10 Animation Storytelling Principles (Expert References)

10 Animation Storytelling Principles (Expert References): Part 1

Animation is a powerful medium for visual storytelling.

Arguably, the most powerful medium there is.

But just because animation has the potential to cross narrative realms inaccessible to other forms of media, it doesn’t mean every animated work can deliver a story. Yes, gorgeous graphics and aesthetics do matter, but only if there’s a strong narrative foundation behind the visual story.

In this 2-part blog post series, we’ll explore the 10 pillars of animation storytelling and delve into the fundamental building blocks of compelling narratives. This is part one, so the focus is going to be on the 5 principles of storytelling elements explicitly.

We used industry experts’ insights and coupled them with our own research to create this comprehensive guide. By the end of your read, you’ll have learned heaps about the fundamental elements that make captivating narratives.

Breaking Down This Guide’s Structure (READ BEFORE YOU BEGIN)

What makes animation storytelling different from your normal, everyday storytelling is the visual elements at play. Undoubtedly, you know how important the animation’s style, pace, color palette, sound elements, and even background music can be in animation storytelling.

To rephrase, translating storytelling concepts into visual narratives is just as important as crafting those concepts in the first place.

That’s why we decided to break this blog post into two (but actually three) parts:

Part 1: Storytelling Elements

Part 2: Bringing the Story to Life (Execution)

Part 3: The Nexus: Power of words + Artistry of motion

The first part (the blog you’re reading) focuses on the fundamental storytelling principles that lay the groundwork for engaging animated narratives.
The second part delves into the techniques and principles that transform a story into a charming visual experience.

And finally, you’ll see your efforts bear sweet fruits by the time the third part is over. In this nexus of storytelling and visualization, animator teams become the bridge between imagination and art, transforming stories into tangible experiences that have the power to touch souls.

As animation experts who have been active in the industry for many years, we know that all of these stages are equally important to have a final, satisfying animated narrative. So we put our research gears to work and found the 10 pillars of animation storytelling as defined by industry experts and academic resources.

When skillfully employed, each of these principles can bring additional value to your animation series and transform them into magical stories. So read on.

First – Lay the Foundations of Effective Animation Storytelling

The first five principles of effective animation storytelling – Compelling Characters, Engaging Narrative Arc, Immersive Worldbuilding, Emotional Resonance, and Timeless Themes – form the bedrock of animated narratives.

These guiding principles empower animators to create characters we adore, stories that keep us on the edge of our seats, and worlds that stir our imaginations.

Effective Animation Storytelling

Principle 1: Compelling Characters

Source: “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

As we’ve fully explained in our character design and development guide, there are a thousand ways to go about everything character creation involves. For example, Joseph Campbell focuses on the journey that makes characters who they are; beginning with “departure” and usually concluding with “return”.

In his seminal work, Campbell explores the universal archetypes and themes that underpin myths and stories from around the world. At the heart of his “monomyth”, or hero’s journey, is the character, a figure who embodies the universal human experience and resonates with audiences.

book of life

The Hero’s Journey

Think of all your favorite heroes like Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, Frodo Baggins, Hercules, or Achilles.

Do you remember the journeys that turned them into the characters they are? Picture what they went through and you’ll find Campbell’s stages of a hero’s journey:

Departure: There’s usually a call to adventure that disrupts the hero’s ordinary world and sets them off on their journey. Sure, the hero may initially refuse the call out of fear or doubt. But there’s that good old-fashioned mentor or superior who convinces them (or forces them) to enter the unknown world.

Initiation: This is where the fun begins (for the audience, that is). The hero faces a series of obstacles and challenges on their journey that help them develop new skills, learn more about themselves, and overcome their fears. They might meet a figure who represents hope (like Lady Galadriel in The Lord of The Rings), face temptations, and understand themselves better.

Return: At first, the hero may be reluctant to return to the ordinary world, for fear of facing the challenges and responsibilities that await them there. But after returning (again, with or without a fight), they’re a changed person. The internal conflicts are resolved and the hero can now live fully in the present moment.

It is the hero’s relatable struggles, unwavering courage, and transformative journeys that make them relatable and memorable for the audience. They embody our aspirations, our hopes for overcoming challenges, and our belief in the power of change.

Lady Galadriel in The Lord of The Rings

Principle 2: Symbolism and Metaphor

Source: “Film Art: An Introduction” by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space”
Orson Scott Card

It’s easy enough to use symbolism in crafting your animation narrative, at least in theory. By subtly weaving additional layers into your story, you’ll create images that carry a broader meaning beyond their literal representation.

This is not just artful, it’s a way of storytelling in itself.

For example, in Disney’s “The Lion King,” the vibrant colors of the African savanna symbolize the circle of life, while the decaying elephant graveyard represents death and decay. Or in the film “Pinocchio”, the character Jiminy Cricket represents conscience, and in “Spirited Away”

Metaphors can serve the same purpose, AKA, expressing abstract concepts or emotions through the use of colors, settings, people, and concrete imagery.
For example, in Pixar’s “Up,” the countless balloons lifting Carl’s house represent his dreams and aspirations, while the deflated balloons symbolize the loss of his wife and the weight of his grief.

Note: Be mindful of your audience’s cultural context when using symbols and metaphors. Also take care not to make them overly obvious or obscure, just like you would in a normal script.

Spirited Away Principle 3: Immersive Worldbuilding

Source: “The Art of Worldbuilding: Creating Realistic and Believable Fantasy Settings” by Donald Prothero

“Worldbuilding touches all aspects of your story. It touches on plot and character as well. If you don’t know the culture your character comes from, how can you know what he’s really like?”
Patrick Rothfuss

Immersive worldbuilding is the art of creating a cohesive and believable setting for your story. It involves working on the world’s history, geography, and culture while ensuring that everything seamlessly blends together to craft an authentic world.

In his book, Sutter provides a comprehensive guide to worldbuilding, covering everything from creating a world’s history to developing its unique cultures. Here are some of the key principles of immersive worldbuilding that Sutter discusses in his book:

1. Start with a strong foundation. Before you start building your world, it’s important to have a strong foundation in the basics of science and logic. This doesn’t mean that your world needs to be realistic, but it does need to be believable.

2. Be consistent. Once you’ve established the rules of your world, be consistent with them. Don’t just change the rules to fit the needs of your story.

3. Pay attention to the details. The small details are often what makes a world feel believable. Don’t be afraid to spend time developing the finer points of your world, such as its cuisine, fashion, and art.

4. Make the world your own. The best worlds are the ones that are unique and original. Don’t be afraid to put your own stamp on your world. Go crazy with creating your very own culture, races, traditions, and even languages.

Note: Although we decided to discuss worldbuilding in the first section of this edit, effective worldbuilding goes beyond your script (just like everything else in animation storytelling). Animators will have the important job of using their artistic talents to create visually stunning and immersive environments.

Note 2: Don’t forget that you can later use interactive media solutions and interactive animation techniques to create an even more impressive world. You’ll later be able to use them for your campaigns, too.

Principle 4: Emotional Resonance

Source: “The Emotional Craft of Fiction” by Donald Maass

“You’re not supposed to animate drawings. You’re supposed to animate feelings.”
Ollie Johnston, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men

Take ANY animation you’ve ever loved and adored in the past. Here are a few from the top of my head:

  • Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
  • Kobo and The Two Strings
  • Treasure Planet
  • Puss In Boots: The Last Wish
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas

These stories, and many more, made us feel invested in their characters’ journey by hitting the right emotional tones. They made us care, laugh, and cry. And most importantly, they made us feel like a part of their adventures.

What would animation series and movies be like if characters were puppets with no depth and stories unfolded like dry historical accounts? It would be like watching paint dry – visually stimulating perhaps, but empty otherwise.

In his book, Maass argues that stories that elicit strong emotional responses, whether joy, sadness, fear, or anger, are those that’ll stick with us the longest.

He also explores several techniques – like creating empathy for characters, using sensory details, and employing dramatic irony – that can be effectively adapted to animation too.

Animators who masterfully use these techniques can evoke a kaleidoscope of emotions. Let’s not forget that 2D and 3D animation are the ideal tools to create literally anything. With such power in their hands, skilled animators can bring any emotions to life (as long as they’re grounded in the story’s theme and characters’ journey).

ratatouille

Principle 5: Timeless Themes

Source: “The Seven Basic Plots: Why They Work and How to Use Them” by Christopher Booker

“The themes Poe used were universal and timeless. As long as the English language exists at all, we will be able to appreciate what he did. It will not age! It will not become dated!”

John Austin

Timeless themes are the enduring threads that weave humanity together, forming a tapestry of shared experiences that transcend the boundaries of time, place, and culture.

And no, they’re not as cliche and repetitive as you think they might be. Not to get overly philosophical here, but the underlying themes of many works can be boiled to some very fundamental themes.

Booker thinks so, too. According to his book, there are seven timeless themes that are common to all great stories:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

There are also other universal themes like:

  • A human being’s lack of humanity
  • A rebellious human being’s confrontation with a hostile society
  • An individual’s struggle toward understanding, awareness, and spiritual enlightenment
  • An individual’s conflict between passion and responsibility
  • The inevitability of fate
  • The evil of unchecked ambition

Remember that these themes, although repetitive, shouldn’t be perceived as black-and-white concepts. It’s an imaginer’s job to explore the theme in a nuanced and complex way to avoid presenting the theme in a preachy or boring light.

Conclusion

As we’ve explored in this blog post, the five storytelling elements – characters, setting, conflict, plot, and themes – form the bedrock of compelling animation narratives.
These elements, when skillfully employed, breathe life into characters, make audiences feel like a part of their world, drive the narrative forward through engaging conflicts, and weave themes your audiences can relate to.

With these pillars in your arsenal, you’ll be well on your way to crafting animation stories that captivate, inspire, and leave an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of viewers.
Are you ready to bring your animation ideas to life? Picotion Animation Studio is your one-stop creator for transforming your concepts into charming narratives. Contact Picotion Animation Studio today and we’ll be happy to discuss your ideas!
Part 2 : 10 Animation Storytelling Principles (Expert References)

Author

content writer
Sadaf Roshan
Copy Writer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *