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Motion as Storytelling

Posted by Grace An on Wed, May 22, 2019


Eadweard Muybridge's The Horse in Motion, 1878

 When we think of animation, we think of cartoons but in actuality, animation is just the illusion of time and motion. What differentiates animation from comic books and illustrations is time. Take Eadweard Muybridge’s famous The Horse in Motion, arguably the first film ever made - even if it was not his intent, Muybridge gave us the first example of animation by using still photographs arranged in sequence, creating the illusion of movement. Often unnoticed by viewers, motion is what is manipulated for us to experience time and when done poorly, it can look uncanny. Timing is what is at the core of good animation.

Even though animation can produce these powerful illusions,  it is often seen simply as an element to be added to a project to make it more exciting. In the film industry, it is regarded as a part of post-production or a genre rather than a medium in itself. Here at SwissVBS, we use a lot of animated content in our courses, and in the e-learning industry, animation is increasingly seen as a must-have to engage modern learners. At its best, thoughtful animation can truly enhance the modern learning experience.

As a Media Lead, I try to make every aspect of a project serve a purpose. I am constantly asking myself, how are we using the medium of animation to enhance the learning experience of what we produce? What purpose does motion serve that a still image cannot?

Over the last several months, I have had the opportunity to work on a project unlike our traditional learning courses. The project is a standalone 15-minute animated film that came with a unique set of challenges. Unlike other courses, we had no instructional designer to shape the learning material and had to rely on the script given by the client. All our learning objectives had to be met by visuals alone. So I went with a new approach. Instead of literal representation of the content, I used minimalism and abstraction to tell a story. Rather than show learners exactly what they should be thinking and feeling, a conceptual approach treats the audience with respect and intelligence to interpret the content on their own.

A large part of my job is to come up with creative solutions, keeping time and budget in mind. Simplifying the concept of a project also helps in those areas. With a limited colour palette and with just the movement of shapes and geometry, I attempted to captivate learners with as little as possible. Instead of showing what is being said on-screen, I asked myself, how can I represent the same thing with a single horizontal line or a growing circle? Contrary to popular belief, circles and lines can be just as engaging as character-based animation. Learners are willing to engage with abstract representation if we take the time to think through how animation can be part of the learning experience.


Abstraction helps, especially when presented with a sensitive subject matter. I think a lot about how I can use visual language to create learning material in a respectful way. As a Media Lead, I believe it is my responsibility to bring the client’s perspective to life. To me, this process requires empathy. When tasked with representing subjective material, abstraction brings focus to what the client intends by reducing the appearance of my own biases.

Regardless of whether it is abstract or minimal, deciding on the overall design of a project makes it easy to fill in the blanks. The more you do in pre-production, the less you have to do in production. Designing the aesthetic of a project and figuring out the best way to convey specific information to a specific audience is the bulk of the work. Once we establish a style and rules to follow, it should be seamless to do the rest. In my process of animating, the actual production comes at the very end.

Teaching can be like storytelling, and in animation, it is motion that tells the story. Animation is more than just images in sequence, it is the creation of movement. Looking forward, I invite you to consider how these concepts can be incorporated into your e-learning courses.

Thanks for reading. I hope you learned something along the way,



Topics: Storytelling, Digital Learning, Media, Animation, Illustration, instructional design, elearning trends, Motion graphics

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