Photo-Realistic Animation (Part One): A Review of Terminology and Types

Last week, we finished up a three-part series comparing books with tablets, which served, among other things, to delve into the experiential dimension of eLearning. This two-part blog will continue in the experiential vein by reviewing user preferences regarding the issue of photo-realistic animation.

Before diving into photo-realistic animation and the peculiar world of the uncanny valley, let’s review some basic terminology and Types.

Animation Terminology

The word “animation” conjures up images of Saturday morning cartoons and major motion pictures. However, animation simply is the means of creating the illusion of motion by using images (pictures and/or photographs). The mechanisms of creating modern animation, as one might surmise, draws upon the history of optical discovery and innovation; witness the kineograph (the flipbook), praxinoscope, thaumatrope, and the zoetrope. Given childhood memories, my favorite is the flipbook: I remember going to the shoe store and putting a nickel in a machine with a handle that I’d crank to “flip” through a series of different photographs to create the illusion of motion, and, importantly for our purposes, a narrative. The flipbook also is the direct precursor of cinematography, the motion picture.

In the world of motion pictures, there are a variety of styles of animation: traditional, stop-motion, and computer generated. Traditional animation employed cinema frames (cells) that were manually drawn by artists to literally trace the motion of objects and characters, which was, in a manner of thinking, analogical; stop-motion animation entailed miniscule movements of actual objects that were photographed and compiled into a motion picture. Both forms are extremely time consuming in general and even more with increased levels of fluidity. Computer-generated animation, of course, has transformed the type of artisanship and increased the range of possibilities.

Let’s shift to the world of e-Learning . . .

Animation and eLearning

There are two primary ways of using the term animation in eLearning, both of which are employed in the context of presentations. The first deals with textual presentation techniques; here, think of PowerPoint presentations.

All of us have sat through countless PowerPoint presentations and noticed there are two schools of thought: those who use animation and those who don’t. Among the ones that do, there is a subspecies of presenters who go way overboard as it were. What are we talking about? Let’s look at some examples:

Texts that “appear,” “fly,” “blink,” “fade,” and the like—all with a click of the projector remote. Used judiciously, such features may enhance a presentation; used indiscriminately, they are maddening. For example . . . [though imagine it moving …]

  1. Animation Terminology

Ok. That was the first type of animation used in eLearning. That’s not what we are talking about. The form of animation increasingly used in presentations and on-line modules is more closely akin to the animation in the previous section: video content that employs a scene, characters, and context, in other words, a narrative. Another way of thinking about narrative in the context of eLearning is storytelling. When we think about storytelling and eLearning we think about training.

So how does storytelling fit into the scheme of eLearning?

The heretofore-traditional mode of training was with an in-person expert imparting information and moderating discussion. Obviously, this has continuing currency and value. But . . . for the training that is repeated, and repeated, for class after class, for new employee after new employee, there is value—not to mention savings—in animation. Moreover, animation often can demonstrate scenarios that cannot be easily replicated at in-person trainings.

Animation and Storytelling

As one can imagine, utilizing live-action “actors” to create training scenarios and storylines can be a painstaking if not expensive enterprise. That’s one of the reasons why training administrators rely upon animation, which generally speaking draws upon computer software programs that generate animated scenes.

Trainers can employ animation in a number of fashions: traditional animated frames with captions and/or talk-over narrative and, more intensively, actual video presentations. In the context of this following discussion, we are not using the term “animation” in the conventional sense of creating the illusion of movement. Rather, we are using the term to connote a style of representation associated with traditional notions of cartoon-style drawing. There are different styles of animated storytelling: stick figures, cartoon characters, realistic characters, and photo-realistic characters.

Stick Figures:

Given our level of digital sophistication, and contrary to what one might suspect, storytelling can be compelling and pedagogically valuable when using stick figures in training. Such figures have been used since the dawn of cinema; witness Émile Cohl’s short, Fantasmagorie (1908). See:

While having no pretension of realism or ostensible sophistication, stick figures can be rather compelling in their simplicity by generating a direct narrative without distracting backdrops. For example, R.J. Miller presented its value at a recent iConference, “Draw My Life: Creative Reflection Through Stick Figure Storytelling.”

The Draw My Life video notion has a wide following and has been used by celebrities such as Taylor Swift in their social media.

While “stick figure” animation may be characters, they may just as likely be other images sequentially drawn together; here, think whiteboard-brainstorming sessions. What might be lacking in stick figure animation can be gained with the concepts accented by compelling and affirmative audio storytelling. In addition, the appeal of stick figures is evident in the popularity of applications such as Pivot Animator and Stykz.

Cartoon Characters:

The use of cartoon characters can be highly useful in training sessions for a number of reasons. First, familiarity for younger learners can create an initial positive disposition. Second, cartoons can present characters that are non-threatening; this obviously can be of value with younger learners, but also can be useful for adults when dealing with difficult and emotionally sensitive subjects. A non-pictorial analogy is the use of dolls by therapists when working with child victims of trauma. Third, cartoons can assist educators in presenting abstract, complex concepts.

Rees J (2005) The Problem with Academic Medicine: Engineering Our Way into and out of the Mess. PLoS Med 2(4): e111., Wikipedia Commons, and,

JAG Global Learning

There is, moreover, research suggesting that the use of nonsensical figures can be understood and recalled better when receiving interpretive, contextual commentary. See BowerGH, MBKarlin, ADueck,  “Comprehension and memory for pictures,” Memory & Cognition, March 1975 (2): 216:20.

Separately, in economics education, research has revealed value in the use of cartoon characters in constructive and collaborative learning with the potential for impacting critical thinking. See van WykMM, “The Use of Cartoons as a Teaching Tool to Enhance Student Learning in Economics Education,” Journal of Social Science, 26(2): 117-30.

Alternatively, however, a more recent study has found that while cartoon characters might be thought to capture interest more quickly, participants liked human spokespersons better. BhutadaNS, BLRollins, and MPerrii, “Impact of Animated Spokes-Characters in Print Direct-to-Consumer Prescription Drug Advertising:An Elaboration Likelihood Model Approach,” Health Communication, 2017, Volume 32, Issue 4, 391-400.

In short, it is likely that the value of cartoon characters in storytelling is dependent upon content and context.

Realistic Characters:

Up until relatively recently—I’m talking about a decade or two—realistic style characters have been the animation of choice for many educational administrators. Why? First, many administrators believe realism facilitates translation into the work place. Realistic backdrops, scenarios, and characters—all of these things create a sense of resonance for workers when dealing with a subject. Second, for certain subjects, the style of realism is commensurate with the gravity of the educational content. So, for example, one might not want to employ stick or cartoon characters when training non-violent restraint techniques for use in a psychiatric hospital. Third, realistic characters can be created that more readily reflect the demographics of the employees and/or students. This latter factor probably could not be stressed enough in the context of students embodying and understanding the ideas and narrative of the story.

When comparing the “cartoon” animation in the previous section versus the images presented above, the difference in animation style is patently clear. In thinking of a description to compare the two, one might use the examples of animation in the traditional comics versus graphic novels.

The final form of animation deals with the photo-realistic style. Let’s reserve that and discussions about related issues for next week.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

Books vs. Tablets (Part Three): Literature Review

To finish up this series about comparing the experiential dimension of books versus tablets, let’s look at some articles and research about the issue that touch upon how these different mediums impact learning—understanding, cognition, and retention.

Literature Review

As one might suspect, putting matters of scientific comparisons aside, there are two schools of thought regarding the value of books versus tablets. The first arguing that books will and can never be replaced due to their fundamental sense of familiarity, feel, and natural relationship with the reader; the second argues that books are destined to join the dust pile of history and that tablets will naturally supersede books in a matter of time. Research and studies on this matter seek to differentiate the two less on such visceral reactions and more on issues that can be better qualified and quantified. Let’s look at two reviews.

Twenty-five years ago, Andrew Dillon generated a review of the empirical literature (Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.) (Cut-and-paste below)

Dillon breaks down his review into several areas, but notes, all withstanding, that many of the studies are flawed in their research design:

  1. Reading Speed: while noting design flaws that existed in previous studies, Dillon affirms that reading speed is slower from computer screens.
  2. Accuracy: Dillon notes that judging accuracy is more difficult than reading speed per se, as accuracy deals with a number of different issues. If, for example, one is measuring accuracy in terms of “proofreading” texts, then the studies reviewed conclude that screens obtain poorer results than paper. But, the aforementioned studies simply included errors such as extra/missed spaces or double letters instead of common proofreading errors such as misspellings and errors of context and grammar.
  3. Fatigue: Dillon notes that different studies have produced differing conclusions depending upon the subject. While a number have concluded that screens created more eye fatigue, others have found that the difference from fatigue between paper and screens depended upon screen quality.
  4. Comprehension: Post-reading questions were used in many studies to assess comprehension. The studies Dillon reviewed found no discernable difference between paper and screens, though did find a difference between faster and slower readers, with slower readers having greater comprehension. Dillon concluded that comprehension is not adversely impacted when reading from screens versus books and, actually, in certain scenarios may be improved, for example, when writing essay type answers for an open book test using a hyperlinked statistics book.
  5. Preference: Dillon notes that the studies under review in this context did not offer much assistance, as most of the users were relatively “new” users, which may have inadvertently created a negative disposition toward screen reading. Similarly, the preference of books versus screens was heavily influenced by the quality of the paper/books versus the quality of screens. As such, Dillon concludes that preferences are not well understood at that time.

A more recent review, which was widely reported upon in the media, was written by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American: “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens,” April 11, 2013. (Cut-and-paste below)

Jabr notes, digital users previously were reported to have read “slower, less accurately, and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. [Though s]tudies published since the early 1990s have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority have confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens.”

Despite this leveling of differences, Jabr does note continuing differences, which include the tactile dimension of reading in addition to factors that contribute to one’s ability to intuitively navigate a text. This latter dimension also factors into issues regarding content recollection. In this regard, some researchers have found that memory often is linked to the experience of reading, which serves cognitive reflection when attempting to recall the information. For example, one may remember a given fact being in the last paragraph at the bottom of a page at the end of the chapter. Such experiential elements are often lost when using digital texts. Similar dynamics obtain regarding the “rhythm” of flipping through pages and developing a mental map of information in a text.

While participants in recent studies have shown a preference for paper over screens, as Jabr notes, there is information and experiences that cannot be duplicated on paper and can only be relayed via digital means, for example, the Scale of the Universe tool (

All withstanding, a recent CNN review on this subject have shown some alternative finding, which, in many ways are not surprising:

  • “Students overwhelmingly prefer screen to print.
  • “Reading was significantly faster online than print.
  • “Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
  • “Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
  • “The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
  • “But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.”


The review above demonstrates increasing viability for digital reading in a world previously dominated by books and paper texts. However, it is clear, especially with the rise of digital natives, that preferences and, perhaps, learning realities may be changing with the increasing tide of digital content.

Next week, let’s look at a different experiential dimension of eLearning. For this blog, we’ll look at the issues associated with user preferences when comparing photo-realistic animation versus traditional animation.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist