Idea Blog

Embodying Animation: The Science Behind Metaphor

Denise McArthur 04.08.2015

 “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Romeo and Juliet (2.2.3-4)

Ah, metaphor. All great storytellers use metaphor. In fact, the use of metaphor is one of the many things Shakespeare and IdeaRocket have in common (along with our snazzy dress sense and love of Gwyneth Paltrow). Check out our whiteboard video for CEB:


Just as Juliet is the sun, her bright light killing ‘the envious moon’, the Enterprise Contributor in this video is a plant that needs nurturing to grow. These metaphors help us to understand and visualize aspects of these stories and make them more relatable.

This story is steeped in metaphor. From bees spreading ideas, to CEB surveying the landscape, to letting talent grow. These are all ideas that you inherently recognize, incorporate quickly into your understanding of the story, and so move the story along. Metaphor is integral to language. It helps us understand from an early age, connecting ideas and concepts in the complicated world around us.

But how? Well, a few researchers are starting to find out.

Thinking Inside the Box

When ‘thinking outside the box’, we don’t literally sit outside of a box to come up with new ideas. But perhaps we should. In 2012, a research group from the US and Singapore, led by Angela Leung, looked at how people behaved after acting out different metaphors. They literally got people to sit outside, or inside, a box and then take a creativity test. Just by sitting outside of a box, the test subjects performed better in the problem solving tasks afterwards.

Leung tested other metaphors as well – ‘putting two and two together’, and ‘on one hand… but on the other hand’. The participants that literally put two and two together, in this case coasters that had been cut in half, were better thinkers after acting out the metaphor, as were people who raised one hand then the other. Feelings or traits, in this case creativity, can be harnessed just though the act of metaphor. This isn’t the first time this phenomena has been shown. Previous research has shown that experiencing warmth makes you perceive the metaphorical ‘warmth’ in others – i.e. holding a cup of coffee will make you think people are nicer than if you are holding an iced tea.

Bu the Leung group didn’t stop there. They also wanted to see what would happen if you just watched these metaphors. In this case they animated someone walking inside a box, and someone walking freely. Guess what? People were far more creative after just watching some walk randomly. This is where visual storytelling come into play and things get interesting for us animators. By visualizing certain metaphors in your animations you can start to impact your customers in completely new ways. Want people to feel warm, open, creative? Just get those ideas on screen.

More recent research from the University of Arizona by Martin Reimann and colleagues has taken the idea of visual metaphors a step further. They looked entirely at what visual representations of familiar metaphors did to viewers. By showing brightly lit bulbs, a representation of the ‘bright idea’ metaphor, people were more likely to have bright ideas.

This phenomena is called ‘psychological embodiment’, and is the essence of why metaphor is such a powerful storytelling technique. Our minds take a cue from what we see, or how we feel. If our bodies are tense, our minds will also be tense, but if we see someone who has an open posture, we ourselves will adopt that stance and feeling and relax. Look back at the CEB video. All of the positive people in the animation have an open posture – a metaphor for the openness and positivity of the company – that the viewers will then associate and embody. We have been primed our entire lives to know what these metaphors mean, and cannot but help going along with them as part of the story.

Burnt Out: The Downside of Metaphor

But metaphor can also be used for EVIL (insert evil laugh here). The Reimann researchers also looked at negative metaphors. In this case they swapped out the bright bulb images with burned-out bulbs instead. This time the subjects in the test performed poorly in the creativity tasks. This is why good animation is integral to the process – choose the wrong visual and you could inadvertently put customers off, or into a negative mood. You can make them cold, closed and unimaginative just as easily…

Of course, if you are evil, then this is the way to go.

There is plenty more research to be done in this fascinating area. For one, we don’t know where in the brain metaphor resides. Does it live alongside our linguistic abilities as you’d expect, or, as more and more of this research is showing, is it something represented in our visual system and memory? Do we put ‘two and two together’ as kids, and get the infinite possibilities of metaphor?

And does this all start when we are young, too young to understand the crazy bright world and constantly looking for ways to understand what is going on around us and relate it to previous experience, and stays with us for the rest of our lives, influencing how we see and understand the world?

Another Brick in the Wall

But whatever the scientific unknowns of metaphor, its storytelling ability is richly understood. At IdeaRocket we use metaphor in almost all our stories. For instance, take a trip to Workland, our Alcatel-Lucent town:


But you don’t even have to play the video before you have the metaphor imposing itself. Immediately the dominating wall divides the land and you can’t help but feel the imposition, as if you yourself were in its shadow.

The metaphor of division, darkness, and intimidation are embedded in your mind, and you haven’t even pressed play.

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