Personality Animation & Animating Emotions

?There’s nothing new or revolutionary in this section. Most good books on animation will have many of these principles in them. All of it is distilled from experience, mentors, teachers, co-workers. This is common sense stuff that if you take the time to really read through, think about and then apply to your own work in a professional way, it will make a difference.

This section has to do with three basic things about you:
1) your abilities as an actor, both physical and mental,
2) your thought process in how you plan your animation,
3) your artistic abilities as an animator.

First, let’s talk about what personality is. A character’s personality is all about who the character is; how they think, how they act, and probably most importantly: how they react to the things that are happening around them, to them, and to the other characters around them.

A character’s personality is revealed not so much in the words that they say as in their actions and individual mannerisms. While having a good vocal track is quite important and no one can deny that something like the Donkey character from the Shrek movies, voiced by Eddie Murphy, would not be the same with another voice actor, it is the animator that gives the character their physical actons. This is an obvious statement that didn’t really need to be stated in a book like this but I think it needs to be emphasized. The animator is the one who chooses the actions that will support the vocal track.

If we take another step back, it is really the writing and story that support good animation. Story must always be considered the heart of what you are doing. Good animators can make a good story better, but not even the best animators can make a bad story appealing. Both Disney and Pixar, most recently have built a film legacy upon this basic theory. “Story is the King” as John Lassiter has stated in many interviews, and he’s right! Walt Disney recognized the value of personality animation and he stressed it in his story development meetings. The most important consideration in any film is always the “story point”.

First, there must be the big, simple idea: the story you can tell in two sentences.

Before you begin working on your film you must figure out whether or not it has enough
importance to be worth communicating to someone else - to be worth all the work and effort that will be required to get it up on the screen. In animation our actors are nothing more than a bunch of drawings. We don’t have the spontaneity of the moment that a live actor has where thy get up on a stage and make adjustments to their performance as they go. We must present our acting through a combination of art, technique, and mechanics that can take months from the initial conception to the final finished product. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a project, whether it’s 30 seconds or 3 minutes long, having spent months to produce and find that it doesn’t give the audience any type of emotional response. That’s the whole point of entertainment. If the audience doesn’t feel any emotion from what you have presented, it’s a failure and all that work was a waste of time.

If your film is supposed to be exciting and it’s not, you need to do what you can to make it exciting. If it needs suspense, put it in. If it’s too long, trim it down, and if it’s too short, add some more - but add very carefully and only where it’s appropriate. If it’s redundant, or fails to make it’s points - whatever the problem - you must work it out until it becomes the best picture you can possibly make.

What is important in a film? The entertainment, the element of time, the acting of the character, and the elimination of any unnecessary action. Isn’t that what good drama is all about? - life with all the boring spots cut out.

Ham Luske, An early Disney animator said, “Our first job is to tell a story that isn’t known to the audience. Also we want to make things more interesting than ordinary life. Our characters must be more interesting and more unusual than you or I.”

The early Disney animators looked to film makers like Charlie Chaplin for good storytelling. Chaplin was a genius in his medium and he knew, “...that nothing transcends personality.” If you study his films, as the Disney animators did, you will find many rules that pop up again and again. One of them is: the personality of the victim of a gag will determine just how funny the whole incident will be. If a dignified person slips on a banana peel, it’s funny. If it happens to a person who is already down and out, it’s not.

There must be a point of entry through which the audience can identify with the story situation, and the best way is through a character who is like someone they have known. This is why it’s so important to know your audience.

The early Disney gags were basically no better than any other studio at the time, but they were staged better, with much more care taken to establish the situations. There was more concern for detail, for building comedy, for making the gag pay off, but, most important, for understanding the feelings of the characters involved in the gags. When the audiences began to recognize familiar situations, they began to identify with the character’s predicaments.

If you have ever tried to “pitch” a project to a producer, one of the first questions they will ask you is: “Who is your ‘target audience’?”. If you don’t know who your audience is, it’s going to be very difficult for your characters to ‘connect’ with them.

The Connection Point
The one thing that always interests an audience the most is themselves. The most important experiences are their own. If you can relate to the audience on their level with experiences that they are familiar with and emotions that they have felt in these (or similar) types of situations, you will have made the connection. Don’t expect the audience to use it’s energy to come to you - the energy should come from the performer... you must reach out and touch them.

You must find a way to make the audience feel the emotions of the animated characters - emotions that the audience can relate to, identify with, and become involved in. The animator must use their knowledge of the fundamental principles of animation, of story, character development, action analysis, acting and bring it all together in a series of drawings that come to life and express emotions and feelings that an audience can connect with; this is the highest form of the art of animation. Each animator will bring their own personal message and interpretation to their work. If they have something to say that the audience wants to hear, and they can effectively communicate it to them, they have succeeded.

Mood is a very important part of your animation. Build the mood of the scene from beginning to end. This will immediately reach into the viewer’s imagination and involve them in the what is going on.

Walt Disney said, “In most instances, the driving force behind the action is the mood, the personality, the attitude of the character - or all three.”

When you animate a scene, you need to develop the characters to the point where their thoughts and actions seem natural and believable and they deeply stir the emotions of an audience. There must be audience identification and sympathetic feelings. What can you do to make this picture come to life? What will make the situations more believable? How can we make the story seem to come from what the characters do?

When you sit down to begin your scene there are two very important things to be aware of when listening to your sound track (if you have one):
1) the overall phrasing and timing of the line, the accents, the fast moves, drifting moves, and pauses.
2) the personality touches of the character shown in the specific way a word is said that is different from the way anyone else would do it.

Planning the Scene
Now you need to plan the scene out. In some cases, this may be done for you in storyboard and layout. You need to look at the scene and decide whether it has clear staging and good composition. When staging your action, be sure that only one action is seen at a time. Don’t let it get lost in big secondary actions, or a bad camera angle, or something else going on in the scene. Stage your scene in the strongest and simplest way before moving on to the next action. Make sure the camera is the correct distance away from the character to properly show what they are doing. If you are showing an emotion, don’t do it in a long shot. If the character is kicking something, don’t necessarily do it as a waist up shot.

Some animators will not start a scene until they have the entire thing visualized in their head. They will sit at their desk, staring at a blank sheet of paper - thinking and planning. Some animators spend half their time planning. This helps them animate the scene better and faster. Not everyone has this type of mental discipline or ability.

Part of the staging and composition process involves planning out the action of the character. Your character must act with a very clear and definite action. One of the primary keys to good animation is the design quality of the character design itself. Has the character been designed to animate? A cartoon character can only live when the whole drawing, including all their parts, reflect the attitude, the personality, the acting, and the feelings of the character. One of Disney’s great animators, Grim Natwick said, “Learn to draw as well as possible before starting to animate.” One of the main drawbacks for an animator will be their lack of good drawing ability.

An element that should be considered when working out your scene is the “texture” of the action. Something animated with the same intensity and pacing will become tedious. If the overall pattern contains accents and surprises, contrasts of smooth flowing actions with short jerky moves, and unexpected timing, the whole thing becomes a delight to watch. However, don’t try to do too much in a scene. Too much action can spoil the acting. Listen closely to the sound track. The timing of the character will be dictated by the vocal track. Specific accents will need to be hit at specific points, you won’t have any choice.

When it comes to the actual drawing of your key poses, look for good silhouettes in your action. Your drawings should have weight, depth and balance. Treat your character’s shape as though it is a living form, ready to move. Only simple and direct attitudes make good drawings. Pay special attention to the eyes of your characters. The audience always looks at the eyes as the focal point.

It is absolutely necessary to get the feeling of weight in your character and their props if you want them to be convincing. The illusion to weight lies in the timing and how far a character moves and how fluid the action is.

Character Acting
In animation, there are three specific problems that every animator must deal with as far as acting goes:
1) You must know what your character should do in a particular circumstance.
2) You must be skillful enough as an artist to capture in drawings what you know and have visualized in your head.
3) You must be able to hold on to the fleeting delectate thought of the moment over the several days or weeks that it may take to animate the scene.

Find the inner feelings and emotion of the character within your scene. Make sure the emotional state of the character is clearly defined. The thing that will really get to an audience is their knowing how the character on screen feels about what is happening to them.

Show the character’s thought process through expression changes within the scene. Be careful to avoid changing the character’s expression during a fast movement, the audience won’t see it. Instead, change the emotion before the move or at the end during the final recovery when they are moving more slowly. Also, watch out for making an expression change during an active secondary action - such as hand waving, a big arm action, or follow through on clothes. Remember: secondary action must always support the main action. If it conflicts or becomes more interesting than the main action, take it out.

Primary action is very important to a scene, but what happens after the action, the reaction and or recovery can be much more revealing. The ending of a scene or action should be considered a part of the whole and not just left with the character simply stopping. Consider using the “animated hold”, where the character comes to a stop in a good, strong pose which is then traced back 3 or 4 times and alternated for between 8 and 16 frames. This way the character doesn’t freeze at the end.

The character’s thought process reveals their feelings. Sometimes it can be shown with a single, held drawing or a simple move. Other times there should be gestures, body moves, or full action. Determine which is best in each case.

You should always be asking yourself, “What am I trying to say here? What do I really want to show? How do I want the audience to react? Establish the emotion of the character, convey it to the viewers, and let them savor the situation. Don’t be ponderous, but don’t take it away from them just as they start to enjoy it.

These are some key points from The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

- Are the characters interesting, lifelike, and vivid?
- Do you become emotionally involved with them?
- Do the gestures and movements seem sincere, convincing, clear and properly
- Does all of the action help to delineate the character and their situation for you?
- Is the action clear-cut, realistic, prolonged sufficiently, and exaggerated enough to be seen by the audience.

The bottom line question to ask yourself is: “Why would anyone want to look at this animation?”

Audiences have to be impressed, absorbed, involved, taken out of themselves, made to forget their own worlds and lose themselves in ours for cartoons to succeed. You need to “captivate” them. In order to do this, you need to make it all believable - make it real to them.

Go back over the principles of animation to refresh your memory and remember where you are in your overall training. It takes most students about a year and a half to learn the basic fundamentals of animation and then another five or six (sometimes more) to be even skillful at it.

Always remember: It is never too late to make a change and improve your work. Even if you’re in an animation school. You have your deadline for the assignment which you must meet. After that, there’s nothing to stop you from going back over the assignment and making improvements to it. If you have a new assignment that you need to begin, work on that first and apply the knowledge that you gained from you previous assignment. Don’t repeat the same mistakes. Later, when you have a “reading week” or March break week or the time period between semesters, or even the summer break, go back and fix up your weakest assignments so that they will be worthy of putting into your portfolio.

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