Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Animator As Actor

In 1979, as part of the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, there was a program called The Animator as Actor, coordinated by Steven Paul Leiva with assistance from Mark Kausler. What follows are Leiva's published introductory comments.
"The Animator as Actor -- it's a simple concept, a statement complete enough to require no explanations beyond its own words. But somewhere this simple concept has been lost, or forgotten, or possibly never even considered by the public, and, more importantly, by the press which gives the public much of the information upon which it forms impressions. When the general press runs an article on animation, it is almost inevitable that the main point made, the "news" imparted, will be that there were, "Over so many odd thousands of drawings made to complete this film." Then everybody goes "Oooh!" and "Ahh!" and shake their heads in wonder as if they were being told how many hairs there are on a centipede's leg. The impression is made that an animator is only and just an individual who does a tremendous -- possibly a tremendously silly -- amount of drawings that are somehow strung together to make a "cartoon." Animators are seen almost as manual laborers -- ditch diggers with pencils -- with brows covered with sticky sweat instead of (as it actually is) the furls of creative concentration. This, of course, is all wrong. For as Chuck Jones has said, "Animators do not draw drawings, they define characters."

"Drawings for animators are simply the instrument through which they act, emote, mime, dance, and create characters as real as any devised by nature. Their successive drawings are their instrument in no less a way than a "live" actor's body, a singer's voice, or a pianist's piano are their instruments. But no one ever seems concerned over how many individual moves an actor makes to complete a scene, how many notes a singer hits to complete a song, or how many keys Horowitz strikes during his playing of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. The concern is over how well they acted, sang, or played; how they -- as artists -- interpreted the scene, song, or composition. It should be the same for animators. For it is not really the drawings that matter, or how many there are, but, rather, what matters is how well the animator succeeds through successive drawings in breathing life into the characters his lines define. The animator plays drawings, utilizing "movement scales" rather than musical scales to realize a desired effect. The animator mimes action, but he does it on paper, instead of with his body.

"Exactly how the animator does this cannot really be explained. But neither can it be explained exactly how Horowitz so brilliantly interprets Rachmaninoff. You can't just say, "Well, he hit all the right keys at the right times." It is something more wonderfully mysterious than that, something more interior. And so is animation. You cannot just report the thousands of drawings it takes, and feel that you've explained it. You have to try for a deeper understanding.

"As you view the classic character animation in this program, realize that what you are seeing are not drawings that move and act, but rather, movement and acting that is drawn."
For the record, the films screened were Mighty Mouse Meets the Jekyll and Hyde Cat (Terrytoons, 1944), The Natural Thing To Do (Fleischer, 1939), Hello, How Am I (Fleischer 1939), Little Rural Riding Hood (MGM, 1949), Mouse in Manhattan (MGM, 1945), Pest in the House (Warner Bros, 1947), A Bear For Punishment (Warner Bros, 1951), Ragtime Bear (UPA, 1950), The Country Cousin (Disney, 1936), and The Pointer (Disney, 1939). The program also included a panel moderated by Leiva with guests Frank Thomas, Chuck Jones and Richard Williams.


Kevin Koch said...

It's interesting that Leiva's piece is about "The Animator as Actor," yet he spends most of his time drawing comparisons to composers and musicians, and never really refers to acting.

Frankly, I agree with the details of his analysis, and not the title of his piece, which is why I think (as I've written on my blog) that it can be more obscuring than illuminating to call animators 'actors.' Yes, we create performances that are in some ways similar to those created by live actors, but we do more than that, and we do it in fundamentally different ways.

I don't think there's a perfect analog drawn from other artistic professions for what animators are. In some ways we're like actors, in others musicians, even composers. Often we're like writers, but also artists, and so on.

For me the term 'storyteller' works better than most, probably because it's so broad and encompassing.

Thad said...

Good piece, but why screen "Mouse in Manhattan" with "The Country Cousin" in the same showing? It will communicate to the audience that those animators were more capable of thievery rather than acting.

Jenny Lerew said...

I went to that event and still have the program somewhere. IIRC there was a brief animated intro of a "artist" with a large pencil/brush that created the title of the program--also animated by Leiva, I think. Anyone else remember that?
God how I miss Filmex!

Thad, I'd hazard a guess that the shorts chosen were assembled from whatever was most available--in those days it was difficult (and in some cases impossible) to get prints of exactly what one wanted to screen. Totally different now, happily.

Thad said...

Oh I know about availability back then, you don't have to explain to me, Jenny. But it was from Mark Kausler's collection, the most extensive one I know of, which is why I found the choice of an original ("The Country Cousin") and a swipe ("Mouse in Manhattan") odd..

That Mighty Mouse short probably is the best choice from Terrytoons for "acting"!!! It's almost sad to see Tytla's work so jarringly sticking out.

Jekyll and Hyde Cat clip

Jenny Lerew said...

Good grief, Thad--but you're an old soul! Honestly, I often forget when reading your posts that you're a couple of decades younger than 90% of the people posting this sort of stuff(not that there's anything wrong with that).
But since I do know your approx. age I wanted to make sure you knew the 16mm situation back in the day. How in the heck did you know whose collection the shorts came from btw?

Thad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thad said...

I just took "assistance from Mark Kausler" as being "film prints from Mark Kausler's collection", that's all.

I own a lot of 16mm myself. None of it is here in Pittsburgh though. I miss firing up my Bell & Howell and running my prints. That stuff in Technicolor is so bright and vivid. The best way to see a film IMO is projected. Computer/TV screens kill a lot of the experience of seeing those animators perform and flourish.

Jenny Lerew said...

I sure know a lot of guys in L.A. you'd love to meet, Thad--all serious film collectors(16 & 35, IB tech prints etc)and I agree with you wholeheartedly. There's nothing like film.
I've been lucky in that I saw a lot of great films-animated & otherwise-for the first time on the big screen with an audience, i.e. at Filmex. As you know it makes a huge difference with the shorts, especially. In particular one appreciates the timing in the cartoons as never before when it's playing against laughs from the crowd.

Seth Hippen said...

This was beautifully put. Can someone send this to Robert Zemekis? He's of the 'ditch digger with a pencil' school of thought.

Anonymous said...

Another fascinating post.

Mark, your blog is quickly becoming my favorite destination on the web. Thank you for the thoughtfulness and frequency of your posts--I'm grateful.

Anonymous said...

I attended that long ago Filmex event. There was indeed a brief pen and ink linework animated intro to it but, the one time they ran it to kick the thing off, it was out of sync for some reason. There may have not been a married print with sound, who knows? "Mouse in Manhattan" was fielded too tight, cropping the top of the Atlas statue at the top. It was a revelation for most of the people there to see a Terrytoon projected that large. Filmex ruled. Nothing took its place remotely as interesting.