More than any other film genre, animation transcends geographical and cultural borders. Language barriers don’t prevent viewers from enjoying an animated film or short. Animations in a foreign language or with no speaking at all can still tell a powerful and emotional story that we understand and connect to on a personal level.
Take Pixar shorts like Happy Feet for example. They are a global hit and they usually don’t even use words. Instead, they express clear emotions through facial expressions of characters, tone of music, and telling movements of characters.
How do you convey emotions and tell a story without words? In part, it is the great animation and emotive movements. A slumping of the shoulder can signify that someone is sad or tired. Fidgeting with fingers or a restless pacing can signify worry or nervousness. Even the way someone walks can reveal character, emotion and even gender─men usually walk with shoulders and women walk with their hips.
Words are not always needed to show emotion. In fact, they rarely are. Researchers in emotion and human expression have been arguing for years if such emotions are the same from culture to culture, or if they’re different. For animators, especially if you want to market your animations in a global space, it is a key consideration.
Paul Ekman founded the idea that expressions are universal with his trip to the Papua New Guinea tribe in the 1970s. His test asked natives to respond to certain scenarios.
For years, Ekman led the argument that emotions were biologically-based, not culturally-based. From this, he aimed to prove that humankind is more fundamentally alike than it is different.
As an example of his research, he found that “96% of western respondents and 92% of African respondents identified happy faces.” Even more interestingly, Ekman reported accounts that blind people expressed happiness in the same way that people with sight did.
Ekman did uncover that certain groups of people, such as Chinese-Americans, were able to identify expressions in their native land of China more quickly than Americans were. From this finding, Ekman believed that cultures do dictate rules around emotional expression. However, it still remained true that a frown indicated sadness while a smile indicated happiness.
However, scientists have found later that some facial expressions may not be as universal as others. A researcher named Maria Gendron visited remote tribes with little to no contact with the Western world and had tribe members react to certain scenarios.
What she found was unexpected. Unlike her research with Westerners, which resulted in neat piles of the same expressions, the tribe responded with multitudes of piles of expressions. This contradicts the long-held view that humans have 6 basic emotions. It also raises the question if Westernized expressions could be fundamentally different than those with no contact with the Westernized nations.
What it means for animations today?
These discoveries, contradictory or not, remind animators to keep cultural influences in mind when creating animations. It’s important to remember that facial expressions are powerful, especially when coupled with body language and movement.
If some facial expressions weren’t universal or easy to understand, then animation wouldn’t be such a global enterprise. NaturalFront’s easy to use software allows animators to focus on such expression, while letting NaturalFront do the heavy lifting.