Posts tagged posing

Body Language research

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A while ago I got very interested in studying body language, believing it would drastically improve my animation skills.  Knowing what visible signals the body is sending can be paramount in communicating with the audience (and with other characters).  You’ve probably heard about Albert Mehrabrian’s study at UCLA which found that 55% of communication is through non-verbal cues*.  So I thought the more I knew about non-verbal cues the better equipped I would be as an animator.  I did some research on the subject.

As animators, I feel we tend to over-think every pose we use for our characters anyway.  By studying acting we have a somewhat decent grasp on what pose a character should hold to communicate their feelings, and how to make a pose feel closed off or open. Therefore, studying body language did little to inform my animation choices but did aid me in social situations in my daily life. Basically, I find that social life is much more entertaining now.
Bonus: my animation improved “a little.”

That aside, for anyone else who might be interested in such an adventure I thought I might share some recommendations (and non-recommendations) so you get a more fulfilling experience and don’t waste your time in the wrong places.

What Every BODY is Saying
I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about body language!  It is written quite well, the author doesn’t talk down to you, and it is full of great information.  To top it all off, the author is an ex-FBI agent who shares his experiences in the field and explains how his observation of body language helped him solve cases! Real cases! How cool is that?  Who doesn’t love FBI stories and solving crime?!  He explains how he was never really trained for body language, he just started to notice things about how people behaved when they knew something they weren’t saying.  These observational skills helped him figure out what people weren’t telling him!  The body language information is presented in a memorable way coupled with real life stories, which served to make it both informative and entertaining.  I definitely recommend this book.

The Definitive Book of Body Language
This book bothered me.  Unfortunately I read it first, but if I read it after What Every BODY is Saying I would have have just given up on it after a chapter or two.  For the most part it is written from a perspective of how to succeed as a business person, which made it difficult to hold my attention. The worst was that the authors often talk down to you.  They over explain things as if you are ten years old, repeat lots of information without presenting it in newer ways, and don’t give you enough credit as a reader.  Additionally, they quote findings of many studies that are either unannotated or sound bias in their testing methods.  Lastly, they often use pictures of high-profile people as examples and tell you what they are thinking.  Immediately this sounds suspect to me.  When you show me a picture of Hillary Clinton and tell me exactly what she is thinking, you lose credibility in my opinion.  Unless you went up to her after the photo was taken and asked what she was thinking (they didn’t) then you have no idea what was really going through her head.  Now, what you CAN tell me is what her body language is suggesting to the people around her. What she is projecting rather than what she is literally thinking. It’s a slight difference, but it is a difference.  When the distinction between the two isn’t made clear it can be misleading. The stuff that’s actually helpful is the same information you’ll find in any other book or video. Skip this one.

The Secrets of Body Language
This is a dvd from the History Channel.  It was amusing, but not much more than that.  After reading the books it was all basically the same information.  They take the high-profile approach again trying to play at our interest in public figures like political leaders and celebrities. I’m pretty sure one of the consultants and interviewee’s on the show was one of the authors of the Definitive Book of Body Language, but I don’t remember exactly.  They talk a bit about cultural differences (for example, the last person to enter the room is a big indicator of status in the middle east) which isn’t really so much about our instinctual or subconscious non-verbal communicators as much as it is a conscious effort to display status.  They also talk about politicians taking pictures with each other, and how they jockey for who gets to have the ‘power position’ in the handshake (palm facing downward), because of the message that this sends to the public.  In this instance, it is a conscious decision to have a subconscious impact on the audience.  Interesting.
There were a couple of gems but overall it didn’t quite feel worth the money.  If you happen to catch it on tv then go for it.

Lie to Me is (was?) a TV show on FOX.  It is loosely based on Dr. Paul Eckman and his studies on the human face and what it reveals about emotions.  In the beginning episodes it focuses much more on what you can learn from body language, but as the series goes on it becomes much more about the relationships between the recurring characters just like any TV drama does.  Some shows excel at this.  For example, I don’t watch House M.D. for what I can learn about practicing diagnostic medicine, I watch it for the relationships between the characters which are extremely well executed.  However, in this case I want to know about body language.   Sure it’s entertaining, and Tim Roth does a pretty great job with his character, but if you’re in it to learn about facial cues you are better off getting your information elsewhere.  (For example, Eckman’s books – which I have not yet read but will).  Also, the show inherently has a fatal flaw; it features actors.  The script will tell them they must flash a ‘micro-expression’ of disgust; an uncontrollable impulse as an emotional response.  The actors must TRY to make this emotional flash look instinctual and incredibly quick.  Sometimes it works well, yet sometimes… you wouldn’t need an ‘expert’ to determine what’s on the characters mind (haha).  A lot of the times it’s like they beat you over the head with their ‘micro-expression’ which defeats the purpose.   Overall, the ratio of ‘time spent’ to ‘what you learn’ isn’t worth it.  Read a book.

A very large majority of the information is the same across the board, the difference is how it’s presented.  If anyone else has any other recommendations (or disagreements with mine) please contribute and post in the comments! If you’ve read Eckman’s books tell us what you thought and how they compare to these.  Thanks, and enjoy.


*There is controversy surrounding these findings when applied to day-to-day interaction and not controlled experiments. Mehrabrian himself states “Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”  You can find several sites that debunk these findings in greater depth. Here is one.

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

Coyote Poses

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Take a quick look at the strength in posing from some Chuck Jones drawings:
(source: “Chuck Reducks”)

CoyoteRunsclick to enlarge

Not only do they have amazingly clear silhouettes, wonderful line of action, and incredible sense of movement, but they also convey emotion.

Note how in the “confident swagger” and “egotistical trot” the upper body is rotated backwards and puffed out.  It’s not a coincidence.  His choice of adjectives, confident and egotistical, both indicate an inflated sense of self – which is exactly what I read from those two drawings.  That’s not to say that the descriptions are perfect; because given those two drawings with no captions I would not be able to tell you that one was ‘egotistical.’  That said, however, I still find them incredibly appealing, and they are two totally different ways to indicate that ‘inflated sense of self’ he was going for.

I have also entirely fallen in love with that last pose.  The “irresistible all-out gallop” is really fun;  the facial expression is great, the forces are awesome, and for an upright character – he is COMPLETELY HORIZONTAL!

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