Performance And Acting For Animators
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Glenn McQueen
Supervising Animator, Pixar Animation Studios

It's interesting that you are even asking about acting and performance because as far as I'm concerned that is pretty much all there is. All we are trying to do is come up with believable performances for the characters. For me, as an animator, some of the most important things that you have to know in order to come up with a believable performance is knowing the story inside and out, where the character is coming from, and where the character is going. You have to know whether to hold back a little bit because ten minutes later, or five minutes later, in the film the character has to take it up a notch. It may just be emotional notes.

Courtesy of ArtToday.

We have to be far more analytical than an actor. An actor is in the moment, whereas we have to be in the moment sometimes weeks at a time. The important thing is to have some sort of record of what your initial inspiration was for the shot because a week from now you will just be buried in minutiae. It's easy to lose sight of the original kernel for your shot and be worrying about things that aren't necessarily making the performance more entertaining and more real.

I think acting classes are valuable. Anything that stretches your imagination can be helpful. However, for me, most great animators' work is already so strong that they are able to intuit what is right for a character. Finding acting classes that address the particular needs of animators is difficult. You are listening to a line over and over again trying to develop a performance that fits inside a fairly rigid framework that fits with the surrounding shots. I act things out unconsciously and then become conscious of what it is I am doing -- what are my arms doing, what are my wrists doing relative to my arms, how my weight is shifting from one leg to the other, what my hips are doing while I am delivering that line. You want to start off doing a performance that feels natural and right for the character and then move to an analytical mode where you decompose the performance into its primary elements. I videotape myself in a room with mirrors on all four sides. Thumb nailing is also a valuable tool as well.

The way we work at Pixar when portraying an emotion is to start with the body and touch the face last. One of the best ways to portray an emotion is to come at it from a pantomime point of view and ask yourself: how can I communicate that emotion with my body? If you have something that works without the face then adding a little something with the face only enhances what is already effective. Ultimately, you want to be able to turn the sound off and almost get a primal feel for what is happening in the shot.

Courtesy of ArtToday.

Another tool we use to help us come up with a good performance is videotaping voice-over recording sessions. In the course of a recording session, an actor may do 10 takes of a line. For an animator it's fantastic. It's like an all you can eat buffet. You can grab a hand gesture from take two, use the eyes from take four, and be inspired by something the actor does with his head in take seven when the director picked take two as the final select for the film. How much movement an actor gives to the camera when recording varies from actor to actor. However, even an actor who isn't gesturing with his hands can be helpful for facial expressions. Very often the rhythm of the dialogue will greatly influence the rhythm of the shot and provide a framework. However, it is up to the animator to "compose" the character's movement. Punctuating every verbal note with a body movement is messy and confusing -- too many notes. I generally find things that have a very regular rhythm are not that interesting. It's important to create a push and pull and manipulate the rhythm to keep the shot interesting. A good script, a good actor, and a really fun dynamic read? Give me that and I am as happy as a clam.

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