Or, How to Make Your Animated Film Great

Animation is going through an interesting time in its development at the moment. There’s an explosion of animated films to choose from. Even a lot of live-action movies have an animated character. I’d imagine this boom is partly because of the demand for great animated films and shows, but also because of the democratization of the medium. As the animation software becomes more advanced and less expensive, studios can make more films, and quicker! It allows them to make films for children, films for teenagers, films for everyone. However, most of the films that end up in the theater don’t seem to be, well, required viewing. The Emoji Movie was based on something that every single person knows, had tons of great voice actors, had terrific animation and yet it was received terribly. But if these movies are made for everyone, why do they end up resonating with no one?

How I feel about The Emoji Movie.

Let’s return to that thought in a minute. Have you seen Coco? Pixar’s latest is a wonderful, colorful, and emotional ride. It’s been a couple years since Pixar has done an original story, and they’ve returned with a beautiful movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, look up the next showing near you and go! It follows 12-year-old Miguel as he wrestles with his love of music and his family’s ban on it. Learning that his great-great-grandfather was a famous musician only encourages him more as his passion leads him on an adventure into the land of the dead. The story is emotional and true, the characters are funny and relatable, and the set pieces and worlds they explore are just jaw-droppingly colorful and magical.

One of many beautiful and colorful scenes with great characters from Coco.

So is it the stunning visuals that make this a stand-out movie? Or the jokes and gags that the loveable characters play out? No, obviously not. This movie is an important departure from most animated movies because it’s grown in the love for a beautiful culture, and one that’s been under attack recently. It celebrates Mexico and the Mexican identity, their culture and their people. It introduces papel picado, these elaborately cut paper designs banners, and peppers in cultural icons such as Frida Kahlo, Pedro Infante, the Mexican wrestler Santo, and more. It proudly displays ofrendas and marvels at alebrijes. It’s a lesson in finding magic in our own world.

All items of significance to Mexican culture. What if they removed these things because they were worried people wouldn’t know what they are?

Identity has become a bit of a difficult thing to pin down. We want to be accepted, we want things that others already know. This way you can talk to anyone you meet about the latest episode of the Punisher because they’ll already know it. This way you can make reference to Anchorman and earn a laugh from someone you just met. Sometimes it feels like there are only a few paths of what’s acceptable and being rejected is scary. Being unknown seems even worse. But this is what leads to movies that are grown from things we already collectively know. Shallow things without history or love.

Storytelling doesn’t have to utilize animation as the medium, but it provides a lot of freedoms. Also, as animation software becomes more available for everyday users (as it is now), it democratizes who gets to use it to tell their stories. But to create something that makes a difference, it requires you to dig deep. It doesn’t have to be your religion, or culture, or family history, but it has to be something real. Something that scares you. Something that makes you, you. And if you’re worried that it will alienate you from other people or that they won’t understand, you might find out that what you think makes you different might be exactly how others feel. And that will bond people more deeply than anything else.

Be like Miguel. Let the magic within you shine.

Let that freak flag fly.


Austin Broder

Austin Broder is a curriculum developer and instructor at Digital Media Academy. When he isn't busy teaching 3D modeling, you can find him creating exciting new projects at Animation Redefined.