Walt Disney gave Mickey Mouse a brain and, with that, an illusion of (human) life. “The mind is the pilot,” he famously noted, and he was dead-on correct. If you want humans to relate to – empathize with – a chicken, goat or mouse, you must give the character an ability to think. If he can think, then he can form opinions and develop values. And those values are expressed as emotion. And humans empathize with emotion.
Back when Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation”, moviegoers were still marveling at how magically Disney characters came to life on screen. Story was important, of course, but the simple existence of anthropomorphic characters was enough to get customers in the theater seats. Those days are long gone, and the hat trick of endowing a character with an illusion of life is the New Normal. Entry level character animators are expected to know how to do it.
Think of it this way: A character with an illusion of life is like a well-tuned car sitting at a traffic light. The engine is running, which is a vast difference from how it would be if the car was parked on a dealership’s lot. It is running, and the engine is warm. The car is, in other words, ready to go. Pressing the gas pedal is the automotive equivalent of performing. The illusion of life is essential, but it is not in itself theatrical. The character needs to “do” something.
The character on screen is the actor, not the animator. The notion that “an animator is an actor with a pencil” has caused as much confusion as illumination unfortunately. The actor is the one that interacts with the audience, and that is why the animator must learn how to see the pretend circumstances of the story from the character’s POV.
The Human Brain
In order to endow a character with an illusion of life, you must have your own personal Theory of Mind. It does not have to be scientifically correct, but it needs to account for all the moving parts. How does the human mind work? What are emotions? What is the connection between thinking and emotion? These are things that normal people do not usually think about. It is sort of like thinking about your legs while walking to the cupboard to get a Ginger Snap. Most people simply take it for granted that legs will do what they have to do in order to get you to the cookie. For the animator, a person who is inherently not normal at all, it is part of the job description to think about legs. And brains.
In my Acting for Animators masterclasses, we talk a lot about thinking and emotion. I define emotion as “an automatic value response”. Thinking tends to lead to conclusions, which become a person’s values. And the values are expressed as emotion. And we humans empathize with each other’s emotions in order to live in social groups.
Every character should have his or her own personal set of values. One character may be deathly afraid of mice, and the next character may be breeding mice. One character feels strong enough to succeed in the world, and the next character is shy and stays at home a lot. The idea is to flesh out a character before starting to animate. Get to know the character because his values are not going to be the same as yours. In order to animate him convincingly, his physical behavior must reflect his values. An animator should collaborate with the character, not dictate to him. Yes, of course the animator is a God figure to the character and can force any behavior he wants to. The best animators allow their characters to live independently.