The Uses and Abuses of Cartoon Style in Animation


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“Cartoon style” in animation broadly refers to animation design and movement that adheres to the 12 Principles of Animation, defined and developed at the Disney Studios. The Principles evolved through trial and error, by observing motion on-screen and noting what aspects of animated movement served the believability of the characters. To this day, the 12 Principles of Animation are known by all animators and used as a benchmark for good animation. Yet, these principles are not complete movement concepts. They influence specific movement patterns that are often applied without consideration of their effects, resulting in characterization that lacks authenticity.

Viewers have come to expect that animated character performances portray the illusion of a living being. As a determining factor for believability in animation, authenticity functions on two levels. First, we suspend our disbelief and engage with the character; there is no question of the character’s aliveness. Second, through characterization, we experience an authentic being whose inner intent is communicated outwardly, and made unmistakably clear.

Originating from the roots of 20th century modern dance, Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is a conceptual framework for the observation, description and interpretation of human movement that offers a robust movement vocabulary. Where Animation Principles can potentially impose a specific style of animated movement, LMA is style-neutral and therefore excels at articulating components of style. Additionally, LMA addresses the relationship of intent to action, an innovative feature that aids us in the observation of authenticity which the Animation Principles lack.

This paper has a three-fold objective:

  1. To observe how cartoon style animation imposes limitations on what animators create and how they express through movement within the genre.
  2. To demonstrate that LMA is a useful methodology towards understanding the impact that cartoon style has made on animation.
  3. To introduce the terminology of LMA so that it can be referenced and applied to the creation and discussion of animation by artists and theorists.

To achieve these goals, the paper begins with a definition of criteria for authenticity in animation. Disney and LMA-based terminology are introduced to define a vocabulary for the discussion of animated movement. Cartoon style is outlined through its progression from Disney through Hanna Barbera, and the influence of contemporary commercial production practices. LMA is used to dissect cartoon style, reduce it to its bare essentials and articulate its purpose. This becomes the basis for a critique of the various ways that cartoon style is employed, for better or for worse, in contemporary animation.

The methodology of Laban Movement Analysis is essentially to observe movement, describe it in terms of LMA parameters and make meaning from our observations. This paper emphasizes an introduction of the terminology of LMA (indicated with bold lettering), while I employ the methodology of observation, description and interpretation throughout, by example.

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