Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Animators and Acting Part 3

(For those interested, here are part 1 and part 2.)

The speed at which animators work (or rather the lack of it) is responsible for many aspects of animation production. It’s also something that separates what animators do from what live actors do.

One thing that live actors do is rehearse. They do this in order to help learn their lines, but an equally important part of rehearsal is to work out staging. What kind of relationship should characters have with each other in a scene and how should it be expressed? When should an actor sit down or stand up? When should an actor pause and look at the floor? These are the kinds of behavioral details that actors work on in rehearsal.

In the case of a play, rehearsal may last for weeks. Film directors hope to get a week or two for rehearsal before shooting starts, but even if there’s no time, there’s always the possibility of multiple takes. Actors may need half a dozen takes to really nail a shot, but that’s an accepted part of the process.

If every animator did every scene six times, no film would ever get finished. Animators are too slow to allow them to rehearse, so the rehearsal function has migrated upstream to the story department.

In features, story artists are part directors, part writers, part layout artists, part actors and part editors. I’m concerned here with where they overlap with the function of acting. Story artists have to understand the emotional beats in a sequence and their job is to make sure that the staging, character business and poses all work towards communicating those emotions. Because story artists are using fewer drawings than animators (and often drawing more loosely) they are the ones with the opportunity to try a sequence in different ways until they find the approach that works best.

Even in TV animation, where the story artist is expected to stick to the script and has no time to try variations, the story artist still works to make the characters’ physical business and emotions clear. In cases where animation is being sent to a subcontractor, there may also be a character layout stage refining and adding poses before the animator gets the shot.

By the time an animator gets started, the emotional arc and the physical business have been determined by the voice track, the story sketches and possibly the character layouts. The animator is free to do thumbnails to refine what he or she has been given, but the animator has much less room for interpreting the script than a live actor would.

The animator may have a better idea, in which case the voice track and story sketches may be reworked, but the realities of budgets and schedules mean that there are limitations as to how often this can be done. In TV, it’s almost never done, as the schedules are so tight that producers are uninterested in anything that will slow down production.

Though it varies from project to project, animators are not so much actors as refiners, taking what they’re given and polishing it as best they can. There are more ways this is true than I’m detailing here and future entries will explore other limitations that are placed on animators.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm not quite sure where you're going with this, but so far I haven't found this to be true, at least not in CG animation for feature films. It varies from show to show of course, but in general, we animators have a lot more creative input than you make it seem. And the staging is certainly not nailed down at the end of the story process. If we come up with a better idea, or if the director comes up with a better idea while we're animating, that idea goes into the shot. Why shouldn't it?

As for whether animators rehearse or not, I for one certainly do rehearse! I just have to do it differently than a live actor would.

The best analogy for rehearsal in CG animation is what we'd call "blocking". In blocking we go through numerous passes where we try the scene out different ways, in a very rough thumbnail form. Many of those passes happen only in our heads, in front of a mirror or video camera, or on paper. A few of them get run through the computer and shown to the directors, and eventually we collaboratively zero in on one interpretation, which then gets polished.

Chico Marx said it best: "iffa we don' rehoise, we don' play. And iffa we don' play, that runs into money!" ;-)

jason said...

I have a longer response, but it needs to formulate a bit in my mind before putting it to keyboard.

However, I did want to bring up the topic of "rehearsal".

Asside from blocking animation, I know a few animators who do "rehearse" quite a bit before animating their shots. A number of times I've rehearsed actions before going and animating them simply by working with a sphere, or by sketching out my ideas in a 2d animation package. By simplifying the scene down to bare geometry, I'm able to get a good sense of timing and weight without having to worry about limbs and faces and such. I can practice getting the feel of a movement, get the technique into my brain in an easy setting, and then go back to my actual shot and re-create the motion there.

By doing this I'm able to actualy animate quicker than I would if I were to struggle through a shot "in place"..

so in that sense, I'm very much rehearsing for my "shot".

Anonymous said...

Having worked in both mediums I feel there's a world of difference when animating in CG vs. traditional. I recall slogging through scenes at Disney doing revision after revision in pencil animation. Yet, I was amazed how fast Pixar's CG animators could crank out scenes.

I think that's the one edge CG animation has over traditional. At least, that's what I've observed so far.

Mark Mayerson said...

Cassidy and Jason, I don't know if you can talk about the projects you've worked on, but I'd be curious to know how developed the storyboard or reel was before you were handed a shot and whether there were layouts done as well. I'd also be curious to know the general budgets of the films you worked on. I suspect that lower budget films might give the animators more freedom than higher budget films.

Looking at some of the story reels and layout tests that show up on DVD, it seems to me that more and more is being nailed down before animators start their work.

Of course animators rehearse in the sense that they try out actions in thumbnails or shoot video before they sit down to animate. However, I think there's a difference between working out the staging for an entire sequence, which in animation is likely to happen in story or layout, as opposed to working it out in animation.

If I'm wrong, I'll be happy to admit it. I genuinely would like to know more details as to what you've been handed before animating. And if there are other feature animators out there, please comment on your own experiences.

Anonymous said...

Mark, you always post such thoughtful responses to your comments! This is one of the things I really like about your blog.

I think it's generally true that the overall staging of a whole sequence (i.e. which shots are closeups, wide shots, etc.) is usually pretty nailed down by the time it gets to animation.

I just feel that that aspect of staging is only one small component of the overall performance of a character. Of course I'm biased, because I'm an animator, not a cinematographer, but I think that the way a character moves, their body language and facial expressions, have a more direct impact on whether that character comes to life or lies there dead on the screen. And those details are generally up to us animators to pull off. Layout may determine which parts of a character we see, but we're responsible for the charater's performance.

Storyboard drawings usually do have strong poses and facial expressions, and we certainly do look at those for reference. But once a shot moves into animation, there's no telling what will happen. The finished shot may have the same expressions and poses as the original boards, or they may end up completely different. I see storyboards as a kind of visual shorthand, like reading a comic book version of the scene. Just as you can't adapt a play into a movie without changing some things, it's inevitable that something will change between storyboards and final animation. Exactly what changes, and how much, that's for the animators and the directors to decide.

As for which projects I've worked on... you can see some of them on IMDB!

Regarding storyboards on DVD... if a studio is going to reveal details about their creative process, it's certainly in their best interests to show it at its very smoothest. So if there are storyboards that look very different from the finished scenes, you'll probably never see them on the DVD.

Lastly, it really does vary from show to show, from director to director, and even from scene to scene. We've all heard about Brad Bird's minutely detailed storyboards for The Incredibles, but on the DVD they mention that that was only true for certain sequences, not the entire film.

jason said...

Heya mark!

as cassidy said, your posts and comments are very well thought out and really interesting to read! Thank you! :)

I think the amount any animator can bring to the "character" varries depending on the director, the producer, the show, and even the animator. Some animators really "mesh" with a given show and style and can add a ton of life and personality to a character, while others do great at just sort of emulating what the actor had originally created.

Some animators are indeed better "actors" than others.

This isn't just the case in feature film animation, but it is also becoming quite apparent in live action creature animation. Gollum is a great example of a merger between actor and animator(s) to develop a character greater than either of them.

Gollum certainly couldn't be Gollum without Andy.. but there were many shots that ended up quite different from what he had originally intended for various reasons. Some were because the story changed and where he was within his character arc at that particular point in the story had been altered. Some were because his performance wasn't what Peter wanted, so the animator made it up on the spot. Sometimes part of his performance was used, and part was completely the animator.

As you mentioned in your earlier post, yes.. all of this was indeed based on his interpretation of the Gollum character.. without andy's impression, we wouldn't have reached what we did.. but, I don't think that it in any way takes away from the fact that many animators "acted" Gollum.

As for how much we bring to the character.. again, that depends on the animator, the director, and the character they're animating. I know personally it's quite exciting to listen to a voice read, watch a bunch of animation that people have done, and then suddenly see the one that REALLY defines the character. It happens with just about every animated character I've ever dealt with.. some more sucessfully than others.. but it definitely happens.

Oh yeah, and my imdb link, too!

Anonymous said...

Excellent posting, Mark!

And your observation that the "rehearsal" process is moving "upstream" to the story department is especially apt, and likely the most important source of the problem.

Ever more, the industry marginalizes (and even infantilizes) the role of the animator. How far we have come from when Disney famously, and justly, publicized the essential, unique creative contributions of his animators. Now, the industry culture has turned to glamorizing writers--who seldom enjoy anything like this creative leverage in live-action production--at the expense of animators and everyone else, who have in essense been demoted to noncreative, skilled craftsmen.

Recognizing that animating is indeed performing, and acknowledging the authentic worth of the animator, perhaps seems too threatening to those producers and writers who want to reserve the best possible recognition and remuneration for themselves.

Little wonder that the industry behaves as if an animation production is already finished when the last draft of the script has been signed off, and all that's left is to animated the film! But to let only writers--who never in their lives have had to inbetween a crowd scene--have the luxury to make false starts and polish their work, yet rob the animators of this same opportunity, simply sabotages good storytelling.

Sadly, it's been this way for so long now that no industry exec can even be faulted for not understanding the creative opportunity they're sacrificing.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I most definitly disagree as well. Animators are very similar to live action actors.

"One thing that live actors do is rehearse. They do this in order to help learn their lines, but an equally important part of rehearsal is to work out staging. What kind of relationship should characters have with each other in a scene and how should it be expressed? When should an actor sit down or stand up? When should an actor pause and look at the floor? These are the kinds of behavioral details that actors work on in rehearsal."
To me, this sounds off. With the directors that do rehearse, which I believe these days isn't that much anymore, rehearsal is about getting deeper and more profoundly into the roles and relationships. To further craft their performance so it's solid and consistent. Of course, they will explore different options, etc, to find out what performances would work best in those scenes. Yet the staging and layout is usually already pretty defined by the cinematographer, director and, yes, storyboard/previz artist. The moment they decide on final staging is called "blocking" in live action (not to be confused with animation "blocking"). And more often than not, they'll use stand-ins for this process, not the actors themselves. If there were rehearsals, the actors might have found a better performance that would require different blocking, and then it would be changed. But if there weren't, there's no way an actor has any say in it (unless he's Tom Cruise or producer on the film or whatever). Sure, in many scenes they'll follow the actor with the camera, but still he's pretty (physically) limited in what he can do.

"In the case of a play, rehearsal may last for weeks. Film directors hope to get a week or two for rehearsal before shooting starts, but even if there’s no time, there’s always the possibility of multiple takes. Actors may need half a dozen takes to really nail a shot, but that’s an accepted part of the process."
Yes, but blocking won't change in trying different takes. Nor will the characters or their emotional evolution within that scene. Actors are told what these emotions will be, what is important about the scene, where to hit their marks (blocking/staging), etc. Which is to my understanding exactly what story artists and directors will give to the animator. Then they have to take that, understand it, and build a believable performance on top of it. THAT's what an actor does: creating honest, believable, sincere characters. Even before rehearsal and shooting, actors will have studied their scripts, done research and everything, to come up with how the character will move, how he thinks, how he gestures, what his body attitudes are like, how he feels about the world around him, etc, and will have made it their own. Rehearsal will then refine this further, if there are some. And with all this research, and with this trying to become that character, they'll then take whatever guidelines the director and company give them, and they'll craft a performance out of it. They'll make it a character that feels true to the audience, that the audience can relate to, understand (unless of course the story requires otherwise). Which is EXACTLY what an animator does.

Acting goes much much further than just understanding (or in some cases, creating) an emotional arc or finding a certain staging.

The only limits that animators do have, are the voice track, and the fact that (due to this speed problem) many animators have to work on the same role. So yes, animators aren’t the same as actors, but only because they have to craft the performance as a team (including the voice actor), rather than by themselves.

This brings up something else: I’m just a student now, at AnimationMentor.com, but if I’d ever make it to supervising animator on a feature film, I’d do everything to get to talk with the voice actor, to discuss the character with him/her, so we can both gain that understanding of the character, both are thinking about the same type of character and emotions, including everything an actor looks for: gestures, body attitudes, and the like. I mean, they’re paying up to $20mil for these A-list actors (that don’t even necessarily have great voices), so you might as well use their acting skill and experience to create something consistent and memorable! Unfortunately this hardly happens in animation, if ever.

Jenny Lerew said...

This is a BIG topic, and as you know, Mark, there isn't any one answer to who does what, and how much is "theirs" vs. "ours". I could write an essay on all this, but to try and be somewhat succint I'll just say:
in doing story for CG features, I've had scenes that I boarded wind up animated exactly as I staged and drew the expressions of the characters(which was naturally a big thrill for me). And I've also had scenes that went into animation from my boards that have been substantially changed--business added by the director, and by the animator. Different choices. Most often there's a mix. It depends on a lot of factors...we as story artists are of course trying our best to get a scene over in the most entertaining way--and so is the animator...sometimes his choices utterly change mine, sometimes they add, sometimes they tweak--and sometimes he or she does it as exactly like my drawings as I could imagine. It's all over the map, as it should be. But he or she has the performance in his or her hands! The buck stops there.

It seems to me that in 2D the animators often extrapolated from the boards much more than nowadays...but where I've looked at board-to-screen comparisons side by side, it's obvious how inspired the animators were by the mood, poses, and overall intent of the story boards, all while adding their ideas and changes where either they or the director see fit. I guess what I'm trying to say is, ther ismn't any one answer or template at all...Cassidy has it right, I think. And the minutely detailed boards for "Incredibles" that were virtual animatics were indispensable for the extremely complicated action scenes...I imagine quieter, acting scenes were done differently(I know it was all a bronc-buster on that show, that's for certain!).

Mark Mayerson said...

I want to thank everybody for their comments. As I've spent my career in TV animation, it's great to be able to hear the experiences of people working in features. I'd especially like to thank Jenny for chiming in, as she works professionally in story. She provided a different perspective than the animators who commented and I found her contribution valuable.

Benjamin, in the past there were many live action directors who watched the actors work out a scene before deciding how to break down the shots and where to put the camera. Offhand, I'm thinking of directors like George Cukor, Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks.

Cukor is often criticized for not developing a visual style, but he didn't feel it was a criticism. He was more interested in the script and performances than in imposing a visual approach on the material.

McCarey was famous for letting his actors improvise. Films like Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth have marvelously spontaneous and relaxed performances due to McCarey, who was also responsible for helping to develop Laurel and Hardy as a team.

Hawks was famous for running through a scene, deciding it was no good and then sitting down with his actors and a legal pad and reworking the scene on the set with their help. It would have been a waste of Hawks' time to come to the set with a shooting plan when he had no idea if he'd be happy with a scene.

It's very possible that today, with the influence of Hitchcock and Spielberg, the size of budgets and the existence of pre-viz, that many directors no longer give their actors the same freedom. If so, I think it's a shame.

Getting back to animation, based on everything that's been said here, it's fair to say that sometimes the acting developed by the story artist becomes the acting that the animator will perform. Where live action has the actor collaborate with the script and the director, animators collaborate with the script, the director, the voice actor and the story artist. That means that some of the time, the animator's acting choices are limited as a result.

All of this has been an attempt to point out that the cliche that "animators are actors with a pencil (or mouse)" is a gross simplification. Animated acting is a very different animal from what the average person would consider acting.

I've got still more to say on this topic, so I'll get back to it and we can chew it over more. And if anybody else out there would like to throw in their comments, I'd be happy for your contribution.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Yes, of course! I'm happy to believe that there are directors who did that type of thing. It's great that directors exist that lend their actors that type of freedom, but my point wasn't that it doesn't happen, it was that it doesn't happen all the time. Especially today. But does that mean that actors don't act in films where they don't get this type of freedom? Live-action actors have many many restrictions themselves, but most of the time, these restrictions become second nature to them. But they're still acting. Which brings me back to my previous conclusion: Animators aren’t the same as live-action actors, but only because they have to craft the performance as a team (including the voice actor), rather than by themselves. We act as a team... but we DO act (at least if we're not lazy).

Maybe in a sense it's a misinterpretation of the cliche "animators are actors with a pencil"? It doesn't say "animators are live-action actors with a pencil". Stage acting and live-action acting have their differences, but both are still acting. Animation acting is even more different than these two, but still, it IS acting. Just a different type.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Benjamin De Schrijver said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I guess these are two posts in a row, but I just wanted to add this: I coincidentally just visited a set (my brother's acting in the film), and I was amazed by how meticulous the director was. It wasn't quite the biggest acting scene, but still... Everything was aranged up to the inch. Literally. Foot a bit more to the front, back twisted a bit more, lift that chin up - but not that much -, put your hand a bit higher in that gesture, etc. Something that hit me was that even with this incredibly precise direction, the difference between the takes where they acted stiff and the ones where they really got into it and acted naturally (the director liked the word "juice") was astonashing. That's what actors do. And that's where animators (should) come in too.

(sorry for the two deleted posts above.. I had written "scene" instead of "take"... twice)