Animation Research at the Society of Animation Studies Conference 2014


Animation students will be familiar with the experience of being at a family get-together during which a proud relative asks you what you are studying at university. “Animation” you reply with a beaming smile and thinking to yourself how cool am I. Then you are met with a moment’s silence, a flicker of disappointment, and their reply: “What… like... cartoons?”

“Oh uncle, there is so much more to animation than cartoons!”

Imagine, 20 years later, explaining that you not only teach animation, but that you teach the history and theory of animation (yes animation really does have history and theory) and that you research the neuroscience of animation production and spectatorship. They may not have much of a clue what you just said, but at least you used the word ‘science'.


Cognitive media research, the investigation of the way that our brains create and perceive media through the study of things such as psychology, philosophy, and more recently the brain sciences, has been steadily growing over recent years and is one of the most exciting areas of media research. It is the last one of these three approaches, the brain sciences, that is the focus of my own animation research.

So this year, as my colleague was heading home from the Annecy Animation festival, I was off on an intrepid adventure of my own to Toronto, home of this year’s Society of Animation Studies annual conference. The Society of Animation Studies, aka the SAS is an international group of animators, lecturers, professors, PhD candidates and pretty much anyone who is interested in, studies, or researches animation (yes people really do research animation).

Delegates arrive at the conference wide eyed and bushy tailed.

Animation has always been an amazing, exciting, interesting and all encompassing area for research but until recently was largely ignored by the academic community and was thought to be something trivial that was not worthy of serious attention. This situation has been steadily changing over the last 30 years or so as researchers have begun to realise how all pervasive animation is (television, film, online; in advertisements, children’s media, adult sitcoms, art animation, installations, motion-capture, special effects, world film, animated documentary, information graphics, information films… I could go on… and on). Animation is everywhere and so has the potential to influence our perceptions of the world that it represents, particularly as we become more and more exposed to animated media in an increasingly digital age. Animation research is now recognised as something that is worthy of serious attention.

The annual SAS conferences facilitate a coming together of researchers from all over the world who present their research and discuss and share ideas. And being that this is animation, they are also one of the most lovely, fluffy and collegiate bunches of people that academia has to offer. 

Students from Sheridan College kept us well looked after.

Keynote speaker Paul Wells, author of several animation books and a national treasure in terms of animation research, argued in his talk that there is a need for animation researchers to take practice based research and practice animation texts seriously as a research resource.  This talk was part of a drive to bring the realms of animation practice and research closer together, which is something that closely echoes our own philosophy on the course at Falmouth, so Paul’s talk was of particular interest from a teaching perspective as well as a research one.

Paul Wells, prolific animation author and treasure of British animation studies.

My own panel called ‘The Animator and the Mind’ consisted of a group of international animation scholars from Australia, Belgium and the UK. Our presentations dealt with issues such as 2D animation, stop-motion animation (my presentation), animated movement and dance, and also looked at how creating hand-made animated films is an effective form of art therapy for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The common theme to our research is that we are all interested in how advances in neuroscience can help us to understand the unique ways in which animation communicates from animator to audience.

The Animator and the Mind team answer some probing questions about their research.

It wasn’t all hard work and brainpower however; we also had the chance to unwind, chat, and to form new research collaborations and partnerships.  The organiser of this year’s conference, Tony Tarantini of Toronto’s Sheridan College, was a consummate host and did a fantastic job of looking after the conference delegates. During the week we were taken on a sunset cruise of Toronto harbour, which included the traditional cruise boat disco, and after the serious work of the conference was done I took a trip to Niagara Falls, via a visit to one of Canada’s many vineyards.

Looking like a little green-screened boat - Niagara Falls - spectacular.

A sunset boat trip around Toronto's beautiful harbor.

It was an amazing week, during which I met many amazing people and was a little sad to come home. But Cornwall was calling, and with a head full of new ideas and days of jet-lag ahead of me, I set off for home.

… yes uncle, I really did say “science”.
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