Storytelling with Animation

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“We all love stories. We were born for them.”

-Andrew Stanton

Every day I’m reminded of this quote by Pixar producer Andrew Stanton. In Andrew’s TED talk, he reminds us what makes a story unforgettable, making a viewer care. We’ve all heard stories we didn’t care about, but the stories that made us care live with us forever.

Whether it’s a short film, a novel, poem, song, or animated short film, the story must make people care. The most important way to engage a viewer with a story is structure. In Liz Blazer’s book, Animated Storytelling, she breaks down the most common ways to structure a story.

Linear Storytelling

Linear storytelling features the evolution of a story in a sequential flow of events. Think of your three-act plays. The story unfolds with a beginning, middle, and end. These stories have moments, or as Liz calls them, beats, that propel the story forward.

Courtesy: BBC

Think of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale gets stuck in a tornado, ends up in Oz, and then meets the Scarecrow, followed by the Tin Man and then the Cowardly Lion. The events continue in a logical sequence until Dorothy Gale is confronted with Wicked Witch of the West and ends up back home.

Nonlinear Story Structure

Liz Blazer identifies these stories as stories that are unpredictable and are often disjointed. She suggests there are five types of nonlinear stories, including:

  • A Book Ending, ending the story with the beginning
  • The Beaded Necklace, using chaotic sounds and music to hold the story together.
  • The countdown, a story that manipulates time, constantly sending the characters to the point of no return.
  • The Puzzle, leaves clues for the viewer hooking them until the ending reveals the story.
  • High concept, a big idea hooks viewers and connects with their emotions.
A Single Life produced by Job, Joris, and Marieke, is a perfect example of a big concept film, as the record player manipulates the life of a woman.

Unlocking a Story

Once a story has a structure, a few strategies exist to enhance the story further. Liz Blazer hits the nail on the head in her book, Animated Storytelling. She reminds animators to introduce the conflict concisely and as early as possible. I agree wholeheartedly with Liz on this topic. Stories need to have their conflict introduced as fast as possible.

Without a clear conflict, there’s nothing to hook the audience. Conflicts can exist externally, or internally for characters. Look at the opening scene of Wall-E, produced by Andrew Stanton. In the first two minutes of the film, you’re introduced to the lonesome robot living in a ruined world seeking love of another. The scene is a thing of beauty, and master class of introducing conflict as early as possible.

Preparing an Animated Story

When it comes to planning a visual story, storyboarding takes the cake. Storyboards are rudimentary comic books that introduce the flow of events in a visual form. The storyboard includes various camera angles, rough frame composition, visual continuity and progresses the story as timed and imagined.

Storyboard artists will create hundreds of storyboard frames that outline the story before production. This planning phase saves energy and money, as artists can fully flush out the story before spending energy on the final project.

Disney’s Pixar is notorious for spending years developing storyboards for their animated stories. Once complete, they can pass the storyboards to artists who will then construct and labor over the final frames for the film. Below is an example of storyboards used to develop Pixar’s Wall-E.

Storyboard artist: Derek Thompson


Speaking of animation, an old trend still engages audiences worldwide, and the living photo cinemagraphs are here to stay! I’ve been exploring the world of cinemagraphs, animated still images that resemble an infinite moving video with frozen aspects.

Coca Cola loves cinemagraphs, as they prove to be an effective way to engage an audience.

Advertisers love overusing cinemagraphs for social media delivery, and for good reason. Cinemagraphs are fun short animations that improve the engagement of audiences.

You’ve probably noticed Coca-Cola’s endless pour animation or the endless drip of whiskey. Cinemagraphs engage users effectively, as an infinite loop entices users to keep watching.

Cityscapes and Cinemagraphs

Not limited to advertising and marketing, artists and travel agencies have begun using cinematographs to promote cities and towns across the world.

A Cinemagraph of New York City.
A Firework display Cinemagraph created by Miha Godec
A Cinemagraph of Paris, France, credit: orbojunglist

I’m inspired by artists worldwide who have created cinemagraphs of the cities they love and live in. Surprisingly, I found zero cinemagraphs of my home, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

I felt compelled to create a series of digital gifs that showcase the Southcoast. The process proved straight forward:

  • Shoot some video footage
  • Edit a small looping section
  • Extract a still image from the edited footage
  • Use Adobe Photoshop or Adobe After Effects to create a mask of the still image.
  • Layer the still image with the mask on top of the video
  • Export the cinemagraph as a gif.

New Bedford Cinemagraphs

Flowers– Drew Furtado

This Cinemagraph was shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV and was edited with Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. I exported a still image and a small video portion from Final Cut Pro X and then imported both files into Adobe Photoshop. I created stacked the still image on top of the video, digitally painted a mask, allowing the video to play freely below. I then exported it as a GIF and resized the video format to allow the file to playback appropriately.

Scallops, Drew Furtado

For this Cinemagraph, I used the same steps outlined above. However, I used Adobe After Effects to animate the effect. Cinemagraphs thrive with motion, and I felt this video clip had lots to offer. Luckily, I had this footage from a tourism video I produced for the City of New Bedford. In After Effects, I used the pen tool to create the mask of bubbling oil. I then duplicated the video layer and made a mask of the flames.

While Adobe After Effects is a powerful program, it does not allow the exporting of GIF files. You’ll have to import the footage from Adobe After Effects into Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Animate to convert it to a GIF. I wouldn’t recommend using Adobe After Effects for cinemagraph creation. Save yourself an extra step, and create your cinemagraph in Adobe Photoshop.

Whaleman, Drew Furtado

Whaleman features a video clip from a short film I made for a Boston University filmmaking workshop that I lead. This cinemagraph attempts a different story, focusing on the subtle movement of trees and the Department of Public Works employee watering the gardens. This cinemagraph was designed in the same fashion as the first, edited in Final Cut Pro X, and then animated in Adobe Photoshop.

Overall, I was very happy with these results. I am quite proud of these, and I hope to develop more in the meantime. The process is fun, and the animations are easily shared with the world.

About the Author
About the Author

Drew Furtado is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, and leader of a nationally recognized high school media arts communication department .

He develops guides and strategies for nonprofit and educational organizations to improve and grow their social media presence, website development, and communication practices that best engages audiences.

New Bedford, Massachusetts

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