Animation is like an Onion
Oh I get it, It has layers! Today I wanted to talk about a concept that really helps me when I’m animating. I don’t know if it has a term but I like to think of it as layers of character. I know some people like to animate in layers, but what I want to talk about is not a workflow but rather a way to understand all the things that make up your character. The better you know your character, the better the performance you’ll be able to give.
The bottom layer is the “what” layer. What is your characters physicality? What your character is and how it’s built will describe how the character moves. For example, Shrek and Donkey. They are not built the same, they won’t move the same way either. Some things to keep in mind are: Age, Sex, Weight, Height, Physical ability, ect. If you are animating an animal do your research. The more you know about how that animal moves the better off you’ll be. All of this may sound obvious, but I’ve seen this layer forgotten. For example, an old man won’t move the same as a child and women don’t walk the same as men, yet I have seen these types of characters animated interchangeably many times.
The middle layer is the “who” layer. Who is your character? This layer is all about personality. Just like in the “what” layer it’s important to do your research and know everything there is to know about your character before you start animating. Your character’s personality will determine how they interact in their world. It defines how they see themselves and how the world sees them. Even the character’s silhouette should tell you something about their personality. Take Eeyore and Donkey for example. Both are donkeys (I know one is stuffed) but they both have drastically different personalities. You can see this in the way they move and how they carry themselves. Donkey is more like a dog, very playful and has a bounce in his step. That doesn’t mean that they will only display one emotion, and that leads me into the last layer.
The top layer is the “How” layer. How does your character feel. This layer is all about emotion. How your character is currently feeling about something is the strongest driver in the performance. Characters are not flat, they can feel the same range of emotions as you do. It’s their personality that will define how they show them. Donkey isn’t happy all the time and Eeyore can feel joy. It’s how they show these emotions that tells you more about their character. Your characters current emotional state is the strongest driver in how they will interact. Emotion drives motion!
Here is one last example to help tie this all together. Take Bagheera from The Jungle Book. He doesn’t just move like a believable panther, he moves and performs like a stuffy panther. When he gets angry he isn’t just an angry panther, but a stuffy, angry panther. It all layers on top of each other.
So that’s layers of character and how I approach all of my shots. I hope it gives you something to think about when you start your next shot and can help you keep character in mind and the multiple ways we can show it. Just remember: What, Who, and How!