ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
The Challenge of Animating Dialogue
"Acting has almost nothing to do with words."
This is one of the five or six most essential acting principles, and animators understandably often have a hard time applying it. The industry practice of recording dialogue first, then making the animation fit the words certainly does suggest that the most important aspect of a story is the dialogue.
With a few conspicuous exceptions, most big-budget Hollywood animated feature films today are over-written in terms of dialogue. One exception is the first half hour of Pixar's Wall-E, which has no dialogue at all, a situation that is so unique that it was highlighted in most reviews. That lovely montage featuring Carl and Ellie at the beginning of Up also has no dialogue. Henry Selick's Coraline is not overly dependent upon dialogue. But, as I say, these are exceptions to industry practice.
DreamWorks' How to Train your Dragon is the best feature that studio has produced since Kung Fu Panda, but it would have been even stronger without so much dialogue. The lead character, Hiccup, is continually describing verbally what the audience is seeing on the screen. He talks to himself a lot, which is rather atypical human behavior. We do indeed talk to ourselves, but it is most often fragmented phrases and mumblings. When we are alone at home, we rarely walk around talking out loud to ourselves in complete sentences. The animator who must bring to life a character that talks too much has a special challenge because he rarely has the option of pointing out the kind of character trait that might result in chronic self-talk. A stage actor, for example, facing the same challenge, would come up with some aspect of anxiety in the character that might justify verbal overflow. There are some people who just will not be quiet, even if alone. I see them on the city bus occasionally. But they have psychological issues that require attention. Over-talking animated characters are presented as normal. Even though the animator may know perfectly well that acting has almost nothing to do with words, he is probably going to be penned in by the requirement that he make the picture fit the dialogue.
The kind of situation I have in mind is, for example, when a character opens a door and peers into a darkened room. More often than not, the writers will make him say, "What is this? A dark room?" He really does not need to say that in order for the audience to know what is going on. The fact that he does say it creates a problem for the animator who is trying his best to deliver strong performance. So what does an animator do when confronted by a chatty character like Hiccup? He does the best he can, that's what. He can't argue with the screenwriter or director about whether or not the character ought to be talking out loud to himself so much. In the production pipeline, issues like that ought to be addressed early in script development. Once the dialogue is written and recorded, it is pretty much a done deal for the animator.
The 10-second animations that are used so frequently in animator training can also be a problem. The new animator tends to over-gesticulate her character because she wants to make a physical movement for every syllable of recorded dialogue. Her focus is on animating to the dialogue rather than trying to understand the context of the character situation. Instead of trying to figure out how the animation can match the enunciation of the character, an animator should be asking herself who the character is talking to. Why is she telling him this stuff? What is her situation? What is the negotiation in the scene? Is she trying to hide the emotion we hear in her voice?
Part of the progress made in animation over the past ten or twelve years has been a deeper understanding of the value of silence, the thing that Miyazaki calls "ma". As I peer into the crystal ball, I see much more development in this area. Those sequences in the Pixar movies would simply not work emotionally if dialogue was added. Movies are about moving, not about talking. Stage plays are about talking. In movies, it is always best to "show them, don't tell them." Screenwriting 101.
Until next month...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks