Saturday, December 03, 2005

Relationships, emotions, and animation

I've had this kooky little theory floating around in my head for quite a while now. I've mentioned it on occasion to different folks, but have never taken the time to write it down in any detail (well, actually I have, but that's another story). Without getting to fancy-schmancy about it all, here's the gist of it...

I believe that every aspect of life, down to the tiniest detail, can be described in terms of two things: relationships and emotions. I believe that everything is involved in some sort of relationship -- whether it's social, physical, chemical, audible, visual, spatial, chronological, etc. -- and that the nature of the relationships that we're involved in affect us emotionally to varying degrees. It can be a bit of a deep concept if you really start to break things down, but for the purpose of this entry, I want to focus on relationships and emotions with regard to animation.

Animation is definitely an emotional art form.* We don't talk about its power to convey great logical concepts. We talk about is power to move us emotionally. Why are character and story always touted as being so important to quality animation? Because without carefully crafting those elements, the audience won't feel anything. If the audience doesn't feel anything, they'll move on in search of something else.

The emotions in an animated story are controlled through a wide variety of relationships. While we most often use terms that don't include the word "relationship," there's a relationship to be found at the heart of each concept. Here are just a few examples:

  • Pose: the spatial relationships between the different parts of a character's body

  • Staging: the relationship between the camera and the things the camera is viewing

  • Squash and stretch: modifying the relationship between the height and width of an object to change its shape

  • Timing: a chronological relationship between poses

  • Spacing: the relationship between the positions of an object in space over a given period of time

It can be difficult to find words to describe the relationships that are present in some animation principles (I gave up on "arcs"). They're definitely there, though, and here's the key thing to remember: By altering the various relationships over which we have control as animators, we consequently alter the emotional tone of the result.

When it comes down to it, an animator is just a specialized relationship counselor. My job is to understand the emotion(s) that the director wants to create in the story at any given moment, and then craft all the relationships at my disposal to create that emotional impact. All those relationships have to work in harmony -- or in other words, the relationship between all those individual relationships needs to work properly -- or else the resulting emotion won't be the right one for the moment.

So how can I use this kooky little theory when I'm working? Well, I personally find it a LOT easier to think about animation using the more traditional terms most of the time, rather than using the relationship-based breakdowns of those concepts. However, what this theory has helped me to do is to hone in on the emotions present in everything I do as an animator. As I'm planning out a scene, I make sure that I identify the desired emotions, and then make sure that everything I do -- poses, timing, spacing, etc. -- helps to feed that desired emotional tone. As I'm posing a character, I'm aware that the slightest adjustment to a head tilt or an eyelid level will change how that pose feels. When I'm reviewing a shot, whether it's my own or someone else's, it can be especially helpful. If there's something that's "just not working," and I can't easily put my finger on it at first, I'll break down the emotional impact that comes from each component; i.e. how do the poses feel? How does the timing feel? Spacing? Breakdowns? etc. This breakdown often helps me to isolate the part that's not contributing appropriately to the emotion that's required for the shot or scene.

An example of this kind of troubleshooting happened fairly recently as I was looking at an acting test that someone asked me to critique. At first I was tempted to comment on some of the technical issues that I saw with the animation. However, the more I watched the clip, the more I felt that the main problem was something deeper and more basic. The moment I started looking at some of the core relationships in the clip, the problem jumped up and started waving at me like Molt from A Bug's Life. "Oh! Pick me! Pick me! Oh! Oh!" I felt a little silly that I hadn't seen it sooner, but what was jumping and waving was simply the relationship between the dialog and the animation.

The animator had used a short line spoken by Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. If you've seen the film, you know how Kip talks...fairly mellow and soft, with a slight lisp, and a touch of a sing-song delivery to his lines. If you've never seen the film, you can still tell what kind of guy he is by the way he talks. He's a wimpy, soft-spoken, ever-so-slightly-arrogant nerd. The problem was that the animator didn't animate the character to be a wimpy, soft-spoken, ever-so-slightly-arrogant nerd. They pushed the confidence level a bit too high in the physical performance. There was a small moment that almost worked, though, and I think that's what threw me. It was off just enough to feel off, but not enough for the problem to draw attention to itself right away. It wasn't until I started picking apart the individual relationships that I found the culprit.

A similar example from a few years ago also comes to mind. I was involved in some discussion on the 10 Second Club forums following the competition that featured Anthony Hopkins from Silence of the Lambs saying, "I do wish we could chat longer, but...I'm having an old friend for dinner." One forum member commented that he didn't create an entry for that round because he really enjoyed doing humorous animation, and he felt that Hopkins' serious delivery wouldn't allow him to do something humorous. I got the impression that he equated humorous animation with fast delivery of witty dialog, so in my reply, I pointed out how it would still be possible to create a humorous clip using that very mellow line. It's all in the management of relationships.

As illustrated above, one relationship that must work when animating to dialog is the one between the emotional tone of the vocal performance and the emotional tone of the physical performance. It generally doesn't work to have someone talking very calmly but moving very quickly. If you try to do it, your voice will still give subtle clues that you're not acting as calmly as you're trying to speak. With a mellow delivery, there must be an equally mellow performance. So how do we create comedy from this situation? By playing with the situation itself, or in other words, playing with the relationship between the mellow delivery/performance and the specifics of what the character is doing.

The example I provided for this 10SC animator was regarding another entry from that round that used Hopkins' dialog. The animator of this other clip had chosen to have the character picking his nose while talking on the telephone, and eating the boogers he pulled out of his nostrils. When the character went to eat the little booger ball on his finger, he reared back quickly, and quickly thrust his finger into his mouth. It gave a very typical "Look, I'm doing something funny" feeling to the performance, which contrasted with the very mellow and serious tone of Hopkins' vocal delivery, and caused the clip to be less successful. I believe this same situation would have been absolutely hilarious, however, if the animator had gone for a very serious performance, and let the humor lie in the contrasting relationship between that seriousness and the absurdity of what the character was actually doing.

Imagine the character treating the snot-ball as if it were a delicacy, something to be savored. Picture him gently inserting his finger into his open mouth. His lips softly close around the base of the finger, and he slowly closes his eyes. After a slight pause, he draws his finger out ever so slowly, eyes still closed, and he leans back, an expression of pure ecstacy on his face. By leaving the vocal/performance relationship intact, what would make it funny would be the relationship between this very serious performance and the absurdity of eating one's nasal nuggets.

Relationships and emotions are inseparably tied together, and play a huge role in animation. The more I understand how the various relationships in animation affect the emotion of the end product, the more effective I believe I'll be as an animator.

* This also applies to many other things, like photography, music, painting, filmmaking in general, etc. I'm simply focusing on animation for this entry, so please forgive the ommission of these other forms of expression.


Bobby P said...

Great and insightful post. Thanks for this one.

Aja B. said...

Great post, Justin! Always love getting to read people's thoughts about this kind of stuff, really helps clarify some of the ideas floating around in my head. And what a delightful description of booger-eating! :-)

Thanks also for the great crit! Really appreciate it. Acting is hard! :-)

David Sloss said...

That's a fascinating take on the subject Justin--it makes a great deal of sense and supports the idea that Shawn Kelly often talks about: using everything at your disposal in the shot to support that primary emotional point.

I been following a few of your ecrits on AM too and reading your post here ready pulls all your suggestions to students about the details of their assignments into focus.

Great stuff! Keep it coming!