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As audiences become more sophisticated and used to ‘reality’ television, animators may be able to use body language science to help make characters more believable.

Could the future of animation be Ethnographic Animation?

Co-authors Vanessa Van Edwards, Behavioral Investigator and Body Language Expert and Kate Ertmann, President and Executive Producer at Animation Dynamics endeavor to find out.

A Brief History of Animation:

Back in 1937, the first full length animated film arrived in movie theaters: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Audiences loved the characters because they could identify with them. We don’t mean that kids felt they could see themselves as a princess – though of course that’s true for many of the viewers – but rather that audiences could look at the “Grumpy” dwarf and say “Wow, he reminds me of my Uncle Joe” or look at the evil step-mother Queen and say “She reminds me of my teacher!” and because of that, viewers were able to suspend their belief and forget that they were watching a hand-drawn storybook. Instead, just like when watching any other film of that year – “Heidi” with Shirley Temple, or “The Prince and the Pauper” with Errol Flynn – they were engaged with the storyline because of the believable acting by the characters; their actions, their facial expressions and the emotions that they elicited from the audience.

The Shift of Animation: From Imaginary to Reality

Alas, animation isn’t just animation anymore, it’s about portraying aspects of reality.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, John Lassetter was asked about animation becoming “more and more real” – Lasseter interrupted and said “It’s making it more believable. I like to use the word believable because I never want to produce a world that people think really exist.” What will it take to make animation more believable?

With the rise of reality television and the advancing quality of screens we believe that more and more people are going to demand more realistic animation to make it believable. Animation will have to more closely mirror their real world or they will not believe it, especially if we are relying on animated characters to sell a product, explain a process, or simply share an emotion.

Combining Science and Animation

Since technology has allowed animation to mature, animated characters can now better mimic the emotions and body language of real people. Animation may be even more believable than a reality show contestant trying to feign happiness after losing because at least animators are in complete control of characters–unlike directors for actors or producers on reality TV.

If animators want their characters and stories to be truly believable in today’s mature environment, they might have to use new tools–using Ethnographic Animation.

Ethnographic Animation is fact-based animation. It is animation based on how real people interact with their environment. Ethnography is studying and gathering data about human cultures. How do you share that data with others? You can do this by visualizing the data, and using the technology of animation to quite literally give a face to it. But animators have to be true to the science in every way. Audiences are now better able to know the difference between a guessed animated expression of anger and a science based animated depiction of anger. Luckily, as animation, technology and audiences mature, so does body language science.

Researchers are finding that more and more of our nonverbal behavior, facial expressions, body language and the way we move is innate, rather than learned. This is important for animators because if they learn the universal nonverbal expressions they can use them to make accurate Ethnographic Animations, which in turn makes animation more believable.

Partner in Studio AKA and Cartoon D’or winner, Marc Craste said in a recent interview with Tim Lindsay, “A real face with its infinite subtleties can absorb an audience and tell them all they need to know. It’s not so easy with animated characters, which often need help from whatever else is filling the screen.”

This does not have to be the case. Yes, the face is complex, but animators can capture that complexity if they use body language science. For example, Dr. Paul Ekman has discovered that there are seven universal facial expressions–people in all cultures make these faces when feeling the corresponding emotions. Fear is when we raise our eyebrows, flash the whites of our eyes and pull our lips away from our teeth as if to yell. This looks the same whether you are American, Asian or African.

Audiences used to reality television are now accustomed to seeing more genuine emotion on screen, as opposed to feigned emotions through acting. To keep animation believable, animators can use body language science to reality-ize their characters.

Our brain also knows when something isn’t right in just segments of a second. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book, Blink, humans naturally ‘thin-slice,’ or quickly judge what’s true and false around us quite accurately. He shows us that we can know what emotions a person is feeling just by looking at his or her face. What a powerful tool for animators–to use universal body language science to display a character’s emotions.

More Than Just Cartoons

Animation is now being used by companies, teachers and institutions who are hoping to teach as well as entertain. Corporations often produce complicated products and processes, which need to be explained to others. Animation has helped tremendously give users clear visualizations of how a product is used.

Ethnographic Animation is not only essential to make animation more believable, but also in order to get past multi-cultural barriers. For example, if an international company has an animated video demonstrating use of their product, they need it to appeal to users from all cultures, in all shapes, colors and sizes. Ethnographic Animation helps animators boil down universal body language to its essence, so users can understand without getting distracted with cultural differences. Cultural characteristics of the human and the environment can be muted while details that specifically project the emotion and experience that is important to the storyline can be rendered fully to stand out.

Animation of the Future

That we know that quick flashes – a segment of a second – can emit a true emotion based on scientific studies, and that certain facial expressions and body poses are universal, character animators can refer to these breakdowns and reflect this back in their art. They can truly use science as a way to guarantee effectiveness in the messaging – be it storyline or product branding.

Using Ethnographic Animation benefits the animator, the audience, and potentially, the client if animation is being used for demonstration purposes. For animators, using body language science takes the guesswork out of facial expressions and a character’s body. For audiences, they can focus on the story since they are not being distracted by unrealistic character behavior. And for companies, mobile app developers and websites using animation, they can appeal to a wider audience by using universal body language science.

Ethnographic Animation is the future of bringing stories to life.

Vanessa Van Edwards runs the She writes, researches and speaks about body language, human lie detection and the behavior of people.

Kate Ertmann became a partner at Animation Dynamics in 2000, and sole owner in 2008, leading the company to produce innovative animation for a variety of marketing, advertising, educational and training needs.


Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and, 2005.

Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen. Unmasking the Face. Cambridge, MA: Malor, 2003.

To find out more about Vanessa’s work, visit:


Paul Ekman (1999). Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

“The lie detective: San Francisco psychologist has made a science of reading facial expressions” by Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, September 16, 2002.

Book: Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness

This was originally posted on Vanessa’s Huffington Post Column, read it here: Ethnographic Animation: How Reality and Animation Collide

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