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Animation as semiotic process

Animation as semiotic process

This week’s seminar concerned the theme of creativity and explored the relationship between digital technologies and creative processes and the extent to which discourses around creativity coincide with discourses of conventional schooling. The session involved creating a short animated story based around the legend of George and the Dragon.


A brief period of pre-production involved group members brainstorming which constituted possible narrative sequences and ideas about characters. Practical considerations regarding the production process were discussed in relation to the constraints of time and available resources. The design modes employed at this point included the visual design of the characters, backgrounds and props required and the storyboard which sequenced the narrative. The physical media employed included plasticine, paper was used for characters, props and backgrounds. iStopmotion and iMovie were used for capture and editing respectively.

The narrative sequence was broken down into six frames mainly determined by scenes in different locations ‘sky’ and ‘pub’. Some prior knowledge of film grammar was employed with establishing long shots, ‘two shots’ and external and internal shots represented.


Ultimately several additional shots were included during production and included medium close-ups and an ‘over the shoulder’ providing a POV of the dragon looking down over London. Although at this point there wasn’t a completely clear idea in mind for the story the storyboard served as a suitable platform on which to begin production.


Production was an enjoyable process and highly collaborative. Creative decisions and what Burn observes as unexpected improvisatory meanings (Burn and Durran 2007) evolved throughout the period of production defined by creative challenges and corresponding problem-solving. Indeed, numerous opportunities taken to subvert the story and to draw on personal connections saw the narrative veer dramatically away from the legend of George and the Dragon. The design phase continued into production as new characters or locations were suggested. In terms of cultural references our experience of making meaning through animation was very much as Burn and Durran (2007) observed working with the Year 3 children at Newnham Croft Primary School during the Red Riding Hood animation project: 

Children will draw on their own cultural experiences in making their own media, and we need to be aware of these influences and the significance of images, styles, sounds from popular cultural texts, genres and the discursive worlds which produce and shape them (Burn 2007). 

Reflecting on the creative choices made, it is clear that visual inspiration and references drawn from the consumption of popular culture occurred both through conscious or subconscious decision making. References to the initial animations shown as mentor texts at the beginning of the seminar influenced the design modes of the form of the dragon (minus limbs for simplicity) and the design of the Chinese tourists as two-dimensional paper cut-outs. The clouds parting and the dragon’s point of view of London may well have been drawn from the opening sequence of the Simpsons or Terry Gillian’s animations for Monty Python. These observations point to the relationship between media consumption and the production of new texts based on the argument that ‘media consumption is not a passive act and that viewers and readers actively shape cultural meanings’ (Ito 2010). 

It is important to acknowledge that during the production of the film, one member of the group brought previous experience of creative production using stop motion animation and filmmaking as well as cultural capital which informed many aspects of the process. The narrative was shaped through concepts relating to the grammar of film which included a range of different shots which, although crudely rendered due to limited time constraints, included: establishing long shots of the dragon in the sky, of Westminster and the pub facade, two and three shots of conversations and medium close-ups to convey emotion. Knowledge of the frame rate, which was reduced to 12 frames per second due to time constraints, allowed for both temporal and spatial approximations of dramatic action and the representation of other embodied modes (talking, flying, walking, drinking) as well as movements of other elements (clouds and the London bus). Aspects associated with continuity were incorporated including screen direction and maintaining the consistency of where characters would enter or leave the frame. Some basic conceptual approaches to stop animation were also considered with the technique of easing/easing out used to simulate acceleration.




Constructing the film during post-production made use of the convergent capabilities of iMovie and the ability to combine video clips imported from iStopmotion, sound effects and music, recorded speech and text from titles and credits. It is during this process that knowledge of continuity editing (Bordwell and Thompson 2003) and the capacity to split, trim, resequence and adjust the speed of clips provided further opportunities to experiment and improvise and ultimately refine the narrative and social meaning. During post-production, a multimodal combination of music and sound effects was used to complement these shots and further orientate the audience. Wind sounds were used to complement the sky scene; London street sounds and a bus passing were used in the Westminster scene, music (Chas and Dave’s ‘London girls’) firstly anticipated the pub atmosphere, then provided diegetic sound in the last scene within the pub. Reflecting on this process and the intrinsic motivations associated in the creative production process is summed up by Vygotsky (2004: 6) when he stated that the reproductive activity is “(…) very closely linked to memory; essentially it consists of a person’s reproducing or repeating previously developed and mastered behavioural patterns or resurrecting traces of earlier impressions”

The affordances of the apps used in the project (iStopmotion and iMovie) fall into the categories of interaction, feedback, convergence and distribution initially described by Reid et al (in Burn and Durran 2007) and represent the transformational nature of the iPad as a convergent device. The process of digital capture of images in the iStopmotion app allowed for playback and feedback with the ability to make improvements in real-time during the process of animating. The onion skin feature of the software facilitated progress through the animation as a reference for the next frame or also provided a return point if an error had been made. This cycle of feedback (Burn and Durran 2007) also involved the editing out of frames which were considered mistakes due to encroaching fingers or movements that were perceived as unrealistic. 

When considering this process in a classroom context, It’s important to note that the use of the apps iStopmotion and iMovie, essentially mirror the functions of real-world tools such as Dragonframe for animation or Adobe Premiere for editing. This, as Burn describes “pulls education into the world of digital culture, and puts into the hands of teachers and children the same tools that professional artists, craftspeople and engineers use” (Burn 2014).



Bordwell, David., and Kristin Thompson. Film Art : An Introduction / David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson. 7th ed. Boston, London: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Print.

Burn, Andrew Nicholas., Andrew Durran, and Durran, James. Media Literacy in Schools : Practice, Production and Progression / Andrew Burn and James Durran. London: Paul Chapman, 2007. Print.

Burn, A (2014) ‘Digital Aletheia: technology, culture and the arts in education’. In King, A, Himonides, E, and Ruthmann, A (eds) The Routledge Companion to Music, Technology & Education. London: Routledge. 

Itō, Antin, Ito, Itō, Mizuko, Antin, Judd, and Ito, Mizuko. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking out : Kids Living and Learning with New Media / Mizuko Ito [and Others] ; with Contributions by Judd Antin [and Others]. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2010. Print. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Ser. on Digital Media and Learning.

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. “Imagination and Creativity in Childhood.” Journal of Russian & East European Psychology 42.1 (2004): 7-97. Web.