Acting & Animation

There is a common saying that, “An animator is an actor who uses a pencil and paper rather than their body to give a performance.” Animators, by-and-large are frustrated actors who can’t really perform physically in front of an audience for various reasons. Many of us tend to think of ourselves as “geeks” (well, that’s how I feel anyway). Our physical bodies are limited in what they can do or how they look. An actor such as Robert DeNero can portray boxing champion Rocky Marciano in one film, then a Taxi driver, a young Sicilian mob boss, or a father-in-law in others. He has versatility and great acting skills as well as a very good manager. The same can be said for many other well known actors and actresses.

Animators however, have far more versatility than could ever be imagined by any live action actor simply because the only limitation is their imagination. An animator can become anything they want... anything. The only real limitation is their ability to a) draw, and b) animate. The two go hand-in-hand but are not completely bound. A person with limited drawing ability will not be able to portray a “realistic looking” human but if they know how to animate really well, they could give their drawings some truly exceptional character acting.

On the flip side, someone who knows how to draw incredibly well, (let’s say like Michelangelo) but probably like Michelangelo, can’t animate worth beans, you’d get some pretty ugly looking movements and hence bad acting.

So what is it about acting that makes animation look so good?

Let’s go back in time just for a bit to the mid 1800’s. There was this guy in France named Francois Delsarte. He was born in 1811 and died in 1871. He taught acting and singing and ended up developing a theory on acting that relied on dramatic posing and physical signals. Rather than have the actor just stand in the middle of the stage without moving and deliver his lines such as, “My pain is too great for me to bear!”, Francois thought it would look great if the actor threw his arm across his forehead while thrusting the other hand, claw-like, forward in front of him and then collapse back against a chair or something. Oh yeah!

In 1885, 14 years after he had passed away, (dramatically, I assume) his theories were published as the “Delsarte System of Expression”. Many schools of acting in America adapted the system into their training during the late 19th century. In some early films from 1900 - 1925 you can still see some actors using his system (they’re quite funny to watch).

In 1897, Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor, set up his acting workshops at the Moscow Theatre. Rather than just having his actors pose to show their emotions he developed a system called “Method Acting” whereby the actor actually felt something because they had “become the character”.

Stanislavski wrote several books on acting. The three which you will probably find most useful are: “An Actor Prepares”, “Building A Character”, and “Creating A Role”. (I’ve often wondered if he named the books beginning with “A”, “B”, and “C” on purpose.) They are excellent books to study. However, as Stanislavski himself said, “You must not duplicate the Moscow Art Theatre (method acting). You must create something of your own. If you try to duplicate, that means that you merely follow tradition. You are not going forward.”

He also said something which I feel applies equally as well to us as animators, “Artists must learn to think and feel for themselves and find new forms. They must never be content with what someone else has done.” “If something excites you, use it, apply it to yourselves, but adapt it. Do not try to copy it. Let it make you think further.”

This is basically the way I want you to view this book. There will be some analysis of existing scenes from animated films, examples of the assignments I will provide to you and suggestions of alternate ways to approach the given scenes. Follow Stanislavski’s advice: “If something excites you, use it, apply it to yourselves, but adapt it. Do not try to copy it. Let it make you think further.”

So, back to our main topic: Acting & Animation.

What is “acting”? By definition, acting or “to act” is a verb: to move to action: ACTUATE, ANIMATE, (interesting) PERFORM, EXECUTE, to represent an incident or an emotion by action, to perform as an actor, to play the part of a character, assume the character of, to behave in a certain way as to convey an emotion, characterization, or certain actions.

So from this we know that acting is the physical performance which conveys:
1) a character
2) an incident
3) an emotion
4) certain actions
5) certain behavior

In his book, “Acting For Animators”, Ed Hooks lists “Seven Essential Acting Concepts” as:
1) Thinking leads to movement and emotion.
2) Acting is reacting. Acting is doing.
3) Your character needs to have an objective.
4) Your character should play an action until something happens to make them play a different action.
5) All action begins with movement.
6) Empathy is the magic key. Audiences empathize with emotion.
7) A scene is a negotiation.

Frank and Ollie felt there were three very special problems in the field of acting for animation which could not be ignored. These were found on page 502 of “Illusion of Life”.

1) The animator must know what the character should do in a particular circumstance.
2) They must be skilled enough as a craftsman to capture in drawings what they know in their head.
3) They must be able to retain the fleeting delicate thought of the moment over the several days it may take to animate the scene.

Again, in the book “Illusion of Life”, on page 137, Frank and Ollie have a list of 12 components that are found in good animation:

1) Inner feelings and emotions
2) Acting with clear and definite action
3) Character and personality
4) Thought process through expression changes
5) Ability to analyze
6) Clear staging
7) Good composition
8) Timing
9) Solidity in drawing
10) Power in drawing
11) Strength in movement
12) Imagination

Trying to find the moment when the audience connects with the character on the screen. They are right there with the character, they understand them and are concerned about what happens to them. It is this moment when the character reaches out and touches the audience.

Getting the audience involved requires an understanding of the character and using feelings that are familiar with everyone. This doesn’t necessarily mean using sympathetic emotions such as happiness or sadness. You can also create feelings of anger, or fear, shock or revulsion. These are the six basic emotions.

In each of the lists above, the common thread is EMOTION. It’s all about how you feel. How you feel about the character, how you feel about their circumstance, how you feel about the resolution. If you don’t “FEEL” anything, what’s the point?

Think about the last time you went to a movie. What kind of movie was it? Was it a comedy? Action/adventure? Horror, suspense, romance?

If it was a comedy, did you laugh at any point in the film? If it was action/adventure did you feel a certain thrill during a chase sequence? Was your heart beating faster? Were you excited? At the horror or suspense movie, were you scared or on edge? During the romance movie, did you feel the heartache or happiness of the united couple at the end?

If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, the movie was a failure and you probably should have asked for your money back. Our choice of movie genre is based on our emotional need at that point in time. You go to the film to feel that emotion, if you don’t you were ripped off.

The only way you can feel an emotion is if you empathize with the character in their situation. To empathize, the actor needs to convey the proper actions that relay the appropriate emotion. This is where good acting comes into play. However, do not confuse action with acting. This goes back to our pal, Francois Delsarte back on page 5, remember him? You don’t need to overly dramatize the action to make the emotion read. The character must be true to who they are.

Acting is really all about thought. If you have a character that doesn’t think about what they are doing, you really have a puppet. Puppets are inanimate objects that only do what the person who is holding them, or controlling them, wants them to do.

I remember buying a stuffed doll which was also a hand puppet for my daughter when she was 2 years old. She saw it in a bin and fell in love with it. She named him “Charlie Dog” on the spot. When I pulled him out of the bin I noticed that it was also a puppet, so I stuck my hand in and started talking to Jenna in a “Goofy” voice. She didn’t really like the idea that he could move and talk on his own so she grabbed him off my hand and hugged him. The moment he came off my hand he became inanimate and lifeless in her arms. The only time he became a “character” was when I did the puppet thing. I had to do all the thinking for him.

After a while, Charlie Dog became the bedtime routine for reading books and Jenna really enjoyed it.

Your animation needs to be treated in the exact same way. Without your concious thought flowing through the drawings and out of that character, the animation will appear lifeless. Many animators neglect this “thought process time” for the character on the screen.

One of the assignments I give my first year students is called “The Phone Call” In this assignment they are to have a character who receives a phone call from another character. The character receiving the phone call is to pick up the phone and answer it. The character on the other end is to say something which causes the first character to change their emotion.

Invariably, the student will animate the scene where the character picks up the phone with one visible emotion, then within half a second (literally) the character changes their emotion. Twelve frames is not enough time for the first character to have registered who the other character is, get the message the other person is conveying, think about it and then change their emotion. The start of any phone call usually goes like this:

Ring, ring.
Character A picks up phone and holds it to their ear.
Character A: “Hello?”
Character B: “Hi, is this characterA?”
Character A: “Yes it is.”
Character B: “Hi Character A, this is Character B. How are you?”
Character A: “Oh, hi Character B, I’m fine, how are you?”

This whole conversation takes about 10 seconds total. Of course the second and third lines could be eliminated but even then this conversation would still take about 6 or 7 seconds.

Character A’s emotional change would take place on the last line after they recognize who it is on the other end of the phone. This would be about 5 seconds into the conversation.

5 seconds x 24 frames = 120 frames or 60 drawings (on two’s) for the Character A to think about what Character B is saying and how they will repond to it. It is this “think time” that really allows your character to come alive to the audience.

This doesn’t mean that your character needs to be doing some sort of action during those 120 frames. It could be a subtle as a moving hold with an eye blink. The idea is to make the character look as though they actually are thinking about something.

Don’t Confuse “Action” With “Acting”
Your character needs to have a purpose for moving. Action, just for the sake of action is not a good thing.

Of course on the flip side, you can’t act something out without some form of action. Try playing charades without moving at all. What you’re really trying to do is illustrate an idea or thought with the attitude or actions of your character.

Every action your character makes must have a purpose or reason. Any type of movement on screen will draw the audience’s attention because they think something is going to happen and they follow the action. If it’s distracting the audience may miss the focal point of the scene or become confused. You don’t want the character to act like a magician who gestures with one hand while producing something in their other hand, seemingly out of thin air... unless of course, the character you’re animating actually is a magician.

Here are 12 questions the animator must ask themselves before animating a scene:

1. Is the character doing what the director wants in the sequence?
2. Is the character doing only one thing at a time?
3. Is the character putting over the story point in the scene you are doing?
4. Is the character acting as if there is something going on in his mind?
5. Does the character appear to be doing something on his own?
6. Can the audience tell what the character is thinking?
7. How does what the character is doing effect what the audience is thinking?
8. Does the character have appeal?
9. Is it passionate? Is passion going into the drawing and coming out of the
10. Is it the simplest way to do it?
11. Have you made small story sketches of one important character to be sure
everything is working before you make a lot of drawings?
12. Would any one else besides your mother like what you have done?

These 12 questions are courtesy of Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston, from June 2003.

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