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Stage Acting vs. Animation Acting
A simple improvisation that I include in all of my Acting for Animators workshops immediately highlights the difference between the way that animators perceive and apply acting and the way that stage actors do it. The Status-Negotiation exercise works this way. Two volunteers from the class are positioned at opposing sides of the stage, one far left and the other far right, facing each another. One is told he is the king (or queen), and the other is a slave. They are to pass one another in the castle hallway and exchange greetings.
An animator, given these instructions, will inevitably start imagining how a king looks and moves, or how a slave might grovel. When I say, “Action!” he will illustrate physically the idea he has in his head about how the movement should look. It is not that he is wrong, only that this approach guarantees stereotype movement.
Consider how two experienced actors would carry out the same improvisation. They have been instructed that one is the king and the other is the slave. A stage actor will respond, “Yes, and…?” In other words, “What am I doing as the king?” He will not be thinking of how his character moves or looks at all! (Notice I specified “experienced” actors. A novice actor might well do the same thing the animator does because he has not learned better yet.)
Animators think in terms of movement. Stage actors think in terms of communication, intention and emotion. Get those elements right, and they will dictate to you how the character moves.
After coaching this improvisation hundreds of times, occasionally with master animators as students, I have come to recognize that this is just the nature of the animator, to think visually, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, there is a marvelous object lesson. After the first time they move back and forth across the stage, I instruct them with an actor-type adjustment. “Give yourself a place where you are going, and we’ll do it again.” That’s all, just a place where they are going. It doesn’t matter where that might be. The purpose of movement is destination. Once the animators have a strong destination, they will no longer be thinking about movement, and they will cross in the hallway differently. Their bodies will move differently, more naturally, less self-consciously. After everyone in the workshop recognizes what has observed the improved movement, I instruct with variations of destinations. “The queen is in labor. Go to her.” “You spilled wine on the royal carpet and must clean it up right away.” “You are having a romantic relationship with the chamber maid, and this is your time together.”
The fact that an animator thinks visually, in terms of movement, is why it might be a problem when he acts out his own video reference for a sequence. He turns on the recorder, positions himself in front of the camera – and is self-directing, once again trying to imagine movement rather than intention. This is the reason I suggest that an animator have a friend act out the reference if possible. Just give your friend the situation. Don’t tell him how to move or what you want to see. “You’re trying to catch a dragonfly in a net.” You don’t say, “Be sure you look very frustrated.” Simply let him try to catch the dragonfly. That’s your reference.
What is your personal definition of good acting in animation? I will bet it has something to do with the creation of “believable” movement, even if caricatured. The point I am making is that acting training will not enlighten you about how believable movement looks. Acting training will encourage you to first seek the purpose of movement and then to be mindful of how it looks.
Walt Disney was very smart about these things. In his famous 1935 memo to Don Graham, he observed astutely, “Many [animators] do not realize what really makes things move, why they move, what the force behind the movement is. … [T]he mind is the pilot. We think of things before the body does them.” That is 100 percent correct. Now, the king has decided to declare war on France and is on the way to tell his knights. Action!