When you think of Animation, what comes to mind? Presumably, your thoughts may have immediately jumped to world-renowned classics such as Disney’s Lion King, Pixar’s Toy Story, or maybe even a combination of both western and eastern cartoons. You may have even shifted into a technical standpoint, thinking upon the multiple drawings being layered over each other in order to create a singular motion. Both of these viewpoints, whether you are an admirer of animated films and cartoons or even an artist yourself, are valid in hindsight as to what makes animation such an intriguing concept to explore. However, there still remains a third viewpoint you could have attributed animation to, and this very viewpoint can be similarly elaborated upon throughout Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza. Typically associated with the development of one’s childhood and expansion of imagination as one enters adulthood, Animation can be seen as a gateway to exploring one’s emotions and feelings at a fundamental level. It is through the mechanisms of emotions and feelings described by Damasio that makes effective visual storytelling possible, for they help develop a form of parasocial bond with the viewer and the story being told.
Throughout the duration of Damasio’s book, he presents a multitude of emotion and feeling mechanisms that would help the reader understand the order of operations of one’s mind. Though this be the case, there are three mechanisms in particular that contribute to the captivating nature of visual storytelling; the first being the as-if-body-loop mechanism. The brain is fully capable of producing a varied range of different body states, regardless of whether or not the individual is currently undergoing an experience that would directly evoke a certain emotion or feeling. One can attribute this quality during an instance of sympathy, in which the individual is surrounded by someone who is exhibiting negative emotions. With the as-if-body-loop actively modifying our current body state, it is at that moment “you may feel a twinge of pain that mirrors in your mind the pain of the person in question” (Damasio 115). As one may take note, the as-if-body-loop mechanism is essentially a mental mirror for one’s brain to momentarily construct a reality that doesn’t exactly correspond with their own. It is for this reason that this mirroring mechanism can be utilized to greatly improve the process in which animators and any other visual storytellers captivate their audiences.
From a creative standpoint, many illustrators, especially those of whom that have their drawing fundamentals established, employ the process of studying from life in order to realize what makes us human. What this typically looks like is that the artist will embark on an outing to specifically analyze the interactions of their day-to-day passer byers. Whether this be their neighborhood or even taking a trip downtown, the intent is to grasp the essence of human emotion and how said emotions can transverse into a variety of feelings. From there on, the artist can then reflect upon what they analyzed during their outing either by illustrating directly what they see or take the knowledge they acquired through photo memory and apply it to their current body of work. What I have described to you is one instance in which animators and illustrators alike utilize the as-if-body-loop mechanism to convey believable emotion when creating a specific scene or developing a character itself. We place ourselves within the shoes of our subject, thus recollecting our own memories in order to mirror their lived-in experience. Not only does the studying process emulate the as-if-body-loop mechanism through a mirror-like analysis, but even the drawing process itself encompasses similarities with the mechanism. Speaking for myself, I practice my own form of “method acting” in order to create compelling characters for my independent passion projects. What I mean by method acting is that often I find myself subtly pausing to slightly pose or make an expression while drawing out my subject. By mirroring the body language and expressions of my characters, it activates my as-if-body-loop and places me in the character’s perspective through memories centralized upon the emotion the character is expressing. Let’s say I drew a character slouched on the ground, teary-eyed to the brutalized state their friend is in, I too would begin to slouch and frown which would eventually result in me experiencing thoughts centered around the death of a loved one. Some of these thoughts may not even be a part of my current reality, however the sheer idea of losing someone I care deeply for provides an emotional basis for my creations.
Following the processes that go into creating characters with diverse moral compasses and believable emotional reactions, Damasio’s as-if-body-loop mechanism is further emphasized within animation by the influences they have on the audience’s unconscious reactions. As mentioned previously, the artists themselves mirror those around them in order to create relatable characters, and in some instances act out scenes in order to grasp if the scene captures natural bodily reactions. And so with that in mind, animators draw in more participation from the audience by “highlighting the extreme emotional reactions, getting rid of the smaller, more ambiguous muscle movements and expressions that real people would display” (Wargo). This demonstrates how emotional expression within character’s isn’t solely reliant on facial expression, but rather a multitude of response channels such as body language. As a result, the audiences are invited to interpret these characters and narratives as if their lives were that of the character’s since extreme emotional responses, in theory, emphasize our true feelings. This can span from a viewer seeing one-self in a different light based upon the reactions of the character, or they can reminisce to past experiences that made them react similarly to the character. The reason for why this effect is a prime example of effective as-if-body-loop usage is due to the fact that “the success of all animation rests on the role of audiences in supplying emotional reactions that may not really be visible on screen at all” (Wargo). It is simply boiled down to the audience’s own feelings that give meaning to a scene since they are derived from mirroring the emotions of their favorite characters.
Now that you understand the functionality of emotion and how these bodily reactions found in animation can instill a heightened sense of cognizance within a viewer, let’s delve further into Damasio’s mechanism in regards to feeling perceptions; aka Emotionally Competent Objects. When an individual initially goes through a specific experience, whether that be traveling to a foreign location, listening to new music, trying new food, or any other situation that requires your participation, there will typically be an overt emotion to be had during said experience. What this overt emotion means for the individual may vary. However, it is guaranteed to become registered as a permanent memory for the brain to attribute to whenever the individual undergoes an experience that retains similarities to the newly formed memory. That is why Damasio calls it an emotionally competent object, for the “feelings [that] are linked…[initiate] the emotion-feeling cycle.” (91)—meaning the object itself is being perceived through the lens of a past experience.
To put this notion into better perspective, emotionally competent objects deepen the bond between the viewer and the animated stories through the use of varying stimuli pertaining to the feeling state. A good visual storyteller will design an emotional experience proceeding their efforts in understanding what triggers their own emotion-feeling cycle, however an effective visual storyteller factors in the sensibilities of others. That said, animators rely on incorporating subtle nuances throughout their stories in order to trigger one’s “frisson”—a state of intense fear or excitement. A prime example of this technique can be identified towards the conclusion of the anime “A Silent Voice”. At the beginning of the scene, the animators capture a moment of bliss during a festival with everyone overlooking the fireworks going off in the night as joyful music plays. It’s a common trope for anime to utilize fireworks as a visual motif for friendship, finding love, and memories of one’s youth. However, the director alters this commonality by having one of the main characters stand on the ledge of a building in utter silence while everyone’s occupied by the fireworks. It is during this given moment where the audience’s frisson may trigger due to the false sense of security created by the fireworks, as the character is attempting to commit suicide. In other words, the fireworks in this scene becomes an emotionally competent object for the viewer because, although the initial feeling of a fireworks show is generally that of joy, the memories that are now attributed to the object may encompass depressive thoughts specifically due to this scene. This is why utilizing Damasio’s emotionally competent object mechanism is crucial for the effectiveness of visual storytelling, for it sustains the longevity of one’s emotional connection to the story.
Furthermore, emotionally competent objects aren’t always in the form of overall scenes or themes found in animation, they can also consist of intangible subjects such as music. While taking an overview of a study conducted by Robert Zatore and Anne Blood, Damasio took note that their study “also identified regions involved in producing the emotive responses behind the pleasurable states” (103). By identifying this quality of the human brain, Damasio makes it seemingly apparent that auditory stimuli functions just as effectively as visual stimuli when attempting to trigger a specific mental response. Applying this mechanism to animation, we can begin to identify instances where the soundtracks produced for the show / movie function as a method to, first, evoke a specific feeling within the audience, thus leading into the attribution of personal memories . Studio Ghibli lead japanese animation director, Hayao Miyazaki, makes great use of auditory stimuli by distributing multiple soundtracks with varying melodies. A memorable example of said musical queue can be experienced in the animated film “My Neighbor Totoro.” Miyazaki uses a melody titled “The Path of the Wind” whenever the camphor tree is in frame and takes it a step further by altering the instrumentation depending on the tone of the shot. During one instance the camphor tree melody could be mixed to “match the majesty of the tree and the wonder it inspires in [the main characters]” (Jocoy), while during another the melody could intensify. By having such a meticulous orientation of sounds, the audience has no choice but to enter a state of pleasure and recollect memories that encompass the stimuli they are being fed.
As one can now realize, animation is a field that not alone requires a creative thought process in order to produce visual content, but specializes in understanding the human mental functionality. With the emotional reactions and feeling stimulation addressed, there still exists one final mechanism that solidifies the effectiveness of animation as a whole. Damasio’s Brain Stem Switch theory is one composed of both mental functions—an emotion-feeling state—that causes the brain to react in an unorthodox manner. Damasio explains how “the brainstem is a very small region of the central nervous system and is jam-packed with nuclei and circuitry involved in different functions” (73). It is with this explanation that one can begin to realize how even the most minimal of variations in its structure could result in sporadic emotional outputs and memories consonant to the feelings that followed. Inversely, one’s thoughts could spark a similar chain of bodily functions, starting with the feeling of one emotion which would gradually lead to an emotional reaction. In other words, certain individuals retain bipolar-like qualities, and so visual storytellers can use such a sensitive response to their advantage.
Within the animation field, there exists subcategories for the profession that are required to cohesively function with one another by upholding their given role. Those of whom that focus on conceptualizing the character’s overall look for an animation project are the artists who take greater note of the emotional responses generated through certain shapes. Character concept artists follow what is known as a “Character Design Pipeline” in order to produce visual features necessary for a character’s primary personality, as well as captivate a desired reaction from the audience. The visual language utilized for character design is a subjective process, however the general approach clearly defines what each shape can entail for the audience’s emotion-feeling state. As stated by “Just Us” lead artist and freelance graphic designer Hanna Ekström, “villains are often based upon dominant triangular concepts, as they appear malicious, sinister and communicate with the most aggression”, as opposed to circular concepts, to which “circular shapes in nature has a tendency of being soft and harmless and evoke likable characters” (Ekström 9-10). It is through this pipeline process where concept artists factor in Damasio’s brain stem switch theory as a way to bring clarity to their design work. For example, by implementing increasingly rigid shapes and a muted color palette, the artist would initially induce a feeling of weariness within the viewer. This would, in turn, cause the viewer to react consonantly and attribute the design to a memory of another character, as well as a specific action carried out by said character or a memorable voice-line that inflicted a sense of intimidation.
It goes without saying that Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza wields great potential in broadening one’s understanding of their field of interest, for his emotion and feeling mechanisms helped pinpoint the underlying importance of my interest in visual storytelling. Each mechanism revealed the influences artists can have over their audiences, specifically at a psychological level. Whether it were the creative process itself or the contributions made by the audience as the artists’ driving motivation, Damasio’s understanding of the varying mental states is a necessary basis for establishing a deeper connection with one’s target audience. Not only will these methods appeal to multiple personality types, but they will enhance the effectiveness in the delivery and design of a character and story.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Harcourt, 2003.
Ekström, Hanna. “FULLTEXT01.” Uppsala University, 2013.
Jocoy, Stacey, et al. “The Power of Music in Anime.” The Japan Foundation, New York, The Japan Foundation, 9 Dec. 2020, 8pm, www.jfny.org/event/the-power-of-music-in-anime/.Links to an external site.
Wargo, Eric. “Animated Expressions.” Psychologicalscience, Association for Psychological Science – APS, 30 Aug. 2005, www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/animated-expressions.Links to an external site.
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