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Acting vs. Moving Illustrations

Ed explains the necessity of action, objective and obstacle in performance animation. Moving illustrations are not the same thing as acting. Acting means the character is actually doing something.

Performance vs. Moving Illustrations

Moving illustrations are most noticeable in animations, short or long, that feature a voice-over narrator who tells the story. “Aardvark always was an unusual boy,” intones the narrator meaningfully and, on the screen, we see little Aardvark displaying some strange kind of amusing tic.  “More than anything, he dreamed of one day visiting Paris, France.” At which point, we see Aardvark, wearing a French beret, standing in front of a travel agency with a dreamy expression on his face.

Moving illustrations are not the same thing as acting. Acting means  the character is actually doing something.  To act is to do, right?  

But even if you have a character that is moving, that still does not by itself fit the definition of acting.  The thing that the character is doing must be in pursuit of a provable objective.  And there must be an obstacle.  Let’s say that a character’s objective is to visit Paris, France, like Aardvark.  What actions might be plausible in pursuit of that objective?  Maybe Aardvark must first save up some money for a train ticket.  And so he goes door to door in his neighborhood, offering to do yard work for a fee.  That would work okay, but you would still need an obstacle for Aardvark.  Rain or snow would work.  His being too young might work.

The single biggest difference between how a stage actor practices his art versus how an animator does it is this:  Stage actors are taught that “to show” what the character is doing or feeling is an acting error.  A trained stage actor will immediately consider objectives, actions and obstacles – and whatever the final character movement is, so be it.  A stage actor does not give any attention at all to what his face muscles are doing, or whether he is gesturing enough.  Those things will take care of themselves if you can simply come up with a provable objective and then play an action in pursuit of that objective, while overcoming an obstacle.

An animator’s first impulse is “to show”.  He may want to “show” that the character is happy, for instance, and so he right away starts considering what happy looks like.  That is cool because that is what makes an animator an animator.  But, if the animator wants to deliver strong performance for his character, he needs to hold up for a minute before trying to “show” the expression.  The questions to ask are: (1) What is my character doing?  (2) What is his objective? And (3) What is the obstacle/conflict?  If you cannot answer all three of those, you are animating on theatrical quick sand.