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

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>