ACTING for ANIMATORS
ANNY was there first!
Entertainment industry media have been breathlessly reporting the creation of Animation is Film, a new Los Angeles-based animation film festival co-sponsored by Variety, the Annecy Festival in France, and GKIDS. While it is wonderful news that there will be a fresh showcase for animation in Hollywood, it is worth noting that this is not the first such showcase in the United States. Animation Nights New York (ANNY), to name one prominent example, has for a while been screening both short and long-form original animation under the talented guidance of Yvonne Grzenkowicz.
Let's be clear: The new "Animation is Film" festival does not signal a change in the Hollywood culture. The big studios are aware of quality films like Chico and Rita and Song of the Sea (both of which were distributed by GKIDS); the problem is, they just don't care! Disney and Comcast/Universal, which together now control something like 90% of feature animation in the U.S., are in the business of making money, and, from their perspective, the kind of movies GKIDS is distributing lack commercial value. The thinking behind this new festival, I suppose, is that if Hollywood is exposed to true animation excellence, it will see the light. My friends, that is not the way capitalism works. Corporations in general have one goal and one only: to generate profits and enhance shareholder value.
The big Hollywood studios long ago left the movie business as it was imagined by Walt Disney and went into the merchandising business. The studios are about selling theme parks and toys. The Disney Company's present idea of a swell movie is Cars 3, not Spirited Away, and that is not going to change just because Variety, GKIDS and Annecy have decided to start a new festival. Yes, there will be a lot of publicity, a lot of hot air. Yes, the festival will be well attended, and it will make fans happy. But the movies being screened at this festival -- whether or not they are directed by women, by the way -- are not going to find greater commercial success just because they are being screened on the West Coast.
The animation industry is changing, no question about that. It is becoming more international. Animation is Film is a most welcome addition to the festival scene. Any new showcase for films would be welcome. But do not kid yourself. Disney will still be Disney.
September 1-3, I will be in Perito, Italy, on the southern Amalfi Coast. For three days, you and I plus a handful of other serious artists, will delve into the secrets of excellent performance animation. I am looking forward to this particularly because I have never previously taught in Italy. The event producer is Karin Kempf, animator (Despicable Me, Minions), animation teacher (ISART Digital, Goeblins, Paris), pre-vis artist, and dreamer extraordinaire. Sign up today!
"When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold,
And Commerce settles on every tree." -- William Blake, "On Art and Artists"
Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule
September 1-3, Perito, Italy, A Very Special Ed Hooks Workshop Event
September 18-23, Lisbon, "The Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn (THU)"
September 27-October 2, Komiza, Island of Vis, Croatia
October 23-27, Turin, Italy, The View Conference
Empathy can be a difficult word for some animators. This is partly because the major animation studios have a history of producing exclusively "feel-good" movies. For a lot of people, then, empathy means nothing more than "appealing" or "likable". The truth is, detestable on-screen characters can (and should) produce empathy just the way vile humans in real life do. To feel empathy for another person does not mean that you approve of the way that person is behaving.
Real life example: Just yesterday, I was watching a television news report concerning an incident of road rage in the United States Midwest. A motorist stuck in traffic caught the entire episode on her cellphone and posted it on YouTube. As the clip began, the driver of car #1 was out of his car, pounding on the driver-side window of car #2. He banged on the window a few times and then returned to his car and got in. The driver of car #2 then got out of his car swinging a tire iron. He charged car #1 and swung the tire iron at the rear window, shattering it in many pieces. The driver of car #1 then hit the gas and quickly drove away, obviously thinking better of continuing the encounter. Watching all of that on my TV, I empathized with the drivers, both of whom were very angry. And when driver #1 drove away with his smashed rear window, I knew -- via empathy -- that he was feeling fear. I like to think that if I were in a similar circumstance, I would remain in my car and breathe deeply, that I would not get out and start pounding on another driver's car window. I would not do what either of those guys did, in fact, but I could nonetheless empathize with how they felt.
Empathy is essential for human survival. It is an evolutionary adaptation. The fact that, in animation, it is so often applied to feel-good, happy situations is a reflection of how feature animation in the United States is generally used as a sales tool rather than an art form. Television commercials, you will notice, are also feel-good. The implied message is: "Buy and use this product, and you will be like the people you see in the commercial -- happy, cute, romantic, healthy, live in nice houses, have pets that never die, etc etc." Most mega-budget feature films produced by the major Hollywood animation studios are akin to feature-length commercials. They may occasionally evoke a tear or two, but the princess is invariably going to live happily in the end. It is no surprise, then, that animators have trouble understanding "empathy".
With that in mind, I offer the following primer about how to create empathetic characters in animation:
1. We humans (your audience) empathize with emotion, not with thinking.
2. Emotion itself is not "actable" but leads to action. Acting, as we've said, is "doing".
3. A character may try to hide an emotion. He may appear to be happy, but is actually having a very sad day -- which produces its own form of empathy.
4. Humans -- and your characters -- may do "wrong" things. Humans are the only animals that can know something is wrong yet still do it. This fact of life is why we have theatre at all. Indeed, the most interesting stories we tell have to do with humans making bad choices, right? Think about it.
5. Animate the thought. Creating an empathetic character is not about the position of the spine or the way the hands are gesturing or the space between the feet or the tilt of the head. Animate the thought. Walt Disney's great contribution to animation was that he gave Mickey and Pluto and all the others brains. Take a close look at the short cartoon "Playful Pluto". Watch, in particular, the section where Pluto gets the sheet of fly paper stuck on his nose (starts about 5:30). That is a classic sequence if you want to understand how empathy works. Note that we can see Pluto's thoughts as he tries to free himself from the sticky mess.
6. Acting has almost nothing to do with words. You will evoke empathy best if you do it wordlessly. In the road rage incident I cited , there was no dialogue. The entire thing was silent, but I empathized continually with both hot-headed drivers.
7. Empathy is not something you turn on and off. Humans empathize whenever other humans are around. It is automatic -- presuming, of course, that the humans are not "broken" and are capable of empathy. (Sociopaths do not empathize.) If you are reading these notes in a coffee shop, I guarantee that you are at the same time empathizing with the people around you. Empathy is how one human knows if another human is ready to mate. Empathy is how one human knows that another human is dangerous. Your animated characters should be empathizing (and producing empathy) all the time, too.
8. Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Empathy literally means "feeling into"; sympathy literally means "feeling for". You can feel sorry for a person and not necessarily empathize with her.
9. Have you ever noticed that it is difficult to empathize with crazy people? That is because their emotions don't make sense to us. Being around a person like that is sort of like reading a book in which one paragraph is in English, the next in Russian, and the next in French or Mandarin. Taken altogether, the story doesn't make much sense.
10. Every person (and character) is the hero in his or her own life. Evil people do not think they are evil; villains do not think they are villains. Even Adolf Hitler had a dream. He was clearly wrong in how he went about it, but he definitely did not wake up each morning and say to himself, "I wonder how much evil I can create today?"
11. All humans in the world are alike. We are all born the same way, we all have the same set of core emotions, and we die the same way. Each of us is acting to survive, and each of us has our own personal, unique survival strategies. You do not have to approve of another person's survival strategies in order to empathize with that person.
12. The key to establishing a sense of empathy for your character is to have the character try to survive.
Until next month . . .
"Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none."
(All's Well That Ends Well, I:i)
Copyright © 2012-2017 Ed Hooks