Animation, continuity and change

Wednesday 21 October 2021

There has been a lot of animation going on in our house during the pandemic. As one of the partners in Superpower Partners, I have been helping make two very short animated films for Dawlaty, a Syrian civil society organisation. The first of these is now finished, on sexual violence against women in Syria, and you can watch it on Vimeo with either Arabic or English subtitles.

And at the same time, daughter Peggy has taken up animation, making several very short clips, some of a duck character, and others of circus performers.

Animation is about creating an illusion of movement. In reality, nothing in an animation drawing moves, but it is replaced by another drawing to give the illusion of movement. Put another way, the illusion is that several different drawings are one single changing drawing. The same illusion is at work in all films and videos—the photographic images on the screen don’t move, they are just replaced on the screen by other similar but different photographic images to give that illusion of movement.

For this Superpower Partners short, we didn’t want to make the characters move, but wanted to give a sense of life to the film through having them appear as if being drawn by an unseen hand, with shifting light and shade. The artwork was created physically in several different parts, so for one shot there might be as many as sixty variations of the image drawn in black ink, all of which were scanned into computers and then layered in Photoshop to create the many final images that made up the animated shot.

While a character remains on the screen, individual drawing elements appear and disappear. No drawing element remains present for the entire time a character is on screen. It’s like the old joke about the axe that has been in the family for generations, the handle of which has been replaced several times, and the head of which has also been replaced. How is it the same axe? In another old joke, a man realises he has been burgled: everything in his apartment has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. In the film, the replicas are far from exact; instead the point is in the difference between one representation of the character and the next, and yet we accept the proposition that the same character is present through the succeeding changing representations.

Why does the human mind fall into this illusion? The simple answer is to invoke ‘persistence of vision’, but that phrase in itself doesn’t amount to an explanation, and the term has been rejected by some. Simply put the phrase suggests that physical limits in our eyes’ capabilities cause the illusion. A slightly more complex view is that the mind compensates for the limits in information received from the eyes by filling in the gaps with assumptions or extrapolations about what is being seen.

Human brains have evolved alonside the evolution of senses from something even more primitive to the limited senses we have today, where our eyes can still only detect a limited spectrum of colours, can only see a limited scale of small detail, and can only distinguish a limited number of successive images in a short span of time. Ancestor species must have had an even poorer ability to see fine grain detail, and a lower ability to distinguish colours. This may be why our evolved brains continue to be able to extrapolate an understanding of monochrome images even when we are used to seeing a full rainbow of colours, and why 20th century television was successful despite its very low resolution compared to today’s high resolution screens.

Evolution from more primitive sensory capacity may also be a part explanation for why we often find simple cartoon representations of characters more engaging than more complex images. While this could be because cartoon representations link to early infancy perception, it could also be because they engage parts of the brain developed earlier in evolution to interpret the world based on more limited information. Perhaps having to do this work of interpretation gives us a deep form of pleasure because it engages these early-evolved parts of the brain?

So interpreting and extrapolating a mental picture of the world based on limited information is likely a primary development in the evolution of the brain. There’s also more to consider in how we have adapted to cope with change. All of the brain’s basic work is to do with tracking and responding to change in our environment, and as our senses have evolved from lower capacity to higher capacity, so have our brains. Basic categories of friend and foe, threat and asset, must come before more detailed understanding of individual entities and locations.

So if we detect a tiger-like object in position A and then a moment later detect a tiger-like object in position B, we will rapidly extrapolate a mental image of a single threat on the move. But if we detect a tiger-like object in position A three days in a row, with no change in its appearance, we will treat it as a fixed feature of the landscape rather than a threat.

This can apply to food as well as to threats. Peggy’s pet lizard eats locusts. It will only eat locusts that move, and it will only eat them if they have been recently introduced into the lizard’s enclosure. If a locust survives a few days, the lizard treats it as part of the landscape and won’t eat it.

This primitive distinction between things that move fast and are seen as potential threats—or as food in the case of the lizard and the locusts—and things that don’t move fast and are seen as permanent features of the landscape, can be dangerously misleading, causing us to overestimate some threats, and under-estimate others. Most of us have an exaggerated image of continuity in our environment, particularly when we’re young. We think of the house we grow up in, the streets, trees, shops and schools around us, as a permanent landscape, when in fact they are slowly changing, and can come to change very rapidly indeed.

Some time ago I heard war reporter Janine di Giovanni compare experiences in Bosnia and Syria, and talk of how people in both places had difficulty in believing war threatened them in their own homes and neighbourhoods, even as attacks were escalating nearby. In a few weeks, months, and years, streets, towns, and cities, were changed beyond recognition.

Our exaggerated expectation of continuity in our environment seems likely to be a legacy of our evolution from more primitive senses and more primitive brains. Perhaps we also have an exaggerated or even illusory image of continuity in ourselves? In our bodies, individual cells grow and die, and the infant is replaced with the child, replaced with the adolescent, the adult. In the passing of the day, we wake, we eat, we sleep again with a great part of our mental functions shut down, perhaps we dream, and then we wake once more still imagining ourselves to be the same person we were a day ago.

Perhaps this too is an illusion brought on by evolutionary necessity? Perhaps in order for individuals to survive long enough for the species to reproduce, it is necessary to maintain an illusion of the self as something distinct from the wider world, something with integrity and continuity through time, rather than a flickering succession of variations?

Below: Animation by Mirai Mizue.