Linguistics seminar: The evolution of animation – School of Literature, Art and Media Linguistics seminar: The evolution of animation – School of Literature, Art and Media

Linguistics seminar: The evolution of animation

Systemic Functional Linguistics and Social Semiotics Seminar series
hosted by the Sydney Centre for Language Research

Date: Friday, 28 February
Time: 4-5:30pm
Venue: RC Mills Building A26, Room 209

A phylogenetic perspective on the evolution of animation as semiosis – exploring the impact of materiality on the meaning-making potential of animation

Yufei He
The University of Sydney

“The story of animation is in many ways the story of the dynamic interrelationship between art and technology” (Disney, 2000). The evolution of animation is closely related to the changing technology and socio-cultural needs. This presentation offers a brief history of animation from the early mechanical devices (e.g. Phénakisticope) before cinematography to the more contemporary forms enabled by the advent of photography and information technology (stop-motion animation, traditional animation and computer animation). Drawing on Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2001) framework, the four domains of communication practice will be analysed: discourse, design, production and distribution.

In terms of discourse, the meaning-making potential of animation is constantly expanding with the development of technology: the stratified metafunctional model of animation proposed in my PhD thesis can be considered as evolving out of single stratum systems and stratified systems with fewer metafunctional organizations (cf. the discussion of language in Matthiessen, 2004). This presentation will analyse the emergent complexity of animation on different strata. Taking genres as examples, animations originally functioned to tell stories before being used in TV advertisements for persuasive purposes. They have then been increasingly used in educational settings in the 21st century. This promotes changes on the content plane of animation, with an expanding of the textual component of animation to facilitate learning.

In terms of design and production, the production techniques directly affect how an animation is designed at first place. Different animation production techniques have different affordances to make meaning. This presentation will compare stop-motion animation with traditional animation to explore the impact of materiality on the meaning-making potential of animation. It will also compare the different depiction styles in the evolution of traditional animations, drawing on Ravelli and van Leeuwen’s (2018) analysis of movement as a new modality marker.

In terms of distribution, the emergent complexity of animation as semiosis relies on the increased channels of distribution across time. Every time the advent and popularity of a new distribution channel expands the meaning-making potential of animation. For example, the popularity of commercial television in the 1940s contributed to the flourishing of animated TV advertisements; the widely available hand-held electronic devices and animation producing software in the 21s century has promoted the increased presence of educational animation.

By taking a phylogenetic perspective, this presentation will go beyond animation as semiosis and focus on the larger communication situation. It is hoped that this will contribute to our theoretical modelling of animation across time and unravel the intricate relationship between materiality and meaning.


Disney, R. (2000). Fantasia [motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.

Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Multimodal discourse: the modes and media of contemporary communication. London: Arnold.

Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2004). The evolution of language: A systemic functional exploration of phylogenetic phases. In G. Williams & A. Lukin (Eds), The development of language: Functional perspectives on species and individuals (pp. 45–89). London: Continuum.

Ravelli, L., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2018). Modality in the digital age. Visual Communication17(3), 277–297.




Feb 28 2020


4:00 pm - 5:30 pm



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