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Research: Animation and Nature

News Story

Dyson Professor Colin Williamson, PhD, and Austin Goodman ’19 have been looking at the crucial role animation plays in documentary filmmaking; specifically in relation to environmental issues.

Assistant Professor of Film and Screen Studies Colin Williamson, PhD, has long been interested natural history filmmaking. Namely, he’s noticed the often overlooked role that beauty and aesthetics play in the success of nature documentaries, and films that heavily utilize the natural environment to prove a larger point.

“Most often people talk about documentaries in terms of objectivity and evidence, and not so much in terms of these artful categories,” says Williamson. “What I recognized is that most natural history films actually draw on art and beauty in order to sell ideas to audiences. For example, [filmmakers] will make aesthetically appealing and visually stunning documentaries in order to get people interested in conservation efforts or naturalist movements. So, what we’re dealing with are questions of form and aesthetics, in much the same way you might if you were working in art history.”

Film and Screen Studies major Austin Goodman ’19 had taken several classes with Professor Williamson. The two began to talk more in detail about animation—specifically the role animation plays in documentary filmmaking, and how animation could be used to enhance or sell ideas that more traditional live-action camerawork would be unable to. Realizing their mutual interest, Williamson encouraged Goodman to apply for the Division of Student Success Undergraduate-Student faculty research grant. From there, a collaboration was born.

The duo started by formulating a series of original questions, and proceeded to investigate.

“What can animation do that live-action documentary footage can’t do?” says Williamson. “Can animated films help interest audiences in documentary topics like nature conservation? What role does an artist or animator play in these larger questions of animation?”

Goodman notes that when discussing animation, the duo is not necessarily talking about Mickey Mouse. In this sense, animation refers more to digital effects, and tricks that modern filmmaking uses to improve storytelling.

“Think of a time-lapse, for example,” says Goodman. “If you were going out in the wild, you can be out there for years finding something you can film. In certain situations there might not be a budget or a timeline. A lot of BBC is filmed on blue screens, and computer generated imagery, for reasons of convenience.”

The pair notes that although they didn’t necessarily set out to uncover a completely original aspect of film theory, their research is rather unique. Not much has been studied on this topic, particularly in regards to animation. Thus, they’ve been looking at theories of education and philosophy, and even poetry, to better understand how something as artificial as animation can affect the real world.

“It is quite original in terms of film and media studies—having to actually piece something together, that is, there is no field to go to. We’re looking at all types of things outside of film studies in order to better understand this topic,” says Williamson.

As the research has progressed, Goodman has become surprised by the sheer abundance of animation, and the myriad ways in which effects are consistently used.

“I love documentaries, I love watching Planet Earth. You grow up feeling like ‘this is what it’s like in the Amazon.’ But it’s mind-blowing to see ‘oh what a minute, this was done in a lab, this was done in a controlled setting, this was done in a zoo.’ That’s what’s so shocking to me; how prevalent it is.”

While animation and effects can create all sorts of ethical conundrums—an aspect that Williamson and Goodman are deeply delving into—there are times when distorting reality through animation becomes essential to effectively portraying an argument. The pair has noticed that this particularly applies to their topic, climate change and conversation.

“Are we going to show this iceberg melting really slowly, which we can’t actually view, or do we utilize what we have at hand to express ‘hey listen, sea levels are rising, species are dying, forests are being rolled over,’” says Goodman. “It’s a really great opportunity, and an interesting thing to think about in our current society and climate.”

Ultimately, Williamson views this research as a way to initiate cross-disciplinary educational initiatives—which, as technological advancement and 21st century demands continue to blur the lines between traditional academic fields, will arguably become essential in preparing students for success over the next few decades.

“We’re trying to find ways to actually be interdisciplinary,” says Williamson. “Something like the animated documentary is a really fertile area to bridge the arts and sciences. How do you connect someone interested in chemistry with a studio artist interested in ceramics in meaningful ways?” says Williamson. “I have this long-term goal of using this animation and documentary research as a model to teach art and science classes.”

“This is a really interesting opportunity to conduct our own research, and I’m really grateful for it,” says Goodman.