Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Animated "Acting"

How about this for a philosophical question...

Do animated characters "act"? And what about animators? Do we "act"?

Acting, by definition, is when a person pretends to behave like another person in another place at another time. Even if they're pretending to be themselves in a real place we are still stuck with a person pretending to live a moment that does not currently exist. All acting comes down to a falsehood. A false person, a false place or a false moment. One or more of the three. Acting is pretending. Without pretending you don't have acting.

So when I am animating, am I "acting"? Not really. When I animate I am not pretending to be a character in some other moment in some imaginary place. I make no pretense about it- I am Keith, sitting at my desk animating this scene.

Similarly the character on the screen is not pretending to be anything, either. Bugs Bunny running away from Elmer Fudd is Bugs Bunny running away from Elmer Fudd. He is not pretending to be Bugs Bunny running away from Elmer Fudd. The animated character is not pretending- they are just being themselves*. This is their life, this is their moment and there's nothing false about it.

As an animator am I pretending to be Bugs Bunny? Aside from the physical difficulties of such a thing, not really. So what is it that I'm doing if I'm not 'acting'? I prefer to think of it as imagining. I am most successful when I can simply imagine the character just being themselves in whatever moment of their lives that I am called upon to animate. The key to this is to know the character. That's it. Insofar as I struggle to express a character believably it shows that I don't really know that character. Want proof? OK, try this....

Think of someone you know very well. Then imagine they are running late for work and have just hit their 5th red light in a row. You can see them, can't you? You can imagine exactly what the look on their face would be, how their hands would be gripping the steering wheel- what they'd do and how they'd behave while they wait for that light to change to green. And you know that what you are 'seeing' in your mind's eye is not what you would do in that moment, but it is what this person you know very well would do. They have unique actions, mannerisms, expressions and gestures that you don't use, but you can "see" them.  At this very moment I can imagine my Dad in the situation I just described and I can see him as clear as day, how he'd act and everything- and he's been dead for 8 years. Today my Dad is no more physically real on this earth than Bugs Bunny- but as a character he's very real and I know him very well.

And this isn't hard at all. Why? Because I've already known how to do this from the time I was a kid. And so do you.

The hard part in this comes when a character hasn't been defined very well for you by the director/writer/story people. You don't have enough to get to 'know' the character. Or worse, we're too lazy to get to know the character. It's at that moment that we fall back on generic gestures or expressions, or we copy ourselves acting just to get some believable motion on the screen. To me that's a poorer solution compared to the power of knowing the character. In animation if we had characters that were more clearly defined and the imagination to see them being themselves, then perhaps we can maybe break free from the generic "everything same" characters we are so prone to make.

* OK, exception would be when Bugs Bunny dresses in drag to fool Elmer Fudd. So in that sense, yes an animated character does "act".


Carlos Fins said...

This is a great perspective the notion of acting and acting out our scenes when planning an animation. Your example of imagining someone we know really well stuck in traffic when in a hurry spelled it out for me. If we imagined this as a scene we were animating, we would know what actions our character would do because we're intimately familiar with their "backstory," and their catalogue of mannerisms and expressions. The key is to spend the time and be this familiar with any character we animate so it's less "us" and more the "character."
Great post, Keith! Thanks for making me think about that. :)

notanymike said...

Our (2D) animation teacher doesn't like us sitting down animating for long periods of time without doing some for of performing the gestures we're trying to get down on the frame. I think he even grades us know within the "participation points" as to how many times we get out of our chairs and reenact the characters action, emotions, ie "method acting" I guess what you think everyone else thinks when they say an animator has to be an "Actor". One could almost call us "furries" without costumes if you take into account all the talking animals we work with in this degree! I method act all the time since I've never won an argument with a fictituous character nor see one who's died from their lifestyle to prove that their philosophy and beliefs were wrong compared to mine, which are based off of other people's, anyway. They just tell me to stop reading those kind of comics but I can't close them once they're printed inside my head unless I'm struck by lightening or heavily drugged or something...Anyway I'll be trying your method during next quarters class with this teacher but it's between you and he over resolving which way works. I don't think both you or he should be allowed to grade me until I'm solid over who's right here or not.

Mark Mayerson said...

The $64 question is how we an define a character so that everyone understands it. In shorts, characters like Bugs Bunny were defined over time by trial and error. The artists slowly came to understand who Bugs was and how he would react.

In features and TV series, you've got to define the character up front because the schedule demands it. The problem is that a character is defined by: the script (possibly by multiple writers), the board (possibly by multiple artists), the voice track, the director (possibly more than one), the character layouts (probably by several artists), and every animator who works on the character. And let's not forget a producer whose decisions can trump all of the above.

With so many inputs, it's difficult to create a character who shows any consistency. That's one reason that recent features have relied so heavily on star voices. It's fairly easy to lift Eddie Murphy's character compared to creating a character from scratch.

One secret of Walt Disney's success is that in story meetings, he would act out the parts. Since everyone was determined to give Walt what he wanted (if for no other reason than their jobs depended on it), the characterizations were consistent. In any situation where the lines of authority are not as clear, characters tend to drift toward the generic.

notanymike said...

"Thinking Animation" offered a similar approach...She refrenced another crew of animators thinking about their characters as their buddies but in certain scenarios, specifically what they would order inside a MacDonald's...I also see a lot of students putting anticipation into their gestures when for the most part unless the caracter is "acting" off of their own rehearsed responces in a conversation, is compleately unnecessary but we students are thrown all of Frank & Ollie's principles so we naturally think were supposed to apply them all with every scene we have to work on...So I don't think there's too much usage of's just that too many of the (generic) animation principles are applied to them making them all look "generic" or stock-characters....

Tim said...

I believe I have been acting when I am animating (or drawing storyboards, or life drawing). There are indeed times when I have become so involved in my drawing that I begin to feel the emotional state of the character. It usually starts with an expression. I (or my wife) have often caught myself with looks of pain/joy/rage on my face as I draw, subconsciously mimicking the expression on my paper. And if I am drawing some physical action, I often will feel the sensations of the pose and/or exertion without standing up and acting it out.

I was rough inbetweening for Mark Henn for a couple of scenes on Lion King. One of them was the medium shot of Simba trying to awaken the dead Mufasa. I knew I had tapped into Mark's emotional state while he was animating as I began to tear up as I drew.

Find that place where you cross over to the other side of the paper (or monitor). Become the character. Don't just "act it out". Act!

Forget about line quality, anatomy, technique, f-curves, etc. Be the character.

Thom said...

Hey Tim, I think Keith is going to say that you weren't acting in the strict sense in those situations either. You were empathizing and imagining, which are very good things to do when animating or drawing or what have you.

I think we'd do well to remember that we're not actually acting, because that might free us to try things a little more imaginative. To take an extreme example, I really can't act like I've been squished into the shape of coin underneath the weight of an anvil. It would hurt too much. I'd have to call upon my imagination.

Oh Keith, you contrarian you! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly insightful post as always Keith! Loved the car analogy especially...

on a semi related note this is quite a funny example of how actors 'pretend':

Keith Lango said...

Thom, you accurately predicted my response to Tim. Tim, I've been in that place, feeling the emotions of the character, getting carried away in their moment. It really is a powerful thing and I hope every shot i can get into that place. I'm just not sure I'd call it "acting".

Keith Lango- Animation Contrarian. I like the sound of that. ;)

Anonymous said...

It's funny, I didn't read your article until today, but last night I came up with this, changing it a bit from the line in Tropic Thunder: "I'm just a dude animating a dude acting like another dude."

As for myself about acting and animation, I'm currently working on my short film at Animation Mentor. Since the character "Bishop" is a generic "be anything" character it's up to me to define his personality. At least the bits and bytes that make him up represented by pixels on a computer screen. I have to make many decisions about how he acts in a situation that (hopefully) won't pull the audience out of the film because they thought "that seemed fake" due to a bad acting choice on my part. I'd like to think that animators (at least the ones that care to add depth to the character being portrayed) are on the same level as a live performer, whether it's a stage actor, live-action film performer, or even a pupetteer.

Where does that fit on the scale by the way, the puppet isn't "acting" by your definition. Just a bit of cloth and glue being moved by somebodys hand. It may be because I have almost full control over my acting decisions for my short and characters in this case, but I'd argue that animated characters fit on the same level, someone has to give them life, make them more than just static bits of geometry. Are we just the hand behind the cloth or is there more to it?

What's your take on motion-capture animation in this case. I mean someone is physically acting out the character, facial capture is getting better by the day (but still not great), is that type of "animation" acting?

Anyways, fun stuff to ponder about.

Thom said...

Hey Marvin,

Personally, I'm OK with calling it animation and leaving it at that. :)

Anonymous said...

Thom: Yeah, I think it was a combination of too much caffeine and waiting on a really long render.

Sorry about the long rant Keith, love the blog.

Remi The Rockstar said...

One of your best posts so far!!
(and you have so many :D .. good ones that is)

love it!

Anonymous said...

if i was Al Pacino , i would act it out myself and use that for my animation .. but....

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons we have so many cliche poses and "acting" choices in films and series is that animators are encouraged to "act it out" and film it - and we are not actors.

Just to quote one of the students of one of the animation schools.

"[...] but planning and video reference is something you need to do before animating. Sometimes I’m impatient and just start animating without filming reference and it takes forever to get the shot to look right"

I completely disagree with that statement - for one simple reason. I am not Robert De Niro and my performance will and is subpar when I film myself. Why would I use something terrible as a reference? Especially when I animate an elephant or a pig (both talking, not realistic).

Imo observation and imagination is much more powerful than just filming a couple of cliche poses made by myself.

Unknown said...

Wow, this is such a fascinating subject! I teach animation to 2nd year students in Dundee, Scotland, and and I also encourage them to go to drama workshops and join theatre groups because I believe their observation of performance through gesture and pose does improve with acting lessons. They also go to movement sessions which involves visualising the movements of their own skeleton and muscles as they move.
I encourage them to do as much observational drawing as possible as well, especially attending rehearsals of theatrical performances and to do motion studies from films.
Actors with pencils? Let give actors pencils and see what they do!
The students don't attend the course to learn to act, they want to become animators. They come equipped with talent for drawing poses which they would never be able to physically get into themselves, but can portray emotions with such impact that Pacino himself would struggle to deliver. Because animation strips away all the unneccessary real life things that create distractions. (Is this a different subject altogether?)
Actors? Animators? Maybe they're actimators.

FleaCircusDirector said...

You ask 'Do animated characters "act"? And what about animators? Do we "act"?'

then you follow that up with your definition of acting as being the same as pretending. However there are many definitions of acting and I'd prefer to borrow from wikipedia

"An actor is usually one who manipulates his posture, expression, and voice to communicate the actions and motivations of a prescribed character"

If this definition is used then the combination of the animated character and the actor together do act with the animator doing the manipulation and the puppet, drawing or CGI rig doing the presentation.

I have to agree with your comments that it's important to "'know' the character". This fits nicely with the above definition which requires the character to be prescribed.

The stop motion animator is similar to a TV actor in that they don't get to perfect their work over time in the way that a stage actor or CGI animator might do.

There are some interesting parallels between your comments on generic gestures vs imagining and the discussions on method acting

Fernando Herrera said...

Michal - I have to disagree, you're taking into consideration that everyone goes in front of camera and just act it out, without any planning.

Observation and imagination are key as you said, so why don't take those and put into the video reference?

A lot of my ideas come when I try to act it out spontaneously, others come when I draw, others when I think, etc. Video reference is just a tool, it's just knowing how to use it.