The Most Important Element in an Animated Film is…

You said Story, right? You hear this rhetorical question all the time — what are the three most important things in an animated film? Story, story, story, goes the standard answer.

But I don’t think that’s true. Story doesn’t matter if you don’t have something else, something the audience doesn’t have to actually watch the entire film to appreciate (which they DO if they’re going to appreciate the story). It’s Appeal.

No appeal, no audience. Without appeal, no one ever finds out if your story is good, because they don’t go to see the film. It’s game over. If you don’t hook them with the first images they see, with the first bits of the trailer, then you can have the greatest story in the world and you probably won’t get them into the theater. Pixar knows this. That’s why they’re so careful with the first images you see of their films. Remember this great bit of character acting from Mr. Incredible in this teaser:

Incredibles teaser

There’s virtually no story, but tons of pure appeal. Same with the Wall-E Super Bowl ad:

Wall-E Superbowl spot

Who knows what the story’s going to be about? Who cares? It was appealing as all hell, and I’m ready to put down $10 for a ticket right now.

There’s also an element I’ll call “Appeal Fatigue.” Whatever appeal these birds had:

Surfs Up

…was long gone after these guys:

Mad penguins

…and this little guy:

Happy Feet

To a large extent, the same principle applies in your own animation. You can be a master of all the other principles of animation, but if your stuff isn’t appealing, no one’s going to care too much. And even if it is appealing, if it looks like what everyone else is doing, you’re going to lose points. So save your imitations of the Brothers Quay, and do something original that just puts a smile on people’s faces.

That doesn’t mean it should necessarily be funny ha-ha (as Joe Peschi might say) — which goes to the question of what, exactly, is appeal? That’s a much bigger question than I’m going to try to answer here. I’ll just say that there’s generally a pretty good consensus of when something has appeal, and this is usually apparent at the idea stage, before you’ve invested dozens of hours in the animation. So kick your ideas around with people you trust if you have any doubts.

I’m going to be doing some posts about spacing and physics and so on, but before I do that I just wanted to emphasize the big picture. I don’t want anyone to lose the forest for the trees. Make your work appealing, then make sure your spacing is working.

Addendum: Just to be clear, I’m being a touch cheeky here. Arguing about what is “most important” in animation is a bit like medieval theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. This is especially true when many of the terms we’re using, like appeal and story, have indistinct and debatable definitions. And in this post I’m also not really talking about what makes a great animated film, but one that gets watched. Anyway, I love discussing and debating this stuff, so comment away, and some of this will be grist for future posts.

13 Responses to “The Most Important Element in an Animated Film is…”

  1. Alonso Says:

    How did you find that Brother’s Quay, everytime I’ve looked closest I can get is street of crocodile’s with Metalica laid on top. Did you see 9 by Shane Acker? (I think you can find it on youtube) It’s Brother’s Quay style done in CG, although it’s done great, it somehow loses something not being actual arte povera real world material.

    You’re right that ‘story’ is the answer that has been so indoctrinated that it’s said without question. I’ve always thought personalities were more important. My favorite example is Calvin and Hobbes, basically Waterson would start with his two character’s and maybe add a prop like a water baloon and a narrative would just spring up inevitably from the characters. Which seems like how a good story should be, driven by the character’s instead of driving them.

    And I think the key to character’s is that they’re appealing. Calvin may be selfish and a jerk but he’s fun and you’re on his side so you rooting for him to win out. The muppets are super appealing, I love their crazy personalities, their movies aren’t that brilliant story wise but I still have a lot of fun watching them. Whereas there are a lot of movies out there that have mediocre stories, but because the main character starts out as an unappealing jerk (so he can have a growth arc) the film is not as fun. Why would I want to hang out with this jerk for 2 hours?

    So I think you are totally right. Story is not the king it’s claimed to be. And appeal seems like a good candidate for the crown.


  2. Cassidy Says:

    Great post, Kevin!

    It sounds like you’re talking about two different aspects of appeal here: (a) marketing appeal, the magic stuff that puts tushes in seats, and (b) character appeal, which keeps those tushes from getting bored and fidgety during a two-hour flick.

    Without marketing appeal, you might have a great movie but nobody will see it. Without the other kind, you have a lousy movie.

    I don’t entirely agree with the separation you’re making here between appeal and story, though, as if they’re independent quantities. I’d say that without appeal, there is no story– only plot.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Alonso, thanks for the great input. I have a video with much of the Quay Brothers work on it, and I saw a bunch of it at an Academy screening a couple of years ago, as well as at other screenings. I should mention that I actually do enjoy being challenged by animation and films that are, at least superficially, unappealing, though I have to admit that I have a fairly low threshold for work that I find intentionally ugly or obnoxious.

    I like Acker’s 9. I think it’s far more appealing than most of the Brothers Quay, in large part because the narrative is more accessible, and in large part because the character animation is at a high level, so I can actually believe in the reality of that world. I think that film, despite its darkness, has a lot of appeal (much like Nightmare Before Christmas).

    And you’re absolutely right about the vital importance of character and character appeal.

    Hola Cassidy! Yes, you’re absolutely right, I’m blurring a few things together. I do think that marketing appeal and character appeal are usually related (unless the marketing is completely dishonest!). The title of the post should really be “The most important element for a successful film is …” My point is that Appeal is an absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, element.

    As for story, I think I have a different take. I separate story from storytelling. As I’ll explore in a later post, I think the exact same story can be told in different ways, with vastly different results. And I think there are a lot of things that separate story from plot, but I’m not really sure appeal is one of them. What I mean is, I think there are perfectly valid stories that lack appeal in any real measure. Those stories may not get retold too often, or may not be enjoyed by a wide audience, but they’re still stories.

    Of course, the key element here is exactly what we mean my ‘appeal’! That’s a bit slippery, and something I intentionally didn’t try to define explicitly.

  4. madmind Says:

    Again, great post to read, although I somehow start to believe that there is a big conspiracy going on because just today I also wrote about animation and scriptwriting.

    Besides your point I would also like to throw in a word as a synonym: interesting and unique (ok, this makes two).

    I would say that the examples of yours show that a good movie not only has to offer a story but an interesting and unique story. In this regard the spot for Incredibles just serves this assumption wonderfully: a superhero doesn’t fit into his old suit. It is something you don’t see too often and therefore (without a story) makes this unique and interesting to watch. Yet I would say that this short couldn’t be blown into a movie without some damn good story and storytelling.

    And of course you are absolutely right that the storytelling ability is very important. It is like with the old grannies who told fairy tales. One was excellent but the other couldn’t make anything interesting out of the same basic story. I think each storyteller needs to have a good talent and a love for the story to let it come to life.

    Also your bad examples fit into the appealing/interesting/unique element. Since the penguins were already used, the followers were not even close to the originals (besides lack of interesting characterizations, background story and so on).

    On the other hand we have to make clear whether “appealing” is used only positively or also negatively. A horror movie isn’t positively appealing in any way I would say but it is nevertheless “appealing”. In that regard the word unusual comes into my mind.

    One last thing: where does the story end and the plot begin? Many state that the plot is everything of a movie that you see in the theater. But doesn’t it make it to the story? I would therefore say that the plot is every action and event which in the end forms a story. In that regard the statement of Cassidy above (“without appealing…”) would be wrong as the plot IS the story in any way.

  5. Kevin Says:

    Hey, Madmind, welcome to the conspiracy! Yes, it’s true, the Trilateral Commission for Animation (TCA to those in the know) did send out the directive a few weeks ago for all of us to discuss animation and story. Haha, maybe we really should try to give the conspiracy theorists something to chew on. For instance, why were Madagascar and The Wild so identical? The TCA ordered it so, of course, just to show their power and mess with people’s minds.

    I have to protest your use of ‘interesting’ and ‘unique.’ Interesting is too general, I think. Many things are interesting, but not necessarily entertaining. ‘Interesting’ is necessary to a good story, but it’s not necessary to story itself, and it’s even more slippery than ‘appeal.’ And ‘unique,’ well, is any story at this point in history unique? How we tell the story (discourse, storytelling) can be unique, but even in his own time, Shakespeare’s stories weren’t unique.

    To use your examples, as a long-time superhero comic book reader, I didn’t find much about The Incredibles unique. But it was done so well, with so much appeal and style, that I loved it. It wasn’t unique, but it was fresh and entertaining and a bunch of other good adjectives.

    And I used Surfs Up not because the predecessors were so superior. I actually liked the characters and story in Surfs Up more than Happy Feet. But I’d seen enough penguins for that time, and I think the public had, too. That’s what I meant by “appeal fatigue.”

    I’m also skeptical about “positive” and “negative” appeal. Something is appealing if something you want to see more of. I find dark, intense, gritty well-done live-action films very appealing. It may not have much in common with Hello Kitty, but something like The Godfather is very appealing.

    As for story vs. plot, that distinction is something that can be debated, but you should check out the thoughts of people like Aristotle and E. M. Forster and literary theorists, since I think you’re making up a unique (though interesting) definition of plot.

  6. DJ Says:

    conspiracy has appeal..

  7. madmind Says:

    I knew it! The Conspiracy is everywhere!

    Ok, back to business. Regarding Incredibles I was solely writing about the Trailer, not the movie itself. Concerning the movie I am absolutely your opinion as the movie was not that unique (in some ways even clichéd) yet entertaining.

    Sometimes it is not good to write a comment way too late in the night as it can happen that you write… Regarding Surf’s Up I wanted to say exactly what you are saying: regardless if they were superior or not – since penguins were overused at that time they weren’t appealing in any way.

    As for story vs. plot you see that it is possible for a beginner in the field of scriptwriting can come up with unique a definition 🙂
    Nevertheless thanks for the reminder. I think my next blog post will deal with exactly this distinction. I want to know it once and for all.

  8. Kevin Says:

    Yeah, I know what you mean about posting late and not always being clear in what you mean to say. That’s when I use the edit function! 😉

  9. DJ Says:

    cant wait to read more about appeal. this definitely is crucial, but being a beginning animator, again, going back to my shortfilm experience, this is something that I kinda hoped that my short would have, at the end of it all.

    I really dont know how to quantify “appeal”. All I know is whether I like something or not.

    Kevin : Is this “appeal” thing more about “developing the eye” when you are thinking of your own stuff? How does one develop this sense for “appeal”? It is a matter of taste too, and that means, developing the eye for good animation?

    Other than that, the only thing I can think of now is thinking about an “appealing” pose and then building a shot around it, but couldnt wrap my head around “appealing” shortfilm or film yet. Or is it similar in the way that, have a great “central point” for a story and building up around it? Does that ensure appeal?? Cant wait to learn more about this.


  10. David Says:

    Good points about Appeal trumping Story (i.e. “plot”) in the hierarchy of important things .

    You noted:

    “Pixar knows this. That’s why they’re so careful with the first images you see of their films.”

    That’s true and because of that I found it very interesting that the first major promotional image they’ve released of “UP” looks like it’s from a 2D film . Now, I don’t for a moment think “UP” is a 2D film (in the sense of “traditional hand-drawn animation”) but it would be cool to see them pushing CG to look more stylized and “flat” , more like drawings , less like puppets.

    This is probably just concept art, but this is the image they chose to represent the film … and as you point out they usually choose those images carefully.

  11. Kevin Says:

    Wow, that’s the first I’ve seen or heard of Up! Nice and appealing, as you say. And I agree with you, it would be great if they were playing around with production design/art direction that was more stylized and graphic than CG films have tended towards. (And on a side note, most people treat ‘plot’ and ‘story’ as distinct, if overlapping, elements 😉 ).

    By the way, I think the first image from Monsters vs. Aliens looks pretty appealing, too. I might be biased, since I’ve seen tons of the development, as well as a full sequence of the film, but this is the rare CG film where the final look of the film actually lives up to the visual development work.

  12. Olivier L. Says:

    for me, right of the bat I would say entertainment.

    What I think is the most important thing in an animated feature is Entertainment but not the entertainment as in funny jokes, I am talking about visual entertainment.

    That’s why you get Remy often doing doing 360 degrees turn arounds while talking but for no reason in Ratatouille, that s why you get cartoony characters jumping in the air, flailing madly before running off screen. They do this for no reason but pure visual entertainment. Could we also call that Appeal?

  13. Kevin Says:

    Well, you have to get their butts into the theater seats before you can entertain them. I think you have to have appeal above all else, or you’re going to be relying on reviewers and word of mouth.

    I’ve been thinking more about Cassidy’s distinction between marketing appeal and character appeal. I think the kind of appeal I’m talking about is something like a fractal — if a film has it, it’s there in everything. Of course there are movies that have an appealing character or two and not much else, or one sequence or another is appealing, and a movie trailer might emphasize that. But you see just about any scene out of a movie with real, fundamental appeal, you’ll want to see more. The marketing department can’t NOT make a good trailer.

    So yes, of course, our goal is to entertain. But we can’t entertain if we haven’t hooked them, and appeal is the hook.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch