ACTING for ANIMATORS
"We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought. "
Eight Steps to a Good Story
Storytelling is arguably the most important skill for a new animator to learn, yet it is the last thing taught in animation schools - if it is taught at all. Across the board in my international workshops, storytelling skills are the weak point. Most animators can make a computer screen or sketch pad stand up and boogie, but none of that matters unless you first know how to tell a good story. With that in mind, I offer the following story guidelines:
1) You must, first of all, think of yourself as a storyteller and not strictly an animator -- a tribal leader whose stories have a point and are worth hearing. Animation students too often tell stories in short animations only to fulfill a class assignment. When you tell a story, you are drawing a circle in the dirt and summoning the tribe, in effect saying, "Listen up! I have something to tell you!"
2) A good story is always about a person (or anthropomorphic critter) that deals with an event of some kind, either internal (fear of heights) or external (monsoon). Your audience is comprised of humans who are interested in other humans. They want to know whether the character succeeds or fails, survives or dies. You can tell your story as comedy, drama, sci-fi or any other genre that appeals to you, but it must be about a single character dealing with an event. Even if your story has six characters, like Disney's Big Hero 6, the story must be primarily about one of them.
3) Think of a short animation as a poem. A feature length movie is a novel. Do not try to cram a novel into a space only large enough for a poem.
4) Once you have an idea for a story, the next step is to identify the people in your audience. Adults or children? The age of your audience makes all the difference in the world because you tell the same story to adults differently than you tell it to children. Pixar's "Up" is really two movies in one. The first half, which is about courtship, adult love, dreams, childbearing, death and grieving, is for adults, and the second half, featuring talking dogs and chocolate-eating birds, is for children. It is possible to tell a story "for the entire family", but it is rare and difficult. You will do better if you carefully target your intended audience.
5) Try to write your story with no words or narration at all. Stage plays are about talking; movies are about moving. Anyway, if you intend for your animation to be seen internationally, perhaps entered into competitions, it will travel much better if it is not loaded down with dialogue and sub-titles.
6) Your story should focus on an important transitional moment for the character. This moment does not have to be 9-11 or the day she survived a hurricane - although it can be. It can be about something as simple as the day she learned how to smile in the face of fear. It can be about how a person learned he need not be afraid of spiders. All of these are moments of survival. The important thing is that your story be about one character that deals with an event and is changed in the process.
7) Start the action of your story as late as possible. Do not waste time trying to establish mood. Get on with the story. If it is a good story, the mood will take care of itself. You should be able to freeze-frame your character at any time and ask hin, "What are you doing?", and he should be able to answer in theatrical terms: "This is my objective (which is provable), and this is the action I am playing to achieve that objective, and this is the obstacle-conflict." Remember, acting is doing! Endowing a character with the illusion of life is where acting begins, not where it ends.
8) Never underestimate the intelligence of the tribe. Do not spoon-feed them or talk down to them. They like to work for the story a little bit. Always remember that the audience is an eager participant in the storytelling experience, not a lurker. There is no magic without the audience's active participation.
"We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say--and to feel--‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought. "John Steinbeck
Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule
July 11-13 Technicolor, Bangalore India
Sept 5-6, Animex Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur
Oct 26-30 KuanDu Int'l Animated Film Festival, Taipei, Taiwan
Characters with Handicaps
Recently, I received an e-mail from a couple of animation students in Sweden who were working on a female character with a prosthetic leg, asking if I had any advice to offer regarding her power center. This is an excellent question, and I want to share with you my perspective on it.
1. A character's default power center is determined mainly by internal impulses and psychology -- a confident character will have a lower, "anchored" power center than an anxious or uncertain character. Regardless of the default power center, though, an amputation is going to draw power to the limb until the character can master the prosthetic replacement. In time, an anxious character's default power center will return to its upper-body location. Until then, what you have is a character with a default high power center physically navigating while favoring the prosthesis. The disability will jerk the power center to the prosthesis, but the power center will not be permanently re-located.
2. The character's age makes a big difference, as does gender. I recall a fascinating TED Talk in which an attractive young woman's big surprise for the audience was her twelve sets of prosthetic legs, each set appropriately dressed for occasion -- beach, formal dinner, everyday casual, pumps or heels. Watching her move around on the stage as she began her talk, it was almost impossible to detect that she had a prosthetic leg at all. One can only guess at how many hours of painful, awkward practice it must have taken to eliminate an obvious limp, but she did it, which says a lot about her determination and grit.
3. When preparing a character biography prior to storyboarding, include notes about how the disability affected her psychology generally. For example, was she athletic prior to the amputation? Did she return to athletic status, albeit with the new prosthesis? Or did the loss of her limb throw her into depression, maybe motivating her to start smoking cigarettes and gaining weight?
4. What effect has the amputation had on her romantic life? Does she still feel sexy?
5. What effect has the amputation had on her employment?
Before anything else, you of course must have a story, and the character's prosthetic limb may or may not impact on how your character is dealing with the central event. The variables have more to do with the character's psychology than it does with the limb.
I am delighted to see animation students working with characters that have disabilities. In fact, I wish the big studios would do more of this. Shakespeare advised that we hold the mirror up to nature, and the truth is that nature includes a lot of people with disabilities. Movies are really good at dealing with the kind of disabilities that you can't see, inner conflicts, passions and such. But physical disabilities make many producers skittish. I would like to see more characters with disabilities. Don't make the disability the point of the story. Simply include this character among all the others, and let that be the extent of it. You don't have to even talk about it.
Rebekah Gregory DiMartino lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and, in an inspirational display of courage, she ran the same course this year with her prosthetic leg.
Until next month...
Copyright © 2012-2017 Ed Hooks