Sunday, June 24, 2007

Acting classes

I have a few hours this afternoon to myself, so I thought I’d do some sacred cow tipping and continue with the acting stuff as I sit here in a local Starbucks…

In a comment on my last post the idea was brought up that animators should just learn how to act in the classical sense (ie: take acting classes, engage in improv or theater groups, etc.) if they want to create sincere, believable and moving performances.

It sounds good on paper, but acting for theater or film is a completely different skillset than animating. It’s easy to get confused on this point, though because animating and acting share the same end goal: communicate believable and sincere performances that speak truth to the human condition and tell a larger story with effectiveness. However in most respects this is where the similarities end. Each one gets to this goal by different roads. The skills the actor develops to reach this goal are almost completely incongruent to the skills an animator needs to develop to reach the same goal. My thoughts on why after the jump…

I’ve taken enough acting classes over the years at various studios and on my own to have developed a decent idea of what they’re trying to accomplish. The basic goal of acting classes- regardless of which school of modern acting you subscribe to- is to learn how to “be in the moment”. Sounds great, right? Problem is, as acting teacher Ed Hooks has pointed out before in his writings and classes, animators don’t even have a moment to be in. The difference lies in the medium used to communicate the moment. The primary media the animator uses to communicate the illusion of a moment is a mere representation of a person- the drawing or the puppet. The entire craft of animation is about knowing how to manipulate that representation of a person to get the audience to buy into the illusion that there is a real person experiencing a real moment where only a stack of drawings or renderings that took weeks to create actually exists. All the principles of drawing, pose, weight, timing, motion - every animation principle- speaks to this task of manipulating this representation of a person in such a way as to imbue it with a sense of believability.

Actors also have a medium to communicate to the audience- their bodies. Actors use their bodies to express everything and the camera catches it all on film the very moment it happens. The body can be trained to behave certain ways via repetition and rehearsal. In modern acting this is considered a rather poor and mechanical approach to acting. The primary focus of modern acting training operates under the belief that the body will react naturally and sincerely to the situations the mind believes are real. Basically you get the reaction out of the puppet (ie: the actor’s body) that you desire by first tricking the actor’s mind into believing in something that doesn’t really exist. There are all manner of effective techniques to accomplish this, but they generally are simply ”mind games”. The actor essentially tricks their mind into thinking they’re really experiencing something that is not really happening. They fool themselves into believing that they are not on a film set with an unshaven keygrip holding a microphone 1 foot over their head as the script girl chews her bubblegum and the camera with its cameraman is literally inches away from their face. Either that or they trick themselves into believing that the woman hanging 2 feet above a green pad with a fan blowing their skirt is indeed dangling off a tall building or that the person accusing them of being insensitive isn’t another actor making believe but is really their scorned lover. The best actors are the ones who can fool themselves the best into believing that the make believe set of cirumstances is indeed real and the reality that surrounds them doesn’t exist. These are usually transcendant performances. In the end it’s all mind games and the body just comes along for the ride.

Actors are hardly EVER taught to be aware of their bodies. (Laban motion analysis is a different thing and actually does have some practical use to animators I think). Some older school animators from the British tradition will use physical techniques to portray a moment. Michael Caine has some well known videos where he discusses such tricks and Anthony Hopkins is an older school technician in some ways as well. But most American actors nowadays are taught to not think about the body at all. Get into the moment and trick your mind into believing the moment exists and the body will follow like a puppy on a leash. It really doesn’t matter what the acting technique is, it’s all about tricking the actor’s mind into believing in the moment, the body will follow orders from there.

Animators have no such luxury as an auto-responding medium (ie: the human body). We study motion and performance in order to externally recreate it in unique ways with our non-living representation of the person (the drawing or the puppet). In all acting classes I’ve taken (with the sole exception being Ed Hooks’ class) the relevance to my craft as an animator is quickly lost as we get into role playing, listening, word reflection and page reading exercises. These techniques for tricking the mind of the actor have practically no application to the animator who builds a performance from their mind and then constructs it from the outside in using an abstract representation of a real person. These techiques may have usefulness if you’re a big believer in using video reference of yourself acting out the scene as the basis for developing your acting performance, but if you ask me I think that’s an approach to animation that is handicapped from the very start. That’s another controversial post for another day, though.

Most acting classes that animators take are like teaching musical composers to dance. Learning how to dance will not give you many practical, concrete techniques to become a better musical composer. Will it be helpful in some more abstract or philosophical ways? Maybe, probably. But the physical techniques and exercises for doing a proper toe spin have absolutely no practical use to a composer as they try to arrange the woodwinds and strings for a symphony they are writing. Those skills just don’t translate at all. In the same way, the techniques learned in acting classes are for a totally different skillset than animating. They may be helpful in an abstract way to broaden your understanding of what goes into the skill of acting, but taking acting classes and becoming a good film actor is no sure fire shortcut to being a great animator anymore than taking dance classes will make you into the next Mozart.

I still think observation, and more importantly, living a life of real empathy (along with a mastery of the principles of animation) is the key to coming up with meaningful animated performances. I know animators who couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper sack and they make amazingly sincere performances in their work. And I know other animators who are very clever actors who are also very good, but certainly not vastly superior to the non-actors. So there is no real connection between animation performance sincerity and the ability to act on stage or in front of a camera. But every animator that I personally know who is genuinely sensitive toward the plight of their fellow man can make the most moving animation performances. Something about their acting performances just feels right and deep and very sincere.

For even more insightful thought on the animator’s dillemma in crafting a performance, I hope you’re reading Mark Mayerson’s discourse on his blog.

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