How to convey emotion with animation: Falling for a 3D bin

How to convey emotion with animation: Falling for a 3D bin

It’s not often you can say “I think I just fell in love with a talking 3D bin from the future” and still feel like a sane human being. Not to mention finding out that hundreds of thousands of people, of all ages, all across the world feel exactly the same way.

Pixar’s delightfully charming, dystopian classic Wall-E is a perfect example of how animation can be used to evoke a very real, emotional response; taking a humble 3D bin and turning it into an endearing, underdog (or rather, undermachine) from the future. Through the power of animation, we find ourselves rooting for the unlucky in love, automated trash collector, as he bumps and grinds through the technological wastelands. But eliciting this kind of response is a lot more complex than you might first think.

Out of This World

When used effectively, 3D animation can communicate and evoke emotions which actors or words simply cannot. Just look at the way Wall-E’s eyebrows droop ever so slightly to evoke sadness or the way he shudders when he’s scared. Even the widening of his animated eyes when he finds his true love. These subtle but important animated micro-expressions are what make this film such a beloved classic and these human characteristics we all recognise create a deeper sense of empathy with the characters.

What’s most impressive about this animated gem, aside from the picture perfect expressions, is that conversation doesn’t actually feature until much later on in the film. We live out the life of Wall-E purely through his emotions and the ways he acts, yet we never feel like we’re losing the story. In fact, our loveable hero doesn’t even speak – aside from a few choice bleeps and the occasional “Waaaall-e”. It’s purely through the animation that we learn who he is, how he feels and what his purpose is on that lonely planet – a lesson we can apply to almost any character animation.

Pure Imagination

Alongside being used to evoke emotions and empathy on a much deeper level, another benefit of 3D is that it can be used to build a world of pure animated imagination. When shooting content, there are lots of variables you have to consider. There’s the art direction, props, locations, actors, elephants (very occasionally) and the list goes on. With 3D animation, you have the tools to build and craft an entire world from scratch. The characters move and mold with the environment and even the landscape animated around them evokes emotions.

Take American brand Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow”, for example. A wander into the animated world of Crow Foods inc, 3D animation very clearly and cleverly communicates their core brand message – again with no spoken word. The colouring of the grey factory interior matches our hunched and saddened scarecrows. The dark, frightened eyes of the boxed up cows make us feel hopeless in this dark world. Just as we start to give up, the landscape changes to a more optimistic place and our scarecrow friend begins to stand a little taller. Thanks to animation, we experience a rollercoaster of emotions, all in three minutes.

Insider tips and tricks

Whilst playing around with doodling tech over the years and exploring these vast animated landscapes, here are three key tips and tricks from our very own Design Director Chris Ennis that we think are guaranteed to add a little extra emotion to your 3D piece:

It’s all in the detail…

“Don’t just animate the face. Whilst the eyes might be the window to the soul, there’s a whole lot more to emotion than the eyes. To communicate surprise, why not consider making the hair animate on its end as your character’s eyebrows raise. Or for the fear effect, animate your character’s body with a shudder and add micro beads of sweat for maximum dramatic effect”

Don’t forget about perspective…

“Play with perspective. If your character’s meant to be feeling overwhelmed or intimated, instead of simply applying emotion to the face, change the way your viewer sees the scene. Make the enemy tower over them to give them more power, or cloud the scene in darkness to make it seem like a situation they can’t escape from. We promise we’re normally a lot more light hearted than this”

Sometimes it’s about the place… 

“Lastly, don’t think just because you’ve got a main character that they need to do all the emotional legwork. Animate a longing look when two characters bump into each other for love, or go the opposite way and give them a lot of space on screen to evoke a sense of distance. It’s not all about the face – sometimes it’s about the place”

Animation is a remarkable tool that creates a level of empathy and engagement which is often hard to achieve in other mediums and when used effectively, you’ve got a recipe for the perfect story. With such a power tool driving Wall-E, no wonder we fell for a 3D bin.

Pebble Studios
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