ACTING for ANIMATORS
Ed Hooks Acting Analysis of
Oscar-nominated Films . . .
CartoonBrew.com enlisted me to write acting-performance analyses of all five Oscar-nominated Feature Animation films, an experience I talk about below. If you have not already read the articles, here are links. Keep in mind that these are not "reviews", and I was not writing for the general public. I was speaking to professional-level animators and other serious animation students. Enjoy!
"Remember how small the world was before I came along? I brought it all to life: I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen." D.W.Griffith
. . . and Some Personal Conclusions
Many thanks to Amid Amidi, editor and publisher of Cartoon Brew, for inviting me to write acting analyses of all five Animated Feature Film Oscar nominees. It turned out to be an exhausting and illuminating project, ultimately consuming at least 100 hours of my time. Now that the labor is behind me and Disney's Big Hero 6 has won top honors, I would like to share with you what I have learned from the experience.
1. Not everybody loves me. Some animators unilaterally reject acting lessons, regardless of how credible the teacher is. There are artists out there who prefer that animation be whimsical, silly, spontaneous and experimental , and they consider someone like me to be an interloper, a meddler and a killjoy. I was jolted by the occasionally stinging on-line criticisms of my Cartoon Brew articles. One guy said: "I wasn't aware that Stanislavsky was an animator."
2. The Oscars are a popularity contest. I knew this already, but my analyses of the five nominees highlighted the fact. Big Hero 6 is one of the weakest films in the competition, acting-wise. As I said in my analysis, the movie actually is a feature-length commercial for action figure toys and the Disney brand. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Studio Ghibli's Isao Takahata, had the strongest performances overall, but many of the voting Academy members never bothered to watch the film before casting their votes. See this article.
3. The existing production model for mega-budget Hollywood animated feature films is flawed. Because these tent-pole movies are produced on an assembly line, animation often starts before there is a complete script. It is as if a sculptor started with a pound of modelling clay and the general idea that she would mold an animal, any animal, but would not know precisely which animal until the clay itself made the suggestion. The primary consequences of this approach is an often erratic story line and inconsistently developed characters. A live-action producer would not dream of starting production without at least a strong draft of the final script. Animation studios do that all the time.
4. American feature animation is frequently dialogue-heavy. This is another thing I already knew, but analyzing the films from Disney, DreamWorks and Laika drew painful attention to the problem. The fact is that acting has almost nothing to do with words. Maybe engorged budgets are the culprit but, for whatever reason, screenwriters for Big Hero 6, How to Train your Dragon 2 and The Boxtrolls didn't trust the audience to figure things out from mere performance. They had the character perform an act then describe verbally what he had done. Regardless of the justification, too much dialogue weakens a movie. Stage plays are about words; movies are about moving.
5. Working on this project convinced me more than ever that the animation industry is ready to grow up. Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks are making mega-budget feature animation for kids, and they are not going to change, so it'll have to be the smaller studios that do the heavy lifting when it comes to adult-themed stories. And I'm not talking about nudity and sex. It is time for feature animation to address pressing issues of the day, like multiculturalism, free speech vs. censorship, the human cost of perpetual war, the worship of false Gods. There is a definite market for it, you just can't spend US$150 million on a movie for adults, that's all.
6. Emotion is not actable. Stage and movie actors learn this lesson in early acting training, but animators are late to the party. All five of the nominee films were guilty of selling raw emotion as an acting choice. My guess is that this tendency is a hold-over from the days of early animation. Disney's Nine Old Men figured out that emotion is a powerful communicator, but they did not fully understand how acting works. Acting is doing. The audience sees what the character is doing and then, via empathy, looks underneath the doing to find the emotion that led to the doing. For animators, this seems to be the toughest lesson of all.
Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule
April 27-29, Bangkok Int'l Digital Content Festival, Bangkok Thailand
May 5-8, FMX, Stuttgart, Germany
May 11-13, Filmakademie Baden-Wurtemberg, Ludwigsburg, Germany
May 18-19, Universidade Catolica, Porto, Portugal
Sept 5-6, Animex Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur
"Story": a mini-acting lesson . . .
During the week leading up to the Oscars, Big Hero 6 passed the half-billion dollar mark at the box office, so Disney trotted out the movie's co-directors, Chris Williams and Don Hall, to tell the press about the importance of having a powerful story "If it's not a great story, it won't be a great movie," Mr. Williams said. Setting aside the point that "great story" does not necessarily equate to impressive box office, Chris Williams' assertion presents me with an opportunity to conduct a mini-class in storytelling. So, if you are ready, please pull up a chair and we'll get started.
First of all, please watch this Met Life commercial, which airs in Asia. Warning: it may make you cry. I will wait here until you have seen it and dried your eyes.
. . . Welcome back. Very nice commercial, don't you agree? In it, the ad agency (Crispin, Porter & Bogusky) is telling a story about a little girl who loves her daddy very much. The story emphasizes the point that responsible parents will do whatever they must do in order to provide for the welfare of their children. It is sort of a no-brainer point to make, but it shamanistically tugs on our tribal heart strings. One can never be reminded enough times how precious are one's children and how tough life is on earth. But, look a little closer at this particular story. This is a commercial, so there is never — not even for a fraction of a second — any doubt about how this story ends. It never crosses our mind that maybe dad is so overworked that he drops dead and his beautiful daughter might have to be moved into a foster home, right? In commercials, the story may be touching, but it must always have a positive resolution because the point of the whole thing is to leave the viewer in a buying frame of mind. The implication in this Met Life commercial is that your burdens in life will melt away if you buy Met Life insurance.
Now, while holding the Met Life commercial in your head, please check out this trailer for another father-child story, Vittorio DeSica's 1948 neorealistic movie, The Bicycle Thief. I will wait until you have seen it. Hurry back . . .
tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . .
Welcome back. If you have never seen The Bicycle Thief in its entirety, I highly recommend it. It is one of my top-five favorite movies of all time. DeSica made it on a shoestring budget in post-WWII Rome, with non-pro actors. It is thematically anti-Facist and reflects the left-wing politics of the day. In other words, it is a story with a social, not a commercial, purpose. DeSica's story is intended to make the viewer think about things and is purposely disquieting. The Bicycle Thief is therefore art, in that it is a story told in the service of communicating an idea. (See Tolstoy's illuminating essay, "What is Art.")
Art vs. Commerce
Commercials offer simple solutions to life's challenges; art enunciates and emphasizes life's conflicts, provoking thought and consideration, occasionally even fear. Commerce serves the status quo; art cuts against the grain. One of the conceptual traps inherent in an awards show like the Oscars is the implied parity of all the nominated films. Big Hero 6 is in the same competition as Birdman and Boyhood, so the suggestion is that Big Hero 6 is art, when it is in truth a feature-length commercial wearing an artistic costume. Birdman and Boyhood are art, and nothing more. Birdman wants you to think about what is true in life and what is delusion. Boyhood wants you to be more discerning about how we humans mature emotionally, intellectually. Big Hero 6 wants us to be happy and get our wallets out. By rights, Big Hero 6 should be in competition for Madison Avenue's highest honor, the Clio, but here it is rubbing shoulders with The Theory of Everything and The Immitation Game. And when it wins the Oscar, the deal is sealed. As the old saying goes, "birds of a feather flock together", and Disney Company is eager to fly with this particular flock.
Having said that, we must be clear that the Oscars do not have an inherent artistic franchise. You wouldn't know that if you listened to the highfalutin' words of Cheryl Boone Issacs, current President of the Oscars' parent organization, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She appeared on stage mid-broadcast to talk about how the Oscars celebrate "our love of movies, and in doing so, we honor filmmakers who cross borders and test boundaries...(those) who encourage us to see the world and those around us in new ways." That kind of sentiment is describing art, not commerce. Significantly, though, Ms. Boone Issacs' CV is 100 percent in marketing, not art. She started at Paramount Pictures, where she orchestrated marketing campaigns for Braveheart and Forrest Gump. Please understand me: I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with that background. I appreciate commerce as much as the next consumer. My objection is to the purposeful and ingenuous conflagration of art with commerce, and it is nowhere more on display than during the Academy Awards broadcast. It should be no surprise that art is so generally diminished in the United States.
Side note: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was created by Louis B. Mayer in 1927, in an effort to stave off unionization of movie studio labor. He sold the star actors of the day on the idea that they would be members of an "elite" group if they joined, and would therefore have no need to form unions.
Kim Masters in her 2001 book The Keys to the Kingdom quoted long-time Disney Company CEO, Michael Eisner, from a memo he sent to his staff that read in part, “Success tends to make you forget what made you successful…We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” Check.
Until next month...
Copyright © 2012-2017 Ed Hooks