As digital distribution changes the way that we can reach (and target) consumers, thinking about a multicultural audience has never been more important. This is one reason why animation—with its potential for global accessibility—has become an increasingly effective means of corporate communication.

That said, we all know that animation itself is not a fix-all solution. Instead, animation is a tool. It is a tool that can help messages traverse cultural boundaries. And so, given that power of that tool, we can’t help but ask: what are the key characteristics of multicultural animation?

Not long ago, a couple researchers from Stanford—Barbara Hayes-Roth and Heidy Maldonado—attempted to answer this question. In a pair of research papers (“Designing for Diversity: Multi-Cultural Characters for a Multi-Cultural World” and “Toward Cross-Cultural Believability in Character Design“) Hayes-Roth and Maldonado identified 10 qualities that provide the framework for multicultural animation:

  1. Identity
  2. Backstory
  3. Appearance
  4. Content of speech
  5. Manner of speaking
  6. Manner of gesturing
  7. Emotional dynamics
  8. Social interaction patterns
  9. Role
  10. Role dynamics

Today, we’ll take a closer look at the first five characteristics. In Part 2, we’ll cover the remaining qualities on this list.

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1. Identity

At first glance, every item on this list may seem like a component of “identity.” But researchers Barbara Hayes-Roth and Heidy Maldonado believed it to be distinct enough to warrant its own category. The reason for this is because they view identity as something that goes deeper than what’s readily visible in a snapshot illustration. They see identity as a combination of both explicit and implicit attributes:

  • Explicit: demographic depiction and character description
  • Implicit: personality traits and qualities of the character (i.e. likes/dislikes, idiosyncratic behaviors)

The combination and interaction of these attributes is what will answer the fundamental question: who is this character? Additionally, it will help provide insight into other top-level questions like:

  • What does this character represent?
  • Who will this character appeal to?
  • What makes this character unique?

2. Backstory

Hayes-Roth and Maldonado define backstory as both the history of the character as well as any personal facts pertaining to that character’s off-screen life. This includes details such as

  • friendships
  • favorite sports
  • important celebrations
  • love interests
  • financial status
  • political and religious affiliations

Details like these are especially significant because “every character inevitably highlights some cultural grounding from his or her backstory in their commonplace interactions.”

3. Appearance

Appearance, of course, refers to attributes like age, gender, race and other details that we as the viewer can immediately see. But there’s more to this category than just that. It also refers to how characters describe experience; the vernacular they use.

“For example,” Hayes-Roth and Maldonado explain, “one can describe a character with the same identity as fat, chubby, round, pot-bellied, overweight, and even robust, with each word alluding to a different interpretation, and cultural implication.”

4. Content of Speech

In addition to the importance of language and dialect, it is also vital to consider idiomatic expressions, slang, and colloquialisms. In particular, it’s make-or-break critical to understand the cultural sensitives of the target audience so as to avoid unintended offense.

Ultimately, the key here is not only to think about the representation of a character, but also about how that representation will be perceived by your target audience. To highlight how that perception can re-define intention, Hayes-Roth and Maldonado cite a paper entitled “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation” (Markus and Kitayama). In that paper, the researchers suggest that Americans tend to value qualities like autonomy and personal expressions of uniqueness from others and from the environment. The researchers then point out that these traits are valued to a much smaller degree in other cultures (particularly Asian cultures).

5. Manner of Speaking

When it comes to character animation, what a character says is only one facet of multicultural consideration. The how, when and why of a character’s speech is important as well. As are acoustic attributes as well, like intonation, pronunciation, timbre, and range of vocal expressions. Because, as Hayes-Roth and Maldonado note, “these conversational aids can be used to determine not only the geographical origin of a particular person or character, but even their cultural influences and several places of residences.”

Check back for The Framework of Multicultural Animation (Part 2 of 2)