Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Masters of emotion

Today, I will be talking a lot about the technical side of animation and how it is used to achieve an emotional response from the audience, so I'll take off my potent Writer's Hat for now.

Gesture and body language are pivotal to relaying a thought or emotion. A lot of people forget this, and go straight for the face, the expressions and the eyes. There are really annoying phrases like "the eyes are the window to the soul" flying around that give many animators the wrong idea. I think they are just one more tool in the toolbox of a good animator. You can take facial acting and cocked eyebrows and half-smiles and all the rest of it, but you should never neglect the potency of a well animated gesture.

Have any of you seen The Hand? It's a film by Jiri Trnka, a brilliant Czech animator who made and used little marionettes for a number of beautiful stop motion films. The thing about Eastern Europeans who made films like these before the nineties is that they were in a very unique position of being able to sneak past the censors and make harrowing political commentaries in their films that harshly criticised the reign of the Soviet Union. This stuff really deserves a post of its own (don't get me started on Jan Svankmajer, we'll be here forever), but as far as The Hand is concerned, when I saw it what blew me away was how much emotion Trnka managed to get out of this little wooden puppet.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but watch the film and you will see what I mean about the political commentary. It's so obvious, but I think the censors regarded animated stuff as 'kiddie shit' or something because animators were amongst some of the only people in the Soviet states who could get away with criticising the government without getting a pick-axe buried in their skull. So in a way, Walt Disney saved lives. But I digress... Seriously, we will come back to this at a later date because it really is amazing.

The design of the puppet is exquisite. He's simple, funny, and a mixture of 'cute' and 'ugly', which I go crazy for. Anyone who has talked to me about design or seen my pictures knows this all too well.
What you're looking at here is a man, a human being, with a beautifully broad range of emotions - and a stiff, wooden head. The eyes and mouth are painted on, they are fixed into that position forever. His only options as far as the head and face go are to swivel his head on his neck.

If you've got a minute, turn down your speakers because there is a rather loud trumpet or something at the beginning:

A man with one expression but many emotions (not Tom Cruise)

Did you see that?!
Unfortunately this video on YouTube is out of sync with the sound, but it will give you an idea of what I'm talking about with the animation. Now, there are some bits near the beginning that are a bit 'twee'. Spinning around and loving life, our little man may come across as a bit overdone sometimes, but most animators like Trnka were totally self taught. These were pieces of art, they were designed to make a statement and pull you into the mind of the animator. They were not designed to make money or fill a slot on Saturday morning, and so I think Trnka has done amazingly well animation-wise considering.
Notice how he goes through a rainbow spectrum of emotions? You can tell when he is happy, when he is irritable, or when he's neurotic, or angry, or even nihilistic. And yet not a word is spoken or written. Who needs a face? That's the skill of a master animator.

Jim Henson didn't even need a smoothly animated body to make people connect. Anyone remember Dark Crystal?

Oh, but he cheated in that movie! Characters like Aughra have animatronic eyebrows that give them a bit of a leg up in the expressions department, but at the end of the day, this is the skill of a good puppeteer.
How about the Muppets?

Go ahead and tell me that when Kermit the Frog opens his mouth, you can't tell exactly what is on his mind. These things are pieces of fabric and foam rubber and they have hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. And it's not just because of witty dialogue.
What I'm trying to say here is that people need to go back to basics and figure out what it is that makes these creatures seem 'real' to us. Everyone knows Kermit is a puppet, you can tell it just by looking at him, but there is something about how he is performed - his acting, limited as it is - that makes people suspend their disbelief.

When Disney animators (or animators from many other studios) are first being taught, they are told to do an exercise where a flour sack, with no face or limbs, walks around and it must show some kind of thought process and emotion. This is a brilliant exercise because it teaches you not to RELY on anything.

Imagine if you had the power to make someone fall in love with your character and root for them even if they didn't have a face.
Then add a face onto it and animate it well.
That's what makes damn good animation.

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