I recently saw an animation student’s summary of the Principles of Animation from The Illusion of Life. Here’s the one for secondary action:
Secondary actions are almost like follow through and overlapping actions.
This is a common misconception that a lot of people make. But it’s incorrect. Take a look back at The Illusion of Life. Follow Through and Overlapping Action are principle number 5, and Thomas and Johnston fittingly give five distinct types of follow through and overlapping action. It’s pretty detailed, with lots of written and drawn examples.
Secondary Action is principle number 8. If Frank and Ollie were so clear about what follow-through and overlapping action are, then why would they create a principle called secondary action that means pretty much the same thing? Were they so desperate to come up with 12 principles of animation that they decided to do the same one twice? Is that really a common belief?
I did a quick Google search and found a not-so-helpful website included this definition of Secondary Action in their list of animation principles: “A secondary action is an action that results directly from another action.”
I guess it is a common belief. This site goes on to point out that facial animation is usually secondary action to the body movement. Really? Is what Frank and Ollie wrote in the Illusion of Life so confusing that this is what people have abstracted from those paragraphs? Because if you read what they wrote, the secondary movement of the fleshy parts of the face were one specific example they detail under Follow Through and Overlapping Action.
I hear variations of this mistake all the time. I think some have confused secondary motion with secondary action. They sound similar enough, but they mean totally different things.
Secondary motion is motion that is, well, secondary to a primary motion. It’s motion that is driven by or reacting to something else. Secondary motions tend to be passive, reactive, non-volitional movements.
In a walk, the up and down of the body and the movement of the legs and arms are the primary motion. The subtle recoil on the head, in reaction to the ups and downs, and the overlap on the hands and fingers, are examples of secondary motion. , So is the bounce and sway of the hair. A facial expression, which is generated by the direct contractions of facial muscles, is primary motion. The overlap and follow through on the mustache in reaction to those facial expressions are secondary motion.
When we’re talking about secondary motion, we’re in the realm of physics (Newtons laws, elasticity, etc.). That said, secondary motion is precisely what Thomas and Johnston were discussing under Overlapping Action and Follow Through.
And now, courtesy of The Illusion of Life, this is Secondary Action:
“Often, the one idea being put over in a scene can be fortified by subsidiary actions within the body. A sad figure wipes a tear as he turns away. Someone stunned shakes his head as he gets to his feet. A flustered person puts on his glasses as he regains his composure. When this extra business supports the main action, it is called a Secondary Action and is always kept subordinate to the primary action.”
I’ve boldfaced the word business because that’s the key word in that paragraph. It’s a word we don’t use so much now, but it was well understood by animators during the golden age. Business is something specific the character is doing.
Per Merriam-Webster, here’s the relevant definition of business, among multiple variants:
6 : movement or action (as lighting a cigarette) by an actor intended especially to establish atmosphere, reveal character, or explain a situation —called also stage business
Here’s a very simple shot from The Iron Giant:
Look at the middle shot. It’s practically a throw-away, with Annie simply coming over, a touch exasperated, to see what Hogarth is pestering her about. But look how much more interesting and authentic the shot is for the way she carries the coffee pot, and especially the way the animator used the pot to put her in a wonderful pose when she puts her hand on her chin. This is subtle, apt, and wonderful. This simple, unnecessary bit of detail speak volumes about her character.
And another series of shots from a moment later in the film:
Here the secondary action is a little more obvious. Note the way Hogarth pushes the door half open, the way he plays with the phone cord, the way Annie has to dodge the door almost hitting her, the way Hogarth peeks into the breadbox. Wonderful stuff.
And, frankly, none of it was strictly necessary. Hogarth had just left his mom at the dinner, and in the next scene she calls him. If the object was telling the story as cleanly and efficiently as possible, she could have told him she had to work late just before he left the diner. It would have saved half a dozen shots, and gotten us to the same point. But the storytelling would have suffered, and both characters would be a little less richly developed.
I detailed much of this a while back, but it seems to bear repeating. Check out the linked clip of Jack Lemmon in the film The Apartment, which demonstrates the concept beautifully. All the stuff Lemmon does with the tissue and his head cold are fantastic examples of secondary action. That business serves to deepen the story, to reveal his character, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s interesting to watch.
I once worked on a project where the director really didn’t get the idea of secondary action. Characters said what they meant, and their actions were generally direct and purposeful. When a character had some prop in their hands, it was there because it directly related to the primary purpose of the scene, and was never used to express the character’s personality. Stage business was rare.
Partly this was done because the characters had poorly modeled hands, and we avoided calling attention to that. But mostly it didn’t seem to be thought of as important, or else there was worry that it would be distracting, or slow down the process of animation.
As a result, the project was less interesting to watch than it could have been. And not only was it less intriguing to viewers, but it was harder to animate. There’s a reason actors love to play characters who smoke. It’s not just that their nicotine fiends, or that it looks cool — it’s because it always gives them something interesting to do with their hands, and opens up a world of possibilities for facial expressions.
Having a character involved in some stage business gives you something around which to organize your animation. Imagine that you have the task of animating a character being angry. In this scene, the character is standing in the middle of kitchen, hands empty. Where do you go with that? After you’ve animated an classically angry facial expression, and posed the character with balled up fists, what then?
Now imagine that character is doing the dishes. The anger can be expressed in their washing and in their stacking the clean plates. You can be much less ‘on the nose.’ The character doesn’t need to throw things around or break anything, but now you have almost limitless possibilities to make an interesting, revealing scene tailored to that character and that moment.
Animating a character involved in secondary action is magic. If done well, not only does it not distract from the primary purpose of the scene, but it enhances and deepens the storytelling. Look for any excuse to get secondary action into your shots.