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!
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.
In Chapter 9: Puppet Animation, of my first book, The Art of Stop-Motion Animation, I briefly covered how to break down a dialogue track and prepare it for animating to. Once I had my soundtrack edited for this new dialogue scene, the track was broken down in the same basic manner onto an exposure sheet (or dope sheet). The opening line was simply a very emphatic “Wow!” followed by a laugh, which is a rather unique sound to break down and actually a lot of fun to animate to. Because the whole point of breaking down a dialogue track is to break it up phonetically rather than using the actual spelling of the words, if the sound is not necessarily words, it can be broken up the same way, as it is (Figure 7.16). Listening closely to the sounds that make up the laugh, there are several little exhales, inhales, and a series of tiny “Heh” sounds. Some of the “Heh” sounds are shorter and some accented more than others. It’s just a matter of listening to the pattern and finding the exact frame that each sound lands on. When recording a laugh onto the dope sheet, I find it best to mark the sounds down to look like the actual sound waves, and make notes next to them about what kind of sounds they are. The blank frames between them break up the various sounds and can be referred to in the actual animation. The rest of the scene was relatively straight-forward dialogue, where the hamster (which has my voice) asks, “What are you doing?” and the monster replies, “I’m shooting fire!” Then, the hamster replies, “You’re crazy” (Figure 7.17). I will explain some of the particulars of the actual lip sync in a moment, but first I’ll go over some of the other steps applied to the animation as a whole.
I set up the composition of the shot based on the fact that I knew I wanted a fireball composited into the top-right part of the frame, coming out of the monster’s mouth over the hamster’s head. It is always important to think about the movements that may occur and to make sure there is enough negative space around the characters to make this happen. It’s also useful to position the two puppets in such a way that it is easy to reach around them and touch them for the animation. You want to avoid bumping one character while animating the other. I also wanted them to be in a position where they were angled to each other enough to be able to turn and look at each other. Any shot should be composed in such a manner that the characters can interact based on what the scene requires. In moments where they actually make eye contact, they might not actually be doing so on the actual set. They may actually be looking slightly past each other, but the idea is to match their eye lines so that on screen, they appear to be making eye contact. If the character’s head moves, the eyes will often need to be adjusted in the actual animation between frames to keep that eye contact consistent. For example, if a character’s head moves to the left, away from the other character on the right, but the characters are supposed to maintain eye contact, the first character’s eyes must be moved to the right incrementally as the head moves to the left. Otherwise, the character’s eyes will simply stay rooted to the head and will not appear to be making eye contact with the other character anymore.
The personality, design, and construction of these two characters had a direct impact on how they moved. The monster is built on a plastic doll armature, with very long arms and lots of mobility in the neck joint. The head is sculpted in clay over a Styrofoam skull, and the hands are sculpted entirely in clay. This flexibility in the puppet design allowed for some very broad, flamboyant movements. The dialogue itself also gave me clues about how the characters should move. The monster needed a really big accented movement when shouting, “Wow!” and some sweeping gestural poses on the line, “I’m shooting fire!” These kinds of movements perfectly suited the personality I wanted to give the monster—a wild, theatrical personality (very much inspired by my daughter). The hamster, by contrast, does not really have an armature, other than two Styrofoam balls for his round body, a removable round head covered in clay, and solid clay arms and feet. He is much more subdued and mellow than the monster, so he didn’t need to move much, other than his head and facial expressions. All he says is, “What are you doing?” and “You’re crazy.” in a relatively monotone voice, so he didn’t need to move as erratically as his co-star
Using the dope sheet as a guide for where the phrases and accents were in the dialogue, I first did a pose test of the animation, which can also be viewed on the CD (Two Character Pose Test.mov). The purpose of a pose test, also referred to as a pop-through, is to block out the poses and acting decisions for the two characters. The results of a pose test are always going to be a choppy version of a smoother animation sequence because there are no in-betweens. All you are seeing are the key poses, in accordance with the approximate frames they should land on, in sync with the accents in the dialogue. The lip sync itself is really the icing on the cake in a dialogue scene because the actual animation of the body language and movement is what really sells the acting. The idea is to block out a practice run of what the animation might look like in the final version. Shooting a pose test is also very useful for planning the overlapping action between the two characters. They should not change position on the same frame, but rather have some delay between them. If one character snaps into an emphatic pose, the other character can react to their pose, but it should happen a few frames afterward, not on the same frame.
This pose test allowed me to explore the initial approach I wanted for the performance and figure out what did and didn’t work. I found that a few too many poses were blocked out for the laugh, for example, making the animation a bit jittery, so that prompted a mental note to soften this action a bit in the final version. There were essentially three different laugh phrases, so I found a different key position to move the monster around in for each of them. When doing the final animation, I would often refer back to my pose test as a reminder of what I wanted the key poses to look like, so I had a reference point for what kind of pose the puppet should be progressing toward. If I didn’t like a particular key pose, I could make a mental note of how I wanted to change it or simply take another stab at it. Since there are not many frames or changes to the puppet positions in a pose test, it is much less risky to make changes to the timing or posing until it’s working right. Once I had gone through this test and studied it a few times, I was ready to line up my puppets into their zero poses for the final hero shot.
In animating the actual frames straight ahead, including the extra preamble sequence of the monster looking around before she blows the fireball, I paid attention to the overlap between characters and when they should move. To feel natural, the starting and stopping points of these movements should overlap between the two characters, and they should not both stop moving on the same frame. When one character spoke, the other character would be stuck in a hold for the most part, so I could just let them sit there in many instances while I focused on the other puppet who was speaking. Then, when I felt it was needed, the holding character would occasionally blink or move their head in a very subtle six- to eight-frame motion, as if they were following the actions of the other character. This kept each character alive while they were waiting for their “cue” to speak. It is important to avoid overdoing this, which can be an easy trap to fall into. Because the actual animation takes so long, it may take 1 hour to animate just 1 or 2 seconds of screen time. You may find yourself saying, “This character hasn’t moved in a while; I’d better move him.” But if you forget that you are in another time dimension, it really hasn’t been that long for the puppet, only for you. Think in terms of the timing inside that other time zone because that’s where the puppets live and what your audience will be watching.
The lip sync itself for both characters was done with a set of replacement mouths for the main syllables in the dialogue. Being made out of plasticine clay that is still malleable, a good level of control is possible to manipulate the mouths for some fluid animation. The trick to making the sync look right is to choose mouths that take on the character and appearance of how the syllables sound. The largest mouth, which is a wide open shape for long “ah” syllables, can be placed onto the face on the accent, and then squished together slightly for the frames that come after it until the need comes to replace it with a different mouth. This effect was used on the word “wow,” which is broken up on the dope sheet over about 19 frames, half of which are the “wah” and then going into “w.” For the “ah” frames, the wide open mouth is animated on twos, then replaced with a transitional “eh” shape, and finally kept on a transitional “w” mouth that suits the character of how the word is said (Figure 7.18).
Another important aspect of the lip sync, when breaking it down, is to break down phrases based on how they are said phonetically. In many cases, not every single syllable needs to be accentuated verbatim, especially if any lines are mumbled or spoken very quickly so the words kind of blend together. For example, when the hamster says the line, “What are you doing?” the way it sounds is more like, “What-ee-yuh-doo-ing?” The word “are” is not really accentuated as such, so it’s not broken down that way. The mouths used to match the dope sheet reflect the quick, slurred way the line is said, so it appears natural.
When a character says a line with more finality and confidence, it looks better to just snap right into a closed neutral mouth right at the end of the phrase. This is the case with the monster at the end of her line, “I’m shooting fire!” After the “r” mouth on the last word, the animation segues right into her closed mouth because she is proud of her little trick. That particular mouth reflects the character of what she is saying and how she says it (Figure 7.20).
The closed neutral mouth shape is also typically used for the syllables of “b,” “m,” and ”p,” which are sounds made by the lips being pressed together. This shape needs a minimum of two frames in order to register on screen. Even if a line is said very quickly and that syllable is only audible on one frame, it should be cheated to be photographed for two frames, or it won’t be seen and might look sloppy in the overall sync. Another trick that can be applied with this mouth shape, if it is recorded on the dope sheet for more than two frames, is to nudge it up slightly before replacing it with the next mouth. The next mouth is usually going to be a vowel shape, like in the word “my” (broken up as “mm-ah-ee” on a dope sheet). Simply put, if an “m” is there for four frames, shoot it in its initial position on the face for two frames, push it up a tiny bit for the other two, and then replace it with the “ah” mouth. The effect will add a nice punchy anticipation to the lip sync (Figure 7.21).
Animation is difficult and very hard work, but it’s also fun and fascinating. This is particularly true with stop-motion. Because it deals with tiny figures that are touched between frames, I’ve always felt it has a strange connection to childhood fantasies about toys or robots coming to life. But it’s not only the imagined movement of them that fascinates me; it’s also the stillness. When I was a kid, I would play with puppets and make stuffed animals move around like they were living, but I was also obsessed with arranging them next to each other in the toy chest and just looking at them. I had the same obsession with the animatronic robot characters at pizza restaurants that existed in those days, like Chuck E. Cheese’s, Showbiz Pizza Place, and another place in Michigan called Major Magic’s (Figure 7.22). When the lights went down, my friends and I would put down our pizza and rush over to the stage. The curtains would open, and these clunky cartoon animals would come to life and sing the Beatles or some popular ’80s song. Then, the curtains would close until the next show. Between shows, my friends and I would often sneak up and peek behind the curtain, and these amazing creatures were frightening and fascinating as they sat there in the darkness. In that stillness of the dark stage and the toy chest, these puppets were still living and breathing in their own world, as if they were in a meditative state, waiting for their next cue. As I was focusing intently on the animated dialogue sequence for this book for about 10 hours, I sometimes would be struck by particular poses of the puppets that brought some ethereal feeling of these memories back. It was in the life behind that stillness of the puppets on set (Figure 7.23) that I found myself taken back to this same sense of fascination that I can’t really explain.
Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander.