Faking It

Paraphrasing some questions from Alonso, one of my former AM students: So what do you do when you’re working on a film that “has shallow storytelling and empty, superficial characters.” Do you make up your own backstory trying to fill in the blanks the director/writer left? How do you get inside your character’s head so you can create a believable performance, when plot points don’t flow organically from the situation?

Deep sigh. Been there, done that. It happens too often in feature animation. So what to do?

The short answer is to dig deeper. If you can, you try to be both a storyteller and a problem solver. Realize, though, this creative problem isn’t one you created, so don’t create problems for yourself in trying to solve it. The latter point is important, because, frankly, you can get yourself in trouble if you’re too vigorous in pointing out the failings of others in the production. So you have to be both creative and pragmatic, as I’ll elaborate below.

Except in rare cases, we have little say in the story process, or in the creation, design, modeling, or rigging of our characters. Sadly, no matter how professional and skilled we are, if the people responsible for those elements don’t go a great job, then it’s tough for us to do something memorable or satisfying. This is one of the occupation hazards for character animators, because as much as we try to focus on being creative, we’re often limited by the creative range of other departments. So, given all that — how do you make the most of a bad situation?

1. Try doing more than your job. Think like a writer or a story artist. You do need to understand where things stand with your director (most of the films I’ve worked on have had two, or more, directors, as well as other key creative decision-makers, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll use the singular ‘director’ here). Is the director open to your ideas? Do they agree there’s a problem? Do they care? If the answers are yes, then go for it. If it a bunch of no‘s, tread carefully

For example, you might be animating scenes with secondary and tertiary characters that simply haven’t been developed. This can turn into a satisfying situation, one that gives you a chance to add more than just your technical animation skills to the process. Invent back-stories for those characters. Take distinct, telling characteristics you’ve observed in real life, and apply them. Come up with stories about the relationships between the characters; think about their status, their needs, their wants, their health, etc. These may be things you keep to yourself and that you let subtly infuse your animation, or it may be ideas you develop with the director and other animators (if you’re doing the latter, show them with your animation first, otherwise you’ll just sound pompous). I can think of several examples where an animator did a particularly compelling scene early in a production with a relatively minor character, literally defining that character. A ‘nothing’ character now had character. Hopefully this happens early in a production so there aren’t continuity problems.

However, if your director really isn’t interested in your brilliant ideas, if he or she really isn’t looking for a collaborator, or isn’t impressed with your ideas, then please beat a hasty retreat. There is nothing more painful than sitting in dailies and watching someone argue on and on and on with the director. There’s constructive debate, and there are pissing contests. Animators lose those pissing contests. Which leads us to the second option:

2. Or, just do your job. If you’re not in a position to make story/character contributions, if that superficial character and shallow, unbelievable story aren’t going to improve no matter how many suggestions you make, then just do the best you can. There are times when I have to remind myself that I’m a pro, I’m being paid to do a job, and the least I can do is a solid professional job. Think of those shots as technical problems. Look for ways to emphasize the basic principles of animation. Are the arcs as full as they could be, can you pack in a touch more overlap and follow-through, are your poses as clear and well staged as they can be? If you’re stuck having a minor character walk around for no particular reason, make it the sharpest walk in the movie, without upstaging the main action. Remember the oft quoted line, “There are no small scenes, only small animators.”

I do have to admit, the above ideas wear thin if your getting bland shot after bland shot. Before long, you’ll have a tendency to start mailing it in. Then move on to the third option:

3. Get outside yourself. Find the creative spark and energy elsewhere if it’s not in those scenes. It’s really easy to let the flatness of a bad story or shallow characters lull you into doing flat, shallow animation. This goes on for awhile and suddenly you realize you’re part of the problem, and not part of the solution. So keep yourself inspired. Pull out an art book and steal some inspiration. Look at some fun animation or a great movie. I find when I watch and analyze work I admire, that critical thinking and appreciation creeps into my own work. Commiserate with other animators, and kick around ideas with them on ways to make those scenes more interesting. There are few things as energizing as animator peers who are collaborative and mutually supporting. Nurture that kind of environment.

Hopefully there’s enough wheat among the chaff to keep you animating with style and energy. Ultimately there really isn’t any great trick or technique to get through the chaff, but those kinds of shots do give you a chance to practice your craft. In other words, fake it till you have something to sink your teeth into. Look at these shots as opportunities to keep your tools sharp and well oiled for those sweet shots that will end up on your reel.

Addendum: Welcome Cartoon Brew readers!  I hope you stuck around to read the whole post (if you made it this far, I guess you did), so that you can get the context of the paragraph that Amid excerpted.  Anyway, I realized today that I’d never explained my “Faking It” title. It’s actually an private joke.   As a punk freshman at illustrious Murray State University in Kentucky, I was always taking creative writing and life drawing classes despite being a physics major.  I shared a few of these classes with a bright, pretentious kid who was determined to be a great writer and artist, and he once told me, “We’re too young to have anything worthwhile to say.  But if we wait until we’re old enough, and have lived enough, to become writers or artists, then we’ll never have the skills to pull it off.  So right now we have to fake it, and keep faking it, and develop our skills, so that we’ll be ready when we DO have something to say.”  I knew he probably cribbed that from somewhere, but I also knew he was right.  So “faking it” isn’t necessarily as terrible a thing as it may sound, at least as long as one eventually does something worthwhile with those skills.

8 Responses to “Faking It”

  1. Alonso Says:

    Great tips, thanks a lot 🙂 I love how animation is such a rich vein that you can mine in different areas and get stuff out, storytelling and character creativity, and the craft of believable appealing movement.
    Option 1 makes me wonder… You’ve talked about how you think “storyteller” is a more apt description of us than “actor” is. But as you point out, the animator is not the first person the director is looking to for story solutions (as I understand it) they’ll go first to the story board artists and layout folks. I haven’t worked in features (yet ;), so I’m not sure what it’s like, but having seen some boards from features I’m wondering what parts the animator’s bringing, some of the board’s I’ve seen have each emotional beat drawn as well as screen layout fixed, which doesn’t seem like it leaves a whole bunch for the animator left to do (try and plus it and move smoothly between poses I suppose) but all the big choices have already been made, what emotional beats to play (by director, boards, and vocal track), where the character will be on screen as well as a general body attitude. Which is pretty similar to an actor’s situation, the actor/animator’s job is to bring the best performance of the material they can, to fulfill the director’s vision. I’m not trying to argue against you’re theory that animator’s are storytellers, I’m just trying to understand it better.


    (hope I’m not sounding cynical, I’m just peaking in the window trying to figure out how things work, once I get my foot in the door I’m sure everything will be clear)

  2. pappy d Says:

    This is great advice! Everybody has to animate crap sometimes, but your character has to seem real to you if he’s going to affect the audience. I had to work on a character once who had some of the worst dialog ever. I wrote 17 pages of backstory to fill in the subtext. Now he was stupid but genuinely pathetic & there was a dramatic resonance to his words that was informed by his horrible history & his narrow little window on the world. At least to me, he was a full human being trapped in a world whose God was even madder than our own. When he died I was thinking of Macbeth. It helped the performance & kept my spirit intact.

    First, keep yourself entertained & engaged. Don’t surrender to gravity.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Hey Alonso,

    You’re not sounding cynical at all. The range of storyboards is pretty wide. On a comedic feature, you’ll have some board artists (like director Conrad Vernon on Shrek 2) who do brilliant but extremely cartoony boards that are great for general attitude, but which leave all the specifics up to the animator. Sometimes you do get very specific poses and expressions with fairly ‘on-model’ drawings, and you’re left to work out the timing, but usually the boards are loose enough that they’re just a springboard. And, as story changes get made at the last minute, the storyboards either get very very loose, or there aren’t any boards at all.

    As for layouts, in most CG features the layouts don’t come close to functioning as key poses. The layout department usually uses very limited, ‘light’ rigs that are just meant to show the basic positioning of the characters, and they can’t be posed with any nuance. You need to respect the basic staging in the layout, but to pay too much attention to it is deadly, because layouts and animatics generally look like mannequins sliding around.

    And then there are cases where it all looks pretty tight in the boards and the layout and the director’s launch, and you still come up with what you think is a better idea or variation on the idea, and you have to sell, creating something no one else thought of.

    Ultimately, though, the reason I think ‘storyteller’ fits is from the nature of the process. Even when we have a really tight launch on a shot, we aren’t engaging in a spontaneous, unconscious process, like an actor. We’re planning and judging and second-guessing every pose and every movement, from frame to frame, trying to build something that looks natural and effortless. We’re not ‘acting,’ we’re ‘building’ piece by piece, the way a writer builds word by word or a painter builds brush-stroke by brush-stroke.

  4. Kevin Says:

    Pappy d, great story! I’d love to know what character you’re referring to, but I know it probably needs to remain private. That’s the fine line we have to tread when we’re talking publicly about our work.

  5. anonymous Says:

    The worst is when you try and add interest and it just gets taken out. Ugh. I’ve come to rely on my own projects for creative satisfaction, rather than seeking it at work.

  6. Kevin Says:

    Ah, the heartbreak of having the ‘good stuff’ flogged out of one of your shots. I think it’s easier to just have a shot go OOP than have it neutered into blandness. And you’re right, that’s why it’s important to have other creative outlets.

  7. Frank Says:

    great article, kevin. its nice reading some positive stuff about animation on the net as opposed to reading how “crappy everything is” all the time.

    i think most good directors are willing to listen to ideas. i’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with a few like that. however, it is sometimes important for a secondary character to be flat in order not to upstage the main characters. i guess thats the fine line, right?

  8. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Frank, and I agree about most directors being willing to listen to ideas. And yes, there’s a fine line in dealing with secondary characters, but there’s also a distinction between making a character’s behavior “flat” and making it interesting but subtle enough not to upstage the primary action. Go for the subtle, not the flat. 😉

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch