The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: Character Animation - Part 2
The only thing more challenging than animating one character alone on a set is to animate two characters engaging with each other at the same time. The basic principles are the same, but there is the additional need to keep track of two puppets. On most hand-drawn feature productions, a dialogue scene involving two characters will typically be done by two different key animators who guide each character’s individual performance. Communication between these animators is vital because their drawings need to line up, mesh, and interact seamlessly within the same sequence. On a stop-motion film (and similarly in CG), the animated performance of both characters is typically done by a single animator, who needs to keep track of what both characters are doing at the same time. This is a very advanced test of an animator’s ability as an actor, and a very important skill to learn. If you aspire to work in studio production, you will likely be expected to pull off scenes with several puppets at once, and do it well.
The most important factor when animating two characters at once is to keep both characters alive. In most cases, dialogue between two characters means that while one speaks, the other listens and then responds. When one character is listening to the other, they may be still, but not so much that they seem dead. They still need to have subtle movements that are a reaction to what the other character is saying. The trick is to guide the eyes of your audience back and forth between the two characters, overlapping actions between them and making it feel natural. Depending on the context of the scene, their lines may interrupt each other or overlap at times, and the performance element will vary depending on who these characters are. Are they having a civil conversation or a heated argument? Are they really listening to each other, or is one distracted? Do these characters like each other, or are they enemies? It is usually most effective to have some contrast between the two characters—age, voice, appearance, scale, personality, or attitude. One may be skinny and the other fat, or one may be uptight and the other easygoing. If you think about many of the great on-screen duos from film and television, such as the comedians Laurel and Hardy or Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, there is usually some contrast like this between them that creates much opportunity for drama, conflict, and comedy.