Who Creates Meaning in an Animated Film?

“Like emotion, meaning is important to our experience of artworks.”
(Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 60)

There can be a number of sources of meaning in animation. Two obvious sources are the audience or reader of the film, and the creator/animator/institution that conceived the film. As every reading of the film will be slightly different for each member of the audience; due to a massive number of variables in their personality, opinions, and status within society, can one ever say it could be purely from one source or the other? Rather a unique blend of intended meaning and circumstantial meaning. This relationship between animator and audience, this communication between creator and viewer is so diverse in its deciphering that it is a very tough to say on a case by case basis, who does create the meaning in an animated film?

Pixar has always enjoyed massive commercial success, (The worldwide gross for Pixar’s most recent animation Up (2009) currently stands at $727,104,164. [Nash Information Services, 2010]) but not at the cost of masterful and often meaningful storytelling. Wall-e (2008) was Andrew Stanton’s second film as director and was classified by some as a member of the science fiction genre: “Here we have the plot of a proper, adult sci-fi: a vision of a dystopian, homogenised future in which commerce has killed individuality and independent thought.”(Smith, 2008) The sci-fi genre’s conventions have long been used as a catalyst for social commentary and philosophical debate within film. Against this galactic backdrop of post apocalyptic earth, was a simple story whose focus was a small lonely robot. The director was then able to utilise this grand stage as a mechanism to make comment on the manner in which mankind treats his habitat and the rate at which he consumes and disposes of resources; the way mankind has forgotten what is truly of value. “Precisely because artworks are human creations and because the artist lives in history and society, he or she cannot avoid relating the work, in some way, to other works and to aspects of the world in general.” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 58). This is contrasted in the character Wall-e whose innocence allows him to see beauty in the most mundane of items and value in the most insignificant of things, for example Wall-e’s home is filled with shelves upon shelves of everyday domestic items, exhibited as prized possessions. The director uses Wall-e, as the protagonist, and his value system to align the beliefs of the audience with the ideologies perpetuated by the animated film. In this way the audience has been guided through the characters design and naive nature to identify with the greater themes of the film and find greater meaning therein.
Disney’s chief creative officer John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s founding members, has always put character animation and character driven narrative at the forefront of his film-making as he finds it is a more meaningful method of storytelling: “This is what John Lasseter strives for over any photo-realistic effect that computers can provide. ‘You cannot base a whole movie on just the imagery alone,’ he says. ‘It has to be the story and the characters.’” (Lyons, 1998) This is what makes Wall-e a polysemic animation: it’s many layers of meaning. While any film could be seen as polysemic; Wall-e is polysemic in that its layers of meaning seem to have a defined dichotomy. For example a viewer could watch the film and identify with Wall-e’s solitude and feelings for the foreign android Eva, therefore deriving a meaning based on the power of love. A different viewer, or even the same one on a second viewing, could then read more into the subtext and context of the film and derive a meaning based on the environmental ramifications of the ideologies embodied through the “Buy ‘n’ Large” corporation in the film. What determines which of these interpretations prevails? Perhaps this is where the prior knowledge and experiences the viewer brings to the reading come into play, the director can provide the audience with meaning but the viewer may choose to disregard what they are shown or not perceive it at all; effectively working to negate the meaning.

In the same vein of family oriented CGI animation is Blue Sky studio’s adaption of the Dr Seuss book Horton Hears A Who (2008). Being an adaption of a children’s book into a feature length animation, there is clearly already a process of interpretation and mediation at work. So Seuss’ original intended meaning is already being read by the audience through the changes and additions that Blue Sky has made. The animation however does appear to maintain most of the book’s initial ideology and meaning through the same layers and polysemy employed in Wall-e.
The book follows the story of Horton as he endeavours to protect the residents of whoville who inhabit a speck on a clover. This allows the film to follow a linear narrative following Horton’s journey to discover a safe resting place for whoville, this is perhaps the depth of meaning that the younger segment of the films audience will ascertain. Another theme that is repeated throughout the film through Horton’s dialogue is that “a person is a person, no matter how small”, this basic moral value of equality may register on a subconscious level with the younger viewer and can be easily identified by an older viewer. A final layer, which is debatable as to whether it was part of the intended meaning but worth noting nonetheless, is the use of the infinitesimally tiny Whos as a religious metaphor for faith in a fable-style narrative slant. “As an alert perceiver, the spectator is constantly testing the work for larger significance, for what it says or suggests. The sort of meanings that the spectator attributes to a film may vary considerably.”(Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 60). Being so tiny they’re invisible to the naked eye and Horton’s only proof of their existence is that his sensitive ears can pick up the sound of their voices, this is met by scepticism from the rest of the characters and his belief is questioned right up until the film’s denouement where the Whos finally manage to make enough noise to be heard by all. This belief in the intangible being tested by non believers resembles an allegory for religious faith in a god being tested by atheist ideology. It seems more likely that this was Suess’ intended meaning rather than Blue Sky’s. Suess’ children’s book often contained deeper subtexts like this one and The Lorax (1971), a book which explores the greed of the consumer: “everyone needs a Thneed” and environmental devastation for commercial gain depicted through illustrations of pollution, fleeing wildlife and industrial imagery. It is perhaps for this deeper dimension of Suess’ work that there have been two live action adaption’s of his work and one animated. The visual style, rhyming narrative and allegory lend themselves perfectly the family target audience that most CGI animation caters for.

I remember discussing the recent release District 9 (2009) and finding that the person with whom I was having the conversation nurtured an intense dislike for the film. While it is not an animation, half the cast is made up of CGI animated aliens. The film’s basic premise takes the discrimination of apartheid in South Africa during the time just before its abolition (the time and place the director/writer grew up) and situates it in an alternate reality where aliens are asylum seekers in the slums. Once again the sci-fi genre is used; its function being to bring tough issues to a new audience in a more palatable guise, allowing the director to convey meaning without being overly literal “Most social scientists approach media accounts as value-laden instruments of meaning, instruments with the power to confirm cultural beliefs and construct specific social realities.” (Cerulo, 2000: 155). The director uses genre to his benefit when attempting to convey a very specific meaning relating to his own experience of race issues. The visual style borrows a lot of conventions from documentary; like handheld cameras, low fidelity image quality, interviews and camera awareness. This ‘cinema verite’ aesthetic allows the audience to attribute the events of the film with authenticity and credibility; therefore allowing the film’s meaning to have greater impact. Except the person I previously mentioned seemed to be unaware of any of the South African context and wholly unappreciative of the aesthetics. So the director has failed to create meaning from the film for this viewer.
So in this case we deduce that the missing component was context, and without it none of the narrative carries weight rooting it on reality, nor is it relatable to the viewer’s prior knowledge or experience. So the viewer struggles to create his/her own meaning from the confusion and as a result dismisses the film as pointless. The director intended a meaning that was overly referential and, though he created it, the viewer did not read it and therefore for that viewer meaning does not exist. While for the much of the audience the film explored the issue of race, ‘the other’ and mankind’s fear of it.
One element in District 9 that highlights an interesting aspect of viewer interpretation is the representation of violence. While the film appears on one level of meaning to be examining the violent and unequal treatment of different groups, it does so whilst engaging the viewer with hyperbolic action sequences in which the protagonist uses advanced alien weaponry to destroy soldiers in increasingly gruesome ways. These two elements of the film appear to contradict one another and it is through the ‘story sequencing’ explored in Karen Cerulo’s Packaging Violence (2000) that the director attempts to justify the violence:

“Of particular importance is the temporal order by which the information enters the foreground and then recedes to the background of readers and viewers attention, the sequence of a message [...] a method by which those who tell the stories of violence unfold and arrange the dimensions of a violent event.” (2000: 155)

District 9 opens with a brief interview with Wikus, the main character, and establishes him as the everyman with whom the viewer will empathise with through his flaws and innate humanity. It is a good deal of time, during which Wikus is victimised and hunted, before he becomes hostile; therefore we witness the corporation (Multi National United) turn against its own employee in the most violent and illegal manner before Wikus retaliates. So we are manipulated to see Wikus’ explicit violence as both necessary to his survival and warranted, even righteous, in light of the misdeeds of the corporation and the freedom of the aliens.

In the process of creation, the artist must create for a specific audience or with an audience in mind. That is certainly the case in the films I have studied so far. And in accepting this we reach a theoretical scenario that threatens to change the view of artistic control over audience interpretation. What if the artist’s concepts, narrative, themes are governed by a hypothetical audience whose needs and expectations existence shapes the work of the artist even before it has manifested itself in any significant way? This thesis has been explored in a psychological and linguistic context before: “In ordinary conversation, we tailor what we say to particular people we are talking to. We have a good idea of the knowledge and beliefs they share with us at the moment and what they are thinking of, and we design our utterances accordingly.” (Clark & Murphy, 1982) But it seems to contain enough relevance to media consumption to merit further discussion.
In the same way as the audience can be seen to direct the artist, so too can the institution, with its commercially minded worship of the audience; develop a parasitic triangle in which the institution feeds off the audience, the audience feeds off the artist and the artist feeds off the institution. This is most obvious in Horton Hears A Who as the film is interspersed with popular culture references; from hip hop to anime, the institution has chosen a specific audience and the artists must conform to that audience’s popular culture so that the institution can feed more and consequently the artist gets fed. It’s the triangle of greed, and in the centre sits genre; the web that ties all the components together.

The many topics of debate surrounding Roland Barthes’ the “death of the author” ties into the same vein of thought that questions the validity of intended meaning on the author’s part.

“In fact [...], the significant doctrines underlying the ‘death of the author’ are far removed from the convivial debate about intentions and have their sights set not just on the humble author but on the concept of literature itself and even the concept of meaning.” (Peter Lamarque, 1990)

A disconnect between the artist and the creation is thought to be made in the act of creation itself leaving room only for a pure meaning based entirely on the interpretation of the audience. I feel that this tempts extremism in determining who creates meaning; as without the artist there is no meaning to be read, however tailored that meaning may be, and without the audience there is no reader of the meaning, however skewed the readers perception may be. There can only be co-existence of the two for any kind of meaning to burst into life, especially when it comes to the medium of animation as every frame is created by the artist from nothing; there is no chance of unforeseen visual or auditory elements garnering new and inexplicable interpretations.
I see very few merits in attempting to interpret a text as a reader without the context that I mentioned earlier pertaining to District 9. A reading without knowledge of the values, beliefs and opinions of the artist then becomes a very isolated experience. One cannot share the emotional resonance of meaning with another as the likelihood of having the same understanding of the film is low, or perhaps it is this diverse array of interpretations that creates the appeal of this theory. It would however, be advantageous to derive meaning from a text without having one’s perception distorted by external influence, for example the mass media and its coverage of an animated film may subtly alter opinions and taint the meaning construed, rendering it less personal and therefore less affecting. One cannot experience animation as a communication between artist and audience when the artist’s beliefs have been discarded in the attempt to construe true meaning, why would one want to remove this communication at the cost of animation’s profundity? For purity of meaning? Then what meaning is there beyond the expression of this dead author that is worth forsaking the artist for? For me there can be no satisfactory answer to this particular query as I endeavour to uncover the meaning hidden for me by the artist, in order to have my beliefs validated and my moral values reinforced.


Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. (2004). Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
Cerulo, Karen A. (2000). 'Packaging Violence: Media, Story Sequencing and the Perception of Right and Wrong' in New Forms of Consumption, ed. by Mark Gottdiener. pp 153-176. Oxford: Rowman & Litlefield.
Clark, Herbert & Murphy, Gregory. (1982). “Audience Design in Meaning and Reference”. In: Language and Comprehension. Ed. by Le Ney, Jean & Kintsch, Walters. North Holland Publishing Company.
Lamarque, Peter. (1990). “The Death of the Author: An Analytical Autopsy”. In: British Journal of Aesthetics. Volume 30, No. 4, October 1990. Oxford University Press
Suess, Dr. (1971). The Lorax. Random House.
Lyons, Mike. (1998). “Toon Story: John Lasseter’s Animated Life”. In: Animation World Magazine. Issue 3.8, November 1998.
District 9. (2009). Directed by Neill Blomkamp. [Blu-Ray]. Tristar Pictures.
Horton Hears A Who. (2008). Directed by Jimmy Haywood & Steve Martino. [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
Up. (2009). Directed by Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson. [Film]. Walt Disney Pictures.
Wall-e. (2008). Directed by Andrew Stanton. [DVD]. Walt Disney Pictures.
Nash Information Services. (2010). http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/series/Pixar.php (Sunday, February 7, 2010).
Smith, Anna. (2008). Wall-e UK Review. http://uk.movies.ign.com/articles/891/891929p1.html (July 18th 2008).