It’s More Than The G-Rating

Why Choose Animation to Portray Your Story?

This is a blog from our summer intern, Peri Segel, a film student at NYU and generally big brained person…

From Disney to Pixar to Dreamworks, these animation studios have set the standard for what “animation” is today. This world of animation they’ve created is a coloring book, where the trees speak and the restrictions of the real world do not apply. Essentially, animation is a world that defies gravity, and where your childhood fantasies may run amuck.

However, just because this medium allows one to create an imaginative world, doesn’t mean this fantasy cannot be considered “mature.” A common misconception when it comes to animated content is that it is created for younger, less sophisticated audiences, specifically: children. That being said, this misconception is certainly not illogical or unprecedented. Disney has created everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen ; Pixar given us classics such as Toy Story and Monsters Inc. ; and Dreamworks has produced beloved films such as Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon . Essentially, all of these films seem to be geared toward, and majorly enjoyed by, children. Adults certainly enjoy these films as well, and a large number are just as excited as their five-year-olds to view these films when they hit theaters. However, this does not prevent the snickers any sophisticated individual over 18 would receive if they declare Finding Nemo their favorite film. Why do we need this excuse of nostalgia or “because my son turned it on” to truly admit the value an animated film has to us?

In recent years, films such as Inside Out and Anomalisa have pushed the boundaries of the level of sophistication an animated feature can possess. On the other hand, director Hayao Miyazaki has been producing animated features aimed at adults for years, bringing hits to us such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away . In addition, extremely mature animated television content has existed since the creation of series like The Simpsons and has continued through many hit TV programs such as Archer , Family Guy , and Rick and Morty . Recent short films such as the critically-acclaimed Borrowed Time and In a Heartbeat certainly tackle more adult concepts as well, that would even be considered too mature for young audiences. While animation enables us the freedom to create a colorful, carefree world, the value of its medium is not limited to these conditions.

When it came time to select courses the summer before my first semester at film school, there were two introductory production courses available: a narrative photography course and an introductory animation course. Initially, this decision was a no-brainer for me: of course I was going to select the photography course. I came to film school to be a writer, and I wanted to write more dramatic, thought-provoking content. What use could drawing stick figures and Mickey Mouse possibly do for me? I had wanted to create something meaningful, not playful.

However, I found myself heavily influenced by the advice of one of my orientation leaders, who was a sophomore in my program at the time. She was an aspiring writer as well, and urged me to choose Intro. to Animation. Her passion for this course was indisputable, and so I acted on her advice and enrolled in the course.

Intro. to Animation is arguably the most intensive course I’ve taken thus far throughout my college career – and I am in the midst of my junior year now. I spent close to 200 hours in the animation lab working on my final project, and a comparable amount on all preceding assignments. That being said, my orientation leader was correct: this course was also one of the most meaningful courses to me as a filmmaker and storyteller. Not only did it train my eye to be more aware of details and give me a larger appreciation for the craft, but it taught me why animation was a valuable storytelling tool, beyond just entertaining kids while their parents are making dinner.

During this same time, I was also enrolled in a psychology course focused on childhood trauma and its impact on the brain. There was one specific unit on child orphans that stood out to me, and I learned in detail about how certain orphanages will release their children into society when they reach the young age of 16. For some reason, this unit strongly resonated with me, and I was compelled and inspired to conduct a character study of a 16-year-old orphan through animation.

Essentially, I chose to approach this character study through a fantastical manifestation of this 16-year-old orphan’s thoughts of suicide (which is extremely common in orphans of this age). The film begins with my protagonist standing on the roof of the orphanage in which she has spent nearly the entirety of her life. She then steps off the roof and slowly floats past the three stories of the orphanage building. In this case, the word “stories” has a double-meaning, as she peers through the window of each of the three floors, and is reminded of memories of an old friend who was adopted. Thus, detailing a story of friendship and self-discovery.

While this story deals with darker, more complicated topics such as suicide, orphans, and homelessness, it has, what I had aimed to be, an uplifting yet informative (and slightly ambiguous) ending. However, upon viewing my film, an older family friend of mine called it “disturbing.” He said he wasn’t expecting something “so dark” from an animated film, because he didn’t know animation was allowed to be “like that,” and actually asked me if I was “breaking a rule” by creating a film like this. At first, I was offended by this reaction, mostly because of the many hours I put into creating the film, but I eventually realized why my film shocked him so much: it wasn’t familiar and it disappointed his expectations of what an animated film should be. People don’t tend to turn to animated films to soul-search or make them think; they turn to animated films to cheer up, to brighten their day, or simply relax. In contrast, my professor applauded me for creating a “PSA-style” animation, even though my topic in conjunction with animation was fairly “untraditional.” She applauded me for the ways I used animation to communicate my message, and appreciated how I chose a topic outside the typical genres and moods animated content tends to take on.

All in all, it’s important to note that I didn’t choose to tell this story as a short animated film merely because I happened to be enrolled in an introductory animation course at the time. I was inspired to tell the story, and utilized the tools of animation to further enhance the visual narrative. With the limits that come with creating a student film, and having no prior background in visual effects, animation was the only way I could self-sufficiently portray the mental state of my protagonist and her psychological journey as she “floats” from window to window, memory to memory. Whether my topic corresponded with the expectations of animated films or not, I chose animation because it was the medium that would most effectively execute the story I was seeking to tell. My protagonist was a young girl, but I was not necessarily telling a story for young girls. My protagonist could fly and float, but she was not Tinkerbell. My world was colorful, but it dealt with topics that weren’t as bright. Overall, animation is a medium, a tool, an art form, a visual playground – not a genre.