By Cai Caibei


The image of an eye placed on a hand, usually on the palm, has become a motif as it has been frequently used as a sign of protection throughout human civilization, such as the hand of Fatima from Muslims, the hand of Mary from Christianity, and the hand of Miriam from Jews (Fig 1). It also reflects the strong connection between vision and touch, meaning touch contains vision and vice versa. This is evident even in our contemporary daily life, such as how blind people often use touch to recognize objects. Furthermore, these palm-shaped amulets share an interesting common ground: all these hands belong to women. It does not mean that women’s tactile sensations are any stronger than that of men’s, yet as suggested by Sigmund Freud, infants have the desire for touch in their oral stage. Compounding that, much research has shown that the baby will have a healthier development if they are touched more. As they usually take the traditional mother position, women have a significant impact on the infant’s tactile development as they play an important role during infant nursing.

Fig 1: Amulets with an eye placed on a hand

Compared to the pattern of the eye in the hand motif, however, I think the appearance of Yang Ren in the Investiture of the Gods [1] expresses another relationship between vision and touch. The character has a pair of hands that grow from his eye sockets and the eyes grow on his palm, implying that seeing can mean touching the texture of a thing. Merleau-Ponty also confirms that seeing can mean touching the texture of a thing as people can see roughness and smoothness. [2] There are strong continuities between touch and vision. In daily life, people can see roughness and smoothness, and our eyes can feel the coarse edge of the paper, the smooth silk, or the sticky oil bottle without our skin ever needing to touch a thing.

Fig 2: Yang Ren in the Investiture of the Gods

So, for me, a film is like a body, the audience can feel its breath, skin, and hair without dissecting its muscles or organs inside, and I always invite the audience to touch my film through their eyes, not passively follow the storyline or trying to fully understand the meaning of the film. For example, during the pre-production of my works Half Asleep (2018), I wrote a story. But after that I remove the story and only extracted the emotions of each plot to draw the storyboard. Among various mediums, I chose animation as the main means of expressing the sense of touch for three reasons: its similarities with touch sensation, its capability to enhance emotional expression, and the texture produced by the material during the animation-making process.

Firstly, animation shares high similarities with daily life touch sensations. As mentioned by Giles Deleuze, “…painters paint with their eyes, but only insofar as they touch with their eyes.”[3] While in my point of view, animation seems to be a better medium for showing the tactile compared to painting. In our daily life, the activation of tactile is usually triggered by constant pressure. For example, when putting on a piece of clothing or jewelry, people can sensitively feel their texture, weight, and touch and gradually get used to them and ignore their existence; clothing becomes as natural as skin. It is not until this constant pressure changes, like shifts in weather or the breaking of jewelry, that the tactile will change and reactivate. Similarly, animators can better bring the pictures to life by expressing such changes in pressure in their work. For example, squash and stretch, one of the most important principles in Disney’s twelve basic principles of animation: “the ball that would change shape, compressing (“squash”) as it hit the ground, then extending (stretch) as it bounced up again. ”[4] This principle can provide a sense of weight and flexibility, while smear allows animators to exaggerate the visual vestiges of momentary power on the screen. These animation techniques, which are derived from people’s everyday sense of touch, demonstrate the similarities between animation and daily-life touch sensation.

In addition to those techniques, using animation techniques showing the tactile can reinforce emotional expression in film. For example, I am interested in people’s emotions, especially anxiety in film, so I use Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), an analytical method widely applied to every living being, to address the movement in tactile animation to find better means for emotional expression. The LMA system has 8 basic movements: Press, Flick, Punch, Float, Wring, Dab, Slash, and Glide, and the two films used for analysis here are Two Sisters (1990) by Caroline Leaf, and Eyewash (1959) by Robert Breer. These films present the tactile from two different dimensions: the former can be understood from a psychological perspective, while the latter is more like a physical perspective. When matching all the movements in these two films with the movements in LMA, I found that the touch of the film is greatly increased if one or two movements are constantly used throughout the film, or even use in place of others. So, I applied this finding in my work Half Asleep (2018). Since pushing the wall is a repeated plot in the story of my film, and human interaction with the wall was as straight and continuous as the clock hands, I tried to capture this feeling by using Punch and Glide in LMA constantly throughout the whole film for around 30 times to demonstrate the anxiety of the characters (Fig 3). Eventually, I managed only to keep the emotions and removed every specific plot point of the film. Thus, the film became like a force triggering tactile, people cannot see the actual force, but they could feel the change in physical change. As mentioned by Havelock Ellis, touch is the most irrational and emotional of the five senses, so showing the tactile with animation techniques could enhance the emotional expression in the film.

Fig 3: The Punch and Glide movements used for Half Asleep

In addition, the texture produced during the animation-making process could also provoke tactile sensation. Most of my animated films are drawn frame by frame on paper, which allows me to touch every frame in the film. During the filming of Half Asleep, for instance, I first drew all the movement on the paper with charcoal or soft pastel. Then, I projected the animation on fabric and recorded it. Finally, I printed the frames out and re-colored them. This way of production is like using layers to wrap the entire film, and the act of being wrapped makes me start to imagine whether the film has a body.


Jordan Wolfson’s video art Colored Sculpture (2016) seems to have a possible answer to the question above about a film’s body. In the film, there is a human-like figure and its eyes are two small screens that can track people in the space through facial recognition and playing pre-programmed animation. The eye contact with the audience makes the figure seem alive. The eye-screen also displays animation when it has a monologue (Fig 4). We can regard this eye-screen as the film we usually watched in the theater or on the computer. It’s worth noting that there is a sculptural body of a boy outside the eye-screen, which moves around and sometimes crashes to the floor by chain control. For me, this manipulated figure is like the physical body of the film. 

Fig 4: The eye-screen in Colored Sculpture, 2016

However, I am more interested in the invisible film body. The camera turns the three-dimensional objects in real-life reality into flat, two-dimensional images. Animation, on the other hand, can construct a living figure with thousands of layers. Therefore, the body of the animation is not solid like the real-life creatures, but hollow, a body container composed of layers like the clothes we wear, made by multiple planes. While the clothes hold the real-life body, the animation layers hold a void body. To foreground the layers in animation, I use tin foil, rather than paper, as backgrounds in my recent films, which produces a textured effect situated between one-dimensional flatness and three-dimensional stereoscopy. The object can be raised above the tin foil/background plane like a relief sculpture, and the reverse side is a mold of that object (Fig 5). The medium of tin foil allows me to get close to the body of animation through the shaping of the surface.

Fig 5: The front and reverse sides of the tin foil

When the viewers are watching a film, they usually ignore the camera subconsciously and consider themselves as holding the god’s eye view that can see everything in the film. They are like the prisoners in Plato’s cave who could only see the shadow on the front wall but not the object behind them, wholly unaware they are even prisoners. Some filmmakers only let the viewer focus on the shadows, but others emphasize the medium itself to eliminate the gap between reality and virtuality by letting the audience actively apprehend the existence of the camera. For example, in William Wegman’s film Two Dogs & Ball (1972), the two dogs constantly watch the edge of the screen, and the actress in Miranda Pennell’s film You Made Me Love You (2004) always follows the movement of the camera to keep their sight in the center of the screen, thus breaking the fourth wall (Fig 6). In my own work, I strive to attempt a similar technique. I prefer to use close-ups in my previous films because it indicates that most parts of the object have not been presented within the frame. In my recent works, I put a black square in the center of the screen and the image only appears on the corners of the screen. This method allows the audience to move their sight from the center to the edge of the screen and pushes them to imagine the off-screen space.

Fig 6: The dogs in Two Dogs & Ball (1972) and the actress in You Made Me Love You (2004)

The tactile can be evoked beyond the confines of the film itself as the theater is an extension of the film body. After I finished making my film, I knew that it would be shown on the screen in a theater. So, I used fabric in Half Asleep to imitate the moving front curtain in a theater. Another interesting example is that, at a festival in Poland, all the selected films are projected on the exterior wall of the building, moving the whole film inside out.

In conclusion, the body of animation is a container formed by layers, and it also extends to the whole theater. On this basis, I would like to discuss whether this animation film body has a gender.


While all my films have been saved on my computer, they can only be watched by a human with a combination of an LCD screen and backlight. After the screen is turned off, the image will be restored to an encoded file. In other words, machines seem to have more viewing time on digital content than humans. The gaze of the machine seems to be the most neutral and objective, for it only reads and analyses the data. When you click the video information, you can quickly browse its profile photo, name, location, size, category, and created date, just like the personal information on the social media APP. Unlike humans who are always gendered, these files are non-gendered.

Gender differences are often socially constructed. In other words, people gradually conform to their gender roles through their social experience and social expectations; gender differences are not fixed nor purely the result of biology. Judith Butler proposes that gender is a performative act, arguing that being born male or female does not determine gender behavior. Instead, people learn to behave in particular gender roles to live up to social expectations. This means that we attribute certain gender behaviors to men or women because of social conventions.

Given that culture and cultural products can also reinforce or defy gender norms and play a part in the social construction of gender, I would like to eliminate these gender stereotypes in my films. To achieve this goal, my films always depict abstract human shapes, from two-legged creatures in Pining to the single-arm-leg creatures in Half Asleep and the orc in my recent film. I did not design the specific or exclusive gender features for these characters. In Half Asleep, for example, the male character and the female character look the same except for their voices. They are more like a hermaphrodite, half male, half female. The appearance of the orc in my recent film is more feminized but the torso is more androgynous. Ancient Greek mythology suggested that humans were created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces, but they were eventually split in half to become man and woman. And the anima and animus archetype of Carl Jung also relates to this myth. Jung describes the animus as the unconscious masculine side of a woman, and the anima as the unconscious feminine side of a man. One of the best visual metaphors for this concept is the yin-yang: yin refers to the female and yang to the male, both embedded within a disc. So maybe we could say that the origin of humans is a hermaphrodite or androgyny.

As I mentioned in the previous part, the body of animation is like a container, and the viewer’s gaze is placed in it. Because the main function of the film is to be watched, the film must respond to the gaze of the audience, which is like a mirror. In my own films, I aim to guide the audience’s gaze to be neutral. No matter if you are male or female, you could see your reflection in the film. Just like yelling in a deep valley, the echo will return, it belongs to the valley but also to you.

[1] Zhonglin Xu, Investiture of the Gods (China Bookstore), 2009. 

[2] Merleau-Ponty Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible (United States: Northwestern University Press), 1969.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans., Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 2003, 125.

[4] Frank Thomas; Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (Hyperion), 1995. 


CAI Caibei was born in Shenzhen, Guangdong, in 1992, and currently resides in Shanghai. She is an independent animation director. She graduated from the experimental animation course at the Royal College of Art, UK, in 2018. She often gives her works a sense of touch and hopes that her audience can use their eyes to touch, squeeze, and scratch the images in her films. Her works include The Clock in My Room StopsPining, and Half Asleep. They have been shortlisted in many international animated film festivals, such as Animafest Zagreb, Encounters Film Festival, Anifilm Festival, FIRST International Film Festival, etc.

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