ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
A Smile Is not Just a Smile
There is an interesting article about smiling ("More to a Smile Than Lips and Teeth", by Carl Zimmer) in the Science section of the January 25th New York Times. Normal humans don't need to think about stuff like this, but animators must. The article provides an overview of research being conducted by the respected social psychologist Dr. Paula Niedenthal. I like it because her conclusions fit hand-in-glove with theories about empathy that I teach in my master classes. You might have to "join" the New York Times to access it, but it is free to do so and, anyway, you probably ought to already be reading that newspaper. I have been a subscriber for forty years, and I recommend that you read the entire article. Here are a few major points that I took away from it:
1. There are many different kinds of smiles, some with teeth showing, some with chin dropped, and so on.
2. A smile is usually a factor of mood but can be a power play.
3. The other person's perception of a smile is as important as the person doing the smiling. We mimic one another's smiles and, when we do, our brains are triggered to simulate the emotion of the smiler. A genuine smile stimulates the reward centers in our brain, and a false one does not. We refer to this intimate social interaction as "empathy", but there is plenty of science behind it.
4. Charles Darwin studied the human smile, trying to determine its purpose in evolution. He observed that chimpanzees have a kind of smile, when being social or when trying to establish dominance. The human smile likely has similar purpose.
Listening: A Fresh Perspective
Listening may not be what you think it is. What is your understanding of it? In a conversation, you listen to the other person, and then she listens to you, right? You take turns listening, and it is rude to interrupt, like your mama told you. What if I said that two people in conversation are taking turns talking instead of listening? Yes, that is the fact of the matter, and the distinction could make a difference to your character animation.
Roger Schank, a former professor at Yale and Northwestern Universities, earned his early reputation in the field of Artificial Intelligence. That in turn led him to re-consider exactly how it is that we humans think. And that led to the ideas he put forth in Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Northwestern University Press, 1990). These days, Mr. Schank is mainly focused on improving the K-12 educational system so that it better takes into account the role that he contends storytelling plays in learning. You can read about that on his website.
In a nutshell, according to Schank, we humans are story-based. Beginning as an infant, you experience things and tell yourself stories about them and, throughout your life, you expand, update and revise those stories. By the time you are an adult, the stories are densely cross-referenced. If, for instance, I tell you about the wonderful Thai restaurant where I had dinner last night, the moment you hear "Thai restaurant", you will start mentally running through your own stories, cross-referencing to Thai restaurants you have enjoyed (or not), which may in turn cross-reference to your trip to Thailand. This process happens faster than the blink of an eye, and you immediately have a story to tell me as soon as it is your turn. You are only partially listening to me now because you have that story ready, and you are deciding not to interrupt.
Now, here is a Roger Schank premise that might surprise you: You cannot learn what you do not already know. This is why you don't talk to non-industry friends about the mathmatics involved in 3D animation. They don't know anything about it and therefore won't relate. I have friends involved in genetic research, and all we talk about when we get together are the events of the day and which team is going to the World Series. Put another way, you can't understand the concept of "furniture" unless you first understand "table" and "chair".
Stage actors spend a lot of time learning how to listen. A very popular approach to acting training is called the Meisner Technique, formulated by the late Sanford Meisner. A key element of the Meisner Technique involves "the repetition exercise" in which the actor learns to listen and repeat, then to listen and react. Really, what they are learning is how to be "present", to pay attention. I don't have a reliable statistic, but I will bet that we do not focus on 75 percent of what we hear in a day. Listening to music can be relaxing if you are really listening to it, paying attention.
Animators often find it easiest to endow the speaking character in a two-character sequence with the illusion of life. The one that is talking provides you with something to animate, namely words. But what about the other character, the one who is silently listening? The trick - and the point of these craft notes - is to remember that the character listening is mentally at least as busy as the character that is talking. He is busy cross-indexing, getting ready with his own story. In animation for little kids, it may not matter all that much if the listener has a blank expression, but virtually all video games and feature animation will be improved if this adjustment is made. One more time: We take turns talking; we don't take turns listening.
Until next month ...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks