Animators as actors?

As I close in on a full year of teaching on Animation Mentor, I realize how much the process has clarified what I understand about animation. I also have a much better feel for what works when teaching, and what doesn’t, and I’m going to start sharing some of that here (hopefully on a fairly regular basis).

One of the enduring tags about character animator’s is that we’re “actors with pencils” or, in this digital age, simply that animators are actors. The equivalence, animators = actors, seems pretty straightforward: we create the physical performance and bring animated characters to life. Without us, it would be expensive radio. I’ve even had a couple of animators argue that we should be a part of SAG, which sounds pretty cool to me.

And yet, something’s always nagged at me about this idea.

First, does it serve us? In some ways, sure. It makes it fairly easy for the public to understand our role in the animation process. It’s even glamorous, suggesting as it does that we’re in some ways on an equal footing with the stars who voice our characters. And we do have to consider many of the same things an actor does — who is this character, where have they been, what do they want in this scene, what is thwarting them, etc?*

But with that cliche — animators are actors — are we focused on the result, and not the process? In other words, does this idea help us create better performances? Is it even relevant? Might it actually get in the way? I know animators who love acting classes and improv and discussing acting theories, and I know animators who are so shy and awkward that they literally blush at the mention of such things. And I can’t see any difference in the quality of the animation produced by these two groups. I suspect when it comes to the process of creating memorable animation, we might be better off thinking in different terms.

It occurred to me years ago that my animation process was a lot like my writing process — the first draft was never as good as what was in my head; the more passes I made, the better it got; repetitive phrasing was bad; clarity was good; specificity and authenticity were paramount, and so on. Both are solitary, time-consuming processes, requiring a solid command of a special language.

More generally, I’ve always been impressed by the constant back and forth between the right brain and the left when animating, that give and take between the intuitive/spontaneous/raw self and the editorial/analyzing/reflective self. And none of that seems relevant to acting, or at least what I understand actors to be doing. I don’t think it’s any accident that exceptional child actors aren’t all that rare and that it’s not unusual to see inexperienced novices give fine acting performances, yet competent writers and animators almost never emerge before they’ve become adults and struggled with their craft for years.

It seems our process is fundamentally different from acting. Here’s a great quote on acting by Michael Caine:

“Never let yourself get between you and your Character”.

Great quote, and if I were acting it’s something I’d work to apply: don’t think about what you’re doing, be real, and just let it flow. Now try that as an animator. You can’t.

Not only do we constantly get between our characters and ourselves, we have to. We consciously, methodically plan and execute every blink in a performance. We analyze and sculpt the exact shape of the eyelids on a frame-by-frame basis, decide whether that blink takes 0.1667 seconds or 0.2083, whether that tiny eye dart before the blink takes one frame or two and goes left to right or right to left, whether the head will be cocked a few degrees this way or that, and on, and on, moment by moment, for every single part of the body.

And we do that with some ridiculous and cumbersome interface. Whether you’re drawing every bit of that performance on blank sheets of paper, or manipulating electronic models with keyboard and mouse, or posing plasticine puppets on miniature sets, the animator is always consciously struggling to make a laborious, complex, non-intuitive process appear spontaneous and natural.

A few years ago James Baxter gave a talk at DreamWorks and said it simply — We are actors in a sense, but ultimately we are storytellers.” Yeah, exactly. That opens it up beautifully, and more accurately captures what we try to do. We’re storytellers, even when we’re working on a single shot.

Of course I’ll have lots more to say on storytelling soon.

*I do think that animators need the kind of communication from their directors that actors need. Unfortunately, too many animation directors deal in adjectives, or technical specifics, like “make her look happy” or “tone down that frown 20% starting at frame 117, and take out half of that z-rot on the head at the tail of the shot” or, worst of all, they figure out what performance they want only after seeing you animate it several different ways. This, too, will be grist for a future post.

3 Responses to “Animators as actors?”

  1. Heather Says:

    Perhaps animation is more like choreographed dancing – there’s lots of technical twists and turns that go into a seeming effortless process. If performed well, the audience can actually be tricked into believing that a group of rough-looking punk kids from the wrong side of the tracks regularly break into spontaneous dancing (hey, it’s just as believable as dragons, pixies, and happy endings). As an animator, though, I drastically decrease my chances of a foot injury.

  2. Kevin Says:

    Good analogy, especially regarding the amount of planning, practice, and hidden effort that goes into dance. And as an animator, not only won’t I injure my foot, but I can pretend that I actually can dance!

  3. Peter Says:

    The footnote really got my blood up — literally spiked my heart rate. I once had a director give me a full page of frame number/percentage pairs. I need a nice lie down.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch