animating the invisible
Invisibility has always been a popular theme in stories. A cap that causes invisibility appears in Greek mythology. There’s the invisibility cloak that plays a surprisingly major role in the Harry Potter series. There’s the Pooka that only shows himself to one person in the play, ‘Harvey.’ There’s “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells, which is more melancholy than exciting as a man struggles with a scientific error. We also have Pete’s Dragon, and even the One Ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, of which invisibility seemed to be more of a side effect. Invisibility is a common super-hero trait. Wonder Woman even has an Invisible Jet, although no one has ever explained to me whether it’s just the jet that’s invisible or if she turns invisible when she’s in it, too. (If not, that makes for an interesting sight!)
Since we can’t actually turn invisible (although I’ve gotten pretty good at not being noticed) the invisibility theme is a great candidate for animation. On stage, this was accomplished through clever acting, wires, wearing black on a black background, and other methods. In film, there is a bit more leeway and room for film tricks, and with CGI it’s quite easy.
Or is it? When you think about it, animation is a series of pictures slightly altered. How do you ‘draw’ something you can’t see? The easiest method would be to draw an outline of the character and animate that. Often, the invisible character would make themselves seen by wearing clothes – hat, gloves, sunglasses, coat, the works. All of that would come off when the character didn’t want to be seen, meaning that most of the nefarious plans they carried out were done in the nude, which is actually pretty amusing and awkward once you realize it. After shedding all physical hints, the character was identified on screen by the way the objects surrounding them reacted. A character could be seen in a rainstorm as the water outlined the body. They could be located by their clumsiness, bumping into objects, eating things, walking through mud, powder, etc.
A fun movie about invisible characters is Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. Not only does Elliot vanish and reappear at will, but it’s a great combination of live action and drawn characters. The boy and the setting has to react to the animated dragon, and the animated dragon’s actions have to match the movements. It’s a complex ’cause and effect’ chain that needs to be done carefully to make it believable. I also enjoyed Pixar’s The Incredibles, as the film attempts to solve the problem of invisibility and clothing, and also addresses the difficulty of a teenage girl wanting to make herself seen.
So the next time you encounter an invisible character in a film, pay attention to the ways they let you know where the character is and what he or she is doing. You’ll generally find they’re clumsy, awkward oafs. I suppose it could be partly due to the fact that it’s hard to move when you can’t see your OWN body.