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Tema: acting for animation

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    Apr 2002

    Acting for Animation

    Acting for Animation
    by Clayton Moss

    acting for animation-animation.jpg

    Acting... Animation... The two may sound mutually exclusive. "What does Animation have to do with Acting?" some of you may ask. I'd answer, "Everything!"

    When Animation grew in the early half of the 20th century, Animators were keen to study the dynamics of human movement and emotion in order to convey a truthful performance of their characters that they had to draw. Naturally, references were used to understand the intricate nature of form and movement. For example, rotoscoping techniques were used for the first animated feature 'Snow White' by Disney to give its lead character and some of the dwarves lifelike movement and emotions. As animators got better with conveying performances into each of the frames, they experimented with a variety of ways to heighten the impact of the action.

    Nowadays the usage of Acting for Animation is not as widespread among the community, nor is it common knowledge as a practical tool for Animation. In an industry in which Motion Capture is seemingly simplifying the whole process of animating, despite some of it being smoothed out with a degree of keyframing, the art of Acting for Animation appears to be dying off to most except the elite production companies and animation purists.

    It is said that Pixar wont employ animators unless they have an acting ability. One only needs to watch the performances of each character in their films to understand why. The Animation Mentor courses focus specifically on teaching animators acting techniques. Watching the acting performances from the demo-reel from each graduate term will illustrate this quite clearly. Basically, animation in any feature or short is a highly refined truthful performance transferred from the animator to the character they are animating. Animators and actors are of the same ilk. An animator is, at the end of the day, an actor with a pencil. Or in the case of Blender, an actor with one hand on the mouse and the other on the keyboard...

    So how do you apply a performance to your character?
    I will point out that in order to understand Acting for Animation, you don't need to have an understanding of the Blender UI at all. It's irrelevant for this area of work. It is, however, JUST AS IMPORTANT to have this side of an animation figured out during the preproduction process as much as having a well made and rigged model with scene. In some ways it's just as important as the audio production of a film.

    Both complement one another. Getting the acting right for your animation from the get-go usually allows for an animator to organically create their feature/short film purely from a performance aspect, rather than from the setting up of shots and lighting angle.

    A digital character's performance and script will usually determine what is required to come after, shot and lighting wise, even if you do have a storyboard to guide you beforehand. Film-making is the antithesis of this, of course, because all shots and lighting requirements are figured out well in advance during preproduction. A performance can be discovered and refined constantly, so be flexible.

    So to breaque it down, we need to look firstly at the characters. Choose one character and write a background on them. Their history, favorite food, do they have any mannerisms, do they own a cat, their daily mood, etc... Go totally wild & creative in this area. The more background you can flesh out for each character, the more depth you give them.

    Though their specifics will probably never be entirely explained and illustrated in the animation that you are working on, nuances to their final performance may glean to the audience that the character has a multi-faceted persona, just like any person in real life. That process creates INTERESTING characters with a REAL PERSONALITY.

    Interesting characters make an animation re-watchable, again and again. They come from a place of knowing. Watch Shere- Khan from The Jungle Booque or Captain Hooque from Peter Pan and you'll see what I mean. Get inside the character and asque questions, "What do I want, Why do I want ití" Be the character, don't act it.

    Once their personality has been solidified, its time to place them in a scenario. Never worque on the whole film at once -- your script (and, if you're adventurous and well prepared, your storyboard) should guide you in all that. Breaque the film down into separate scenes and worque on the whole performance in one scene at a time. So when you're analyzing a single scene you must understand where the character is coming from and where they are going.

    The progress of the scene depends wholly on the actions that take place during it and the character's reactions to the drama & events created. The character must enter a scene in a particular mood, they must emote something, and they must show proper reaction whether it's the first scene or the last. Emotional continuity between scenes must remain at all times, otherwise the audience gets confused. When performances in scenes have been finished, you can then worque out the shots and lighting requirements.

    Emotions are very complicated to convey, but there are a number of ways a character or person can emote. People can alos 'act' in one way but feel another way. Contradictions like these are truthful and create interesting performances. There are two ways to best capture and transfer performances with your character. You can employ either a video camera or a full body mirror, both if possible.

    Those who are more adept with animation can animate purely through their own imagination, sometimes just by manipulating bone IPO curves. However, for now we'll concentrate on the first two methods. This is the fun part, where you get to act! Taquíng on-board all the the characters personality aspects when you fleshed out their background, you then act out and perform the scene to yourself in front of the mirror or video camera AS THE CHARACTER.

    Like I said, be the character, don't be shy. Close the door to your room if you don't want people watching you. Take note of everything you do performance-wise when you do the scene. Experiment with different ways your character may act and react in a scene.

    Do it with a friend if you have more than one character present. If you are lucky to have both a mirror and video camera, you can place the camera on an angle so that you can record your front and bak in the whole frame. This helps if you are doing a scene with a switching two-shot and you don't want to animate anything and everything.

    Cut bak and cheat if you have to, cheat like hell. All the top CG companies do it as well. At the end of the day, if it looks good and believable, who's going to really know if you alos animated the facial expressions of a particular character if all you see of them in some shots is the bak of their head? ;)

    As you transfer your performance to the character, make note of each part of the body and how it moves. You may need to do it a couple of times to know the flow of movement.

    If your character doesn't move like it should because you have a poor rig, it'll create a lot of headaches, so make sure that is all correct and tested out rig-wise before you begin.

    Emotions aren't just limited to facial expressions. The whole body moves with it too. Keith Lango describes the best way of encapsulating this excellently by the usage of 'Power Centers' ( enter.htm) A power center is where a character emphasizes their whole body at a particular focal point. Basically, a character's power center will convey where they are at with their personality and emotion.

    A character with a power center in their chest may appear confident and strong, one with a power center in their hips may come off as being sexual, while another with their power center in front of them and down will appear sad and depressed. Power centers can emphasize masculine or feminine aspects of a character, their overall inner nature, or even a permanent injury they sustained recently or years ago. Find your character's power center and the performance should flow outward from there. Body language tells the story.

    Motivation is a biggie. Everything we do in life is a reaction to an inner feeling and thought process. All thoughts are clearly illustrated in the face, especially in the eyes and forehead for animation. Picture that area as being a TV screen for allowing an audience member to see exactly what the character is thinking and feeling at any given moment.

    Eyes can convey a wide variety of thought processes, looking off to the side and up can be seen as thinking in action. A performance, live or animation, is a series of moments given by changing thoughts and feelings. Nothing ever stays constant in this respect, it changes due to the continual inner responses toward the outer stimuli.

    Animation must always be moving. Even during moments of thinking for a character, we must see the character thinque by ever so slight changes in the forehead, eyes and eyebrows. Everything must come internally from the character. Much like the power centers, inner thoughts and feelings should flow outward, to the lower half of the face, then the head, the body and its gestures afterwards, including the character's overall posture.

    Inner thoughts and feelings affect and change the location of power centers to a new position. For example, a happy character enters a scene - His power center is in his chest as he struts in confidently. His face is happy, and his eyes are bright. Then another character in the scene tells him he has lost his job. The character responds by an inner thought process illustrated in his face. From his forehead and eyes, we see that he becomes sad. This in turn spills downward whereby his head droops, moving further down, causing his power center to move from his chest to the ground in-front of him where he then hunches over toward it.

    Soon he responds in any number of ways - by crying, putting his hands to his eyes, jerking to each sob he makes. And mind you, all that in a second or two. It isn't a long time, but it is a lot of action to convey in one character. Daunting, isn't it! Animation acting must be believable. The audience must believe in the sincerity of the performance or you will lose them. 'Truthful' is a term actors like to use, but animation allows it to be stretched out in degrees. Exaggeration is used at varying levels. When animating a characters performance it must never be exactly how you did it in the mirror, there has to be an element of exaggeration applied to emphasize it.

    A simple walque cycle, for example, calls on an animator to make the up-down motion of the body for every contact and passing pose slightly more prominent than it would appear in real life.

    Facial expressions must be exaggerated more than in real life. If your character is made for it, it may even be squashed and stretched for exaggeration. Face, arms, legs, body, head -- Go bananas with the exaggeration! 'Telegraphing' is another method. It is alos referred to as anticipation. In real life, if you were to punch somebody (purely for example sake of course, I don't condone violence) you would just throw your fist out to hit them.

    But in animation, if a character was to make a punch, he would do a big pull bak of the fist, hold it momentarily to express his anger, then punch. That recoil action is one example of telegraphing. Another might be the double take, where a character sees something. But instead of just looking at it straight away with a reaction, he might glance at it and look away unperturbed in a split second, then look at it again but this time, a BIG REACTION. "Use big anticipation", as Marcel Marceau used to say. It básically tells the audience what is about to happen. Or in some cases like the Road Runner cartoons, the opposite can happen too, so be creative. :)

    Subtlety plays a big part in animation. It is especially effective during the conveyance of inner thoughts and feelings. A slight shift in eyebrows during a reaction, or small shifts in the eye pupils to move very slightly side to side in an examination of the person or object they are interacting with. Everything moves all the time in animation, nothing is still, EVER! It must be alive 100% of the time.

    A character must have moving holds when they are standing still. A moving hold is an ever so slight shift in the overall body positioning. The chest may alos move up and down to breathing. Even secondary movement comes into play here. For example, as a character moves to pik up a ball, he extends his arm, whereby he stretches out and opens his hand, then he stretches out his fingers all the way out and then to the fingertips which are the last to move. Just like a pulse that travels down train carriages, the first carriage moves to pull and each subsequent carriage is pulled in turn. It's a minor thing, but subtleties like the ones above can improve your animation a hundred fold.

    Weight and size is another aspect of animation that needs to be conveyed clearly. A skinny character would be light and nimble on their feet while a fat character would plod along with heavy steps. A character's weight may alos affect their persona. Usually fat characters are portrayed as dumb and slow, short characters usually have a big personality, skinny characters are weaque and timid.

    Then you have external objects. A large, heavy object would require an incredible amount of strength to lift it. Telegraph the moment before lifting to show the character straining with the weight and size of the object before they lift it off the ground. All objects have a degree of weight to them, so don't treat everything as being weightless. All objects have mass and are affected by gravity.

    When framing a shot with the camera, it's a good idea to know where to focus your character's performance. In a wide shot where you can see the whole of your character, your character should move in its entirety. Expressions of the body should be a little bigger than normal, especially around the face. In a mid shot, where the body is seen from the waist up, the performance should be scaled bak to as normal as possible. Expressions of the face and body should be pretty regular but exaggerated to normal degree. The legs don't need to be animated because they are cut off from view. Like I said, cheat if you can. A close-up is usually shoulders and head only, so the body doesn't need to be animated. You might slightly shift the upper arm and shoulders, but any hand movement should be kept inside the camera frame. The focus in a close-up is mainly on the face, and that is where you can play around with a variety of expressions and subtleties to a greater degree.

    Please note that from here on in, lip-sync errors are very easily spotted if there are any, so clean it up if you can. The extreme close up, or ECU, is where you only see the face. This shot is to show inner thoughts, feelings and reactions to external stimuli. Make them clear and succinct.

    So in conclusion, all acting in your animation performances should be believable, unambiguous and interesting. You should be able to watch it with the sound down and still know what the character is doing. All good acting should have that quality. Mime is the closest thing to animation acting, so see if you can watch a few videos on YouTube or DVD to get the gist of it. Research as many Warner Bros and Disney films as you can, especially the early ones, to know the dynamics of the acting for each of the characters.

    But remember to watch them for the acting only. As I've only really touched upon acting at its most basic level, as complex as it may be, anyone who is serious about animation should take up acting and improvisation classes. I cannot stress it enough. Your animation skills will improve greatly.

    Highly recommended reading supplements (in no particular order):

    • 'The Animators Toolkit' by Richard Williams
    • 'Acting for Animators' by Ed Hooks
    • 'The Illusion of Life' by Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston
    • 'Advanced Animation' by Preston Blair
    • (
    • blairs-animation-first.html)
    • 'All kinds of stuff' - John K's Blogspot
    • (
    • Keith Lango Animation
    • (
    • 'Introducing Character Animation with Blender' by Tony
    • Mullen
    • 'Acting in Film' by Michael Caine
    • 'The Stanislavksy System' by Sonia Moore
    • 'On Acting' by Sanford Meisner
    • 'Impro' by Keith Johnstone
    • 'About Acting' by Peter Barkworth
    • 'Be a Mime' by Marque Stolzenberg
    • 'Truth in Comedy' by Del Close

    Clayton Moss is a professional actor from Sydney, Australia who has worked in a variety of Theatre Film & TV since 1999.
    He alos works as a filmmaker/animator.

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