Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 2, Introduction

In live action film, we think of the actor as being central to a role. Marlon Brando is Vito Corleone in The Godfather. We understand that the script, direction, lighting, costuming, etc. all contribute to our perception of the character, but while we can’t quantify how much Brando contributes, we have a gut feeling that he is responsible for the majority of the impression that the character makes on us. Replace him with another actor and the character is different. It’s Brando’s body, voice and movement whenever the character of Vito Corleone is on screen and most of all it is Brando’s brain driving it all.

In other cases, such as the James Bond films, we can easily see how changing the actor affects the character. Sean Connery is different than Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, etc. If you use the TV series Bewitched as an example, two different actors, Dick York and Dick Sargent, both played the role of Darren Stephens yet nobody confused them. They were different while playing the same character.

Imagine watching a dubbed film. The on-screen actor has performed the role in the usual way. The voice actor, adding his or her voice after the visuals have been created, is constrained in several ways. The timing and the emotions are dictated by what’s on the screen. The voice actor has no control over the visuals and has to work within their limitations if the dubbing is to be successful. The on-screen actor has no control of the sound that will come from his or her character in the dubbed version. Neither actor has control over the character; the unity of actor and character which audiences take for granted has been broken. The single character has become a collaboration.

While dubbing is fairly common, let’s extend the problem. Assume that a production has a tight shooting schedule. In order to meet the schedule, a producer hires several actors who closely resemble each other to play the same character. This way, several scenes can be shot simultaneously on different sets. As the actors will be photographed simultaneously, how can the character’s behaviour be defined? If the actors are each allowed their own interpretation, it’s unlikely that their various scenes will cohere into a consistent whole. The only solution would be to establish the character’s behaviour before the actors step before the camera, but while that may minimize the variations, there is no longer any hope of unity.

While this is a ridiculous way to shoot a live action film, it is the standard method of creating an animated feature or television series. It stems from a basic difference between the two forms. One of the fundamental aspects of live action film and video is that motion is observable in the real world and recorded in real time. Ten seconds of continuously recorded film or tape captures ten seconds of motion. In animation there is no observable motion to record. The motion is constructed from still images a frame at a time. The illusion of motion only exists when these images are displayed rapidly. As the creation of these images does not occur in real time, ten seconds of animation might represent a day’s or several week’s worth of effort.

By itself, this fact would not necessarily change the nature of creating an animated character. One animator could be responsible for a character for the length of a film much as a single actor performs a role in live action. However, because animation is forced to fit into formats and release schedules that were created for live action film and TV, animators rarely have this luxury. The speed at which animation must be created to accommodate the marketplace has, to a great extent, determined the structure of animation production and defined how animated characters are realized.

Producers have found it more efficient to spread a character among several animators in order to speed up production. As this inevitably leads to a lack of consistency in a character’s behavior, much of the control of characters has been shifted to pre-production, further eroding the animators’ influence. The contrasting needs for efficiency and coherence in the portrayal of animated characters are irreconcilable and continue to shape the creation of animated films.


Anonymous said...

I'm very impressed by your writings. It's refreshing to read texts from someone who has studied film and animation. Keep going i love your stuff we need more people like you who can teach the semiotics of animation. Btw there still hasn't been a definitive semiotic book on it... Bordwell has done a general introduction into animation so has Paul Wells. But they haven't uncovered a language of animation and ways of putting it into boxes the way Bordwell puts film into a box. They have in certain ways offcourse but they haven't described the way animtion seems to flex it's own definitions. Meaning that a cartoon can go from a serious science fiction episode into a farcicall tale of some sort. Anyways keep writing i love your posts.

Grtz Lars

Anonymous said...

Creating a cohesive performance in animation does seem daunting. Not only is the performance originated by the voice actor, but a different actor is sometimes employed to act out the scene based on the vocal track as visual reference, creating an additional interpretation. In this situation, by the time the animator gets the scene, he's often put in the odious position of merely enhancing the established performance, not really creating it from scratch like a live-action performer can. I realize that this is not always the case and that animators are often given more latitude to interpret the character themselves, but it does seem like they're probably under some constraints that a live actor would not be under.

Kyle said...

Interesting, I look forward to reading more. I did a little theater in college and I guess I've come to terms with the fact that when a person is acting live, they can take certain things for granted because they are just living in the moment. I do miss that in animation. But I think live action actors probably get direction that is different from how they feel the part should be played, the character is not soly created by them. But they do have a lot of control, (the character will by nature always move like the actor). Still, it would seem that animation is a much more collabrative effort.

Looking forward to more!

Anonymous said...

Mark, I haven't even started reading yet, but I still want to thank you for publishing your thesis (or "MRP") here. I've been looking forward to it since reading a mention of it months ago. I will certainly have more to say later, and I'm eager to get started.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

On imdb, I often look at the quotes in the trivia pages of actors I enjoy. One that really struck me as useful for animation, was this one:

"You build a cage based on your sense of the truth and your sense of the aspects of the character that need to tell the story. If you've done your job right, which I've had varying degrees of success doing at different times in my life, then you're able to function very freely within that cage."

This particular quote is from Sean Penn. I love it simply because it's good acting advice, and also because it's good animation acting advice. It encompasses how I feel we should approach character animation in film: we should have a supervising animator for each character (especially the complex ones - which, granted, are rare), who defines that. Not just in broad strokes, but way into the base and truth of the character, and perhaps even trying to explain why he/she chose certain things. I think method acting knowledge could prove real valuable in doing that. It's my understanding that a big part of the method - even though the use of the method is different from actor to actor - is that you try to define certain aspects of your character, "rules" your character lives by, if you will, and then live by those rules yourself on the stage/set. Now when this is done, I'd think it'd be ideal to cast animators depending on how they relate to those definitions of the film's characters.

Now, you could say that this is what they did for Bond, etc, yet the effects weren't coherent. In this case, you need to remember that we might feel that the lack of spontaneity of animation is something difficult to get past, it's also got its positive side: we're in absolute control, every - single - frame. It's the supervising animator's job to make sure that what his crew does is right. He can spot wrong acting choices way early in the thumbnailing stage, or he can spot some polish that moves differently than the character would. The reason each Bond is so different, is that live-action actors THRIVE on spontaneity. Their performances wouldn't be natural or convincing if they were trying to copy someone else's interpretation. As animators, we might not have the bliss of spontaneity, but we also don't have its burden.

But, also remember the second part of the quote. If the animator interprets the character's definitions/"rules"/cage correctly, in other words, if he's done his job right, he's able to function very freely within that cage. If the cage is built and interpret the right way, it doesn't matter whether the animator's acting choices are the same as what the supervising animator would have done... it will fit, it will be right, it will be convincing.

A possibility could also be to really involve the voice actor. For big movie productions, chances are that the voice actor as a lot more experience in doing this than the animator. Especially with some of the superstar voices hired, it'd be a great chance to learn from them, trying to define the character together.

Though, I don't think that's entirely necessary. Unless the voice actor gets a lot of impro leeway, he's stuck to a really big cage: the prewritten script. So much of the performance is not just the voice, but how the body relates to what (and how) the voice is saying. I think that if the animator is a strong enough actor, it's he who is in the most control, not the voice actor. But if your voice actor is someone like Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and they and the studio allow it, you'd be stupid not to try to learn from them.

One last thing maybe: for the past 4 weeks, I've been in California (back home in Belgium now), and was able to visit a few movie sets. What really surprised me there, what I hadn't considered enough before, and what I learned a lot from (and what I doubt you can really get without having been on a set), is how much direction and specific things an actor still needs to think about and comply to when on set. A whole bunch of people give them each an additional cage, tightening that self-built cage if you will. In very similar ways that an animator could get directions from a director or supervisor. Yet they still do their thing, and do it well. As animators, despite some of our disadvantages, we still should be able to do the same thing, and be free within a cage.