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.