Saturday, November 12, 2005

Acting & Animation

What if you stink as an actor? What if you've tried acting out your scenes on video and have ended up with absolute junk?

The craft of acting is about using your own body as the puppet for the camera. So acting classes and exercises are mostly about how to manipulate your mind/emotion/body into a reflexive response that is sincere so that what shows up on the camera is a genuine human reaction. You are the puppet, therefore you must manipulate yourself. The more that you can conjure up a non thinking reflexive response to a pretend moment, the better you are as an actor. The acting classes I've taken all orbit around this idea.

Animation is acting by proxy. We don't even say the lines of audio. We are greatly limited in our ability to define a role and the moments of a story are already defined for us in many ways. We are not the puppet, so acting exercises have a somewhat limited application to an animator. The one place where these tools come in handy is if we head off to an acting room and act out a scene in front of a video camera in order to help us see how we'd play the scene if we were the actor. Lots of folks are big proponents of this in helping you get better acting in your animation. It's certainly very helpful. That is, if it's at all helpful. By that I mean this: what if you're not a good actor and you know it?

Live action reference is an old tool. In years past at Disney less popular (and presumably less talented) actors were brought in to act out a scene for the animators to study. And the animators used that reference to one degree or another. Interestingly Milt Kahl decried the "lazy bastards" who just copied the performance off the photostats. He said you get "third rate acting from a third rate actor". Apparently Milt felt there was something more needed. Even so, third rate actors are still better actors than I am. With the advent of digital video many animators have taken great advantage of acting a scene out. There's been a push to get animators to become more like actors, in the real sense of having the animator act out their scenes in order to better tap into the emotion of the moment. Then they go back to their desk and study the tape for the golden nuggets that lie within. This is helpful, I'm sure. That is if you can get anything off the tape that's real and worth using.

There's a reason I'm an animator and not an actor. An honest man must know his limits and I know that as an actor I'm not all that good. I go to the acting room, run the video and what I have after 30 minutes is pretty much crap. I guess what I'm trying to say is: me acting it out in front of a video camera in a room alone is clearly not enough for me to succeed with a scene. And even if the 9 old men were inclined to act out a scene, there was no way to record it so they could study it later, so obviously they must have done something else. Does anybody who's ever worked with the modern greats like Glen Keane, James Baxter, Nick Park or Andres Dejas know if they go into an acting room to act out their scene in front of a camera? I've never read anything that indicates that is what these guys do. So how do they get such consistently amazing performances? There must be more than video tape at work there.

I turned to the Acting and Emotion chapter in The Illusion of Life for help. Here's something that really surprised me...
Usually this feeling of warmth cannot be structured in the Story Dept. and must depend entirely upon the animator for its portrayal, but it remains a very mercurial sensation. A note cannot be pinned to the storyboard saying "Get warmth through here", nor can it be written as an action on the exposure sheet, "Animate 3 feet of warmth". It cannot be analyzed, or acted out or represented in the same way as an expression or a passing thought, since it is more of a sentiment that grows within the viewer from the special way the business has been animated; actually it grows from the sensitivity of the animator who makes the drawings."
pg 491

Isn't it something to read that Frank Thomas (or Ollie, whoever wrote those words) said that developing that warmth in a character couldn't be acted out? Instead they indicate that there's something else going on- sensitivity of the animator. In another place they talk about the feelings the animator has for their drawings. You must have feelings for your character, your 'drawings'. The implication was that the very act of drawing was a cathartic moment for an animator. It's that word: sensitivity- that's what intrigues me.

How sensitive are you? Do you notice things? Are you a keen observer of people and how they behave? Are you moved when another person hurts? Do you rejoice when others succeed? Do emotional moments effect you deeply? Can you easily understand and tap into why another person would feel a certain way? Can you come alongside another person in their life and connect on a deep level with what's going on inside of them? Even if you do nothing with it, does it touch something inside of you? I know some really good animators and the best ones always seem to have this attribute, sensitivity. They're expert observers of people and their emotional states. They connect easily to others and their moments in life. Sad movies devastate them. Violent movies effect them. Real life tragedies touch them. They're sensitive people. I think in a significant sense that animation is about coming alongside of our characters in their moments and being sensitive enough to connect with them there, to be faithful in moving them in a way that is consistent with their emotions in the moment, not by shoehorning my own emotions and gestures onto them.

I realize that there are some very prominent advocates of the "acting it out in video" approach. I certainly can't argue with their success. Definitely if you're a halfway decent actor then you should by all means utilize that talent in such a way. Far be it from me to say that acting it out isn't good or helpful. I'm not saying that at all, so don't even go there. What I am saying is that for those of us who can't act (and have tried and know it) I think sensitivity is the key to getting to that point in our animation where we can be honest to our characters.


Anonymous said...

As a human being, we all (well almost, psychos don't have it) have a thing called emapthy. It allows us to have all those feelings. As animators I think it is just a matter of using this while we animate. (easier said than done, I know). The acting part in it is to be able to project on very different types of characters (like you would animate a woman as a man, that is hard).

Personally, I don't like video reference when animating acting pieces, unless I have a footage of pro actor (voice talent) acting it. I was animating recently some silly troll and had very, very good characteristic actor as a voice talent for him (and he did all other characters for that matter including a witch ;) ), he was even so kind to act out some extras for me to tape. It really helped a lot, but this guy obviously had part 2 (getting into) perfected (no wonder, he did my country version of Toy Story characters, Donald Duck and he was in Nemo and Incredibles too). But even with such great reference, I didn't try to copy it, just used it as an inspiration (or maybe I was too scared that I couldn't animate good enough to copy him, hehe).
I'd rather go by my instincts and feelings here, even if I'd go wrong at some point. But, yes I do cry on even stupid movies :)

I feel that video is great for psychical shots and sometimes I cannot live w/o it.

Dan said...

Woo! Well I know I'm sensitive and I know I have hours of bad acting ref so this is definately a refreshing opinion! :)

Lars van Schagen said...

True so true Keith you too adress the mental state of an artist. Yet agian it is important to be open and feel the other person. And in our own work to see and project our memories of loved ones or people who have inspired or torn us apart upon these characters we make. It is so important too communicate through visuals what we cannot communicate through sound or film. In some sense animation can be a much more true form of art than film because it seeks too be true. In a film a bad actor can spoil the experience by having fake emotions and and not giving the audio one wants too hear from the character. But a bad voice actor can yet be saved by good animation (and story it offcourse should all mesh together) but this visual stimulus or karikature of real life that seeks to superceed true life makes itself real.

great post so true so true!

jKu said...

I totally agree with you, Keith. I am a bad actor as well. That is why I stop animating one year ago. although people said my animation is not too bad, but I just couldn't feel my character even if I acted it out. Lately I want to start doing animation again, hope I could be a honest to my character this time. Thanks Keith and great article.

Aja B said...

Great timing, Keith! We were just discussing this on the AnimationMentor forum this week. :-) I think video ref is a great tool, and lots of my classmates are really stellar actors who find a ton of great ideas in front of the camera... but I'm not one of them. Not yet, at least. I found myself sort of "trapped" in my dull performance on my last assignment, especially because I was still learning what a "good acting choice" was at the time... and everything was so restrained and boring in my piece.

This time around I'm relying more on just thinking through what the character might do that would be fun to watch, and it's going much smoother. And now that I've got the basic idea down, maybe I'll go shoot some ref and see what little gestures I can find... those cool little things I wouldn't think of on my own.

I think I'll probably get better at finding ideas with video ref as I get better about understanding acting in general, but for now, this method's working for me. Thanks for explaining it so clearly! :-)

Anonymous said...

I've worked with James Baxter and when asked about video recording acting, he said he doesn't do it. With the 2D stuff he never even thumbnailed his work, he would rough out his animation at size on 16 field paper. Every once in a while you would catch him acting out a scene while sitting at his desk, but it was usually just a subtle action that he was doing or he was trying to feel what his body was doing when he accented a certain word. I guess that's why he's James...

Anonymous said...

What about if the type of planning reflected the character's personality? For instance, if the character is sad and slow, make the whole planning part of it slow. If it's a boistrous character with quick and jolly movements, somehow make the planning process reflect that. 'Process' was a buzzword used a lot in college, but it sounds uppity and too artsy fartsy.

Keith Lango said...

"For instance, if the character is sad and slow, make the whole planning part of it slow. If it's a boistrous character with quick and jolly movements, somehow make the planning process reflect that."

I'm not sure I understand your question. Are you saying if a character is a hasty character then be hasty when thinking about their scenes? Might be fun, but might also yield really lame cliche'd performances. Conversely if the character is a plodding, slow kind of fellow your production manager might not like you taking 2 weeks to plan out that scene. heh.