ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
Swansea Animation Days (SAND):
The Art Beyond Technology
For ten years or more, I was a regular speaker and participant with SAND in Swansea, South Wales. As has been the case with many worthwhile projects in the UK, funding has always been an issue. The event shut down four or five years ago and its talented organizers moved to the south of France. Now, Denise Davies is putting her considerable talents to the challenge of restarting SAND, and I want to personally encourage all of my UK friends to hop on board. I can't be there physically this time, but I am sending a cyber truckload of good vibes. On November 14 and 15, SAND will make sunshine again in Swansea, and tickets are on sale now.
I was fortunate to be present in the sold-out audience for Richard Williams' recent lecture ("Drawn to Greatness") at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. He was appearing as part of the yearly Marc Davis Celebration of Animation and, as thrilling as it was to see and hear the man, I left the event feeling more sadness than elation. Miyazaki has retired. Glen Keane, too. Some of Disney's best traditonal animators were let go a few months ago. Who's left? Richard Williams is 80 years old and, though he has energy and talent enough to head up another project, it is unlikely to happen because his age will make the money guys skittish. He has entered the "Tribute to Greatness," "Lifetime Achievement Award" phase of his life. He deserves every ounce of admiration he can get, but genius like his is not franchise-able. You can't teach it. Seeing Mr. Williams makes me want to figure out a way to keep Brad Bird from aging.
THERE'S MORE TO ACTING THAN A PRETTY FACE...
Frozen animation supervisor Lino DiSalvo stepped into a heap of stinky last month when he explained in a press interview that "historically...female characters are really, really difficult to animate... because they have to go through these range of emotions ...but you have to keep them pretty". That is undoubtedly a challenge for Disney animators, but Lino errs when he says this is a problem in general for all female characters. Humans have seven emotions, and some of them are not supposed to be "pretty"! Anger and Fear, for example, are supposed to appear alarming, out of the ordinary, because nature is demanding that you pay attention when those emotions pop up. Whatever is causing emotions of Anger and Fear may very well have a direct bearing on human survival. Our emotions are an evolutionary adaptation. Nature says, "That girl with the scissors is angry! Pay attention! Something is up! You may be about to die!" If "pretty" is obscuring the expression of her emotion, then the character may have serious psychological issues -- or the animation of the girl is being done on the Disney lot. The defaut Disney brand requires "pretty" ingenues, and it has nothing whatever to do with acting or truthful performance. It is all about merchandising. Stanislavsky would have taken Lino DiSalvo to the woodshed for his impromptu explanation about female characters and the challenge of keeping them pretty while expressing emotion. Shakespeare advised that the actor "hold the mirror up to nature" (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2). He didn't say anything about keeping an eye on the mirror to make sure the character's make-up isn't getting smudged.
"Acting is acting is acting because people are people are people and emotions are emotions are emotions. There is not a different kind of acting for animation."– Ed Hooks
ACTING FOR ANIMATORS WORKSHOP SCHEDULE
December 3-5: Paris, France, Game Connection Europe. I will present a masterclass and also give a talk on the topic of "Using all seven emotions in games."
Gravity: 1,001 Stories
Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is the most immersive movie-going experience of my adult life, and several close friends have told me they had the same reaction. It was shot in stereoscopic 3D, which caused the illusion of space-station debris careening straight at me in the multiplex auditorium, and it would be easy to attribute the intense experience to that alone. But that is not it. Every other movie nowadays is promoted as a "3D experience," but most of them still suck. If stereoscopic 3D alone did the trick, I would have loved The Croods. Upon reflection, I have concluded that Gravity works like it does because its 91-minute narrative is comprised of 1,001 (an approximate number, but close) mini-stories, some only one or two seconds in length. That's right, one-second stories, each with its own negotiation and resolution. There is a lot to be learned about screenwriting from studying this extraordinary film.
Before getting specific about Gravity, though, we need to consider (1) why people enjoy stories so much in the first place and (2) why we have a stronger reaction to one story than another. The answer to #1 is that humans are storytelling animals. We quite literally rely on storytelling for the learning of survival skills. We are the only animal that can, in juvenile play, pretend to be somebody other than who we are. Our ability to tell stories is an evolutionary adaptation. The answer to question #2 is trickier to grasp, but bear with me. Definition: A story in its most stripped-down form is a depiction of an event, real or imagined. We think of stories as movie or novel length, but in reality "The baby needs changing" is a story as well, and it is only four words long. "I will have the spinach pasta" is a story. Our daily lives are full to the brim with such tiny stories, most of which are not verbalized at all. You see a child chase a ball into the street and tell yourself a story about the event. "WTF? Kid is gonna get killed! Where are her parents?" In life, we do things and then tell ourselves stories about what we did; then we tell another person a story about what we did, and that person tells us a story about what he did. We do not so much take turns listening to one another as we take turns telling stories. Stories are such an innate part of what we are that we take it for granted.
Most stories we tell are simple, work-a-day, informational and emotionally barren – life's roadmap material. "The Ritz Crackers are on aisle 3" is such a story. "I looked there and didn't see them" is an emotionally benign story in response. Some stories, however, feel more urgent because they are pertinent to our basic survival skills. Shooter videogames capitalize on this. The player is spending all those hours with PlayStation rehearsing survival skills via tiny stories. "Alien at 2 o'clock! Kill it!" "Duck, Jake! They're shooting at you!" The games require hardly any thought on the part of the player, but we never tire of exercising our survival skill muscles. Gravity taps into this same impulse, but with a different aesthetic than games, one that is based on empathy.
The movie opens with two astronauts performing routine repairs on the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The beautiful outer space environment is inhospitable to human life, but we are occupying space stations there anyway. The first story of Gravity, therefore, is "We humans are smart and adventurous. And we look like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney." Then, as sudden as a heart attack, the fun-car ride of self-satisfaction is ripped off the rails, and the two astronauts face the prospect of imminent death. Fear overwhelms the other six emotions, and we in the audience grip our arm rests. "Bam!" Space debris from an exploded Russian satellite hits home, destroying a significant part of the Hubble. Sandra and George are being jerked around at bullet speed. Story (non-verbal): "I must stop careening! I must get hold of something stationary!" That is a mini-story, complete with objective and obstacle. Sandy wins the negotiation if she can grab something stationary, allowing her to live another few seconds. She loses if she fails to grab something stationary and will be dead in less than a minute. Story: "I want to live!" It is the human imperative and, therefore, the movie audience is wholly involved with the on-screen action.
Sandy succeeds, but only for a few seconds, until another piece of Russian space debris crashes into what remains of the Hubble and the imminent-death scenario kicks back in. Suddenly, she (and us) are enmeshed with another mini-story with its own objective and negotiation. Speaking only for myself, it was then that I asked myself (another story) if the director was going to do this kind of thing for the entire movie. Yep. That is exactly what he intends to do, holding the audience by its collective throat, pulling us along with Sandy and George on Mr. Toad's Wild Outer Space Death Ride, one mini-story after another after another, until the full 91-minute narrative has played out.
But, wait! Alfonso Cuaron has something even more immersive on his mind. Once you get accustomed to him grasping you by the throat, he asks you to consider some abstract philosophical concepts, existentialism. The story becomes: "Is life really worth living?" "Why confront the spectre of death every day if you are going to die anyway?" "What does Sandra Bullock's 3D tear mean as it stereoscoptically trembles out over your head?" "Is the emotion of sadness more important than the one of fear?"
Here is the take-away for the storytellers among you: If you want to be certain of capturing an audience's attention, tell stories the tribe needs to hear rather than ones that are Sunday-afternoon optional. The more directly relevant a story is to basic survival skills and strategies, the more compelling it will be. Human nature and evolutionary adaptation are on the side of storytellers. Remember Hurt Locker? This is why that movie worked so well, but Gravity does it better, largely because the lead character is a female and can make life. The existential questions are more blatant.
My wife, Cally ("Happy birthday, baby"), was with me at the screening, and we hung around for the entire final credit roll. There were two on-screen actors, one disembodied Houston Control voice, and 43 pages of technical credits. When the auditorium lights came up and we headed for the exit, she said, "You know what? I don't have a clue what all those technical people did. I don't even know what their job descriptions mean." I stretched some of the tension out of my throat muscles and replied, "This is the future coming at you. Those guys make magic."
What a movie! What a story! All 1,001 of them.
Until next month...
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks