Posts tagged character

Animated Dance

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I recently shared a video from the intertubes featuring animated dancing. To preface the clip, I stated that I am practically never a fan of animated dancing.  In the comments, “someguy” asked me why.
Rather than write a quick response in the comments I figured I could make a post out of it. I have no intentions for this post to be a personal rant. It is designed to be more of an informative, discussion-inspiring post, albeit peppered with my own opinions.

Dance is a wonderful medium. It is an excellent form of individual expression; it’s beautiful, it’s touching, it’s very personal and meaningful.

Also, it’s incredibly hard to do well.

Seeing someone perform something elegant and beautiful with their body somehow entrances us.

“Someguy” also suggested that you can learn a lot about weight and balance from watching animated dancing. Perhaps, but I promise you will learn far more by watching real dance.  If education is what you’re after, watch some live action.

There’s something very tempting about dance to an animator.  Just grab that hip controller and start rotating it; suddenly your character is almost dancing already.  It also seems to test well with kids, which gets the attention of studios. For a while there was a HUGE trend in animated dancing on the big screen.  Especially during credit sequences.  I just got tired of seeing it everywhere.  While I understand its draw, I have two major problems with it. Both stem from the core of what dance really is, and how animation usually fails to meet it.

First, it’s really cool to see people create interesting movements with their bodies.  However, once it’s translated into animation – in my opinion – it usually loses what it had in real life.

If you were to animate the above video would it be an awesome animation?  In my opinion, no. You can do anything in animation anyway, so why would anyone care that you can ‘break’ the character and move it in an unnatural way.  But when you see a person actually do it – wow.

Secondly, most dance is about personal expression.  The dancer is expressing a part of themselves, and getting an emotional response from the viewer.  It is truly an art form.  When we animate dancing it’s usually because it’s fun to animate, but it rarely comes from a place of personal expression.  It’s fun to show off our dance animations (since it’s so hard to do), but we rarely ever get any sort of emotional connection between the viewer and the character.  For example, which of these two videos elicit more of a reaction from you?

Video 1:

Video 2:

Which one made you smile? Which one made you feel something?  For me, when I watch the second video I laugh, I brighten, my mood improves.  I am emotionally affected by the super-cuteness. They are exactly the same concept, yet one works and one doesn’t.  Years ago that first video had people rolling on the floor laughing.  It was the trendiest, most-passed Internet video, and everyone seemed to love it.  I never understood.

Bringing this back around, the reason I posted the Dance Fortress video was that I actually found it entertaining (and now you know why that is rare for me).
There was SO much going on in the clip, and every character had a different style of dance (plus it was animated well), and it made me smile.  Given the amount of unique characters, there was a lot of rewatch value, which is something almost nonexistent for the majority of animated dance clips.

I’m not saying it can never work, but I feel like it doesn’t work 95% of the time.
Here’s one I love:

And before you say, “well it works because it’s a frog!”  Here’s a dancing turtle that doesn’t work for me.  (reptile/amphibian, close enough?)
Well, what I think is different here is character.  One Froggy Evening is a short designed entirely around a frog that appears bored as hell most of the time and on rare occasions will break into song and dance – but the tragedy is that he will only do it when he and his ‘owner’ are alone.  There is an interesting dynamic between the happy-go-lucky feeling the frog creates (while he’s dancing) and the frustration the owner feels at the frog’s noncooperation.  These are both emotions that can resonate with the audience.

Here is another:

This is a clip from A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Snoopy is overcome with the music and feels the urge to dance.  He slowly starts feeling the beat and before long he’s dancing on the piano.  The music stops but he doesn’t, resulting in embarrassment.  I think these are all emotions we can relate to.  Who hasn’t felt the urge to dance to a song that really grabs you?  Who hasn’t gotten caught dancing and felt a little embarrassed?
Even more importantly, this segment isn’t about the dancing itself.  They don’t cut to all his sweet dance moves, or show how he can really sway his hips well or pop-and-lock.  It’s not about the actual dance but more about the emotion that he’s feeling and expressing.

I guess my final point is that it has to mean something for me.  Are you making the character dance just to dance?  Or does it communicate something to the audience and is it ‘in character?’


Animation is like an Onion

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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!


Specificity in Character part 2

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Let’s elaborate on specificity in character.  In my first post I said it wasn’t enough to just slap a lab coat on the rig and call him a doctor.  He has to be a specific person. A specific doctor.  A unique character.

This is not a concept exclusive to animation.  Live action actors must also accomplish the same sort of specificity to be successful*.  Not being a live action actor myself, I can’t venture a guess how one ‘becomes’ a character; though perhaps when they put on a lab coat it actually changes the way they feel and informs their choices.  However, I do enjoy watching talented actors portraying wide varieties of roles, and even though I don’t fully understand the intricacies of the process, I am entertained by the results and fascinated by specificity.

For example, in my personal opinion, Philip Seymour Hoffman (imdb here) is a talented actor capable of such transformations between characters.  He successfully communicates his characters to the audience on a number of levels.  For the sake of argument, I found four images from four different films:

Essentially, the same ‘rig’ is being used in each film.  He is the same height, weight, skeleton, hair color, etc.  And sure, the costume is changed in each – but that’s not enough, remember? To me, the overwhelming concept in these images is not how he’s dressed, it is how he is posed.  How he carries himself is what communicates his character.  In fact, two images feature a character dressed in drab clothing, and two feature a character in elegant, powerful wardrobe.  Yet, despite some costumes being practically interchangeable, none of these characters feel similar.  He has found unique and specific ways for each character to behave.
Number one would never hold a glass like number two.  He just wouldn’t.  Nor would three or four.  I don’t feel like number four could be as internal and reserved as number three (or hold his own hand in such a gentle, comforting way).  And I can’t see number two holding his arms above his head in the way number four does. In fact, I don’t think number two would ever raise his arms above his shoulders, no less his head.  Number one feels more shy and introverted while four feels extroverted and loud.  I could go on and on, but look for yourself and find more specificity dividing these characters.  Now think about this: all of these are just still images.  We are only looking at how these characters hold themselves in a freeze-frame!  Apply motion to it and the differences become exponential.  Then you can find specificity in movements, not just posing.  As animators we control movements on a frame-by-frame basis.  There is no reason not to make posing, and movements, unique to a character.


*successful artistically.  You can be also wildly successful in hollywood if you are very attractive and have marginal talent.

Movie still-frames:
Image 1: Boogie Nights
Image 2: Capote
Image 3: Doubt
Image 4: Along Came Polly

Specificity in Character

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I wanted to to speak briefly about defining your characters.  I see so many people that could benefit from spending more time making their characters unique.  An overwhelming number of 11 second club submissions have very ambiguous characters, which not only makes them bland to watch, but makes it a total drag to vote when you have to get through hundreds of entries. This post was not inspired by any particular entry, month of submissions, or anything like that – I’m merely making generalizations. If you feel that this applies to you then consider character specificity when planning your next submission.

Besides, how do you think you make your demo reel stand out from the rest when you apply somewhere?
Entertain the viewer.

How do you entertain the viewer when you have less than a minute to make an impression?  No amount of roundhouse kicks, pratfalls, or cleverly humorous and ironic dialogue clips will truly entertain someone.  Perhaps your mechanics will impress… but entertain?  Probably not.  Not in my opinion at least.

It’s about WHO the character is… when they fall offscreen, or when they say the funny line, that will make the clip entertaining.  Who the character is will inform everything you do with the animation.  What do they want? What do they need?  What experiences have they been through? These sorts of things will inform how they are feeling now.  How they are feeling now will inform how they act.  How they act, with specificity, is where you will get your entertainment value and create a memorable performance.

It’s not enough to slap a lab coat on the rig and say your character is a doctor.  Sure, it’s more descriptive than just ‘some dude,’ but that’s not WHO he is, that’s just WHAT he is.   How does a doctor stand in front of you? arrogantly? eagerly? defiantly?  The possibilities are endless, right?  You can easily lose sight of what you want and start to muddy the performance.  So be more specific!  The way in which a doctor picks up a clipboard is different than the way in which a jaded, ‘seen-too-many-patients-today,’ and ‘wanting-to-go-home’ doctor picks up a clipboard.  You’re already picturing it, aren’t you?  See? Knowing more about your character informs your acting choices.

So if you’re submitting to the 11 second club, or submitting your reel to a place you want to work, take the time to know your characters – BEFORE you start animating.  All of this is part of the planning stages.  You’ll end up with something more entertaining and you will be much more proud of your work.

Create something unique and specific!


Update: Continuation in Specificity in Character Part 2

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