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Performance And Acting For Animators

From television and feature film to motion-capture and voice actors, Judy Lieff addresses acting and performance as it relates to the professional animator and his training.

Animators should focus on the acting...make the characters think and act...start with the body first, next focus on the eyes, and last focus on the mouth. When reviewing reels we look at the acting first." -- John Lasseter, November 4, 1996 during a lecture at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

Courtesy of ArtToday.

The actor and the animator may approach creating the life of a character in a similar fashion, but while actors transform themselves into their characters, animators have an additional challenge of maintaining a subjective, as well as an objective, approach to characterization. Therein lies the challenge of finding a form of acting training that will be particularly useful for the animator. For actors, and particularly for animators, it is useful to develop a keen kinesthetic sense and a thorough understanding of music and rhythm. Frank Gladstone, Director of Training at DreamWorks SKG, feels the animator is responsible for creating characters who not only fit their own voices, but ones who can perform without vocal cues as well. The more keenly developed a kinesthetic sense an actor, dancer, or animator has, the more capacity that artist has to portray various characters and exhibit organic nuances and gestures appropriate to that character. Researching a number of animation curriculums from academia to commercial studios, and conducting interviews on the subject of acting and performance, as it relates to the professional animator, has shown unanimous agreement on the importance of acting classes for successful animation training. However, there has yet to be any course of study for investigating acting and performance that specifically relates to the expanding requirements of animation. Not only do animators have to understand the process of acting in order to create a character, but they also have to be able to direct and communicate with actors for projects involving live actors for reference or motion-capture. "Animation is the kind of medium that is such a combination of other mediums that the more you know about music, art, film, choreography, literature, or current events, the better you are going to be. You name it, and it is only going to make you a better animator or better storyteller for animation." -- Craig Kellman, Character Design, Disney Feature Animation What follows is a series of excerpts from some of the interviews I conducted addressing acting and performance as it relates to the professional animator and his training. From historians to television and feature film to motion-capture and voice actors, I have gathered a number of viewpoints on this critical issue.

John Canemaker

Director of the animation program, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Action analysis and acting are just as important to study as the technicalities. You have to create personalities, and you do it somehow through a combination of physicality, psychological points and emotion. How is the character feeling? Who is the character? For classical character animation, where the plot revolves around the personalities created, I think it is essential to know all of the areas -- acting, action analysis, story structure, traditional animation. I want the students here to have knowledge of that. That's what the action analysis classes are for and that's why I brought you in. I brought you in to help give the students a "feel" of what it is like to reference their own bodies and then to project that into their puppets, computer characters, or drawings. [Editor's note: Judy Lieff taught a movement workshop for John Canemaker's Action Analysis Class.

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Many of the greatest animators knew their bodies very well and how they could stretch beyond what normal people do with their bodies just through their athletic prowess. Grim Natwick who lived to be 100 years-old was a track runner. Ollie Johnston was a runner. I think a lot of animators are well coordinated physically. If they don't know it through sports or through performance, they may know it through dance. They said Freddy Moore had incredible balance. Like his animation, he might find himself off balance, fall over backwards, but then end up in a great storytelling pose. Norman Ferguson was not a performer, but he's the one who really started to create animated characters that could think (Playful Pluto, 1934). Ferguson was a great fan of vaudeville as was Ward Kimball. Vaudeville is throughout all of Ferguson's work, and he claims it as a big influence. There were a whole bunch of these people who had performance experience.

Walt Disney created his own educational program and it included action analysis. Don Graham was hired from Chouinard to put these classes together. They examined the films of artists such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, frame by frame and discussed how the gags were set up and how they communicated with the audience. They looked at all kinds of films including German Expressionism, films by Leni Reifenstahl, sports films, Hollywood films, nature films, documentaries. They used bits and pieces of everything, and learned communication principles from that. In the `30s there were a few instances of dancers being referenced for characters. Danilova of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was brought in to the studio to pose for the Ostrich in Fantasia. Snow White's model was Marge Champion, and you can see her balletic grace in the character's posture and mannerisms. Marge Champion was also referenced for the blue fairy in Pinocchio and for the hippos in Fantasia. I was an actor for about 10 years. So I knew about performing and communicating and posing. I am trying to get people who may not have had that experience to do these things. I encourage students to take acting classes. I encourage them to look up the method, or study Uta Hagen, or go see a musical comedy, or watch mime performers. There is a world out there that we can draw from literally and figuratively. Because body language and expressions in great classical animation are so refined, direct and expressive, it isn't necessary to hear the sound track to understand what is being portrayed. In classic Disney films you understand just through the movement, how the characters feel and relate to each other.

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Brett Varon

Assistant Director, Fox's Family Guy

I took acting in high school but not at CalArts. The best way for me to stage a scene is to act the scene out myself. If I act something out, I invent things that I wouldn't have done drawing. I think an animator has to have a sense of physical comedy and acting. There has to be an interest in expressing an idea visually, like dance in that way. A dancer, like an animator, has to be a physical imitator. I think everything you do helps in animation. If you can, and you have access to it, an acting class is a really good thing. Watching references is one thing but then doing it gives you a more thorough understanding. It takes things to the next level. The more you research and the more time you put into something the better it's going to be in combination with the talent you have.

Jim Duffy

Director/Creative Producer, Klasky Csupo At Klasky Csupo, we believe to be successful, directors and storyboard artists should possess strong acting and composition skills so recently we've offered acting classes to enhance their work. The classes aren't meant to teach them acting as such but more to increase their awareness of what motivation and emotion a character might be experiencing so they can better construct each scene. When an artist gets a script and voice track, they begin to envision composition as well as what actions the character might be doing. To engage an audience, the scene must be interesting to watch. Today, we often see animation that's simply talking heads with little acting and boring composition. Like live-action, the job of the director and artist is to enhance the actor's vocal performance with more visual clues to what's happening in a scene. We hope the classes we're offering can support our artists, giving them more tools with which to work.

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Frank Gladstone

Director of Training, DreamWorks SKG The voice performance can establish the timing for your character. If there is a pregnant pause or a rush of words or something like that, then it gives a hint to the animator of what the character is going to do and what his or her emotions are. Animating becomes a kind of a pantomime synchronized with a voice. The voice gives a lot of the timing and much of the character's attitude. The animator is responsible for making a performance that fits the voice. The interesting thing happens when there isn't a voice and the animator has to deal with a scene or a sequence where they are acting true pantomime. That's why the animator has to get to know the character, so that not only can they perform when they hear the voice of the actor, but they can also perform when there aren't any voice or timing cues.

We have acting coaches come in. Whether you are animating a horse, or a buffalo, or a human being, you still have the same considerations with timing, expression, pose, silhouette, lines of movement, choreography. If a school only teaches people how to operate a computer and they don't teach fundamental principles, meaning fundamental art principles as well as fundamental acting principles, then they are doing a disservice to their students who want to be animators. I'm not talking about students who want to work on the technical side of things or students who want to light scenes, construct or render environments, composite images, etc. Whatever their specialty in animation, whether traditional or cg, artists must have a well developed knowledge of design and composition.

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It's generally much easier to train a traditional character animator to use a computer than it is to train somebody who uses a computer to understand what it is about animation that makes something alive and makes people think that this character is real. The computer is not a magic box. It's as good as the soul of the person working it.

In terms of acting, what we look for are teachers who understand what animators need. Our teachers have been pretty eclectic in their approach, and they often tailor their workshops for the project at hand. If you are an animation student, I suggest going to the theater department and taking Acting 101 and 102. If possible, try to get on stage and do a play. Randy Nelson Dean, Pixar University (PU) Animators don't want to become actors. They want to know what an actor knows and how an actor prepares. But being able to do it as a real-time performance skill is not as important to them as knowing the kinds of things that an actor would do in approaching a role and building a character. In general we concentrate on schemes of physical movement, and techniques and mechanisms at the literacy level. What everyone should know and the mastery kinds of things come out of the internal teachers. We tend not to go outside because we are so rich internally. One of the things that we think is very powerful here in the studio is the way that we do dailies. The approach here is that everybody from the least experienced animator, the greenest kid, to the most experienced director -- everybody -- every day gets together in the same room and sits and looks at the material together. Unlike the model in traditional animation where a single animator will be responsible for every bit of a particular character throughout a show, we are looking to find the best match between the character and the performer/animator per scene. The animator is responsible for a particular scene in which he or she animates all of the action in that scene, all of the various characters, and when they finish that scene they get another scene. It brings a fresh eye to the material but it's difficult keeping continuity and that's just what the dailies process gives us -- the best of both worlds, continuity and the fresh eye. Pixar is made up of a diverse group of people but the one thing that ties them together is that everyone is a life-long learner.

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.

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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.

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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.

Craig Kellman

Visual Development and Character Designer, Disney Feature Animation, also Character Design Instructor, Gnomon Institute Most character designers think only about design and not about character. It helps me to focus on the fact that no matter what these characters are, I should be getting inside their heads, and I should be treating them like a character that I would be acting. You have to be acting, or the characters are just going to be designs. They are going to be lifeless, or they are going to be very cliché and stagnant. You don't want clichés. You want to be looking at a character from many different angles, just as an actor would. A good actor would be thinking about not only the external character, but the internal one as well. Let's say the character is a teenage cow. I am going to think about what makes this character not only a cow but inherently teenager. Maybe he's very gawky and awkward. Visually, I might want to give him these long appendages, a high center of gravity and oversized hooves -- like a pubescent teen whose hormones are out of wack.

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I think it is important to continue to study acting, because acting is in design as well as in animation. Once a design is done, a good animator, if he's a good actor, is going to make that design come to life. If the character designer is a good actor to begin with, he's going to make the animator's job that much easier. Jim Bresnahan Lead Animator, Blue Sky Studios We are doing a lot of commercial work. It is pretty obvious what the character needs to do if it has to perform for a commercial. On that level we are just concerned with how it should move. For a bar of soap, I would just do thumbnail drawings, and for a more complicated character I would act it out myself. The commercial jobs are generally not story driven and there isn't time for character transformation. We just go for what is entertaining. About three years ago we did a spot for cranberry nut cereal. We had to do a tango between a cranberry and an oat flake. We tried to do it ourselves but none of us could actually tango. So we brought in a couple of tango dancers and video taped them which was helpful. However, in most cases we don't have to bring in live models. We can find reference on tape. One of things that I think makes a good animator or helps people animate better is to have a kinesthetic sense. A sense of your body allows you to pose characters and perform while you are sitting there in front of the computer motionless except for your hand. Like music, timing and a sense of structure in the timing of the animation is also very important. The best way to improve your animation is to develop your sense of pacing and timing. There might be something about a particular walk cycle that really feels good because it has that underlying musical structure. You might not be able to explain it when you see one piece of animation versus another but that's why something looks better. It's got an underlying musical structure whether it's based on 4/4 time or another meter.

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I haven't taken acting classes. At Blue Sky we have brought in on several occasions acting teachers. Hopefully we can do some more work with them in the future. I found it helpful. We tend to get bogged down on the technical side of animation but I think we definitely need to get more abstract and understand more about what the actor's thought process is. Up until recently you had to drop out the subtle stuff and just go for broad gestures but with computer animation advancements there is some amazingly subtle stuff going on with the characters. It will be interesting to see who becomes a really good animator and what skills are really valued. The people who are good at acting and can convey the subtleties that you get from good live-action actors will have opportunities to shine. The people who are good animators have a mixture of having the visual eye and sensitivity toward the process of acting itself. Daniel Robichaud Vice President of Creative Development, Vivid Animation It is a well-known fact, at least within the animation community, that character animation is a form of acting, and you act through your character. This is why for instance in my film Tightrope, when it was time to assign a lead animator for each of the two characters, I wanted to make sure that the personalities of the lead animators would be similar to the characters that they would have to animate. It is a general rule that for any type of a performance you need to put yourself into the skin of your virtual character and be it. You need to be a good behavior analyst. I think if there is a common denominator to the different personalities that I have encountered among character animators, it would be that they all have an integral sense of observation. I believe that keen observation is the most important skill to have because after that it is only a question of assimilating, analyzing and understanding what you have remembered from observing and then applying it to your craft.

Alberto Menache

Character Technical Direction Supervisor, PDI, and author of Understanding Motion-Capture for Computer Animation and Video Games Depending on the project at PDI, the animators "act into the character," so they need to have certain acting skills. When I am setting up a character, I am aware of what the character is supposed to do mechanically, but it is always surprising to me, seeing it actually moving and coming to life. I am mostly involved in the technical issues. The people that actually design the characters come to me and ask if this is a character that is feasible to do in 3D and then we discuss which areas of the character are more complicated than others in those terms.

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I had a company that produced video games, visual fx, commercials and motion-capture. It's very easy to overestimate what can be done with motion-capture. Take Disney's 12 rules of animation, squash and stretch for example. How can that rule be followed by a human performer? A lot of clients came to us asking us to produce cartoon characters using motion-capture. They don't seem to notice we can't do that unless you have a magical performer. When humanoid characters are required, motion-capture can be useful. For example in Michael Jackson's Ghost, obviously it was better to capture the actual motions of Michael Jackson than have an animator try to replicate that. Ghost is a perfect example of what motion-capture should be used for, or if you need realistic movement for crowds or for stunts, such as in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. In many video games you usually have one person performing for each one of the characters in the game. Games playback resolution is still low compared to video. This is due to hardware limitations, so basically the real-time characters usually end up with no personality. When I had my studio, I found that most clients really underestimated the value of having a good director and a good performer. They would have one of their programmers do the motion. Nobody on the client's side would be directing. For video games you can maybe still get away with that but for commercials or visual fx that is really not acceptable.

Steve Giangrasso

Producer/Director/Production Manager, Sorceron Our company deals with streaming technology, virtual characters and virtual set technology. Motion-capture turns animation into a director's medium whereby it's more like a live-action shoot. Motion-capture is more like pantomime than it is like acting. You have to overemphasize. Like acting in other medias, the performer has to interpret the character, mood, emotion, and purpose of the character for that script line.

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Sometimes our clients bring in a director or we direct. The directors have to somehow be conditioned to understand the limitations of motion-capture. For the talent, it helps if the person has a theatrical, athletic, comedic, mime sense, and sense of timing. Ideally, you want an imaginative person, somebody who can listen to direction, improvise and add something to it, and who ultimately turns themselves into that character. As a director, you don't always want the performer to be watching the character but you want to be able to let them see what they look like and you want to be able to play back a move for them so that there is a collaboration between the performer and the director. Better than the script is to provide the performer with a sound track so that they get a sense of the meter, attitude and where things change in time. Keith Robinson President, Modern Uprising Motion-Capture Studios We rarely direct the talent, rather we consult with a client on directing. The best case scenario for us is to have a director who is familiar with motion-capture and who knows how to direct talent. We have a 16 camera real-time system which allows the data to be processed instantly. With this system, we can also output skeletal data and apply a model to it in a 3D animation package, thus, allowing the director and client to view the virtual performer while a performer is moving. Good animators are actors too! Sometimes we use the animator as talent. In the last video game we captured, one of the animators was one of the characters, not only because of his talent, but because his body and movement matched the design of the character. In video games or features, you are capturing the nuances of the performers' motion. There is no need for a performer to exaggerate unless that is called for. For example, we have had someone sit in a chair, and our motion-capture process picked up the subtle nuances from just the way the actor was breathing.

Mary Ann Daniel

Motion-capture and live-action actor The design of the body, the structure of the body, the emotional context, the colors, everything about the character dictates tome how I should move. One of the most important components is to hear the timing of the voice-track and memorize it. As an actor, I have to go through each line and each inflection because that makes a difference in how the body responds. My background as a dancer, actress and musician informs how I hear the rhythm of the voice-over track and interpret its musicality. It's the same as phrasing in a dance.

A motion-capture actor has to marry what the voice-over talent has done and bring originality to it too. It's as if two actors create one character. As a motion-capture performer it is helpful for me if the director has both a working knowledge of the actor's process and an understanding of the technical aspects of motion-capture. Lorenzo Music Voice-over talent for commercials and animation, including the voice of Garfield the Cat and Carlton the Doorman There are basically two kinds of voice actors. Frank Welker is one of the prime examples of an actor who has the gift of being able to make many different sounds come out of his face, from machinery to people, to animals. I am the kind who can act many different characters using basically the same voice pattern sound and head tone -- whether it's playing any type of character. My musical ability has had an affect on my voice-over work. I was a folk singer in the `60s. I mostly direct myself unless someone directs me first. A creative director can pull things out of an actor that aren't in the natural read of an actor. Many times directors ask for something that they don't know how to identify. In that case, I try to intuit what they want to end up with. Even if the voice actor and director are not speaking the same language they need to speak the same ideas. There is a very easy way to direct voice-over actors for animation in my opinion. This is what I respond to: rather than giving motivation and history and all kinds of psychology, I say tell me you want it older, younger, faster, slower, smarter, dumber, softer, louder -- just the dualities. Ask for the affect. Don't talk about process. The actor is in charge of process. When it comes to directing a voice -- from my standpoint for a first time director -- let the actor read the piece, and if you want something different, ask for it in terms of dualities as the base. All the action and all the possibilities are within the dualities. If the subtext is not in the text then you can discuss it with the director. Judy Lieff earned her M.F.A. in dance and experimental film/video from the California Institute of the Arts following a career as a professional dancer. She has performed as an animatronic character in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and as motion-capture figures for Raven Software and Sony's 989 Studios. Judy has taught "Movement for Animators" at CalArts, New York University, Royer Studios and Pratt Institute amongst others.