4: Transforming Tales Animation Process and Principles In Process

Visual Storytelling

Narrative theory

structure of stories

Visual Dynamics

directing the eye: composition, colour

Grammar of the Shot

camera, lighting, editing, timing

Narrative Theory

A narrative or story is an account of a series of related events, experiences, or the like, whether true (episode, vignette, travelogue, memoir, autobiography, biography) or fictitious (fairy tale, fable, story, epic, legend, novel). Narrative theory or ‘narratology’ is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect human perception. Narrative structures were first described in Western cultures by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.

Structuralist literary theorists including Roland Barthes, Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, and Northrop Frye attempted to argue that all human narratives have certain universal, deep structural elements in common. The Russian Formalists distinguished: fabula: the “chronological order of events or the raw material of a story” and sujet or syuzhet is “the way a story is organized”.

Poststructuralists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida asserted that such universally shared, deep structures were logically impossible.

Gustav Freytag (1863)
  1. Exposition – fixes time and place, shows us who the main characters are, something about their lives. Shows the main character and their goal within the story and sets the mood. A backstory may be alluded to. Exposition can be conveyed through dialogues, flashbacks, characters’ asides, background details, in-universe media, or the narrator telling a back-story.
  2. Rising action: is a build up of events as the main character moves towards their goal. An exciting force or inciting event begins immediately after the exposition (introduction), building the rising action in one or several stages toward the point of greatest interest. These events are generally the most important parts of the story since the entire plot depends on them to set up the climax and ultimately the satisfactory resolution of the story itself. Conflict occurs when there is a disagreement with one or more people.
  3. Climax: the crunch point which changes the protagonist’s fate. If things were going well for the protagonist, the plot will turn against them, often revealing the protagonist’s hidden weaknesses. If the story is a comedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from bad to good for the protagonist, often requiring the protagonist to draw on hidden inner strengths.
  4. Falling Action: During the falling action, the hostility of the counter-party beats upon the soul of the hero. Freytag lays out two rules for this stage: the number of characters be limited as much as possible, and the number of scenes through which the hero falls should be fewer than in the rising movement. Although the catastrophe must be foreshadowed so as not to appear as a non sequitur, there could be for the doomed hero a prospect of relief, where the final outcome is in doubt.
  5. Resolution/’katastrophe’: happy or sad ending. Gives a feeling that this is the end, all strands have been ‘united’/drawn together and everything that needs to be explained has been explained.

Die Technik des Dramas (1863) published in an English translation as Freytag’s Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art in 1894

Vladimir Propp (1928)

Propp analysed 100 Russian folktales from the corpus of Alexander Fyodorovich Afanasyev and identified a number of basic elements:

Types of character

7 abstract character functions

  1. The hero — the character who reacts to the dispatcher and donor characters, thwarts the villain, resolves any lacking or wronghoods and weds the princess.
  2. The villain — an evil character that creates struggles for the hero.
  3. The dispatcher — any character who illustrates the need for the hero’s quest and sends the hero off. This often overlaps with the princess’s father.
  4. The helper — a typically magical entity that comes to help the hero in their quest.
  5. The princess or prize, and often her father — the hero deserves her throughout the story but is unable to marry her as a consequence of some evil or injustice, perhaps the work of the villain. The hero’s journey is often ended when he marries the princess, which constitutes the villain’s defeat.
  6. The donor — a character that prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object, sometimes after testing them.
  7. The false hero — a figure who takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.

Morphology of the tale, Leningrad 1928

Functions or elements of plot: After the initial situation is depicted, any fairy tale is composed of a selection of the following 31 functions, in a specific, consecutive order:

Absentation: The hero or a member of their community or family leaves the security of the home environment.
Interdiction: The hero is warned against some action.
Violation of interdiction: The hero did not listen to the command or forbidding edict and the villain enters the story via this event. Reconnaisance: The villain (often in disguise and/or testing the hero) makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfil their plot. Delivery: The villain succeeds, gaining a lead on their intended victim.
Trickery: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable.
Complicity: The victim is fooled/forced to concede and unwittingly/unwillingly helps the villain.
Villainy or Lacking: The villain harms a family member and/or a protagonist finds they desire or require something lacking from the home environment.
Mediation: One or more of the above negative factors comes to the attention of the Hero.
Beginning counteraction: The hero considers ways to resolve the issues and they begin to fit their noble mantle.
Departure: The hero leaves the home environment, this time with a sense of purpose and begins their adventure.
First function of the donor: The hero encounters a magical agent or helper (donor) on their path, and is tested in some manner through interrogation, combat, puzzles or more.
Hero’s reaction: The hero responds to the actions of their future donor and/or knowledge of the villain.
RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: as a consequence of their good actions.
GUIDANCE: The hero is transferred, delivered or somehow led to a vital location, or to the villain.
STRUGGLE: The hero and villain meet and engage in conflict directly, either in battle or some nature of contest.
BRANDING: The hero is marked in some manner, perhaps receiving a distinctive scar or granted a cosmetic item like a ring or scarf.
VICTORY: The villain is defeated by the hero – killed in combat, outperformed in a contest, struck when vulnerable, banished, etc.
LIQUIDATION: The earlier misfortunes or issues of the story are resolved; object of search are distributed, spells broken, captives freed.
RETURN: The hero travels back to their home.
PURSUIT: The hero is pursued by some threatening adversary, who perhaps seek to capture or eat them.
RESCUE: The hero is saved from a chase by someone or something. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero arrives, and is unrecognised or unacknowledged.
UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero presents unfounded claims or performs some other form of deceit.
DIFFICULT TASK: A trial is proposed to the hero – riddles, test of strength or endurance, acrobatics and other ordeals.
SOLUTION: The hero accomplishes a difficult task.
RECOGNITION: The hero is given due recognition – usually by means of their prior branding.
EXPOSURE: The false hero and/or villain is exposed to all and sundry.
TRANSFIGURATION: The hero gains a new appearance – from ageing, labours, branding etc.
PUNISHMENT: The villain suffers the consequences of their actions, perhaps at the hands of the hero, the avenged victims, or as a direct result of their own ploy.
WEDDING: The hero marries and is rewarded or promoted by the family or community, typically ascending to a throne.

Morphology of the tale, Leningrad 1928

Tzvetan Todorov (1969)

Franco-Bulgarian historian, philosopher, literary critic and sociologist in 1969.

  • Equilibrium: where everything is as it should be and the characters lives are normal
  • Disruption of Equilibrium: when the state of equilibrium is disturbed by an event occurring.
  • Recognition of Disruption:  where characters recognise that the equilibrium has been disturbed/damaged by an event.
  • Addressing/solving the disruption: Characters attempt to repair the damage.
  • New equilibrium

TODOROV, T. 1969. Structural Analysis of Narrative. Tzvetan Todorov and Arnold Weinstein NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction Vol 3 Issue 1 pp 70-76.

Visual Dynamics


In traditional animation when an object, character or scene is at rest it is not still or motionless, it ‘boils’. Boiling is the term used to describe an animated effect in which the outlines or surface of an otherwise still character or object are made to wiggle or quiver in drawn animation. This is achieved by the looping together of several tracings of the same image (usually between 3 to 8 drawings). Boiling movement is used to sustain the illusion of movement in the animation overall and provide the impression of life or liveliness.

Questions about boil

  • What ‘boil’ technique is used? Why do the lines move and what elements, if any are allowed to be still?
  • Does the pace of the boil emanate throughout?
  • What emotional or narrative purpose does the use of boiling serve? Does it make for a more lifelike effect or is the boil deployed humorously?
Frame rate

It is most common in animation to draw on twos, this is both because drawing on ones is double the amount of work and because working with twos lends a smoother appearance to slower actions, avoiding unnecessary jitter that can accompany shooting on ones. It is generally thought that working on twos adds a particular liveliness to a fast action rather than working on ones, which can make an action appear more leaden.

Cycle, loops and layers

Cycles can loop, oscillate, or even appear to be stationary. The use of cycles is often motivated by economy because it saves on drawing time. But the type of cycle that you use also make up the meaning of your film.

Looped cycles are most commonly employed on particular layers within a frame. Sergei Eisenstein described this layered looping within a frame as ‘vertical montage’:
“The simultaneous movement of a number of motifs advances through a succession of sequences, each motif having its own rate of compositional progressions, while being at the same time inseparable from the overall compositional progression as a whole” Sergei Eisenstein, Eisenstein Volume 2: Towards a Theory of Montage (London: BFI Publishing, 1991)

  • ‘Dumbland’ (2000), David Lynch purposely used cycles of animation to represent the breakdown of social structures depicted in his film.
  • Francis Alÿs, Jordan Wolfson and Owen Land work extensively using loops to communicate meaning.
  • Katie Dove’s Luna, 2013
Eye trace

All animation is an exercise in applying the principle of ‘eye trace’. This is a principle of film- making in general but one that is essential for the illusion of animated movement to work. ‘In The Blink of an Eye’ by Walter Murch, (1995) sets out the principle that the viewer’s eyes will focus on a particular position on the screen and editors exploit this to allow less jarring edit when one shot follows another by ensuring that the action or image is located in the same part of the screen.This is also known as ‘registration’ in animation. A keen awareness of eye-trace allows the animator to play with the audience’s expectations and surprise them. The registration protocol was developed for hand-drawn animation to ensure that each subsequent drawing uses the same co-ordinates so that the illusion of movement between frames is not interrupted. In other animation the registration is looser and is intended as such to draw attention to the variation that ‘eye trace’ allows.

Grammar of the Shot


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  • BACHER, H. 2013. Dream Worlds: Production Design for Animation, Burlington MA and Abington Oxon, Focal Press.
  • BARTHES, R. 1977. Image Music Text, London, Fontana Press.
  • BLAZER, L. 2016. Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps for Creating Animation and Motion Graphics, Peachpit Press.
  • COBLEY, P. 2001. Narrative, London and New York, Routledge.
  • GLEBAS, F. 2018. Directing the Story: professional storytelling and storyboarding techniques for live action and animation, London and New York, Routledge.
  • LINDA SEGER 1992. The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film, New York, Henry Holt and Company.
  • MADDEN, M. 2006. 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, London, Jonathan Cape.
  • NANCY LAMB 2008. The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques, Cincinnati, Ohio, Writers Digest Books.
  • OPEN COLLEGE OF THE ARTS 2015. Commenting on Artists, Barnsley, UK, Open College of the Arts.
  • QUENEAU, R. 1958. Exercises in Style, London, Alma Classics Ltd.
  • SANDLER, M. 2018. Visual Storytelling: how to speak to your audience without saying a word, Studio City, CA, Michael Wiese Productions.
  • SWANSON, M. & BEHR, R. 2013. Ten Thousand Stories: An ever-changing tale of tragic happenings, San Francisco, Chronicle Books.
  • WALTER MURCH 2001. In the Blink of an Eye: A perspective on film editing, Los Angeles, Silman-James Press.