Visual Storytelling: Animation Strategies

Visual Storytelling

Visual Storytelling involves the use of graphics, images, pictures and videos to engage with viewers in an effort to drive emotions and interaction. It’s about determining the right way to represent the information to ensure that it is compelling and relevant for the right audience. When the visual aspect is at its most powerful, the impact and performance of the content is magnified.

What is Visual Storytelling? The Growing Trend in Multimedia Design Jess Scherman  05/30/2016

Visual storytelling for particular audiences requires adaptation of insights from narrative theory, visual dynamics in art and design on each frame and editing techniques from video and film. These insights are relevant across all types of animation, although they may be adapted in different ways.

Visual storytelling without dialogue or text relies on simplification of plot and clarity of visual expression. In animation and film the audience has to quickly understand or decide to question what is happening, absorbing fleeting visual cues. Unlike readers of printed stories they have less opportunity to control the speed of absorbing complexity because it is more difficult to rewind passages not understood.

Hitchcock’s ‘pure cinema’ relying on movement, rhythm and linkages between images. Genndy Tartakovsky’s ‘Primal’, although very different in subject matter from the animations here, illustrates the potential drama that can be created in short, dialogue free visual animation through attention to directions of movement, rhythms of composition and careful colour and shape choices between the images.

3-D computer animation
or CGI .

Humour. This creates 3D digital puppet rigs that can be digitally manipulated following similar principles to Stop Motion. Most cinema animation is produced in this way. But there are also independent animators using software like Maya, or free Open Source software like Blender. This can be hyperrealistic or output in various illustration styles to produce animated short films like these from Film Bilder.

Analysis of Tartakovsky’s ‘Primal’ a simple dramatic animation without dialogue. References Each episode has 3-5 functional story-beats, linked through contrasts of direction of movement – fast movement one way, stop move forward/back, fast movement the other way.
Stop Motion

Eastern Europe: framing, colour, sound

Build, Erase, Transform

!! post to do
natural media, charcoal

Structures of Narrative

Linear narrative

Kurt Vonnegut analyses narrative as curve shapes on a graph with vertical axis good/bad and horizontal time axis. Most stories have curves that can be adapted to audience preferences for happy/sad stories etc. Flat stories eg Kafka metamorphosis or hamlet can be very good, but require a lot of skill to make interesting.
Parker and Stone discuss the link points between story ‘beats’ – ‘and then’ links are boring. Links should be ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. ‘This happens therefore this happens, but this happens therefore that happens.
Chris Do focuses on conflict – somebody wants something but can’t get it because of an obstacle. This could be conflict between subjective expectations/objective reality (Robert McKean), Normal – explosive event – new normal trajectory (Kirstin Hall). An important element in making this dramatic is through techniques for story delaying and exaggeration (Francis Glebas).
Howard Wimshurst discusses the importance of unpredictability, where the narrative plays on audience expectations, but ends with something new and unusual. He suggests designing plots using a ‘thought valve’ model, generating story options through de Bono’s lateral thinking – the first 3 options are likely to be similar to those of the audience, so later options should be selected for the plot twist.

Non-linear narrative

Non-linear narratives are

‘stories that don’t seem to have recognisable arcs or easily-interpreted thematic intentions….stories that cut different points in time, are whimsical, moody and symbolic, and use sound, colour, and pacing in a totally unexpected way.’

Blazer 2016 p 28

Some non-linear narratives in feature films and long animations can be quite complex with flashbacks and subplots sometimes signalled by their own separate style eg colour vs black and white. In Short films the non-linear narrative can be signalled through synchronous action and/or scenes are separated by specific signs or transitions.

  • Cycles and loops: cycles can loop, oscillate, or even appear to be stationary. They are often used in layers for economy of drawing effort. But they can also have narrative purposes, to signal repetition and circularity of life, interconnectedness etc.
  • Book Ending: Stories that end where they begin, going anywhere in between
  • Countdown: a constantly rising set of events without a climax
  • Puzzle: Information is revealed piece by piece, not necessarily in any order, until the big picture is clear.
  • Beaded necklace: use sound, music, voiceover to hold chaotic elements together. Sound acts as the string preventing the beads falling apart.

Animated format

The different elements of either liner or non-linear narrative can be presented on screen in different ways to link and contrast them and clarify whatever message/s is intended. Animation can use formats that draw on film and/or comic book layout.

A complex animated non-linear documentary that starts with memory loss of a massacre, where the reality is only revealed through video footage at the end. Animation is partly a distancing mechanism that means more graphic violence can be shown or hinted at, with different animation styles used to differentiate different parts of the story.
‘Merlot’ is a textless animation in comic format where the scenes are each set in separate pages that are pushed vertically or horizontally or turned, with some movement across and between each page.
‘Malaria’ uses the format of a book where pages are turned by hand as if in a storybook.

Tim Webb’s uses the drawing process to emphasise the narrative, using different media and styles to separate the different story strands.
Story told by movement of contrasting layers across each other.
Cycles and loops: Zbigniew Rybczynski, Tango (1980) This animation is a montage of numerous short film sequences of one or two characters in the room. Each character/pair of characters is filmed separately (black line and no shawdows) in the room, then cut/masked out and overlaid in multiple cycles for each character in multiple permutations in a separate film of the room itself.. The repetition of cycles for each character is obvious – a tango of life repetitions. The different cycle layers means each cycle is in its own little bubble of separation. The different combinations and permutations of multiple character bubbles are chaotic and often surreal. The only interaction is where the old woman picks up the ball at the end after everyone else has gone, making that a very poignant moment.

Beaded Necklace: Louis Morton’s animation is inspired by city background noise ‘My goal was to capture the atmosphere of a city by recording its sounds and creating an imagined world inspired by those sounds. It’s a playful look at the relationship between people and their built environment’ (Blaser p30)

Visual Dynamics

Lines of communication

Much of the power of animation comes from the drawing style and how far the type of line supports the emotional and narrative content.

Clean outlines lines for manipulation of rigged characters have become the norm. They are easier to read, clearly separating characters from backgrounds and are easier and faster to replicate as part of animation studio production lines.

Hand-drawn lines in natural media, or digital lines that attempt to replicate natural media, convey emotion and feeling.

to recall the reality within the drawing rather than thinking the drawings themselves are real

Isao Takahata

There are many different line styles that can be used expressively: thick lines, thin lines, variable width lines. Choices to be made about the colour of lines and how far they affect colours of shapes. Different types of line can be used for different characters. Or can change with a character’s emotions.

It is also possible to omit lines all together to give greater freedom with palettes. But this requires attention to tonal contrast and negative space so that figures continue to be readable against backgrounds.

For inspiration from different types of line used by artists and illustrators see:

Perspective and Viewpoint

Time, Space and Frame

‘Time is what prevents everything from being present all at once’ Henri Bergson. The animator seeks to control at what pace, rhythm and direction things appear.

“What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame” Norman McLaren, Computer Animation

Difference between film and animation?

Directing attention: 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.

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
Timing and Rate of Frame

Norman McClaren

Smooth versus flow

Difference between fluid animation and smooth animation:

  • Smooth is about the frame rate – how many new frames occur per second of animation.
  • Flow is about the gesture of the drawings, the arcs, the drag and follow through of a movement.

To get smooth animation, you just need to draw plenty of in-betweens until all of your animation is on 1s
Flow is more complex to get right than smooth.

Keyframing and Inbetweens

Editing the story

!! Grammar of the Shot. Insert from Sketchlog 3

Lessons from film: Using sound


  • ABBOTT, H. P. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.
1) Digital 2D animation

is the main approach used here for animating the drawings. See:

2) Rotoscoping

is used for referencing and integrating other contextual material like photographs and video. See:

Rotoscoping Styles and Methods

3) Animating physical materials

use of natural media like pencil, charcoal, paint, ink and sand photographed through Stop Motion techniques to give an more organic and dynamic drawing and image effect.

Build, erase,transform: animating physical materials

Software Workflows

Visual Storytelling

Animation is a form of visual storytelling involving sequential images played sequentially over time. Animation can take many forms in different media including eg line drawing, shapes, photography and video. Each of these can be manipulated in different ways to give varying degrees of ‘objective’ or ‘imagined’ representation of ideas.

Animation is inevitably a process of abstraction. It is not possible for the human eye and brain to follow infinite details in moving images. Even in video, motion blur between frames. a process and the malleability of time is its primary material. It is not the image, drawing or shape of each frame that matters in animation, rather it is the difference between the frames that generates the illusion of movement in animation.

It is the animator’s ability to control and play with these intervals between frames that matters. It is important to think in terms of intervals, rates of change and flux, rather than thinking in terms of still images or compositions.

The ways in which these principles of animated movement are applied varies depending on the types and style of animation in question.