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Sunday 27 September 2009

Some Thoughts On Acting Part 2 (capturing honesty)

Finally, here's part 2. This is about honesty in acting, and is primarily a method to employ while filming yourself for animation reference and includes an example of my work and some embarrassing clips of myself. Enjoy.

When working on The Tale of Despereaux, we were encouraged to act our shots out and then to show this reference to the director, Sam Fell, before starting to animate.

As context is important in the following example, I should give you some back story. A rat called Rosscurro has convinced a servant girl, Mig, to abduct a princess named Pea. Roscurro, through a series of events has turned from a hero to a bitter villain, hell bent on punishing someone, specifically the princess, for the ill-treatment he has received. He has told the naive Mig, that if she abducts Pea and locks her in the dungeon, she can become the princess in her place, when in fact this is untrue and he intends to trap both of them in the dungeon.

In this sequence the three characters are walking through the cavernous and deserted dungeons, Rosscurro is on Mig's shoulder and talking into her ear. The terrified Princess, who is bound up and held at knife point by Mig is screaming, and in this shot Roscurro says to Mig, who repeats everything he tells her, "Tell her it's no use, no one can hear her".

Here's one of my first takes, I decided at the start of the shot I would look toward Mig, and that for "tell her it's no use" I would try a dismissive gesture, then look toward the princess for "no one can hear her" while giving a fierce point.

There are many things I didn't like about this performance. Firstly, I'd given myself too much to do in the time I had (a common animation mistake), and I was struggling to fit in both the dismissive gesture and the point. Also, pointing is one of those animation clich├ęs that it's best to try and avoid. This performance was very 'on-the-nose', so I decided to try a different approach.

Shooting this was still a valuable experience, as I could see straight away that those ideas were not going to work well. To animate the performance and discover that, would've taken days, here I was able to see very quickly that this was not as strong as I thought it would be.

This is footage from another take, this time I decided I wouldn't try to plan what I was going to do, I would just switch the camera on try and put myself in the mind frame of the character and see what happened. I also decided to concentrate on the subtext of the dialogue which was "so what, nobody cares" .

When I shot this I thought that I wasn't really doing anything and so this would be uninteresting and unusable, but when I looked back over the footage I was surprised to see I had been doing more than I thought and the performance seemed to work better than the last take. First of all, the action was much simpler - no hand gestures or excess information, but it was stronger for it, my body posture at the end was simple and clear, and seemed to be conveying what the shot was about, bitterness and disinterest. I had turned away from who I was speaking to, this is something I probably wouldn't of planned, it's customary to have your character look to whom they're talking to for clarity, and usually if a character is angry, you'd think that they would stare at the source of their anger. But in this shot, even though he was angry, he wasn't incandescent with rage toward the princess, in fact he was detached and uncaring about her, and her cries for help. Therefore, since he didn't care about either who he was talking to, or about, it made sense that he looked away and clarity wasn't a problem as there was no one else around, a point he was making in the dialogue. I subconsciously, did a little shrug during, "no one can hear her", it was subtle but was something that I could exaggerate in animation. There was also an eye shift around "hear", another thing I did subconsciously but which also made sense for the shot. My facial expression seemed to fit better as well instead of just anger, I had a more specific, surly sneer.

Here is my first, stepped key, block of the shot -

Roscuro Block from Brendan Body on Vimeo.

And here is the finished animation, rendered simply -

Roscuro Final Animation from Brendan Body on Vimeo.

As you can see, apart from the adding of the vertical motion of Mig as she walks along, the shot hardly had any major revisions as it went through animation. I copied my performance, while exaggerating certain things, like the shoulder shrug as well as attitude in body posture. It was one of the most straight forward shots for me to complete on Despereaux, and although far from perfect, I believe it's one of my most successful. Sam Fell actually commented how strong the attitude was in it, which was very satisfying.

If you've ever tried to film yourself for an animation you're planning, and have had preconceived ideas about what you'd like the character to do, you quickly discover how hard acting is, to keep your mind on giving a performance while also concentrating on what your body is doing is extremely tough. I have a great respect for people who can get their bodies and face to do precisely what they want when acting out reference. Jeff Gabor is a great example, his Horton Hears a Who comparison reel is incredible, his ability to act what he wants to animate is very impressive. However, I find this method, even when done well, can lead to the result feeling unnaturally acted, rather than something more honest. Much better, I think to ignore what your body is doing, try and feel what the character is feeling, concentrate on the subtext, and see what happens.

Working on Guardians of Ga'Hoole I'm using this approach a lot, and my lead, James Cunliffe is showing me further techniques, like shooting with the dialogue slowed down or doing a couple of passes, the first one this, sub-conscious, 'honesty' pass then, shooting more reference this time concentrating on the physicality of the performance. Then you can use both to make a very strong piece of animation ... but more about this another time.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Some Thoughts on Acting Part 1 (subtext)

I was recently asked by Chetan, a young animator, about acting in animation so I thought I'd post my thoughts here. This was supposed to be just one post but it's got rather large so I've had to break it down into two. This first one is on subtext in dialogue.

I was introduced to this term while working on The Tale of Despereaux. Put simply, subtext is the underlying meaning of what someone is saying, not what the words actually are. What we interpret as viewers is ALWAYS the subtext and not the text. An example would be the word 'OK', it can mean many things based on context and the way it's delivered.

Text = "OK"


1. "I'm OK"
2. "I'm OK?"
3. "Are you OK?"
4. "stop Hassling me"
5. "I really don't want to do this but OK - I will do it for you"
6. "I am resolute"
7. "I am pumped let's go!"
8. "I've finished"
9. "I understand you"

Here's a piece of dialogue from the film Joe Versus the Volcano, Joe's boss is on the phone so we only hear one side of the conversation -

Joe Versus The Volcano

here's the transcript -
"I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? Harry. Yeah, Harry. But can he do the job? I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you' Harry! Harry, Harry. Yeah, Harry, but can he do the job? I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? I'm not arguing that with you. Harry, I am not arguing that with you! Who said that? I didn't say that. If I said that, I would have been wrong. Maybe. Maybe. I'm not arguing that with you! Yeah, Harry, I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? I'm not arguing that with you! I am not arguing that with you! I am not arguing that with you! Who told you that? No! I told you that! Me! What? Maybe. Maybe, maybe. Maybe!"

The character basically repeats the same three or four things, yet it sounds like a real conversation doesn't? How can someone have a conversation when all they say is the same couple of sentences over and over again? Because of the subtext, what the character means is not what he's saying, take the phrase "I'm not arguing that with you", at various points in the conversation it means different things -

Text = "I'm not arguing that with you"


"That's beside the point"
"Stop repeating yourself"
"Listen to me"
"Please answer the question"
"I don't want to talk about this anymore"

Although, this is obviously open to interpretation, there is no doubt that it feels like he is trying to move the conversation forward by changing the subtext of what he is saying. The writer played around with this idea, and there are many scenes in the film where the characters would repeat the same line with different sub textual meaning.

Some Like It Hot is a famously good script and it is riddled with conversations with no textual meaning but with layers of great sub textual content. Here's a clip -

Watch at around 2.05.

Here's the text from part of the conversation between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis' characters -

"So who are you?"
"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"
"not very likely"
"You staying at the hotel?"
"Not at all"
"Your face is familiar"

The characters words aren't saying much but there is definitely a lot going on in these word. The first layer of subtext is that she is trying to talk to him and he is acting aloof. But under the surface, there is a further layer, as we also know that he is pretending to act this way as he knows exactly who she is and what he has to do to attract her.

On one level his subtext is -

"go away, leave me alone"

But underneath this he is really saying

"I'm intriguing, I'm famous and handsome, talk to me."

Very clever stuff. The reason this scene is so entertaining is because of the subtext, which is clear in the body language and delivery of the dialogue, and that's what we the audience read, not the spoken words.

So how does this effect animation? Well this is a very important, we should ALWAYS strive to seek and animate the subtext, and the subtext should ALWAYS be different to the text. This is so important that for non dialogue shots, Randy Cook would record the unspoken dialogue (subtext) of a shot for his animators to animate to in their scenes.

Here's an hypothetical scene - A girl appears from a fitting room and shows a new dress she's wearing to her boyfriend, she asks his opinion, he says "yeah, it's great".

If we have his body language mimicking that thought, (it's great) the animation could be fantastic, but the idea isn't very interesting. It's what we call on-the-nose acting, and is just that, acting the words without any deeper thought as to their meaning or what the character is thinking. If the boyfriend says "yeah, it's great", yet his body language says "I'm bored, can we go home now?" we'll have gotten inside the character and given him some depth and therefore created something much more interesting and entertaining.