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“If we could make just one improvement…?”
During the Q&A wrap for one of my recent India workshops, an animator asked a very good question: "If there were just one thing we could do to improve our animation, what would that be?" "Give your character a destination," I replied. It is a simple answer that is backed up by a considerable amount of acting theory. Let me walk you through it.
Walt Disney correctly observed that "the mind is the pilot" when it comes to character animation. When he gave Mickey Mouse a brain, he endowed the character with an illusion of life, gave him choices, made him fallible, and set up a value system that would result in emotion with which we humans could empathize. The purpose of movement is destination, and only a thinking creature can have a destination. The locomotive for a passenger train is a dumb thing that is incapable of choosing destination (unless it is The Little Engine that Could). It goes where the engineer and train tracks require it to go. Same with an airplane, a basketball and the car sitting in your driveway.
Any creature that has a brain will move with destination. The big difference between human motivation and that of lower animals is that humans are the only creatures that can know something is bad for them and still do it. A rabbit is incapable of that, being a slave to its instincts. The lower forms of animals are unable to act against their own self-interest. A human can weigh the risk of going to jail before robbing the bank.
Let me repeat: The purpose of movement is destination, and all animals have this in common. The higher up the food chain you go, the more options the animal has, that's all. Humans at present occupy the top spot and can therefore make the biggest mess of things, which is why we have acting and drama in the first place. If we operated the way that rabbits do, plays and movies would have no purpose.
Scenes begin in the middle, not at the beginning. If you are given a sequence to animate, remember that the character -- I'm presuming a human -- has options. Why is he in the sequence? What does he want? Where did he come from before entering this sequence? If he exits, where is he going? There is never a waking moment when a human does not have a destination!
This is, by the way, why robot characters do not evoke empathy. We humans only empathize with emotion. The Iron Giant comes very close to being a dumb mechanical thing when we first see him in the film. The storyteller endowed the Giant with a need to eat, and so his early destinations are purely food-related. That is enough humanity for us to build on when he starts developing values.
One more point: A character plays an action until something happens to make him play a different action. When your character entered the scene, was he on his way somewhere else? Or did he enter specifically in order to deal with the situation you are animating? The audience does not need to know where a character came from or where he is going. It only needs to know that the character has intention. The purpose of movement is destination.