discrepancy becomes funny. We know that’s not how it works in real life, but it’s close enough to real life that we can relate to it, while finding the absurdity funny.
With both cases – the visually pleasing medium or the bending of physics – animations are tapping into our natural ability to perceive, and our eye for aesthetics. The word aesthetic comes from the Greek word aisthetikos, which means relating to the perception of the senses. Our natural perceptions play a central role in how we see and interpret visual stimuli, such as animations.
Translating these ideas to the classroom – there is one key point: aesthetics matter. This is not an argument to give your students weeks to design intricate sets, characters, background, etc. Rather, be mindful of the kinds of materials you give your students, and how these materials become the substance of the animation. One idea to try is having your students spend 10-15 minutes selecting the props for their animation (either from a limitless supply of materials, or from a carefully chosen set of objects), while having them think about how these props will move from frame to frame in their animation. Using colorful, interesting materials satisfies our interest in aesthetically pleasing experiences. Couple this with accurate, fluid motions – like Wile E. Coyote’s use of kinematics and ‘cartoon physics’ – and our thirst for things that ‘look good’ can be satisfied.
We are not saying that all animation activities require the time, energy, and effort that re-creating something like T-Shirt Wars would involve. Rather, think about where and when to stress aesthetics with your students, giving them the chance to make animations that are really nice to look at.
Why is this important to teaching and learning? Part of animation is selling students on the medium as a way to express and communicate ideas. Emphasizing the ‘look and feel’ of animations makes the final products that much better. This leads to more enthusiasm, a stronger urge to share, and likely better retention of the ideas – because the animation was memorable.