What Star Wars Teaches Us About Animations in Presentations

A screen wipe in Star Wars Episode IV, during a transition from the villains to the Rebel Alliance.

I hate transitional animations in presentations. I’m hardly unique in this pet peeve; many of these animations are kitschy, distracting, and even annoying to audiences. But, ultimately, these are not the reasons I hate such animations. My problem is that most animations serve no communicative purpose.

In science and engineering, presentations are a means to communicate important — often complex — information to audiences. Every element we integrate into our communication must serve this ultimate purpose: it should help us convey our message to the audience. Animated bullet points and graphs flying around the screen do not do this.

But, Nicole, animations grab the audience’s attention!

Yes, having things moving on a screen can draw attention — initially. But if your audience sees no purpose in this extra motion, they will quickly ignore it and you. You ultimately want your audience to listen to your words, not be distracted by objects buzzing around the screen.

Now, as much as I oppose the vast majority of transitional animations, they are not uniformly terrible. And to illustrate this, let’s take a look at some of the most iconic scene transitions in modern cinema.

Star Wars Screen Wipes

A supercut showing every screen wipe transition in Star Wars Episode IV.

Yes, I’m talking about Star Wars, where scene transitions are marked with everything from a simple side-to-side wipe, a clock-like wipe, and even diamond wipes. The video above shows a supercut of all the screen wipes from Star Wars Episode IV, if you need a refresher. (Because you have seen Star Wars, right? Right?!)

Now, even in the 1970s, these animations were not typical in films. They were a specific stylistic choice for George Lucas, one that harked back to the old pulp sci-fi films that originally inspired him. Are they a choice I would have personally made? Probably not. But there are several things we can learn from Lucas’ decisions here.

1. The animations are used sparingly. This entire supercut video, which includes several seconds on either side of each transition, is less than 2 minutes long. The theatrical release of Episode IV was 121 minutes long, meaning that these animations represent only about 1% of the film’s total runtime. At that proportion, even if the wipes annoy an audience member, it’s not going to destroy the experience for them.

2. Most of the animations are simple. Yes, there are a few fancier ones used, but the majority of these screen wipes simply move from one side of the screen to the other. A few of them go from bottom-to-top. These relatively simple animations probably don’t even register for many viewers, unlike the fancier clock wipes and diamonds, which only appear a few times.

3. The animations often complement the action. Notice how the transitions often work with what’s happening onscreen. If Luke’s hovercraft is moving from left-to-right, the screen wipe mimics that movement. When Luke and Obi-Wan lift a deactivated C-3PO, the wipe moves from bottom-to-top with them. When there’s a major scene jump — from Luke and his friends to an Imperial scene, for example — Lucas uses a more obvious and flashy transition.

4. The animations serve a clear purpose. As I just hinted, all of these transitions are designed to tell the audience something important: hey, we’re having a scene change. Time has passed. We’ve moved to a different place. We may even be seeing different characters. The bigger the shift, the more complex the screen wipe. Audiences probably don’t even consciously realize that George Lucas is sending this message, but each animation is preparing them for the change.

Put it all together and Star Wars’ screen wipes work because they are purposeful, complementary, sparingly used, and largely unobtrusive.

Bottom Line

So what can we learn from all this for our presentations? First and foremost, any animations we use must help communicate something important to our audience. Lucas used them to prime audiences for a scene change. You might use an animation to draw your viewers attention to the relationship between two critical variables: as X increases, Y decreases. That’s not a trick you want to use over and over, but for highlighting the most important conclusion of your presentation, it might be just the thing to make the message stick.

Second, animations should complement the point that you’re making. If what you’re saying and what you’re showing don’t send the same message, you’re going to lose people. George Lucas didn’t use a screen wipe every time the camera’s perspective changed; screen wipes were only for scene changes.

And, finally, use animations sparingly. Screen wipes took up only 1% of Lucas’s film. They shouldn’t take up much more time in your presentation. That’s good news for those who are frustrated by how much time and energy setting up animations can take. Focus on just a few critical animations and let those shine. Forget the rest of them.

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(Image and video credit: 20th Century Fox/Take Me to Your Cinema)

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