The breath of life

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Animation as an act of worship

When I was about nine years old, growing up in Michigan, my dad took me to see a theatrical re-issue of Walt Disney’s classic 1940 film Pinocchio. I already knew the story from my Disney books and records, but this was my first time seeing the entire movie on the big screen. I remember the whole audience, including myself, being riveted all the way through, laughing at the funny moments and audibly gasping at the moments of terror.
At the end of the film, the house erupted into applause. This was the first time I had witnessed an audience clapping for a movie. Something about it was special.

In the iconic scene near the beginning of the film, the Blue Fairy waves her wand over the wooden Pinocchio puppet and says, “Little puppet made of pine, awake! The gift of life is thine.”

In a flash, Pinocchio stirs and opens his eyes, and Jiminy Cricket, observing the scene, remarks, “Whew!  What they can’t do these days.”

This scene fills me with a sense of awe, not only for its place in the story, but because of the symbolism it represents about the art of animation itself.  Even though I have worked as an animator, plus a writer and educator on animation, for several years, the very concept of bringing an inanimate character to life continues to amaze me. Even more amazing for me has been looking closer to see how the image of God can be reflected through the process of the art form, and also through some of the stories that animators continue to bring to the screen.


For centuries, people have attempted to achieve the illusion of motion in their art. Some early cave paintings showed animals drawn in sequential repetition, as if they were moving across the wall. With the invention of the motion picture, artists could finally combine art with movement as they had always wanted, through the new technique of animation.

The process of animation can be accomplished in many ways. In two-dimensional (2D) animation, a character can be drawn repeatedly on separate sheets of paper, each time in a different position, to appear to be moving. In another technique called stop-motion, a three-dimensional puppet can be moved in tiny increments in front of a camera, which takes a series of still pictures that are played back to create the illusion of movement. It takes 24 separate drawings or movements of a puppet for each second of film. Alternatively, this illusion can be created in 2D or 3D with the aid of computer graphics (CG), but it still takes an artist who understands the principles of motion to make it believable to an audience.

Animation, from the root word anima, meaning soul, life, or breath, literally means “to bestow life” or “breathe life into.” The imagery suggested by these definitions is very similar to Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Animator Ken Priebe at work.

What is significant about this idea is that our human bodies are made up of the same elements as the “dust” or clay in the earth. Some stop-motion animation films, such as the Aardman studio’s Wallace and Gromit, use miniature puppets made of plasticine clay. When we watch them move on screen, their material nature, symbolic of our own, can speak to us subconsciously of what Paul reminds us of in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Aardman’s co-founder, animator Peter Lord, describes the stop-motion process in his book, Creating 3D Animation: The Aardman Book of Filmmaking: “In puppet animation, when you set off from position A you do not know where position B is, because you have not got there yet (like real life, come to think of it). So every single stage of a movement is an experiment, or even an adventure.” Between every frame of film exposed, there exists several minutes of deliberate thought and concentration as the animator decides where to move the tiny puppet next. Several hours of time and hard work must pass in order to create just a few seconds of screen time, where the puppet comes to life.

Unseen “between the frames” is the animator, baring their soul through their character to create a performance, out of nothing. The very idea behind this phenomenon never ceases to boggle my mind.

Lord’s description of animation sounds very much like a quote from C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity’s chapter “Time and Beyond Time”:  “If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave D behind. God, from above or outside or all around, contains the whole line, and sees it all.”

God exists outside our time, in what Madeleine L’Engle refers to as “kairos” (God’s time) and “chronos” (our time). In a similar fashion, an animator exists outside the dimension of 24 frames per second of screen time. (Perhaps this dimension should be called “animos.”)

Another cycle

This parallel description ultimately points to another interesting cycle. God has created us from the earth, breathed life into us, and called some of us to work in this art form and business of animation. In turn, we use the materials of the earth, whether it be in the form of pencils and paper, or clay, to imitate this creative act in our own way. Potentially this act can be pursued, often subconsciously, as an offering back to God, especially when the stories told through it turn our minds and hearts back to him.

When I was studying film at University of Michigan, my film professor showed us an animated short film made back in the 1980s by a former student of his. This film, entitled Crosspaths, by James Pinard, consists merely of eggs moving around a tabletop in stop-motion animation, with no dialogue or camera movement, only music. The basic premise of the film is that all the eggs are white, except for one purple egg which attracts the attention of a small group of followers, only to be ganged up on by other eggs and destroyed. Then in a flash of light, the egg cracks open to reveal a brilliant origami angelic figure, and all the other eggs that follow it do the same.

Sitting in the film class, my soul was stirred by this beautiful story, but at the time I did not fully comprehend why. Several years later, after coming to faith, I remembered the film and upon viewing it again, saw the symbolism behind the purple egg, which seemed to be representing Christ. I contacted the filmmaker, and he confirmed my suspicions by telling me that indeed he was trying to tell the story of Christ and use animation as an expression of his faith – all just with eggs on a tabletop.

Even in major studio films, animated film directors sometimes end up with echoes of biblical stories in their work whether they realize it consciously or not. Again in reference to Acts 17, we can follow the example of Paul explaining to the Athenians how the stories they were telling could be used to point back to the true living God.

The final scene of Pixar’s Cars, for example, where Lightning McQueen pushes the crippled race car across the finish line, reminds us of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Spiritual themes of discovery, sacrifice, and battling evil run rampant through modern fairy tales such as The Iron Giant and the recent stop-motion masterpiece Coraline.

Coming back full circle to Pinocchio, we follow the wooden puppet’s journey through life as he struggles to resist the temptations of the world with the help of his “conscience” Jiminy Cricket (who has an interesting set of initials to his name). We see Pinocchio enter the belly of a whale and ultimately end up sacrificing himself in order to save his father Geppetto, and in the final scene, Pinocchio is resurrected with a new body. Witnessing his transformation from wooden puppet to real boy, we are reminded of the new spiritual bodies that Jesus promises we will gain in the new heaven and new earth.

The similarities of these glorious truths of God’s story to the story of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio tell us much about why the film has the power to lift an audience in a tiny Michigan movie theater to its feet in applause. May we, through the flicker of the animated image, be inspired to see ourselves and our hopes and dreams reflected back, and look more closely between the frames, for God.

Ken Priebe is an animator who writes for and founded the annual Breath of Life Animation Festival at Cedar Park Church in Delta, B.C. He lives in Ladner with his wife Janet and daughter Ariel.

See also “An animated effort to reach the community

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