Interactive Animation: Between Films and Games

As someone with a background in animated filmmaking who got into designing video games, I’m often asked about the difference between the two. When I started fantasizing about making interactive things, I didn’t know much about video games. So I went to look for an expert. In 2013, I met the digital technologist Mario von Rickenbach for a coffee or two in Zürich and we talked about our practices and the possible ways we could collaborate. I went to this meeting knowing that I had almost no idea about games and felt a little overwhelmed when von Rickenbach asked me about what kind of interactive stuff I liked. I stuttered: “Ehm, I like Vectorpark’s stuff.” – “Oh, he is my favourite too!”, Mario replied. We went on talking about other projects we appreciated, especially BLA BLA, a “film for computer” by Vincent Morriset. It struck me that I, having very little idea about the medium, seemed to have found the stuff someone considered an expert would name as his favourite, too! “What is the difference between an animated film and a game?”, I asked him. Surely, the possible answers differ depending on the aspects we are considering. There is a difference in form, in the creative process, in the presentation and in how the audience is involved. But Mario just replied: “They taste differently.”

When talking to filmmakers about interactivity, they often make the following conclusion: film is linear while games are non-linear. We might imagine “interactive films” as having a branching structure and the interaction itself as the act of making decisions. It can be rather unsatisfying to make a story decision – because every decision turns out to be a decision against its alternative. What I find much more satisfying, is the intangible, tactile sensation experienced when interacting. How the materiality of a virtual world reveals itself only through the interaction of a player.

The works exhibited here taste good to me. They are short, feel magical and retain a rather linear structure. I like to call these pieces “Interactive Animations”. If animation gives you the illusion of life, interactivity gives you the illusion of choice. “Interactive Animation” combines the two.

Michael Frei, exhibition curator


Exhibited works

Way to Go (Vincent Morisset, Canada, 2015)
Way to Go is an interactive experience for human beings between 5 and 105 years old. Maybe it lasts six minutes, maybe it lasts forever.

Way to Go is a walk in the woods. It is an astonishing interactive experience, a restless panorama, a mixture of hand-made animation, 360º video capture, music and dreaming and code; but mostly it is a walk in the woods, c’mon.


Bla Bla (Vincent Morisset, Canada, 2012)
In this animated film-meets-picture book, you participate in the story. The project explores the grammar of a new medium, using xerography, drawing on paper, ActionScript-generated animations, puppet stop-motion combined with real-time 3D mapping.

The six chapters in the story depict different aspects of human communication, such as learning a language, making small talk, expressing emotions. As a part of the creative process for BLA BLA, Morisset extensively researched interactive narrative to define a new grammar of non-linear editing. BLA BLA thus offers a new vision of communication in the wider sense, of how our natural behaviour and interactions with others play out in the world.


Neon Bible (Vincent Morisset, Canada, 2007)
The short film for Arcade Fire’s song ‘Neon Bible’, directed by Vincent Morisset, is considered as one of the first interactive music videos ever done and is the Winner of a Gold Pencil and a FWA.

The interactive music video was also presented in MoMA during the Best of the Digital Decade event. It has been featured in many magazines including Wired and Creative Review and was noted as one of the top six milestone videos in the history of the twenty-five-year-old medium.


Metamorphabet (Vectorpark / Patrick Smith, USA, 2015)
Metamorphabet is a playful, interactive alphabet for all ages. Poke, prod, drag, and spin each of the 26 letters of the alphabet to reveal surprising and luminous transformations.

See the beauty and power of ABCs in an app where every letter holds secret words. Touch an F, and it sprouts a foot, then feathers, then a fan; a G becomes a guitar in a garden with ghosts. Kids will love poking and prodding their way to the end of the alphabet, while parents will dig the unpredictability and gorgeous animation in this Apple Design Award winner.


Windosill (Vectorpark / Patrick Smith, USA, 2009)
Explore a dream-like world of ten mysterious vistas in this touchscreen classic. Equal parts puzzle game, physics toy box, and living picture-book, Windosill’s animated, interactive world is meticulously constructed to reward playful investigation. Designed to be experienced in a single sitting (anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours), Windosill is suitable for curious children and imaginative adults.

Clicking on the objects makes them display their behaviour, and when revealed, you can begin to apply it practically. So, for instance, you might see a blob-shaped tower with a ball on a stalk coming out of the top. Tug the stalk to ring a bell and a bird’s head appears from a window. There’s a cloud near the tower, so click on that to create rain.


Feed the Head (Vectorpark / Patrick Smith, USA, 2007)
Poke the Head. Prod the Head. Tug the Head… but most importantly, feed the Head. In this living cartoon, the Head will unfold and transform in surprising, startling, and hilarious ways.

We won’t spoil the fun by giving away too much, but we guarantee there is no other app quite like this one.


Pale Machine (Ben Esposito, USA, 2014)
Pale Machine is a playable music video. A collaboration with one of my favourite new musicians. False awakenings, sleep paralysis, that’s Pale Machine. This work of Ben Esposito — multimedia artist based in Los Angeles — comprises a physical CD with eight songs and eight wacky game experiments that accompany every track on the album.

The title track (or game) is a sequence of absurd vignettes: first you are somehow controlling a bottle rolling on a desk. A few seconds after, you are awkwardly maneuvering a hyper extendable tongue, which soon enough will occupy the whole screen. The game then proceeds to completely change the controls, and now you become a giant hand floating in the sky of a suburb.


My Exercise (Atsushi Wada, Japan; Switzerland, 2019)
WADA Atsushi is an artist who enjoys a high reputation in the world of animation for his characteristic style combining pleasant textural and rhythmical qualities. The work exhibited here is WADA’s first attempt at creating a video game.

The player presses a button to let a “chubby boy” do sit-ups, whereas he bumps into the side of a dog with each sit-up he makes. Through this simple interaction, the game directly conveys that “individual sense of pleasure” that WADA has been pursuing but doesn’t always get across with the animation format. On display here is the “exhibition version” of the work, which focuses on the action of “pressing a button” as a special mechanical part of this particular version.


Kids (Michael Frei; Marion von Rickenbach, Switzerland, 2019)

KIDS is a game of crowds. The project consists of a short film, an interactive animation and an art installation. The characters in a crowd behave much like matter: They attract and repel, lead and follow, grow and shrink, align and separate. KIDS are purely defined by how they relate to one other – without showing any distinguishable features.

KIDS is the second collaboration of filmmaker Michael Frei and game designer Mario von Rickenbach after their project Plug & Play. The project is co-produced by Playables, SRG SSR and Arte. The game is published in collaboration with Double Fine Presents for mobile devices and computers.