Animated Video Production

The Framework of Multicultural Animation

Claude Harrington 08.29.2016

As digital distribution changes the way that we can reach (and target) consumers, thinking about a multicultural audience has never been more important. This is one reason why animation—with its potential for global accessibility—has become an increasingly effective means of corporate communication.

That said, we all know that animation itself is not a fix-all solution. Instead, animation is a tool. It is a tool that can help messages traverse cultural boundaries. And so, given that power of that tool, we can’t help but ask: what are the key characteristics of multicultural animation?

Not long ago, a couple researchers from Stanford—Barbara Hayes-Roth and Heidy Maldonado—attempted to answer this question. In a pair of research papers (“Designing for Diversity: Multi-Cultural Characters for a Multi-Cultural World” and “Toward Cross-Cultural Believability in Character Design“) Hayes-Roth and Maldonado identified 10 qualities that provide the framework for multicultural animation:

  1. Identity
  2. Backstory
  3. Appearance
  4. Content of speech
  5. Manner of speaking
  6. Manner of gesturing
  7. Emotional dynamics
  8. Social interaction patterns
  9. Role
  10. Role dynamics

Today, we’ll take a closer look at the first five characteristics. Tomorrow, in Part 2, we’ll cover the remaining qualities on this list.

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1. Identity

At first glance, every item on this list may seem like a component of “identity.” But researchers Barbara Hayes-Roth and Heidy Maldonado believed it to be distinct enough to warrant its own category. The reason for this is because they view identity as something that goes deeper than what’s readily visible in a snapshot illustration. They see identity as a combination of both explicit and implicit attributes:

  • Explicit: demographic depiction and character description
  • Implicit: personality traits and qualities of the character (i.e. likes/dislikes, idiosyncratic behaviors)

The combination and interaction of these attributes is what will answer the fundamental question: who is this character? Additionally, it will help provide insight into other top-level questions like:

  • What does this character represent?
  • Who will this character appeal to?
  • What makes this character unique?

2. Backstory

Hayes-Roth and Maldonado define backstory as both the history of the character as well as any personal facts pertaining to that character’s off-screen life. This includes details such as

  • friendships
  • favorite sports
  • important celebrations
  • love interests
  • financial status
  • political and religious affiliations

Details like these are especially significant because “every character inevitably highlights some cultural grounding from his or her backstory in their commonplace interactions.”

3. Appearance

Appearance, of course, refers to attributes like age, gender, race and other details that we as the viewer can immediately see. But there’s more to this category than just that. It also refer to how characters describe experience; the vernacular they use. 

“For example,” Hayes-Roth and Maldonado explain, “one can describe a character with the same identity as fat, chubby, round, pot-bellied, overweight, and even robust, with each word alluding to a different interpretation, and cultural implication.” 

4. Content of Speech

In addition to the importance of language and dialect, it is also vital to consider idiomatic expressions, slang, and colloquialisms. In particular, it’s make-or-break critical to understand the cultural sensitives of the target audience so as to avoid unintended offense.

Ultimately, the key here is not only to think about the representation of a character, but also about how that representation will be perceived by your target audience. To highlight how that perception can re-define intention, Hayes-Roth and Maldonado cite a paper entitled “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation” (Markus and Kitayama). In that paper, the researchers suggest that Americans tend to value qualities like autonomy and personal expressions of uniqueness from others and from the environment. The researchers then point out that these traits are valued to a much smaller degree in other cultures (particularly Asian cultures).

5. Manner of Speaking

When it comes to character animation, what a character says is only one facet of multicultural consideration. The how, when and why of a character’s speech is important as well. As are acoustic attributes as well, like intonation, pronunciation, timbre, and range of vocal expressions. Because, as Hayes-Roth and Maldonado note, “these conversational aids can be used to determine not only the geographical origin of a particular person or character, but even their cultural influences and several places of residences.”

6. Manner of Gesturing

Gestures, while subtle, play a significant role in communication. And one of the great things about animation is that the medium not only allows us to visually represent those subtleties but also to accentuate gestures.

In addition to the cultural variability that can be expressed through the gestures of character animation, Hayes-Roth and Maldonado also point out that frequency/volume is an important factor as well. To this point, they cite an MIT study called “Simultaneous Speech and Gesture Generation” (Cassell & Stone), which notes that “members of certain cultures exhibit a greater quantity of gestures per utterance than others.” For example, the British tend to use minimal gestures in conversations whereas Italian speakers often substitute gestures for speech.

As we mentioned yesterday in the “Manner of Speaking” section, it’s important to avoid communication that may inadvertently offend other cultures. To which, of course, the obvious question is: well, what kind of gestures might offend? Ultimately, this is where it pays to bring on something with expertise specific to your target audience, but on a broader level Hayes-Roth and Maldonado point out that assent and dissent gestures deserve careful consideration.

“For example,” they explain, “what Americans understand as the symbols for “ok,” with the thumb and forefinger forming a circle and the remaining fingers extended, is insulting for a wide range of cultures including Brazilians, Russians, and Germans. The same gesture is commonly used both to refer to money in Japan–alluding to a coin’s shape–and to worthless items–zero shape–in France.”

7. Emotional Dynamics

Although it’s not something we often think about (and when we do, we likely conflate it with backstory), the emotional dimensions of a character are largely dictated by how that character is designed and then animated.

How we perceive the depths of each emotion may vary by culture. But the in-depth work of Stuart Ewen, a historian of consumer culture, posits that there are a handful of emotions that are shared and recognized by all humans:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Joy
  • Disgust

In addition to those six, Ewen suggests that “Surprise” and “Interest” might also universally translate as well.

8. Social Interaction Patterns

Of all the items identified in the study, this is likely the one that faces the most multicultural variability. The oft-forgotten thing to keep in mind with “Social Interaction Patterns” is that it’s not just about how but also very much about when.

This is particularly true in situations featuring multiple animated characters, as many cultures have different norms about when different speakers should communicate. The when‘s in these scenario involve answering questions like:

  • Who should speak first?
  • How frequently should he or she speak?
  • When (if at all) are interruptions appropriate?

When thinking about all these variables, it’s hard not to envision that mistakes will be made. And interestingly enough, the way in which animated characters react to mistakes is also an important consideration. There is a significance to “How the characters recuperate from these blunders,” Hayes-Roth and Maldonado explain. “Whether and how often they acknowledge a lack of understanding, and whether they apologize for it are highly dependent on each culture’s perception of mistakes and appropriateness of continued apologies.”

9. Role

Yesterday, when we first introduced this topic, we opened by talking about how technology has changed the way in which animation can reach audiences. Which makes it especially interesting that, when it comes to role, Hayes-Roth and Maldonado talk about technology. They suggest that how the content is delivered should factor into the roles we create for our characters. Or, in other words, the medium is part of the messenger’s role.

“For example,” the researchers explain, “a talkative character with slow loading animations will not contribute to the user’s experience in a efficiency-driven application, and may perhaps serve its advice purpose better through a text- based, emotionally muted response.”

The technology point is very interesting; and increasingly so as different social media applications and the prospect of virtual reality continually realign the landscape. But regardless of the medium, we must note that it’s still critical to create characters with distinct roles (and that those roles remain consistent throughout the message).

10. Role Dynamics

The parameters of role dynamics will undoubtedly be linked to “Social Interaction Patterns.” But beyond capturing cultural norms (and, ideally, crafting roles that can highlight the value and stakes of your message), the underpinnings of these dynamics hinge on believability.

“Achieving believability,” Hayes-Roth and Maldonado explain, “continues to be the holy grail of character design.” But, importantly, it’s not necessarily based on replicating reality. Animation is a different than reality and viewers intrinsically understand that. To that end, the researchers note, “even though believability is not dependent on accurate realistic simulations, it is highly dependent on the viewers’ ascription of emotion to the created characters, as these emotions are key to revealing how and when the characters appear to think and make decisions and act of their own volition. It is what creates the illusion of life.”

Understandably (and beautifully, in a way) role dynamics—and their relationship to what we’ve become accustomed to in our own lives—provides something of a template for creating that all-important sense of believability. And while the components necessary to build that framework will vary to some degree by audience the merits of achieving that goal cross every culture.

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