Friday, June 09, 2006

Animators and Acting Part 2

We know how expressive the human voice is. Meaning doesn't just come from the words, it also comes from how the words are spoken. Live actors use their own voices when playing a role and for many actors, whether dramatic or comic, the voice is a major tool for communicating with the audience.

Animators rarely provide the voices for the characters they animate. Instead, they're handed an existing voice track. Usually the animator is not present at the recording session and has no input into how the lines are spoken. The voice track is a fait accompli that the animator must deal with in creating the visual performance. As animator Tissa David once said, the performance is in the soundtrack; it's the animator's job to pull it out.

So far as acting is concerned, the voice track dictates several things to the animator. The first is emotion. A line of dialogue can be read different ways depending on the emotional state of the character. The actor makes this decision and the animator is tied to it. If the character is angry or hurt or confused while saying a line, the animator is forced to portray that emotion or the performance won't be believable.

Another thing the actor dictates is timing. How quickly or slowly does a character say a line? Besides having a direct impact on the speed of the mouth and face, the tempo of the dialogue may also dictate what kinds of gestures will work in the allotted time.

Finally, the actor determines emphasis. For the line "I'm not going to school," you can put the emphasis on "I'm" or "not" or "school." The animator's choice of poses will be different depending on which word the voice actor emphasizes.

The voice actor has to dominate the animator if the visual performance is going to work. In fact, the voice track is one of the things that holds an animated performance together, given that multiple animators will most likely perform the same character.

These things are true for any voice; they don't begin to account for the associations that a well-known voice brings to a character. Actors such as Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy remind us of previous appearances when they lend their voices to cartoons. In cases like these, animators have the additional burden of bringing aspects of an actor's persona to the way that a character behaves. Animation is sometimes reduced to being make-up or a costume applied to a live performance.

In live action, dubbing is inherently false. We're not getting the actor's voice, we're getting an approximation. Because dubbing comes after photography, the visuals drive the soundtrack. In animation, the soundtrack comes first so it drives the visuals. The animator is forced to be the servant of the voice actor, embellishing an existing performance.

Actors interpret scripts. Animators interpret actors.


Anonymous said...

Your description makes it sound a bit depressing. The animator isn't absolutely locked into a vocal performance; in reality, there's some give and take. Admittedly, it’s not as easy on a big studio production or a series.
First off, the animator is given a vocal reading, but (s)he can ask for changes. Usually there are other readings that could enhance a performance if the animator knows something the director doesn’t. Any good director would be glad to look into it if it’ll better the film. The animator can also ask for wider or tighter spacing between words or sentences if it’ll still sound natural.

The acting is rarely from one take. A good director in consort with the editor will rework the track in hundreds of ways. A productive trick I’ve found is to take versions of different takes for the same line. It complicates the reading if the line comes from slightly varied readings. By taking the start from take one, and the middle from take three, and the end from a combination of takes four and one, the line becomes more interesting. Of course, the director and editor have to know what they’re doing to make it work and have to understand and appreciate the jobs of both the vocal performer and the animator. It’s all a jigsaw puzzle, and it isn’t always best to do the obvious.

Secondly, the animator can play with or against the track if(s)he’s clever. Obviously, if something is loud, it has to be animated loud, or soft for soft. But there are complexities to animation that can be added by merely realizing you can do it. This is where the real artists step in. You don’t have to underline the reading that’s been handed you, you can and should build on it.

Actors interpret scripts. Animators interpret actors AND scripts. Of course, a lot of what I've said is the director's job, but understanding that can help you work with the director well to help your own performance.

Anonymous said...

Michael Sporn writes: ...the animator can play with or against the track if(s)he’s clever.

Mr. Sporn is totally right. Making a character's facial expression or body language oppose the voice performance is sometimes just what you need to do to make a dull scene come to life, or to add a layer of complexity to the performance. An angry voice with angry eyes means one thing; an angry voice with sad or fearful eyes means another thing entirely! Choosing which approach to take is part of the animator's job.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

This also brings you to one of the major complaints about movies by any type of actor, whether it be live action or animation. There's too much talking. Even live-action actors complain a lot that there's too much dialogue and not enough pantomime going on. Pantomime often is where the real acting goes on. Very often, it's much more interesting what you're doing inbetween lines, than what you actually do with them.

And in animation it's even worse than in live action. Are directors afraid to really trust their actors/animators? Or do they have difficulty reading a script where scenes are just described, emotion-wise?

Often, both in live-action and animation, great performances are made for a large part through the "gaps", instead of through the dialogue.

Mark Mayerson said...

With all due respect to Mike and Cassidy, I still think that the animator is restricted by the voice track. If you animate with or against the track, your possibilities have still been limited by the voice actor, who has the option of trying variations. The idea of rehearsal is the next one I'm going to tackle with regards to animators and acting.

Benjamin, I think that TV has destroyed the art of visual storytelling in many ways. Because we're so easily distracted at home, the key emotions and plot points get covered in dialogue, so if we look away from the screen we don't miss anything.

Disney still seems interested in visual storytelling, but in Dinosaur and Tarzan they start out with great visual sequences and then the talking starts and never ends. You have to hand it to Sylvain Chomet, regardless of what you think of Triplets of Belleville. He had guts to trust his visuals and throw dialogue away.

Anonymous said...

I guess we agree on the basic idea that the line reading limits the animator's options, but we disagree on the degree to which that limitation harms us creatively. Limits aren't always bad. Sure, there are times when I wish I'd gotten a different read on a line, but to me that just makes the shot a bigger challenge.

Another note: while the voice actor does have the option to do many different takes on a line reading, they don't get to choose which take ends up in the movie! That's up to the directors and editors. Sometimes they'll even splice together bits and pieces from completely different takes, in order to get the exact rhythm they want. So it's not as if the voice actor has any more control than the animator does. In the end, we're all collaborators.

jason said...

what about shots where there is no voice track?

how is the animator restricted that way (other than not being able to say anything :)

Mark Mayerson said...

Cassidy, I realize that directors and editors are going to have the last word on an actor's voice reading. Ultimately, though, whatever is chosen has come from the actor. The animator has to live with it. Every acting decision that's made upstream from the animator is an acting decision the animator doesn't get to make.

Jason, if the character is a pantomime character, there's no question that the animator exercises greater control. But if the character has a speaking voice and is silent in a particular shot, the animator still has to make the character act consistently with the audience's knowledge of that voice track.

For instance, let's take Gary Shandling's turtle character in Over the Hedge. If that character, in a silent shot, acts like Jim Carrey or John Wayne, the shot fails unless it was intended to be out of character. Shandling's voice is there for the purposes of characterization and once that's established, the animator has to live with it whether the turtle speaks in a given shot or not.

Anonymous said...

Good point! Yes, no question about it, the voice actor has a huuuuuge impact on the overall personality of a character. It's hard for any individual animator to have anywhere near the same kind of impact at that level, though it does still happen in small ways.

Darn. I'd better go take some voice lessons! ;-)