From many years, I have been obsessed with great acting in animation. I always wanted to write this article but I thought when I would have good enough experience animating acting shots, I might be able to have some practical perspective for writing about Acting in Animation. I am glad that I waited for this long. During this time, I even got to write about 100+ animated shorts on Kenny Roy’s blog.
Over the years, I also reviewed around 90+ live action films on different blogs. (Unfortunately, the some blogs got closed, but I learned a lot about story, acting, cinematography, directing and lot more things)
It allowed me to test few things; finally it helped me to understand the final magic ingredient for acting in animation.
If time allows me, we will cover some case studies from my favorite animated films in next articles but before that we are going to need building blocks, common ground parameters for talking about acting in animation. So in this article, we are going to look at those building blocks.
Before we go any further, I want to mention this : These are not rules about acting in animation. These are not absolute parameters. This merely is an observation. May be, a personal lie. You can think about these as exploration points. You may add your own or completely scrap the one’s I mention. You don’t have to agree to any of them at all.
Anyway, here we go.
There are 5 building blocks for good acting in animation and the 6th one is the Magic ingredient!
1. Sincere Acting Performance
2. Unique Acting Choices
3. Animation as a Performance Enhancer
4. Readability Test
5. Economy of Poses
6. The Journey of Drama!
These are not just some random words cobbled together; of course we are going to talk about them one by one.
1. Sincere Acting Performance
It means how honest the character portrayal is. If the character is hiding something or lying about something, does it look like the character is hiding something?
Here’s the most important aspect: The acting choice is going to be driven by the character itself.
Let’s say, you have 2 best friends. If they are trying to act normal while hiding that they are in huge trouble. Both of them would have totally different mannerisms than each other.
Its not about character hiding something, it’s about a specific character. In stories, we often get to build and break the character at places. We let audience know piece by piece what character is actually made of.
If you want to watch the most honest portrayal in an animated film, I would suggest just re watch all the sequences from Disney’s Bolt movie that has Rhino the hamster in it. He is one of my all time favorite characters. You can literally see how honest and committed his acting performance is. I will be forever in awe with how the incredible animators and voice actor at Disney made it possible.
So what’s the Sincere acting performance looks like, here’s a clip of Legendary Rowan Atkinson that I want you to watch. It’s the perfect example of what I want to convey.
The premise is Atkinson is playing a role of a character who is an Actor. And that character is trying his best to portray different characters mentioned in the different scenarios. (It might sound immensely meta or perhaps confusing but bear with me)
I want you to notice this: The gag could have worked easily where actor is portraying different roles funnily. It sure would have got laughs. But the real laugh, the real joke is in the character itself.
We see the actor that Atkinson is playing, that character is trying to passionately commit to the role while portraying different characters but the actor’s character resurfaces in between acting beats. For example when the actor gets his knees hurt. Later he tries to prevent it and still tries to be in the character as best as he can.
Throughout this entire gag, Atkinson makes sure the actor’s character mannerism and the reactions are source of bigger laugh while his role-play is a build up to those bigger acting beats.
We have these 2 distinct emotional Character Poles where the attitude of character flows like a back and forth current. In between those there’s a friction that brings out the laughter.
Now notice this difference. How Atkinson is committed to his role and how Atkinson’s character is committed to his role. Atkinson is so damn good that he completely disappears. What we see is pure performance.
His actor character is exactly opposite of Atkinson. The character, who is trying to commit to his roles but can’t take real himself out of the equation.
Every time I think about it, I am blown by how masterfully Atkinson has achieved this. This is a masterpiece of Sincere Acting Performance.
2. Unique Acting Choices:
This might seem like a part of the first building block but it’s more of a corollary. And it deserves its own place. What character is in the current moment is majorly decided by 2 things.
The Personality of Character + Character Mood (The state character in)
The personality of character is decided by the emotional core of the character. The personality constitutes of what shapes are used in the design of the character. What accessories, clothes are related or part of the character. Like shape language and visual appearance help in defining character; The most crucial thing that defines character is how character moves? Where its energy center is located? How does character carries himself around?
Energy Center for character is an invisible point that decides the posture of the character. It’s a great tool to differentiate and define the character. (Some call it Power Center of the character)
As we have looked at Energy Centers. Let’s look at it’s extension.
You can call it Default Energy Flow / Tempo / Rhythm.
One of the most useful things that I learned from Kenny Roy was the Tempo. In his workflow, he usually blocks the rhythm of the shot. For that he uses basic shapes like boxes and spheres, just to get the feel of the timing for the overall shot.
Like a scene has its tempo or rhythm. Every character has its Default Tempo. That’s why every character moves differently.
For example. The difference between Default Tempo of Mr. Fredrickson and Russell in UP is quite obvious.
Not only their Energy Centers are located differently but their default Rhythm is different as well. Mr. Fredrickson’s Energy center is way below the Root. For Russell it’s above the root and his default rhythm is like a bouncing cartoony ball.
The easiest way to look at default Character Tempo is their walk cycles/ walks. Generic walks happen at 24 frames per sec. It’s like generic tempo. Using that as a base line, we can have different frames per sec for different characters based on their tempo.
How upbeat we want them or how downbeat or dragged we want them is decided by their default Tempo. When you look at the characters of Richard Williams you realize how much you can tell about the character just by the way it moves. It’s absolutely amazing.
So it’s not just about walks. It’s about how much energy character usually brings to the acting performance. So we need to sculpt their performance around their Energy Center that’s aligned with their Default Rhythm.
If you read books of American psychologist Paul Ekman, you will realize most of our facial expressions for basic emotions are universal. The facial cues for the most part of the world are similar even for the tribes that haven’t been exposed to outside world through TV or other media.
However physical gestures vary vastly according to the cultures and regions. You can even broaden this Cultural part even more. Think of how baseball players interact each other, or how MMA fighters carry themselves or a ship crew interacts with each other or Think of group of friends that have their own way of greeting each other. (Different handshakes)
That’s why doing real life research about character culture or in habitat helps in bringing more authenticity to the performance.
Another part is trying to define character in one or two words. It sort of limits and helps you to define the core of character. It also gives us the Default Tempo of the character.
I often listen to what the voice actors have to say about their character. While finding out the character voice tone, voice actors try to find the key characteristics.
The aim is defining key characteristic that’s aligned with story needs. A choice, that helps the story and character to come to life.
The next thing is finding Metaphorical Equivalence for the character performance or for specific acting beats. (I do this while animating shot a lot.)
For example: Let’s say there’s a scene, where you have antagonistic character trying to pursue innocent clueless character in doing something bad.
The voice of the character is cold, quiet but playfully manipulative.
So the question to ask is what could be metaphorical equivalence for the antagonistic character in this particular moment?
You might think, the snake like feel and mannerisms for this moment would be good. That’s a Metaphorical equivalence. So even if your character is human, you will borrow some mannerisms from snake or what we think what mannerisms like snake are.
May be the character slowly – weirdly licks his tongue or may be slowly deliberately move around the other character or may be lick or sniff the other character or lick the other character’s face. (ha ha)
The point is Metaphorical equivalence can be anything that serves that acting beat without betraying the character or story.
If you look at the Toothless – the Night Fury dragon from How to Train your Dragon; you will realize he sometimes has cat like mannerisms.
May be you have old character who has lots of energy because he is excited to meet his grandson. So you might think Old character has enthusiasm like a Young Squirrel. This Metaphorical equivalence for mannerism is going to help define the character performance.
Do the mannerisms always need to be associated with other animals? Not necessarily.
Let’s say your character is gesturing smoothly through the air. You might use metaphor like: a feather rhythmically free falling.
Let’s say your character is tired and falls flat on a ground. You might associate that with slowly deflating balloon.
The metaphorical equivalence is boundless. You can draw out inspiration from any kind of movement or mannerisms. As long as , it enhances the acting performance without hindering the narrative or character; It’s going to serve the shot immensely.
You can use the props or accessories that are part of character’s attire for enhancing the performance. It adds one more layer of authenticity. It could be a ring, a coat, nails, knife, hair, hook, cape, chewing gum, tail, horns, etc.
Especially when you use accessories like these to use for the unintended purpose; it adds even better texture to the performance.
For example character using his nails like knife : to cut something or threaten someone. Look at Sherkhan and how playfully he uses his nails in this animated sequence by Legendary Milt Kahl (The Sherkhan sequence where he has talk with Kaa )
Another example would be Rapunzel using Frying Pan as a weapon!! or Rapunzel using her hair for various purposes. (Watch the Tangled again to see that ;))
Does this mean we must use accessories that character has in every scene? Obviously not! It depends on whether it will help to sell the performance or moment better to the audience.
Now let’s look at The Stimulus for the character. That stimulus is made up of 4 things :
Context – Text – Tone – Subtext
Context : Is the situation where character is placed in that moment. More often it’s a conflict.
Text : These are the words that character speaks. (if it’s a dialogue shot) As animators, we don’t have any control over it. But it’s good to remember that the words are supposed to be aligned with Who The Character Is. Uncharacteristic words break the illusion of believability.
Tone : Voice tone is the most crucial since it decides the character attiude and Subtext. Whether character is pleading, accusing, enraged or in pain. The same text can be in different emotional states depending upon the voice tone. The voice tone, sometimes even decides the Metaphorical Significance as well.
Subtext : Subtext is where the entire performance comes to life. Subtext is the words that character actually trying to say but is not saying. All the nuances, all the sincerity of character acting comes from Subtext. This is where unique acting choices arise. We are always animating to the subtext.
Don’t animate drawings, animate feelings -Ollie Johnston
For example: Let’s say the Text is : “Take this” *pause* “I won’t tell anyone.”
Let’s say From The Context and Voice Tone
Subtext could be: “Trust Me, It’s yours because it always belonged to you. It’s none of their business who has it”
In a simple terms, character acting is a layered structure. The performance stems from the emotional core of the character and blossoms further.
So now we have the things that lead to Unique Acting Choices :
Character Emotional Core (Who The Character is) + Character Energy Center + Character Default Tempo + Character Mood/State + Cultural Influence + The Metaphorical Equivalence + Accessory/Prop + Context + Text + Tone + Subtext
Now watch this amazing Big Hero 6 Character Study by Disney Animators.
You can clearly see how even in simple things like sitting, the character essence can be captured. It’s absolutely brilliant!!!
3) Animation As Performance Enhancer
This building block depends on the style of animation. But we still should never forget that animation gives us the control of the face and the body that every actor can only dream about. It means we have the responsibility to communicate the emotions as clearly as possible. That’s why we should always strive to push the acting beats as far as we can. (Without breaking the style of animation and the character)
Think about the jaw dropping animation of Gennie in Aladdin or jaw dropping animation of Maximus from the Tangled!!!
Every animation project has its own style. And animation should always need to be used to push the performance further in the given style. It should never be a limitation. Just because it’s a CG animation doesn’t mean the characters can’t touch each other. We don’t need to go easy on smears, or squashes or holds.
When I think about this building block, I think about Legendary Richard Williams. Who always has been saying, with animation we have just started. We have barely scratched the surface. He always has been pushing animation medium to the newer heights.
That’s why we must push ourselves consistently to find the most entertaining and imaginative way of animating scene.
4) Readability Test
Story should tell itself by the way it moves – Chuck Jones
One of my favorite quote from the great Eric Goldberg is : ” If you turn off the sound and still can tell from the visuals what’s going on.. that’s Animation!! If you turn off the visuals and still can tell what’s going on that’s Radio.”
So that’s the Readability Test.
Does animation read when the voice is turned off? Even if the shot is not cartoony gag or slapstick comedy or pantomime; the changes in dramatic blocks and emotional changes should be apparent from just the movement, body language and facial expressions.
That’s yet another reason. Why we must animate to the SUBTEXT than the TEXT itself. Subtext isn’t said but it’s conveyed through the movement, body language and expressions.
And that’s why, the shots that do not have the Text also need Subtext.
When you look at the works of masters, the Readability Test is always aced by their animation. It also brings Timelessness to the performance; it overcomes the barrier of communication. It elevates the performance to whole new level.
Think of the beautiful Married Life sequence in UP. It presents one of the best love stories out there in just 4 minutes without any words. Of course it has its iconic music beat but even without it, the entire sequence is still emotionally rich.
Another great example will be almost first 40 minutes of Pixar’s film Wall-E
“If you can’t tell what’s happening by how the character moves, you’re not animating” – Chuck Jones
5. Economy of Poses
When you look at the works of Milt Kahl, Richard Williams or Chuck Jones, you start to notice that they are great at finding that one pose that sets the tone of entire sequence or crucial dramatic blocks. They sculpt the entire performance around it, the movement flows in and out of it. The essence of whole is contained within those poses.
It doesn’t feel too Pose To Pose, it feels organic,and it feels sincere to the character.
This Milt Kahl’s Sherkhan shot , it’s so clear how the shot is sculpted around an attitude.
Even when you look at the scenes from Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs; They have pushed CG animation to crazy extent. And still many performances are sculpted around the storytelling poses.
This Earl sequence is best example : How he stays within that attitude and pose throughout that shot until he leaves. It’s absolutely brilliant!!
I think, it’s a sign of mastery over animation craft; when animators bring out the best performance through the less no of attitude defining poses.
“Instead of trying to pack a zilliion different attitudes into a three foot scene, settle on one or two key emotions per scene, and let the total effect of all the combined scnes shape an imppression in the audience’s mind. Work out the subtle complexities within the pose” – Eric Goldberg
So finally we arrive at the Magic Ingredient
6. The Journey of Drama
This building block creates unforgettable acting scenes. But what is it exactly?
Normally when you ask people to list their most unforgettable acting scenes in animation films; scenes from Pixar films get mentioned a lot.
Scenes from Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Wall – E, Incredibles, Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc. are always in there. This building block is the reason why Pixar has able to create unforgettable original films, that not many studios have done consistently in many years.
When I was reviewing animated short films for Kenny Roy blog, there were shorts and scenes that were unforgettable. Even when some shorts had minimal animation, the emotional content in them was super rich.
Same thing happens with good Anime. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood had some of the gut wrenching unforgettable moments.
Every animated sequence has a before and after. The before is where the magic is. Audience sees the journey of drama unfold and it brings their emotional investment to the acting scenes. That is why most of the memorable acting scenes list has more Pixar films. The dramatic value of a shot comes down the drama that has happened before the shot.
Unfortunately that’s why for student animation reels this Magic Ingredient is not accessible unless the Reel is a short film. Short films get the chance to go on Journey of Drama, which gives the chance to make memorable acting shots.
Blue Sky Studios has consistently pushed character animation to be more fluid and boundless but after Ice Age one, they haven’t made memorable films as you expect them to make.
Ice Age one has many memorable emotionally rich scenes. There’s one beautifully animated acting scene, they have never came even close to that moment ever since.
It’s the end of ICE AGE movie, It’s the last good bye scene; the Baby re-enacts “where’s the baby” game with Diego. That’s for me an unforgettable acting scene.
Another sequence from Blue Sky films that I would love to mention is the Alone Again Sequence from Ice Age 3. This is the best ever portrayal of the Scrat And Nut relationship, for this particular part it becomes more than just a gag. The Nut almost comes to life through the Journey of Drama. Take a look
The Journey of Drama is the most crucial thing. How we have arrived there, brings this magical energy to the acting performance that’s irreplaceable.
I was watching Tangled in a theater for 4th time. During the scene where Flynn dies, I heard a heartbroken voice of little girl, “Dad, is he dead…Dad…he is not moving”
Her dad, little skeptical but persuaded her to watch the film further.
To get the audience so emotionally invested in the stories and in the characters with their believable acting that the audience actually starts to care about the fictional characters.
That’s why we tell stories, isn’t it?
So this is the end of Building Blocks of Good Acting in Animation. In future articles we will look at different Case Studies using these building blocks to analyze acting in the animation.