When no words are needed…

Like the early days of silent film, animation exposes the possibility to create a mode of narration through music, expressions, and actions rather than speech. Narration is the cinematic version of oral communication and is directed straight to the audience. When narration is delivered right it invites the audience to participate in the story and makes it easier for them to follow (Beauchamp, 2005). The Aviator is a good example of an animation where the story is told through the use of traditional story framing and face expressions without allowing the character to talk.

The traditional storyline

During the process of documenting the work with ‘The Aviator’ a supervisor told us to focus more on the ‘why’ the animation was made as it was, instead of just focusing on the ‘how’. That made us think! Because why did we actually end up choosing the direction we did with the story, and which elements of storytelling did we bring into the creation process without perhaps being consciously aware of their importance?

The whole storyline originated from a mixture between Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Ugly Duckling from H. C. Andersen, and some self-invented stories combined with a wish to add some kind of dark twist to the whole plot. This then ended up with a naïve caterpillar captured in a classroom.

The caterpillar character was inspired by our original starting ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. The idea of the classroom was created to give the character the established motif of conflict-and-goal that many storylines build upon. In classical storytelling, most main figures meet a conflict that they need to solve and pursued a goal that they need to reach in order for the story to conclude with them living “happily ever after”. This is one of the most deeply ingrained expectations that an audience will have in a storyline, and the audience’s expectation is particularly important to consider in a tale told without.

Several of our decisions in creating The Aviator drew their significance from traditional storytelling; for example the number of escape attempts the caterpillar makes before giving up. Everybody – even little kids – knows that three is the magical number when telling stories. Aladdin had three wishes, the big bad wolf got defeated by the three little pigs, goldilocks dealt with three bears and even Lord Farquaad in Shrek – an animation that definitely draws heavily on traditional fairy tale tools – has three princesses to pick from when choosing a wife. So the main character in The Aviator inevitable has to make three attempts to escape to meet the expectation of the audience.

Expressing emotions
Just as important as giving the audience guiding lines through a traditional story setup is the use of body language and facial expressions of characters when creating a mode of narration. Ekman (2003) argues that most facial expressions are universal and can be even more revealing about how a person really feels than words. As a result they are a strong tool to express emotions and thoughts.

In the making of The Aviator the storyboard was very useful when deciding initially which facial expressions were needed, so they could all be created and make the character’s expressions consistent throughout the animation. Only an ability to snigger and to wink with one eye was later added to the caterpillar and the butterfly respectively.

As a default the caterpillar was made with a dumb and rather emotionless facial expression, which created a perfect ‘blank canvas’ for applying the different facial expressions. The caterpillar’s appearance was designed to be cute, and innocent but also a bit naïve. These traits should hopefully appeal to the sympathy of the audience while also capturing the impression that he does not really understand the world he has landed in. Throughout the animation there is also deliberately made use of many close ups and occasionally sequences where the character is looking directly at the camera. This is furthermore to give the audience a relation with the character and hopefully assist in provoking stronger feelings towards the final outcome.

Looking in retrospect this animation truly demonstrates that facial expressions are universally read, because even though the character’s expressions was based on the traits of simple smileys from communication applications like Skype and Messenger, there is a close resemblance between this character’s expressions and well-known characters from other animations like the lifted brows and starring eyes when being scared and the clenched jaw and the lowered and brought together eyebrows when being angry or annoyed (Ekman, 2000).

Setting the scene through music and light
In addition to the character’s expressions, the accompanying factors of music and light is essential as well for helping to create the mode of narration and retain the attention of the audience. These are even more important in a film with no speech, since the intonations and expressiveness of the spoken word can be echoed in the sounds, and tension can be reflected in the lightning used within the animation. Both music and light were greatly used in The Aviator, for example to emphasise the character’s frame of mind in the different scenes and to change the atmosphere from friendly to more sinister in the first part of the animation.

More than words…
All together animations offer a much broader span of methods to create narration modes stretching beyond mono- and dialogues and make them unnecessary. In many ways these elements of creating a narrative can be seen as being even stronger than speech because they appeal to the audiences sub-consciousness. Elements like the unconscious expectations, facial expressions, music and sound are therefore not always directly appreciated by an audience, but they will definitely be missed if they where not present.