ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
LISTEN TO YOUR CHARACTER
Please be seated. We will be taking our lesson today from Pixar's Up, Chapter 6, entitled "Russell".
You will recall that this is the scene in which Carl, now an embittered and lonely widower, first meets Russell the Wilderness Scout. The sequence begins with Carl answering Russell's knock on the front door. Being in his usual sour mood, he opens the door rather sharply. Russell, in full Wilderness Scout regalia, immediately begins reading to him from the Scout manual, offering to help Carl do... something, anything, it doesn't matter what. The merit badge Russell is working on specifies only that he help an elderly person, and Carl qualifies.
Carl does not want any help from anybody, least of all a Wilderness Scout. "No...I'm doing fine," he says, abruptly shutting the door in Russell's face. Now, we need to take a close look at what happens during the next few seconds because that is where today's lesson is situated. After Carl shuts the door, he does not go anywhere. He stands just inside and listens for the sound of departing footsteps. When he does not hear any, he angrily jerks open the door again, at which point Russell begins his pitch once more from the top. Carl is getting exasperated. "Thank you, but I don't need any help!" he says while shutting the door a second time. But wait! Russell has stuck his foot into the doorway and is blocking Carl from fully closing the door. Taking a new approach, Carl kindly opens the door and disingenuously sends Russell on a snipe hunt, just to get rid of him.
Today's lesson is: "Listen to your character." Carl did not want to do what the animator made him do in this sequence. After the first time he shut the door in Russell's face, his impulse would have been to return to his easy chair in front of the television, not to stand there and listen for disappearing footsteps. Russell's impulse, meanwhile, would probably be to figure the elderly gentleman didn't understand him, so he would knock on the door a persistent second time. That would have annoyed Carl all the more because he was just about to relax in his chair again. If Russell had followed his impulse, then he would have the appropriate emotional justification for the next thing he does - sticking his foot in the doorway. As it is, the foot in the doorway seems out of character because Russell has been introduced as sweet, diligent, good natured and respectful of his elders. Sticking a foot in the door is an old salesman joke, and it does not fit Russell in that moment.
Let me take you for a minute into a rehearsal for a stage play. The Director (Cecil B. deGenius) is working on this same scene with two actors, each of whom still have script in hand. The dialogue between them might go something like this:
CECIL. After you shut the door in his face, listen for him to leave. When he doesn't, then open the door a second time.
ACTOR (TONY JUMPKINS). Hmmmm......I will have to work on justifying that, Cecil. Seems to me that after I shut the door, that should be the end of it. I feel like I would return to watching my television show.
CECIL. I see what you mean, but you have to go with me on this one. I need for you to listen and then open the door a second time.
JUMPKINS. Okay. But how about this? My impulse is to turn back toward the television. I can begin to follow that impulse and then notice that the sound of footsteps is not happening. That can bring me back to the door to see what is going on. It just doesn't make sense that I would shut the door and still stand there, know what I mean? You shut a door and then turn away. If I just stand there like that, I'm going to telegraph the second door opening.
CECIL. I got you! Sounds right. Let's try it your way and see what happens.
Stage actors want to "justify" their actions so that what happens on stage is organically correct. They do not like to move some place just because the director told them to. If they absolutely must move in a way that they do not feel is organic, then they switch mental gears and start looking for justification of the move that the director is insisting they make - even if the justification makes no sense in terms of the given circumstances. One way or the other, no actor ever wants to be caught on stage or on screen acting in an unmotivated fashion.
Now, back to the animated world. You, as a character animator, want your characters to be "good actors," yes? Well, then you must go through the animation equivalent of the stage play's rehearsal process. You have the power to make your character move any way you want him to move. But first, ask him how he feels about it. Replay the Carl/Russell scene again and carefully watch what Carl does during the few seconds after he first shuts the door. (16:00 on my timer) Notice anything? Look at his hand. He does not let go of the door knob. That is because he is going to open the door a second time. But from an actor's standpoint, Carl would not know that he was going to open the door a second time. An actor plays an action until something happens to make him play a different action. Carl's impulse is to return to his TV show, and the thing that interrupts that is the lack of departing footsteps.
Let's try the same process with Russell, again pretending this is a stage play:
CECIL. When Tony starts closing the door, stick your foot in there.
ACTOR (JACK SMALL). Really? Wow. I'm just a Wilderness Scout and he is an elderly person. I don't want to be disrespectful to him, do I?
CECIL. No, of course not. But keep in mind that one more merit badge and you're an Eagle Scout. Wouldn't that make you a little more...mmmm...eager?
SMALL. Maybe, yeah. Let me try it. No, wait! I've got it! I've got it, Cecil! I know what to do. How about, after Carl shuts the door in my face the first time, I politely knock on the door again, which causes him to open it again? Doing that would let me be just a little more pushy, and then I would feel justified doing the foot thing as a build in the scene.
CECIL. Sounds good. You're right. Let's go through that.....
Endowing a character with the illusion of life isn't really worth much if you don't respect the character. The illusion of life means that he has a mind of his own. In a sense, he is no longer your puppet. When he lives, he becomes your collaborator, not your servant.
Until next month...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks