Character 
Animation
Not Just 
Technology
Pictures may paint 
a thousand words
but images potent 
with emotion 
touch a thousand lives

by Martin Challis

Clcik here for a scene from

Click Here for a scene from Angela

The highest degree of development in the art of acting is to understand how to create and deliver emotional truth in performance.

Whether an actor, filmmaker or animator, the ability to portray emotional truth defines the difference between the best and the worst of storytelling.

Technological developments in Animated filmmaking are moving ahead in leaps and bounds. The evolution of software in motion-capture and 3D animations has enabled studios such as Pixar, Dreamworks and Warner Brothers to produce cutting edge feature films: Incredibles, Shrek and Polar Express to name a few. But no matter how advanced the technology these studios recognise the importance of Story. And within the structure of the story the studios acknowledge the vital importance of the quality of the acting their animators need to achieve through their characters.  

Next to story, believability is critical. It doesn't matter if the characters are humans, fish, chickens, monsters, trolls or bugs; the audience must believe the performances and relate on an emotional level.  

Where animators may traditionally have been great observers and interpreters of facial expressions and gestures, more and more the state of the art in character animation requires them to: think what their characters think, want what their characters want and feel what their characters feel. The latter is critical: animators must use empathy to create empathy.  

Emotions are a universal language. Emotions carry information. Through emotions and emotional responses we experience life. Life is the stuff of story. Within fiction or non-fiction emotional truth creates empathy, recognition and understanding.

State of the art acting is the ability to tell the truth – to create Dramatic Truth.  

Within the given circumstances of a story – no matter how fictitious or fantastic, emotional truth must reside if we are to recognise, relate, empathise, be entertained or engaged.

It doesn't matter if the story is comedy or drama, if the genre is Adventure or Romance, if the medium is real life or animation: for a story to engage us emotional truth must exist.  

The measure of believability is the degree of emotional truth of a performance. Do we recognise; do we empathise; are we moved; are we engaged?  

Refinements to the Art of Acting are and have been going on for a long time; the great teachers and instigators of this search are well known to us: Stanislavski who sought Inspiration and specificity through the development of his method; Grotowski, dedicated to building Ensemble over extended periods of Time; Lee Strasberg who devoted his life to proving that Acting was a craft that could be learned and taught; Stella Adler encouraging imagination, reminding her students that talent lay in the choices they made as actors; and others more recently such as Martin Landau and Eric Morris, working almost scientifically for the secure and repeatable organic process.

Today we stand on the shoulders of these giants. Their work is a powerful impetus to the process of refinement bringing greater degrees of emotional truth to acting and story and most specifically to Character Animations.

Be it Othello or Finding Nemo, the story must reach and engage us as the audience: we must recognise something. In some way we must recognise ourselves, we must recognise each other. We must recognise 'humanness'.

And more than this: to be fully engaged (immersed) in story, requires us as the observers, to be present. Presence is timeless. Presence is not elsewhere. To be present is to commune with the unconscious mind of life whilst engaging with the conscious play of life.  

When the state of presence by actor and audience (the transaction) is achieved, information is transmitted through an emotional language that goes way beyond that which any words can carry. Pictures may paint a thousand words but images potent with emotion touch a thousand lives.

If we agree that the goal of good acting is the attainment of emotional truth; and the actor's and animator's desire is to create that truth; then the question we might to consider is; how does the actor, filmmaker or animator go about this, and how do those making productions embrace the How of the actor.  

My feeling is that to create specific and identifiable emotional states we must work on some level with emotional states. Once again: we must work with empathy to achieve empathy.

Animator Dan Cotter has made some groundbreaking steps towards developing answers to these questions.

Dan was a student of mine a couple of years ago in a class that set out to build the principles of what acting could be for animators.

Recently we had the opportunity to work together in a workshop presentation. This workshop provided us with the strong evidence that emotional truth speaks volumes.  

Dan and I (supported by another colleague, Tiffany) gave a demonstration on the subject of acting and the pursuit of emotional truth in character-animated story. The demonstration was given to visiting Korean Animators.  

Something remarkable occurred. The demonstration included showing an opening sequence of a short film Dan had been working on. The degree to which the visitors understood the details of the story and the central character's predicament (a six-year-old girl – Angela) was nothing short of astounding. There was no dialogue in the opening sequence and the visitors understood no English yet their interpretation and detailed explanation of Angela's story amazed both Dan and myself.  

In developing the story Dan had spent many hours journeying through Angela's emotional landscape – he had even gone to the extent of carrying a small teddy bear with him wherever he went. He had put himself in Angela's shoes building a strong emotional connection with his character: acting through her as it were.  

His goal had been to: think what she thought, feel what she felt and want what she wanted. Somehow it seemed that by going through an almost "Method Approach" to building his character and her story the emotional specificity transferred itself into his creative choices: through pen and cursor.  

The accurate and universal language of emotional truth had been clearly understood by an audience that was culturally removed from Dan's experience.  After showing his animation I asked Dan to demonstrate one of the techniques he had used in discovering the character of Angela and how she might respond to her situation. He demonstrated a technique we had developed: role-playing a specific situation with Dan focusing on her inner monologue. Dan had imaged himself (as Angela) waiting at a bus stop where she had always waited for her parents. But today they would not come. When we asked for an interpretation from the visitors the accuracy of their interpretation blew us away.

Here is an excerpt from my journal after the workshop, followed by some thoughts from Dan:

As much as we need to make decisions about narrative content, character delineations, frame content etc it seems increasingly apparent that if we wish to gain empathy from the audience we must work with empathy.

Daniel's demonstration at the Korean animator's workshop took the cake. He put himself in the character's situation and used an inner monologue to generate the emotion of abandonment and fear (as a six year old girl) his character is experiencing in his story - Angela.

The work he showed the visitors was interpreted extremely accurately - took his breath away. And from this evidence we have begun to conclude: in the process of developing a character and a story if the animator puts him or herself in the character's life and works with the 'as if' of that situation; let's call it a Being State, the animator experiences a range of emotions that seems to infuse the finished work.

Daniel commented to me that until he applied some of the work we had done in class, there was something missing and he didn't believe her (Angela). After doing some of the emotional work his animation began to change and he believed his character.

Another thing that Daniel has shared on a number of occasions and I think of it now - when he puts himself in his characters shoes they decide what happens next. So this means that as the storyteller he does not have to pre-determine all aspects of his story - he is able to make discoveries - not only informing narrative but also he makes sub-textual discoveries and discoveries of background. I call this: discovering and deciding. The animator has a means to enjoy a process of making spontaneous discoveries.

It would seem that through the process of role-playing the 'as if' of various story elements - imagination, intuition and spontaneity are encouraged, allowed and permitted. The Animator is not only someone who edits and refines meticulously for hours on end but is also an artist who can engage spontaneity and make discoveries.

Dan commented on our work in his journal:

I am emphatically drawn to this idea of universal consciousness, and the seeming (innate) ability that we have, as humans, to communicate on levels that transcend language (including spoken, and subconscious body response). The Korean Animators somehow received a LOT more information from both my short animated piece, and my role-play, than I implicitly gave them. How did they instinctively KNOW Angela's situation? While the frame contained some visual clues, there was no concrete evidence - certainly nothing obtrusive. And yet their interpretation was PRECICELY my own.

Even more astounding to me was that during the role-play exercise (perhaps 'channeling' is a better word) Angela both revealed something to me (more on that later), and somehow communicated her position in her world (as I was visualising it) to the audience. It could have been a lucky guess, but "Sitting at the bus stop waiting for the last bus" is a very specific interpretation. And just happened to be SPOT ON.

In regards to what she revealed to me, I made a discovery that she was not upset or sad due to her losses, but rather that no one was present to witness her sadness. She craved attention. Concepts of death and bereavement were beyond her.

As a decision maker, I would have made different choices regarding her actions and her personality. However, as an 'Empathic Explorer' I allowed her to discover her responses, in essence creating a character with far more richness and life than could have been possible had I simply created her according to my preconceived notions of what she 'should' be.

 I feel that this is a critical point that needs to be emphasised - as a storyteller, I don't think it is either effective (or responsible) to make a biased and consciously dictated decision about my characters. This will only ensure that every character I create is a clone of myself, imbued with preconceived cliché's of identity. In the case of Angela, this would mean ME, wrapped up in a 6-year-old girl with ponytails and a teddy bear, and doing those things, which I'd guess a 6-year-old girl, SHOULD be doing. This is make-believe, and as storytellers, we want MORE than that.

Instead, we need to allow the characters to speak on their own behalf. This doesn't mean relinquishing control of a narrative, rather it means we place obstacles in the path of the character, and allow them to solve the problems we present in their own way. Indirectly, we construct the narrative through providing stimulus, and recognising the response. But to what degree do we relinquish control of characterisation to the 'channeled' character? What if I want a scene that involves this little girl breaking a window, when she 'tells' me she doesn't want to do this? That it isn't in her nature? Does this become method acting by proxy? And does this present a risk of losing our narrative to the whims of a disobedient personality?

I don't have answers, but I have some suggestions: Firstly, if the character is telling us they do not wish to perform a task we have presented them with, then there's a good chance the audience won't believe the character capable of such an action. What if Bambi had suddenly started goring rabbits?

 If an event is of enough significance to the narrative that it simply MUST occur, and yet our character is as stubborn as a mule and is consistently refusing to play along, then perhaps a believable solution would be to present other narrative elements that force the character to oblige.

I feel there is a worthwhile and potentially significant study here, which is branching into concepts of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, empathy, anthropology and spirituality. We may need a new term to exactly describe this idea of 'telepathic communication by proxy'. I'm definitely interested in seeing what I can find out there regarding the principles and the key ideas of this proposed silent language.

Our work with the Korean animators confirmed for us that if we wish to build empathy with our audience we must work with empathy. I love Dan's reference to being an empathic explorer making discoveries about his character: this speaks so beautifully of the benefits of discovery and process.  

As with other mediums of story telling, the state of the art in character animated films continues as a process of refinement in the interpretation, creation and portrayal of emotional truth.

For us it has never been more true: if pictures paint a thousand words then images potent with emotion surely touch a thousand lives.  

To view a scene from AngelaClick Here

Martin Challis is an actor, director and teacher

 

©2005 Martin Challis
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

october 2005
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