The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: Character Animation - Part 2
All the technical animation principles should be thought about, planned for, and injected into any animation sequence for it to move properly and read well for the audience. But even more important are the performance and acting choices made for the character. These choices should have a direct impact on how the animation principles are used because the way a character moves depends very much on who that character is. Their inner thoughts, attitude, and mood will affect how long you shoot your holds, how much easing in and out is needed, and the overall tempo of the animation. If the character is nervous, stressed, happy, or alert, their movements should be faster and farther apart, which will require fewer frames to move the character around. If the character is sleepy, depressed, or dimwitted, their movements should be slower and closer together, which will be require more frames. Whatever goes on inside your character will affect how they move and perform on the outside.
All animators have different methods for planning out their scenes and making their acting choices. Often, they will use a combination of different ways to plan. Stop-motion animators who also like to draw (or at least have some drawing skill) may prefer to make tiny thumbnail sketches of a sequence. Drawing out the key poses and nuances of a scene helps an animator visualize what each frame should look like and explore many different options for approaching the posing. The poses explored through drawing can be applied to the puppet to make sure the armature is able to mimic those same ideas. Other animators may use live-action reference by recording themselves with a webcam or video camera so that they can make a QuickTime movie to analyze frame by frame. This also helps to visualize difficult movements, like the rotation of a wrist, arc of a limb movement, or overlap in the timing of different body parts. Whatever is learned from this analysis can be applied to the animation, but with an extra dose of exaggeration to the timing. Animation is stylized motion based on real-live movement, not necessarily a replica of it.
To practice acting for animation, it is a good idea to think of some scenarios to place your puppet into that allow for it to go through some kind of thought process. They could be opening a gift, talking on the phone, waiting for a bus, looking for something, or any other situation you can think of. Act out the scenario based on who your character is and how they react to things. Ask yourself things like:
Who is the character?
What kind of mood are they in?
What are they doing in this scene, and why are they doing it?
What happened right before this scene takes place?
How does the character feel about what is going on?
You don’t need to have a fully detailed answer for all these questions, but it helps to have a sense of the basic “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of the scene so that your audience will understand what you are trying to communicate. The most basic question to ask yourself throughout the whole process should be how you would behave if you were that character in that particular situation.
You can learn a lot by studying other animation as well, in terms of analyzing frame by frame the techniques used in animated films across all media. Study stop-motion films, but also look closely at the acting choices made in hand-drawn and computer animation films. When you notice a good performance in animation, figure out what makes it good by studying it. Think about the beats, timing, posing, and overall feeling you get by watching it. The only major trap to watch out for is an exclusive reliance on other animation to inform your own work and personal style of acting. One of the most useful resources to study to become a better animator in terms of performance is real actors. The best animators will often use live-action films as their inspiration more than other animated films to avoid the possibility of recycling posing and acting choices that are commonly used or overused. Watch all kinds of movies, and take note of the acting styles inherent in them. If you start a library of movie clips for different scenarios and analyze them frame by frame, you will see all the animation principles there as well. A real-life actor’s performance will have overlap, anticipation, and even go into holds. If they are holding still, their performance will mostly come through their eyes and very subtle movements. If they are performing broad actions, there will be strong posing and staging with arcs in the movement, cushions into poses, and dynamic facial expressions. It is all there and fascinating to watch. In the courses I teach, I always use live-action clips alongside animation examples to show this connection. All acting and movement comes from the same source. The only difference is that you are creating it all from scratch in animation and have control over every single frame. So make it count!