A useful piece written by Ed Hooks, found in his Acting For Animators Newsletter April 2010.
STAGE ACTING VS. ANIMATION ACTING
A simple improvisation that I include in all of my Acting for Animators workshops immediately highlights the difference between the way that animators perceive and apply acting and the way that stage actors do it. The Status-Negotiation exercise works this way. Two volunteers from the class are positioned at opposing sides of the stage, one far left and the other far right, facing each another. One is told he is the king (or queen), and the other is a slave. They are to pass one another in the castle hallway and exchange greetings.
An animator, given these instructions, will inevitably start imagining how a king looks and moves, or how a slave might grovel. When I say, “Action!” he will illustrate physically the idea he has in his head about how the movement should look. It is not that he is wrong, only that this approach guarantees stereotype movement.
Consider how two experienced actors would carry out the same improvisation. They have been instructed that one is the king and the other is the slave. A stage actor will respond, “Yes, and…?” In other words, “What am I doing as the king?” He will not be thinking of how his character moves or looks at all! (Notice I specified “experienced” actors. A novice actor might well do the same thing the animator does because he has not learned better yet.)
Animators think in terms of movement. Stage actors think in terms of communication, intention and emotion. Get those elements right, and they will dictate to you how the character moves.
After coaching this improvisation hundreds of times, occasionally with master animators as students, I have come to recognize that this is just the nature of the animator, to think visually, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, there is a marvelous object lesson. After the first time they move back and forth across the stage, I instruct them with an actor-type adjustment. “Give yourself a place where you are going, and we’ll do it again.” That’s all, just a place where they are going. It doesn’t matter where that might be. The purpose of movement is destination. Once the animators have a strong destination, they will no longer be thinking about movement, and they will cross in the hallway differently. Their bodies will move differently, more naturally, less self-consciously. After everyone in the workshop recognizes what has observed the improved movement, I instruct with variations of destinations. “The queen is in labor. Go to her.” “You spilled wine on the royal carpet and must clean it up right away.” “You are having a romantic relationship with the chamber maid, and this is your time together.”
The fact that an animator thinks visually, in terms of movement, is why it might be a problem when he acts out his own video reference for a sequence. He turns on the recorder, positions himself in front of the camera – and is self-directing, once again trying to imagine movement rather than intention. This is the reason I suggest that an animator have a friend act out the reference if possible. Just give your friend the situation. Don’t tell him how to move or what you want to see. “You’re trying to catch a dragonfly in a net.” You don’t say, “Be sure you look very frustrated.” Simply let him try to catch the dragonfly. That’s your reference.
What is your personal definition of good acting in animation? I will bet it has something to do with the creation of “believable” movement, even if caricatured. The point I am making is that acting training will not enlighten you about how believable movement looks. Acting training will encourage you to first seek the purpose of movement and then to be mindful of how it looks.
Walt Disney was very smart about these things. In his famous 1935 memo to Don Graham, he observed astutely, “Many [animators] do not realize what really makes things move, why they move, what the force behind the movement is. … [T]he mind is the pilot. We think of things before the body does them.” That is 100 percent correct."
This was very interesting to read, as I've always thought that acting out references yourself was preferable to getting someone else to do it for you. I always feel I can understand the movement better after trying it myself, I highly doubt I'd be able to animate as well if I only watched people... But I do agree that its easy to over think things when you try to act on your own, I always find myself trying to plan the movement out in my head before I record, and then it always turns out stiff and horrible. Thankfully that wasn't the case so much with my video references for this project, as for the most part I completely winged them. They slower ones such as trying my hair and pulling myself up onto the desk were very planned, but when it came to the most important part (the strangling), I honestly had no idea how to go about it. So I just when crazy on a whim and ended up in a heap on the floor, laughing at myself. Granted the laughing had to go, but when I watched the footage it looks so much fresher and more dynamic than everything else I'd done, so I did a few more takes or similar actions to perfect them. I never considered my lack of planning to be a benefit at the time, but after reading this and looking back, it really was. Rather than planning out movements in my head, I was simply trying to imagine what I would do if my hair really was strangling me, and acted the first impulse that came to mind. His theory really does work! Now I just have to take this into consideration the text time I'm filming references; I think from now on I will try to ask someone else to act for me first, then attempt to copy their actions myself afterwards so I can still get a personal feel for the movement, Best of both worlds?