I went to the Pasadena City College Flea Market this morning and got a reminder of the power of providing interesting context and specificity to our animation. I’ve been thinking about those topics as my AM class 4 students begin blocking their two-character dialog tests. I try to push them to go as deeply as possible into who their characters are, where they are, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and impress on them how those subtle details can make all the difference. And this morning I saw a living example of how well context and specificity work.
It was a pleasant day for a flea market, sunny but not too hot, and the crowd wasn’t very big. It was getting on towards noon, when the serious buyers have already come and gone, and most people seemed to be browsing without buying.
I was walking by a typical flea market booth, where a very heavy-set gent was sitting under an awning with about a dozen large tables loaded with all manner of useless brick-a-brack. He had an assistant consolidating some things onto several of the tables, as about 4 or 5 people were casually glancing at his junk.
He had an audience, and he seized the moment. First he bellowed out how successful he’d been, as evidenced by the empty tables, and to show his gratitude he was lowering his prices. Everything on this table was $8 an item, everything on that table was $5, all the jewelry in those boxes was $5 a piece, and so on. He had the kind of set-up where there were lots of boxes full of like items: a box of cuff-links, a box of costume jewelry, a box of old watches, and on, and on.
This is a common flea-market tactic, the loud lowering of prices as the day wears on, and no one blinked. But this was just the prelude to his story. Yes, he had a whole story, and as he told it the browsers became buyers. He explained that we weren’t looking at the accumulated debris of a professional flea market reseller, we were looking at the last vestiges of an amazing estate sale. He had been the fortunate and unique buyer of a large, wealthy estate. Not just wealth — Beverly Hills’ wealth.
It seems the owner of a big house in Beverly Hills had died. How big was the house? Well, it just sold for $8 million dollars. And the new owners are just going to tear it down! Aren’t rich people crazy? $8 million, just for the land. Ah, but that’s Beverly Hills, isn’t it?
And the owner? Oh, she was a sweet old lady, who had eclectic taste, but who had taken care of her things. The tragedy was that she’d had no children, so the fat man had gotten everything at the estate sale. Sadly, her beloved husband had died 30 years before, and she’d been unable to clean out any of his drawers or part with any of this things. It was all there, two life-times of accumulated possessions. Yes, those were all his cuff-links in that box. He’d had great taste, hadn’t he? Yes, that was what was left of his coin collection in that other box. You should have been here earlier, there were some fine, very expensive things, but don’t worry, there’s still some great stuff left.
After today it would all be gone. The seller had already made his money on the big-ticket items, so he was happy to let the small stuff go for a song. Just make him an offer, he was feeling generous after the windfall he’d reaped.
As I looked at the boxes full of stuff that had clearly come from multiple households, and had been rummaged through countless times before, it was obvious that this was a story he was telling. The twinkle in the big guy’s eyes, and the smirks on the sellers at the adjacent booths, confirmed it.
But what was fascinating was how the half a dozen buyers, plus a few more pulled in by the loud telling of the tale, became much more intent in their sifting though those boxes. Each dinged-up piece they held up seemed transformed by his words. They saw this junk in a new light. I heard a couple whispering to each other, discussing what the old deceased couple must have been like, and I could see them imagining the old man using that cigarette lighter with the little scratch, or the old woman wearing those faux pearls. Money started changing hands.
We’re suckers for stories, but only if they’re pretty good ones. This wasn’t the best story I’ve ever heard, but it was told well enough to sell some tired pieces for a few dollars. When you’re setting up your own shots to animate, you’re the story teller; you’re the seller. You need to pull in your audience just like that guy at the flea market pulled in his customers, and sell them with entertainment value.
Find a fascinating, unexpected context. Give your characters enough specificity that you know exactly how they need to behave — make them be so unique and authentic that your audience can’t help but believe in them, and be interested in them.