Animation, Energy, and "The Third Heat"

February 4, 2014

For someone who is an admittedly terrible artist, I’ve always liked working with animation, even as a little kid. When I was 11 or 12, I started taking animation courses at the summer camp I went to every year, even though I never really fit in with obviously talented “art kids” who usually participated in that sort of thing. There, I learned how to do stop-motion animation, how to think about details at 24 frames a second, and how to convey meaning through different kinds of motion. We didn’t use a computer for any of this — my favorite creation starred a paper cutout basketball player I made with little shoulder, leg, and knee joints. I’d slide him around my background, and shoot one frame at a time on our little camera as he performed one ridiculous dunk after another — and no matter how silly he or my hand-drawn stadium looked, there was something about the energy of his motions that allowed to to express power, or a sudden burst of speed, or a particularly perilous descent. 

Anybody watch 30 Rock? Remember in the first episode, when Jack Donaghy describes his famous oven?

“The GE Trivection Oven cooks perfect food five times faster than a conventional oven because it uses three kinds of heat. Thermal technology for consistent temperature, GE precise air convection technology for optimal air circulation, and microwave technology for incredible speed. With three kinds of heat, you can cook a turkey in 22 minutes.”

You probably don’t need me to explain any more of this if you’ve seen the show — but if you haven’t, the whole idea is that Jack is there to fix the ratings of a struggling television show, and decides that what the show is missing is “the third heat”, which comes in the form of Tracy Morgan’s character. Hilarity ensues

For a long time, unless you were working with broadcast media, there were only two kinds of “heat” in most forms of media and software — the visual, and the written. Take something useful, make it highly usable and nice looking, and label everything really well, and in many cases, you were probably doing about as good a job as could be expected. 

This is no longer the case, and hasn’t been for some time. Not only is motion — the third heat, if you will — an essential part of communicating meaning, but the bar for the quality and “rightness” of that animation is much higher than it was less than a decade ago. Animation used in poor taste stands out more than ever (ahem, most PowerPoint users…), but at the same time, static media is increasingly ineffective at getting the right point across. You have to not only understand what you’re saying, but why you’re saying it in the grand scheme of your overall argument, so you can present it a way that ultimately makes sense. The way it moves and feels is nearly as important as what it says, or how good it looks.

Visual interactions are really, really important — the iPhone’s properly scrolling lists (of all things) were one of its killer, industry-smashing features, and the future of design is heavily tied to proper use of animation. Pretty soon, not “getting” motion is going to be like not “getting” the internet. We all need to step up our games to succeed in that kind of world — so dust off your summer camp portfolio (hope you have a VCR), and think about how you can use it to tell your boss, your team, or your customers a better story.