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Make It Real — Part 4: The Missing Factor

In Part 4 of this series, Ellen Besen looks beyond animation technique to explore the other elements that go into creating real performance. Joining her in this discussion are former Disney animator, Charlie Bonifacio and Nelvana animator/director, Matt Ferguson.

Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the series Make It Real.

What makes a talking waterfowl like Daffy Duck seem so real? © Warner Bros. Home Ent.

What makes a talking waterfowl like Daffy Duck seem so real? © Warner Bros. Home Ent.

Great animated performance doesnt happen in a void.

Up to now, weve been exploring the relationship between animation technique and real performance. But besides the issues generated by photorealism versus classical versus cartoon, etc., theres another factor, which affects performance in all kinds of animation.

Consider this the high-end CG performance of a realistic human character can seem real but so can the performance of a classically animated sack of flour or a very cartoony rabbit or, for that matter, a pixilated kitchen chair. So realism in movement and design is not the only factor which makes a performance real in the audiences mind.

Before we think about what else might be at work here, lets consider what we mean by the term real. Besides movement, which takes physics into account and therefore makes things LOOK real, there are other factors that make things FEEL real. And feeling real is very much a product of context. In other words, rather than being a hard and fast comparison between what is on the screen and physical factors in the real world (as happens with realistic movement), felt reality is surprisingly subjective and therefore malleable.

From this vantage point, you can have a very stylized performance, which might feel more real than a classical or photorealistic performance. Why? The swing factor would likely be the context: if the first example is set up properly and the second isnt, we might find the first one more believable even if its animation is inferior.

How so? Its not that the audience has suspended their critical faculties while watching the stylized performance audiences are always in a process of comparison when watching any kind of media. In fact, comparison is an essential part of how we communicate and understand things.

Its more a matter of what they are comparing the performance to and that goes beyond simply comparing how well the animated movement simulates real movement. When we look deeper, we discover there are multiple comparisons going on at any given time some of them between the characters and the audiences own experiences and some of them between the characters and their created circumstances. Together these elements create context and that is, in fact, our big missing factor.

Charlie Bonafacio has mentioned context and its importance to the animator, such as how it affects our perception of broader, more cartoony performance versus our perception of a more classical approach. But this technical aspect is only one facet. Context can also mean story, design, underlying analogy, character development, voice performance, other sound elements etc. And all of these things affect how well even the most talented animator can do his/her job.

First off, if we are lucky, there is a team of story people that have a great time unearthing that primary understanding of character from the events of their lives, says Bonifacio, And the unique situations of the stories that will be told. We create characters when we tell stories. As to the animators, they can find some of those qualities themselves and contribute to the growth of a character throughout the film. Many choices arent made until the animator bangs their head against the scene. Much of it is a process of discovery, the character telling you who they are.

Concept is ESSENTIAL! he continues, A character with a clear distinction of personality before the animation begins probably has a much greater chance at being successful.

Why do we root for Bart Simpson and get emotionally connected to Dumbo? The Simpsons images  & ©1996 FOX Broadcasting Credit: FOX  & © 1996 The Simpsons and TTCFFC. All rights reserved. Dumbo images © W

Why do we root for Bart Simpson and get emotionally connected to Dumbo? The Simpsons images & ©1996 FOX Broadcasting Credit: FOX & © 1996 The Simpsons and TTCFFC. All rights reserved. Dumbo images © W

But what gives a character that clear distinction of personality? Why do we root for Homer and Bart Simpson or the kids in South Park and have emotional responses to such Disney characters as Stromboli, Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty?

One factor has to do with grounding our characters in psychological reality. In a recent article, the Animation Pimp noted that, fantasy and effects aside, Star Wars is ultimately about family, about father and son.

Often this is what compelling work comes down to essential stories about human relationships. Dressed up in a million different ways to keep them entertaining, we love and perhaps need to hear these same essential stories over and over again because most of us, to one degree or another, have our own unfinished version of a family drama throbbing away at the centre of our psyches.

And it is these characters who feel as truly enmeshed in their own version of the universal drama as we do who come through to us as real whether they are rendered in a detailed photorealistic style or as stick figures.

We believe in Daffy Ducks endless struggle for recognition, Cruella De Vils need to control everyone and everything around her towards her own glorification, and Woodys need to be a devoted leader to shore up his own ego. Each of these characters has, at their core, a recognizable emotional struggle, which they attempt to solve through the specific means of their own personalities and circumstances.

Characters as simple as the Dot and the Line, from the same named film by Chuck Jones, can still feel as psychologically real as Ryan or the poor, beleaguered hero of Bingo.

Even a short list like this tells us that it is not so much a matter of the life quality of the MOVEMENT, as the life quality of the MOTIVATION which makes a character compelling the audience compares the characters psyches to their own looking for a correspondence. This element is key and far less forgiving than animation quality that can be mitigated but there is no substitute in performance for accurate emotional reality.

Does a lack of backstory hurt the emotional connection with the characters in the Star Wars prequels? © &  Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Digital work by ILM.

Does a lack of backstory hurt the emotional connection with the characters in the Star Wars prequels? © & Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Digital work by ILM.

Animator/director Matt Ferguson takes us back to the new Star Wars to illustrate another element, which helps create the sensation of felt reality.

After leaving the theater of Revenge of the Sith, says Ferguson, I wondered why I could care less about Anakin, Padme and young Obi-Wan, whereas Luke, Hans, old Ben Kenobi, etc. seemed much more engaging. It definitely wasnt the stilted acting thats been around since 77. I think one of the reasons was that in the original Star Wars there was a real sense of history to the characters. Ben Kenobi was a crazy old man who used to be something called a Jedi and fought in these distant wars; Luke was raised on an out of the way planet by his aunt and uncle and had a mysterious father killed by an equally mysterious Darth Vader.

These backstories make the characters rich and compelling. But I get the sense when I watch the prequel trilogy that there is next to no backstory. Its as if nothing had happened in Obi-Wans life before frame one. At least, nothing as compelling as the lush world delivered to us in the original film.

So here we have two components that support the sense of real in different but interrelated ways. The recognizable emotional struggle is a primary factor it gives the character an engine and if this happens to be a main character, it gives the story its engine, as well. This is the foundation, in other words, for that elusive but often sought after character driven storytelling.

As for backstory, well, because we are inevitably a product of everything that ever happened to us, with some factors creating our grand dramas and others our tics, we perceive a character even with just an implied backstory as having more depth. With history, his or her or its behaviors and drives feel as if they come from some logical source just like ours do, instead of just being stuck on for the convenience of the story.

Now wait a second. Didnt I start out by saying that this context business was subjective and malleable? So why is what weve talked about so far actually more exacting and necessary than realistic movement? Well, the interesting thing is that the malleable part the part you get to screw around with is there but it needs the solid foundation of the more precise elements weve just discussed before it can come into play.

In any case, we arent finished with this subject yet, not by a long shot. So well carry on with it next time. See you then.

Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.