ACTING for ANIMATORS
My new book is available! Its thesis is that animators today have a situation similar to what Walt Disney faced in the 1930s. When Walt put Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into production in 1935, there was no precedent for him to copy, no marketing geniuses to tell him what to do. He was making the very first feature-length cartoon, and he had to follow his own light. He adapted the old Grimm folk tale to reflect his personal values and sense of life – and then he put his signature on the movie! Think about that: It was not simply Disney Studio's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; It was Walt Disney's personal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The ideas presented in the film mirrored, for better or worse, Walt's personal philosophy.
Today, the animation industry is becoming less Hollywood-centric, more international, and there are more adult-themed stories being told for more reasonable budgets. Last year's wonderful Boy and the World, directed by Ale Abru, was made by just fifteen Brazilian animators for only US$500,000. In Part 1 of Craft Notes for Animators, I take a fresh look at Walt Disney personally and then do a complete acting analysis of his classic movie, sequence-by-sequence. In Part 2, I present an overview of where the industry is internationally, and then present acting analyses of The Lego Movie, Frozen, and Inside-Out. In Part 3, I point at the future and provide acting analyses of Waltz with Bashir and Chico & Rita.
I have worked long and hard on this book, and I am excited about it. I sincerely hope you enjoy it and find it useful. Happy New Year! You can view the full table of contents here.
La La Land – the perfect date-night movie!
Emma Stone is probably going to win the Oscar for her work in this film. It is a musical, but not the old-fashioned kind. The music is organic and seamless, emerging from the dialogue and situations. Ms. Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, have enough personal chemistry to set the screen on fire. Two young artists trying to balance romance and the stuff of life with dreams of Hollywood success. Romantic, often quite moving — and fun, a perfect date-night flick. Recommended!
My wife, Cally, and I have purchased two one-way LA-to-Lisbon airline tickets for February 13th. Now all we need is formal permission from the Portuguese government to live full time in Lisbon. That is Cally in the photo, BTW, giving the Fed-Ex guy sending-instructions for our Portuguese Residency Visa applications.
A number of friends have asked if we are moving out of the country because of Donald Trump's election. The short answer is "No" — this move was in the works before the election and has more to do with my personal life journey and the ideas I outline in Craft Notes for Animators regarding how the animation industry is becoming more international. But let me put it this way: I didn't vote for Mr. Trump, and the man frightens me the way the pit bull next door does. His owners swear he is a pussy cat, but I still don't want to stick my hand through the fence. I worry that the U.S. is in for a rocky 4-8 years, and I am relieved to be observing the rumble from Europe.
"There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth." – Auguste Rodin, Rodin on Art and Artists
Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule
March 2017 — The Animation Workshop, Viborg, Denmark
March 2017 — Animation Dingle, Dingle, Ireland
May 2017 — FMX, Stuttgart, Germany
There are occasions when smart people can be too professorial. Take a look at this article on the topic of what empathy is and how it functions, from the December 29, 2016, New York Times Opinion section. The two debaters are Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University, and Jamil Zaki a psychology professor at Stanford University. Professor Bloom has written a new book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and he has been featured in a TEDTalk. To justify his premise that empathy can get humans into trouble, Bloom starts out by redefining the word. He explains that there are two kinds of empathy – emotional empathy and cognitive empathy – and, in his view, it is the emotional empathy that is the problem. He says we are rational creatures and can "control" empathy. Professor Zaki disagrees with the premise, but he also contends that empathy can be "learned" and controlled. I think this kind of debate stirs up a lot of mental dust and clarifies little. After the discussion is over, you walk away knowing you have heard something very smart, but you don't know exactly what it was. Please, permit me to help out a little bit...
Empathy is really not all that difficult to understand. The psychologist Edward Titchener (1867-1927) introduced the term “empathy” into English as the translation of the German term “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”). He didn't say anything about there being two different kinds of empathy. He was merely contrasting "empathy" with "sympathy", which means "feeling (sorry) for". You empathize with another person when you identify with his or her emotions, in other words, when you recognize those same emotions in yourself. You see a happy person, and you feel happy, too. It is as simple as that. Empathy is how you know somebody is ready to mate. It is how you know to put some physical distance between yourself and the "strange" fellow sitting next to you on the bus.
We empathize only with emotion, not with thinking. Emotion can be defined as "automatic value response", and psychologists generally acknowledge that there are seven core emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, contempt, fear and disgust. (In Pixar's Inside Out, there were only five because the director decided to skip contempt and surprise.) We experience many thousands of "feelings", but feelings are contextual combinations of core emotions, filtered through the lens of personal opinion. Love, for example, feels like a core emotion but is in fact a complex combination of several emotions plus a lot of opinion.
Empathy is essential for human survival. It is an evolutionary adaptation, a way that we can tell the difference between friends and foes, and all healthy, "normal" humans are born with it. (Children born with autism have trouble with empathy; psychopaths do not empathize.) Either you have it or you do not. There are no exercises that develop an increase in empathy. Empathy is not a muscle that can be strengthened. The acting principle is that "feelings tend to lead to action," so your choice is not whether to feel empathy, but what you should do about the feelings. Acting is doing. Actors and character animators operate in an arena of emotion, but in the end acting is doing. Although characters may feel a lot of emotion, emotion itself is not actable. It is impossible to act "happy," for instance, because there is no generic "happy." You can be happy because you just fell in love, or you can be happy because your cancer test came back negative, or you can be happy because you have been hired to animate a big movie. Acting is always contextual.
An animator's relationship with her character is one of empathetic direction. You know your character like you know yourself. You identify with your character's feelings and then help the character do something about feeling that way.
Obviously, this is a very big topic, and I hope you will make it your business to study it. I welcome any comments or questions. As Antonin Artaud famously said, "The actor is an athlete of the heart." Excellent performance in animation is all about understanding what emotion is and how empathy functions.
My Wish List for 2017
1. That major movie critics start holding Hollywood's big-budget animated feature films to the same artistic standard as live-action when it comes to story development and performance.
2. That Brad Bird will make an animated film on a budget of no more than US$50 million.
3. That my concerns about Donald Trump prove to be wrong.
4. That I will find time to read at least a few of the books on my bedside table.
5. That I can learn to speak Portuguese.
Until next month...
"Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none."
(All's Well That Ends Well, I, i)