Ellen Rocha – Beyond Materiality in Animation: Sensuous Perception and Touch in the Tactile Existence of “Would a Heart Die?”

Originating at the end of the nineteenth century, three-dimensional stop-motion animation has been an exclusively manual animation practice, in which the direct manipulation of handmade puppets and models allows a more tactile approach of the physical act of animating and a more sensuous perception of the tangible by the viewer, that is, the elicitation of the sense of touch through the experience of watching an animated film. By depicting objects from our everyday surroundings or materials we may recognize, stop-motion animation evokes the sense of materiality – namely the idea of touching what is being seen – which might be brought up by textural surfaces that address the sense of touch and, moreover, our fingertips.

Focusing primarily on three-dimensional stop-motion animation, Wells mentions that objects and materials that are part of our routine evoke a more physical character in animation. In this context, he defines the fabrication of objects as “the re-animation of materiality for narrative purposes” (1998, p. 90). According to Wells, it “plays out an alternative version of material existence, recalling narrative out of constructed objects and environments, natural forms and substances, and the taken-for-granted constituent elements of the everyday world (p. 90). Thus, issues of materiality are present not only in strict representations of the real world, but also in the tactile sense that the nature of real built objects evoke both when animated and when watched by the viewer.

Over the last 15 years, academic studies have been paying attention to the sensuous cinematic experience, drawing on the embodied viewer’s experience in regards to material elements on screen (Barker 2009). Although applicable to the case of stop-motion animation, these studies are less specifically directed towards it and rely on few bibliographic sources, with studies conducted mainly by Barker (2009) and Marks (2002), who focus on the tactile image and on haptic visuality respectively. Thus, there is not a large number of detailed aesthetic studies, let alone a reasonable number of references on the tactile and material uniqueness of stop-motion animation. In fact, the majority of books and articles about stop-motion, such as Barry Purves’ Stop motion: Passion, Process and Performance (2008), Neil Pettigrew’s The Stop-Motion Filmography: A Critical Guide to 297 Features Using Puppet Animation (1999), and Ken Priebe’s The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion (2010) mainly centre on its technical aspects in order to teach the process, or might bring a brief history of the technique, with summarized analysis of films. Consequently, aesthetic analyses are still scarce and focused research on these topics plays a fundamental role in the development of the field.

In this study, I seek to answer questions concerning the tactile nature of the process of stop-motion animation and its physical act. This way, I also discuss the possibilities in which audiences perceive the sense of touch and how it can connect with memory and nostalgia. By drawing on theory and on the short three-dimensional stop-motion animation Would a Heart Die?, which I wrote, directed and animated, I intend to describe my experience by aligning it to theoretical approaches on materiality.[1] In addition, my goal is to relate the visual experience of the viewer – and her/his vision – to the sense of touch this animation might evoke. By assuming this characteristic, Would a Heart Die?, centers on the premise that the material fabrication of environments, props and characters can also be directly related to the construction of a narrative, even being essential to it (e.g. by evoking the idea of memory and nostalgia) through the use of specific textures and the elicitation of the sense of touch.

In her book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Laura U. Marks (2002) defines the materiality of the image by asserting that features other than only the objects’ texture should also be included, such as imperfections like a strand of hair that falls over an actor’s face, wrinkles on a piece of cloth, lighting, and other minimum details perceived by the viewer. By emphasizing more engagement than only a symbolic identification, Marks establishes an analysis centered on a closer relationship between the audience and the film; the viewer is not supposed to be distant from the cinematic experience, she/he must engage with it through haptic visuality.

The term haptic visuality is conceptualized by Marks through a distinction made with its opposite, optical visuality. As haptic is defined as what is related to touch, our eyes thus “function like organs of touch” (2002, p. 3). Therefore, optical visuality involves the conventional sense of sight, whereas haptic visuality focuses on sight along with touch and kinesthetic processes. Because

haptic visuality draws on other senses, the viewer’s body is more obviously involved in the process of seeing than is the case with optical visuality. The difference between haptic and optical visuality is a matter of degree, however. In most processes of seeing both are involved, in a dialectical movement from far to near, from solely optical to multisensory. (Marks 2002, p. 3)

Significant examples of materiality in stop-motion animation are found in the works of animators Jan Švankmajer, The Quay Brothers and Ladislaw Starewicz. Their animated films evoke tactility, and the use they make of objects, puppets and other materials privilege the sense of touch. The scope of Starewicz’s work is notably populated by material representations. Using dissected models of insects and frogs in shorts that date back to the 1910s, Starewicz’s animations such as The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) and The Insect’s Christmas (1913) are clear examples of how real skin textures can work with recognition and, sometimes, displacement. The use Starewicz makes of insects and other animals considerably justifies Wells’ concept of fabrication: in his animated films, he employs tangible and recognizable elements to fulfill an esthetics based on narrative needs.

Czech animator Švankmajer, for instance, uses elements such as toys, stones, dolls and clothes in Jabberwocky (1971). In Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), he takes advantage of the tactile nature of food, clay and objects such as a toothbrush, shoes, a knife and others, to show a more surreal approach within the exploration of dark and political topics. Cardinal (2008) comments that even though Švankmajer’s extravagant aesthetic choices may seem shallow sometimes, they are counterbalanced by the care he shows for the tactile and by the visual impact of the vivid transformations which the elements and materials of his animated films undergo. Therefore, it is possible to affirm that Švankmajer attributes unusual significance to the sensations of touch.

Although almost unknown in the West until the early 1980s, Švankmajer has influenced other animators with his obscure themes and the use of found and used inanimate objects. The work of American identical twins The Quay Brothers encompasses films that depict disconcerting atmospheres due to their dark themes and their choice of materials to match narratives. By bringing objects that seem dead to life, such as pieces of meat, dark earth and old, broken and dirty dolls, their films resemble bizarre experiments with undead elements, in which textures play an essential role in the construction of an original aesthetics, emphasized even more by the use of stop-motion as their main technique. In addition, the physical nature of their animation process is also highlighted by Wells’s concept of fabrication, which “comes from the idea of redefining the material or object as if it still possessed an intrinsically organic life” (1998, p. 91). This tactility is noticeable in one of their most notable films, Street of Crocodiles (1986), a mix of live-action and animation. In this obscure and unconventional narrative, in which a gaunt puppet explores the dark and desolate surroundings around him, the objects are distinguished by their own material character. The movements they perform are then incorporated by their tangible intrinsic characteristics in an atmosphere permeated by the movement of particles, puppets and objects that come to life.

The materiality and tactility present in the animation of Starewicz, Švankmajer and The Quay Brothers stimulates an embodied reaction and involvement between the viewer and the film, rather than a distant identification. Thus, it is fair to assume that the spectators’ immersion in stop-motion animation through its materiality is an extensive process of subjectivity between both. Rather than only identifying with an image or a specific figure or texture, the viewer can also relate to the film via the haptic look, which stands in for the sense of touch. This draws on phenomenology, in which the analysis of the process is more experimental and immersed, focused on the dynamics of the self, instead of the semiotic approach, in which the analysis is objective and distant, more centered on the text (Buchan 2011).

Contemporary studies have been focusing on more objective analyses that do not take into consideration that the connection between the object and the subject goes beyond identification and recognition. As the main approaches to film studies, semiotics and psychoanalysis “fail to acknowledge the fact that viewing is not simply an ocular phenomenon, but rather it is a fully embodied experience” (Bouldin 2000, p. 56). If some movies are specifically capable of evoking the sense of touch, and “‘move’ and ‘touch’ us bodily” (Sobchack 2004, p. 59), the theory behind the majority of studies disregard the embodied cinematic experience, and treats it objectively. According to Vivian Sobchack, film theory

has attempted (somewhat defensively, I think) to put the ambiguous and unruly, subjectively sensuous, embodied experience of going to the movies back where it ‘properly’ – that is, objectively – belongs: it locates the sensuous on the screen as the semiotic effects of cinematic representation and the semantic property of cinematic objects or off the screen in the spectator’s phantasmatic psychic formations, cognitive processes, and basic physiological reflexes that do not pose major questions of meaning. (2004, p. 59-60)

Although both Sobchack and Marks’s studies focus on senses other than sight and touch – kinesthetic and proprioceptive functions – for the purposes of this paper, my argument centres on touch and sight, due to my specific interest in textures and surfaces. Thus, Marks’ concept of haptic visuality becomes essential; the closer look of the viewer, that is the look that involves all the senses, precedes identification and immediate recognition, by bringing up a perception of the tactile and material in a cinematic work.

In The Tactile Eye, Jennifer Barker (2009) defines the close relationship between sight and touch as one opposite to the “distant experience of observation” (p. 2). According to Barker, cinematic tactility stimulates this experience/connection. She then asserts that

to say that we are touched by cinema indicates that it has significance for us, that it comes close to us, and that it literally occupies our sphere. We share things with it: texture, spatial orientation, comportment, rhythm, and vitality. (p. 2)

This affirmation raises issues of textural perception in stop-motion animation: the perception of materials by their physicality and the elicitation of the sense of touch in special. According to Wells, the latter is translated into the specific meta-reality of materiality. The creation of this meta-reality through some sort of real physicality of objects triggers the definition of materiality as one related to the process of fabrication, in which objects or elements may be modified and/or play a different role from the one they play in the real world for narrative purposes.

Another theoretical approach to materiality and cinema is related to the concept of “deixis,” defined by John Sundholm as “categories which encode the person, place, time or social context of utterance,” including the traces an artist leaves in her/his artwork (2005, p. 55). This concept is directly related to the aesthetics of materiality, as explained by Sundholm in his article about memory and materiality in film. He then points out that the aesthetics of materiality “is a way of retaining deixis; a trace of the past event as an intervention and specific relation, a material fact that a simple referential relation to the image tends to ignore” (p. 56).

Thus, Sundholm’s concept of deixis evokes the definition of a materiality that recalls some specific memory, such as a special food someone used to eat when she was a child. Here, Sundholm argues for the presence of the artist, traditionally concealed in Western art. By using Gunvor Nelson’s films as examples, in particular Red Shift (1984), he explains that traces of memory may appear as an aspect from the past, a simple skin texture, the use of colors, the graininess of film, and camera shots.

Deixis, then, might also indicate the presence of the artist in her own work or, in other words, the traces that the animator leaves in the final result. Rather than concealing this presence, there is a direct physical connection between the animator and her own piece in handmade processes: it highlights the physical act of animating and the physical touch of manipulation in the making of the piece (Graça 2006). The sense of touch is thus also recalled through the embodied presence of the artist. As animators, we not only leave our own physical traces in the object, model or puppet being animated, but we also recall memory from this physical act by bringing our aesthetic sensibility to the performance we imprint on a character, for instance. According to Wells,

the animator develops the character from a script, considering the narrative implications of the role in the determination of character design, the range of movement available to the character, and the character’s predominant motivation, which inevitably informs modes of expression and behavior. (1998, p. 104)

Centering on a more aesthetic approach, this paper focuses on the tangibility three-dimensional stop-motion animation allows in its authorial process and on the tactility and materiality it evokes on the other side of the screen. In other words, I demonstrate how the process of stop-motion animation  raises issues of materiality and tactility perceived by audiences. The process of fabrication is aligned to the physical act of animating; and consequently, to the sense of touch. Accordingly, the traces left by the animator, such as fingerprints on clay puppets or wrinkles on their clothes, imply the physicality of the process. In this sense, I also examine what is beyond the materiality of objects employed in stop-motion animation and particularly in Would a Heart Die?, by demonstrating how materiality furthers the meaning of a narrative by evoking a sense of memory and nostalgia embedded in its story. Why do the real materials that surround our everyday world evoke a sense of tactility and further, imply a certain appeal into this kind of animation? Some signals of imperfection, such as slightly different eyes, wrinkled pieces of cloth, an imperfectly sewn puppet, or even misplaced shirt buttons show evidence on how the presence of this specific tangibility connects to the material reality we are in.

Stop-motion animation is directly related to the notion and sense of touch. The textures that evoke materiality in stop-motion animation “beg to be touched” (Barker 2009, p. 137) and engage the embodied viewer’s experience. It is fair to assume that this specific technique evokes a tactile perception by the use of materials and textures that appeal to our experience and address our sense of touch through vision. The body of this work is thus structured in two pillars: a theoretical approach aligned to the experience and analysis of my own animated piece. As this first part presented the main theories linked to sensuous perception in film and animation studies, relating them to tactility and the physical act of manipulating and animating materials, the following section, “About Would a Heart Die?: The Construction of a Tangible Narrative,” brings more detailed descriptions of my animation process along with theoretical and aesthetic support on how issues of materiality, fabrication, tangibility, tactility and physicality, to say the least, can be found, perceived and detailed during and in the result of this production.

In this  way, two main approaches are used for the purposes of building the next section of this paper: Marks’ haptic visuality and Barker’s tactile cinema, which bring up the embodied relationship between the viewer, and the on-screen image, drawn from Sobchack’s phenomenology of the mutual embodied cinematic experience. Also, my aim is to implement Graça’s theories on the physical act of animating, found mainly in the realm of handmade animation, as well as to employ Wells’s ideas on fabrication and the alternative existence of materials in stop-motion animation. In addition, I draw on Sundholm’s concepts of deixis and the aesthetics of materiality aligned to issues of memory and the presence of the artist when it comes to the physical act of animating. 

About Would a Heart Die?: The Construction of a Tangible Narrative

 The particular interest I have in the tactile qualities of materials in stop-motion animation is the basis for the concept of the three-dimensional stop-motion animation Would a Heart Die?. Since the beginning, my intention has been to gather memory and materiality, and to elicit the sense of touch to construct a narrative that could bring these themes together in a harmonic form.

In this context, the narrative of Would a Heart Die? focuses on an elderly woman named Maria who lives alone in a house and experiences a one-day transformation that brings her back to her childhood. By becoming a child again, Maria starts exploring the empty streets of the city, where she finds special memories through objects, feelings, and the appearance of her imaginary friend, a fantastic creature, in a strong connection between the present and the past. Based on this fragmented character of my memory, Would a Heart Die? brings materiality about not by the exact reproduction of tactile elements or events, but by the textual aspect of memory. A study by Frow indicates that this aspect is “a construction of [memory] under conditions and constraints determined by the present” (qtd. in Sundholm 2005, p. 62).

In order to contextualize the space and the ensemble of memories for the narrative, I interviewed my mother about what she used to do in her childhood, and also collected some of the memories I have of my own and of my grandmother. Would a Heart Die? is an autobiographical narrative, and this is evident in the soundscape, with the sound of the city’s philharmonic band and the crunch of bread, which in turn resembles the bakery my grandfather used to have. For the family pictures that appear in one of the first shots of the animation, I used real old family photos to be the basis for the framed ones in the animation. Although the movie does not repeat memories exactly as they are, they are based in real facts and, as a result, are a trace of the past constructed in the present. The concept for the character of Maria as a child is then a mix of my memories and my mother’s childhood recollections (see figure 1) – and looks – and Maria as an elderly woman is the result of how I remember my grandmother (see figure 2). These characteristics can be perceived by the appearance I chose for the puppet to evoke my grandmother’s looks, and by the use of a rocking chair, a place she used to spend long periods of her day sitting on. Also, her gestures were also based on memory and evoke the physical act of animating, which is based on our own experiences of the world.







Figure 1: Puppet of little Maria, which resembles my mother and me in our childhood







Figure 2: Puppet of elderly Maria, inspired by my grandmother

As I argue above, the present and the past merge; this happens because two separate worlds coexist and are connected by the presence of Maria, as a little girl, in both of them. These two worlds – the first experienced by both the old and young Maria, and the second experienced by Maria only when she becomes a child – are aesthetically distinct by the use of different props and backgrounds. Whereas in the kitchen (see figure 3) all the props are made of real material and the tangible world is emphasized by the physical nature of tactile surfaces and textures placed in the environment, the second world is composed of a combination between real props and painted backgrounds digitally composited together (see figure 4). Although digitized, I privileged the texture of the paper and of the watercolor used in the backgrounds, in order to create some sort of fantastic and dreamy atmosphere.







Figure 3: Kitchen props and materials







Figure 4: Composited background in Maria’s childhood world

The aesthetics of materiality, defined by Sundholm (2005) as a fact or trace that conveys it, explains how materiality and memory relate in Would a Heart Die?:

Memory consequently implies a poetics – the practice of putting the bits and pieces into meaningful constellations and therefore creating discourses that will foster images and stories about the past triggered by the present. Such a poetics is dependant on both the material in the sense of technique and in the sense of object or thing, that is; the material that is used as a technique for remembering (in my case, film and its aesthetic means), and the very material that is depicted as objects filled with memories. (p. 56)

Although Sundholm’s case study is “film and its aesthetic means” (p. 56), his concept is applicable to my own piece. As a digitally-shot stop-motion animation, I replaced the technique for remembering by ‘stop-motion and its aesthetic means,’ as it allows emphasis on textures and tactile surfaces and, thus, evokes the tangibility of materials used. Moreover, the “very material that is depicted as objects filled with memory” (p. 56) is denoted by the objects and fabricated elements that create an environment for memory representation.

This is explained by the fabrication of elements in order to recreate the kitchen and the city environments; in the way the kitchen furniture is displayed, how the breakfast table contains typical food from the Brazilian northeastern region where I am from (see figure 5), and in the manner the backgrounds are highly inspired by the streets of the city I grew up in. In addition, although the puppets have a specific aesthetic in their design, memory is also present in their creation: one of them is meant to recall the appearance of my grandmother (hair, glasses and dress, for instance); the other, me and my mother when we were children (hair, pigtails, socks and shoes).

In order to re-animate this materiality and create elements, I also based my ideas on the notion of the alternative existence that materials play when animated (Wells 1998). Thus, I established that for the skin of the puppets, I would use a fabric called jute, due to its very textural qualities, and also materials such as pins, wool and wool locks, papier maché and coffee-stained fabric, as well as painted osnaburg (a lightweight woven cotton fabric) in order to materially construct their eyes, hair, noses, and mouths, respectively. According to Buchan, we

can also understand texture in a literal sense: the materials from which animated figures are constructed as sculptural objects are often composed of materials that are not what we would expect a human being to be made of, but the bits and pieces are familiar to us from our own forays in flea markets or stowed-away boxes in the attic. And the objects often embody something else. 2011, (p. 120)

The very first scenes of the movie are set in a kitchen, in which close-up shots of materials and objects disclose the environment by emphasizing the physical nature and textures of the elements that compose the space (see figures 6 and 7). These shots arouse tactility from closeness and are followed by a wide shot of the whole space, which finally reveals this first and more real world that had only partially been shown.







Figure 5: Typical food from the Brazilian Northeastern region







Figure 6: Close-up of the stove in the kitchen







Figure 7: Close-up of flour bags

In addition to the two main puppets mentioned above, there is the imaginary friend Maria had when she was a child. After Maria finds a drawing she made of him, he appears and they demonstrate a very fraternal affection. Although he is in just one scene, his presence is enough to highlight that he is part of a very important memory and, more importantly, an essential piece in this connection between the present and the past. He is also significantly different from the other two puppets due to his fantastic character, as he is an imaginary friend who suddenly appears and disappears. In this manner, he resembles a toy with button eyes, fabric nose and a painted head made of papier maché, with an irregular surface composed of brush marks, not much visible on screen, but with a textured finish (see figure 8).







Figure 8: Maria’s imaginary friend

Stop-motion animation is a technique that, by nature, evokes materiality by its textures and surfaces, which, in turn, elicit the sense of touch in the viewer (Barker 2009). But this sense of touch can also be elicited by imperfections resulting from fabrication and animation processes. Even though digital image correction is available, there is a significant value in not totally perfect results in stop-motion animation.

By making use of elements from the real material world, stop-motion animators work with three-dimensional materials that can result imperfect on screen. This means that a strand of hair can be out of place, a piece of cloth may have wrinkles on it, or objects can accidentally move. Thus, imperfections are related to the tangibility of the animation process and can be translated into aesthetic choices. The handmade production of characters and elements also infuses a more tangible feature in them and consequently evoke a sense that they had been handmade and touched in its fabrication and animation.

Accordingly, in Would a Heart Die? my aim was to use textures and produce a more spontaneous finish instead of a polished one. This however, translates into an aesthetic choice of privileging what Henry Selick calls “the electricity of life” when talking about stop-motion. Selick asks,

What are the strengths of stop-motion? What should we try to hold on to? There are a lot of strengths: it’s touched by the hand of the artist — you can feel that. You can sense that life force, but it’s imperfect. It can’t be done perfectly — that’s what CG can do. And I’m trying to get people to embrace that: if it pops, if cloth shifts a little, if the hair is buzzing. It’s like this electricity of life. (qtd. in Desowitz 2009, p. 2)

I foreground this lack of polished finish inherent to stop-motion animation in Would a Heart Die?, mainly in the texture of the fabric that comprises the two main puppets’ skin and in the uneven clothing stitch found in their dresses. Although jute has a raw appearance, it is also a frail fabric, and the lines that compose it can come apart easily, yet discretely, which creates additional movement visible in Maria’s childhood hair (made of wool locks, which rarely stays static). In addition, the presence of the animator is perceivable by some wrinkles left on the little girl’s dress and also by slight movements imprinted on her ribbons, the result of the manipulation of her head.

If materiality relates to the feeling that audiences can touch what they see on screen, this is also due to the physical character of the manipulation of puppets, objects or models in stop-motion animation. In this handmade process, the animator and the animated object are in a tactile relationship that also translates into the sense of touch evoked by the textures that is, consequently, embodied by the viewer. About this process, Graça (2005) affirms that

there is an obvious direct relationship between the artist and the film itself. With their intimate connection to the body, handcrafted processes reintegrate not only the physical senses into filmmaking, for both the maker and the viewer, but cinematic technology all together. (p. 103)

My intention in Would a Heart Die? was thus to foreground the ability of stop-motion animation to evoke this tactility in its production and fruition and, with it, also elicit a myriad of tactile actions that stimulate the viewer to touch, squeeze, and caress the object on the screen. In order to achieve this goal, as I have outlined, close-ups are used in the animation, so that textures can be emphasized and invite the caressing look that comes with haptic visuality. In this fashion, I work to stimulate this connection between our vision and our tactile sensations through particular shots that, according to Marks, can “encourage a bodily relation to the screen itself before the point at which the viewer is pulled into the figures of the image and the exhortation of the narrative” (2002, p. 17). For this reason, the close-ups appear in the beginning of the movie and play a dual role – besides partially presenting the environment, they also present the materials by infusing a textural meaning in the animation, rather than only the logical narrative one (see Figures 6 and 7).

The tactile experience of the film is not only incited by the mode the textures are displayed on screen, but also by the experiences the characters go through over the course of the film. As organs of touch, the hands are almost all the time used to evoke this sensuous perception. In one of the first scenes, for instance, Maria touches her heart by grasping the fabric of her dress when she sees her family pictures on the wall. This example is followed by her transformation, when she holds the chair using her hands and the sense of touch to express the feeling of surprise.

In the outside world, when Maria is a child, almost all of her experiences are related to her sense of touch, grabbing and curiously experiencing the tactile qualities of the objects she finds. But one of the most important examples of the tactile sensations she experiences is the bakery scene, in which the smell of bread evokes another memory. In a close-up, Maria grabs bread and spends some time feeling its crunch before eating it (see figure 9). In this scene, sound also plays an important role, as it indicates Maria’s tactile sensations in relation to this specific memory, and moreover, is also used to elicit the sense of touch in the viewer. In a final example, when Maria and her imaginary friend embrace, there is also a tactile contact between puppets, which evokes materiality from an animated response (see figure 10). About this process, Purves (2008) comments that “These lifeless bits of wood, brass and silicone suddenly connect with each other; not only have we appeared to give them life, but they are responding to each other” (p. 226).







Figure 9: Maria grabs the bread using her hands, evoking the sense of touch







Figure 10: Maria and her imaginary friend embrace, also referencing touch

According to Sobchack, in our cinematic experience, we are “able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images” (2004, p. 65). In this mutual relationship, our senses are not independent of the others; we feel with all of them, and a caressing and closer gaze at the textures in Would a Heart Die? with a tactile analysis might indicate that they, at some point, will address our fingertips, even if we are not able to identify at first, what the material exactly is. Texture is not only represented by materials on screen, but it is also “something we and the film engage in mutually, rather than something presented by the films to their passive and anonymous viewers” (Barker 2009, p. 25, emphasis in original). Therefore, it is this embodied perception that establishes the sensuous perception between the movie and us. It is seeing and touching with our eyes, and also stimulating this touch in grasping, caressing and in the sensation of longing expressed by the tactile qualities of our own hands.


The experience of stop-motion animation is related to the experience of the real material world. Although materials in their tactile existence play an alternative role in the construction of objects, they are brought to life and show the relation between the photographic image and the original object that is part of our everyday world, as we know, resembling the live-action experience which is, to a great extent, opposed to the cartoon spectator experience (Bouldin 2000). However, the experience of a stop-motion animated film is directly connected to how the use of the technique and materials influences the perception of the viewer to become an extension of “our experience of fabrics, objects, materials, and spaces in the phenomenal world with the world the films present” (Buchan 2011, p. 118). This experience can be particularly seen in the kitchen scene, in which the environment and the objects, although miniaturized, are part of the world as we know it, and displayed as so.

As an animator, my experience in the making of Would a Heart Die? was more than a technical and learning experience in the handmade process of fabricating puppets, sets, props and movements; it was a sensuous experience in which my sense of touch has been heightened in all the stages of the process, be it in the poetics of memory and the physical act of animating, be it in the final result and the translation of all the textures I fabricated, gathered and prepared for the film. Despite the film’s being based on previous research, I was still surprised by its textural and tactile qualities. A mode of perception, and also a form of analysis, tactility is also present in textures I could not imagine at first, and my sense of ‘touching through my vision’ grew by attempting to elicit the tactility of materials both as an artist doing creative work, and also as a viewer. Putting memory and materiality together was a great experience, and also a very tactile one, mainly because I could attempt to physically and materially reconstruct familiar appearances through a particular concept design.

As a researcher and animator, I have taken a step further in the study of stop-motion animation aesthetics, and also in the association of a reflexive practical piece to the connection of existing theories in the field. The textural and poetic qualities of stop-motion animated works engage our sentient being, and this embodied material experience offers a whole new tangible world to be haptically looked at, touched and grasped. As sensuous bodies, we are in the realm of materiality and sensuous perception, drawn into a world of haptic and tactile experiences.

Ellen C. Rocha Souza holds a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management from Southern Illinois University Carbondale (2012), with emphasis in New Media and Animation, and current member of the Society for Animation Studies. Her main interest concerning her pieces and papers is to show that the tangibility derived from the act of animating materials and textures might develop our reflections on animation as an artistic process surrounded by sensuous perception, memory, and recollection.


Barker, J. (2009). The tactile eye: Touch and the cinematic experience. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bishko, L. (1994). “Expressive technology: The tool as metaphor of aesthetic sensibility.” Animation Journal, 3(1), pp. 74-91.

Bouldin, J. (2000). “Bodacious bodies and the voluptuous gaze: A phenomenology of animation spectatorship”. Animation Journal, 8(2), pp. 56-67.

Buchan, S. (2011). The Quay Brothers: Into a metaphysical playroom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dimensions of Dialogue (1982). [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Jan Švankmajer.

Ferrell, R. (1991). “Life-threatening life: Angela Carter and the uncanny.” In: A. Cholodenko, ed., The illusion of life: Essays on Animation. Sidney, AU: Power Publications, pp. 131-144.

Furniss, M. (2009). Art in motion: Animation aesthetics. 2nd ed. New Barnet, UK: John Libbey.

Graça, M. (2005). “Handmade films: questioning and integrating cinematic technology.” International Journal of the Humanities, 3(3), pp. 101-105.

Graça, M. (2006). Entre o olhar e o gesto: Elementos para uma poética da imagem animada. São Paulo, BR: Editora Senac.

Graça, M. (2007). “Between looking and gesturing: Pierre Hébert’s concept of ‘Animation d’Observation.’” Observatorio (OBS*) Journal, 1, pp. 163-172.

Guterman, L. (2001). “Do you smell what I hear? Neuroscientists discover crosstalk among the senses.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-You-Smell-What-I-Hear-/21629. Accessed 17 Mar. 2012.

Jabberwocky. (1971). [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Jan Švankmajer.

Marks, L. (2002). Touch: Sensuous theory and multisensory media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pettigrew, N. (1999). The stop-motion filmography: A critical guide to 297 features using puppet animation. Vol. 1. Jefferson: McFarland.

Purves, B. (2008). Stop motion: Passion, process and performance. Oxford, UK: Focal Press.

Red Shift (1984) [dvd]. United States: Gunvor Nelson.

Sobchack, V. (1992). The Address of the eye: A phenomenology of film experience. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Sobchack, V. (2004). “What my fingers knew: The cinesthetic subject or vision in the flesh.” In: V. Sobchack, ed., Carnal thoughts: Embodiment and moving image culture, 1st ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

Street of Crocodiles. (1986). [DVD]. United Kingdom: Zeitgeist Films.

Sundholm, J. (2005). “I am a rhinoceros: Memory and the ethics and aesthetics of materiality in film.” Studies in European Cinema, 2(1), pp. 55-64.

Sundholm, J. (2007).” The material and the mimetic: On Gunvor Nelson’s personal filmmaking.” Framework, 48(2), pp. 165-173.

The Cameraman’s Revenge. (1912). [DVD]. Russia: Ladislaw Starewicz.

The Insect’s Christmas. (1913). [DVD]. Russia: Ladislaw Starewicz.

Wells, P. (1998). Understanding Animation. London, UK: Routledge.

Wells, P. (2006). The Fundamentals of Animation. London, UK: AVA Publishing.


[1] The animation Would a Heart Die? is available at: https://vimeo.com/45002124

© Ellen Rocha

Edited by Amy Ratelle