Friday, September 7, 2012

Acting Notes (2)

Text / Context / Subtext

When approaching a piece of dialogue these three questions tend to be at the forefront of determining the performance.  Text is pretty straight forward, what are they saying?  This holds the most weight when trying to create believable lip-sync, understanding the words and sounds created by those words.  In terms of character though, the following are particularly important.

Context -  Why are they saying what they're saying?  What is the situation that the character is in when this scene takes place?  And how do they relate to this particular situation?  Most scenes will have a reason to exist and most of the time that reason is rooted in the context of the scene / story.  Try to be objective at this stage to realize the bigger picture so that you can make truthful decisions.

Subtext -  This is where we tend to live as character animators.  Questions to ask:

How does the character really feel about what they're saying?

How do they feel about the situation?

What is the character thinking at each moment and how does it progress throughout the shot?

How does the character feel and think about those around him?  (Thanks Karoly!)

The idea of having an emotional blueprint stems from the subtext.  If you can understand the character's mindset then you can be true to their motivations, following along their thought process to inform your gestures and actions.

One of the hardest things to convey is believable thought process, this is where (to me) the character really becomes alive.  There is a brain inside of your characters, they act and react to stimuli in the scene.  Takes a lot of observation and study to really dig into this kind of stuff; the most daunting yet awesome thing about it is the rabbit hole in this case keeps getting deeper and deeper.

I was introduced to this clip by a friend over at iAnimate.  An instructor by the name of Ted Ty was picking it apart and I thought it'd be a really good exercise to break parts of it down in terms of text / context / subtext.  In these clips, a guy named Ross Capicchioni retells a life-changing experience:

For reference here is the first part of the entire story.  I highly recommend watching, observing, and trying to pick apart his thought process as he goes along.  He's a really great storyteller.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Acting Notes (1)

Acting is such an elusive beast and is something I'm constantly struggling with yet forever fascinated by.  I've been taking notes on the subject, compiling it for myself and thought it might be worth sharing.  I figured it would be good to start from a big picture perspective and dig deeper as the posts go on.

Sidenote:  Here are some articles on the subject worth reading.

The Building Blocks

We start off with the ever-cliche pyramid.

This is something I indirectly learned from an instructor at Animation Mentor, James Chiang.  I'm not sure if this is 100% the way everything goes, but I believe it to be true enough for my own path.  Before we can get to acting, we need to have a solid understanding of the principles (fundamentals) and body mechanics.  If we try to act without these skills, our animation will crumble without the foundation.  And to me it makes sense.  How can you show how excited someone is if your posing is weak.  How can you show anger if your spacing is always off.  How can you show exhaustion if your mechanics aren't strong.

The point of the artform (exceptions exist of course) is to present ideas.  Each block informs the next, so I highly encourage starting from the bottom, up.  Many times, students seem to forgo the foundation and "challenge" themselves by shooting for the craziest ideas.  And in most of those cases, they've end up hurting their progress more than helping because it's so easy to get lost.

Acting Hurdles

Acting is hard.  Maybe that's just me, but I find it extremely difficult.  One of the more common hurdles that I struggle with  (hopefully I'm not on my own here) and that is the idea of letting yourself go.  When I shoot video reference for my shots, there is this feeling of embarrassment that looms over me.  There is a bit of a fear, a bit of discomfort, a lot of vulnerability.  And it's only natural right?  When we get up to act these bits, we start to reveal ourselves in a way that most just aren't comfortable with.  For some, even just putting up your animation for a critique can be nerve-wracking, let alone putting your actual self out there.  The solution for me is pretty straight forward though... get over it.  Easy for me to say, but when you think about it we're just goofing around.  It's playtime and we need to realize that screwing up, feeling scared, and generally being a fool is perfectly fine in this instance.  Just relax and enjoy.

Now the other side of things is the vulnerability part.  It's a very personal thing to allow everyone access to your true self.  When we animate these characters, we imprint a part of us onto them and share a bit of ourselves with the world.  A lot of these imprints come from a real place, a personal place.  There's a really cool story from Director Lee Unkrich that tells of this very topic.  I think this explains it better than I ever can.  It takes a lot of guts to tap into your own life, but I feel that's how we inject believably into our characters.


To get into character is to truly understand their situation.  It requires us as the animator to get into their headspace and inhabit their story.  If you understand their thought process, you will understand their motives and their motivation for every action that takes place in your shot.  I call that the emotional blueprint, a stream of thoughts through-out your shots to keep your acting choices in check.  Even if the character does something by accident, we have to understand where their thought process is at to then try and portray their action as an accident.  So on our end, everything is done on purpose.

My take on acting is that we can present entertainment through sincerity.  This is me vaguely saying "be true to the character".  Certain characters do things in a very specific and particular way.  Secondary action in a lot of cases is what really describes character.

When Pepe Le Pew waits for his lady friend, he doesn't just check his watch.  He isn't bored, he isn't impatient.  He looks suave while grooming in preparation for the girl to show up.  That's such a Pepe Le Pew thing to do!  And it makes sense that he would do so... cause that's what's on his mind!

In this clip, there is a very particular way about how Coral responds.  The quality of movement is something that just seems so believable as a fish.  This goes back to fundamentals / mechanics.  The animator here, Shawn Krause, sells the acting really well all the way up that pyramid we spoke of earlier.  It may be deemed a "simple" shot, but it sparks with life.

During my time over at Reel FX I was lucky enough to be able to listen to Glen Keane give a talk at the studio.  Something he spoke of really struck a chord with me.  He mentioned Ariel and how he was contemplating a certain acting choice.  He would mull over it constantly until he realized how it wasn't even up to him anymore.  Ariel exists as her own being and would do this particular move this way because of these reasons.  My interpretation of it was to let the character breathe through you.  Become the conduit of which these existing characters can be revealed to the rest of the world.

Fun clip from Victor Navone:

There is a lot to view here, but something that Victor mentions on his blog in this post, is how he injects some very minute but characteristic bits to the animation.  She still feels feminine though she's a floating egg, but she still has attitude.  Notice how what her eyes do when she lights up the light bulb, and how Wall-E rotates the rubix cube after Eve quickly solves it.

... more to come.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Just typing that in makes me feel like I really need to exercise, but weight problems exist all over animation as well.  I am not an expert on any of this so please take this material lightly, this is just me doing my own research and trying to figure it out myself.

As with all facets of animation, weight is also just an illusion of what we perceive to be "weighty" in real life.  So let's start there with Newton's laws of motion:

1.  Inertia : Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

It's really important to realize all the forces happening in the scene to recreate the illusion of weight.  It only takes a basic understanding of physics and will go a long way in connecting your scenes with your audience.  Imagine the classic ball bounce again, starting with the ball in mid-air at rest.  Now imagine the forces.  If there was no force the ball would stay still in mid-air.  One of the main forces is gravity which creates a downward force on the ball.  This starts the ball coming down.  Once it hits the ground there is a normal force that pushes it back up (more on that later).  Even when the ball has stopped, gravity and the normal force are still acting on it, cancelling each other out in order for the ball to stay at rest.  Technically there is also wind resistance, but unless it's being dropped from a really high height it tends to be negligible for most standard ball bounce assignments.

2.  F=ma

This is where things get interesting.  Force is equal to mass times acceleration.  One of the early assignments from Animation Mentor deals with dropping two differently weighted balls and animating it until it rests.  It's a deceivingly simple concept but gets skipped over sometimes.  So starting with a question:  I drop a basketball from 6 feet in the air and it takes 12 frames for it to hit the ground, how many frames would it take for a bowling ball to hit the ground from the same height?

They drop at nearly the same rate!  Emphasis on nearly because although they look very close, there is a smidgen of difference since the heavier ball cuts through air resistance a tiny bit more.  If we dropped these balls from 1000 ft, a difference would be seen.

The way to really sell it's weight is the reaction of the ball when it hits the ground.  Heavier balls don't bounce  back as high as lighter balls because it has more inertia to overcome when changing direction.

3.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

So going back to a ball at rest, it stays at rest because all the forces are being cancelled out.  When we simply stand, we fight gravity by pushing down against the ground with our legs.  We don't go crashing through the ground because the normal force is pushing back against us, allowing us to stand.

From Wayne Gilbert:

With more physical actions it requires more dissection and study, but understanding these forces will inform all of your animation principles.


As said before, weight doesn't exist in a maya scene - you have to create the illusion of it's existence.  With the knowledge of the forces at play you can then pose out your character in order to portray how heavy or light someone or something is.

Here's a classic example from  - if physics is something you feel like you need to brush up on, visit this site!  Awesome stuff, free for your eyes to explore.

On a more complicated level, our bodies behave very organically (helps a lot to have a basic understanding of anatomy too) and weight can be accentuated with tilts, curves, flex, bends, squash / stretch, expressions, etc.  All of these things help portray weight.

Notice how "on the brink" this guy is, all of his muscles are engaged, he's got a smooth curve on his front side but a harsh angle on his back side (straight vs. curves).  His hip-line is tilted to show which leg he's favoring, his arms wrists are near it's max rotation, his hands are really squashing against the bar.  The bar itself is bending from the weights.  His head is squashing into his body, his face is red, even his face squashes.  There is a lot going on in just this pose.  Take that all away and it's very hard to see how heavy something is.

Timing and Spacing

A lot can be talked about this subject but I figure dissecting a shot might help us be concise yet informative.  While I was going through AM I came across this shot by a very talented animator named Kevin Taylor.  The weight in this shot really turned a switch for me (in showing how much I didn't know yet haha).

There is so much consideration in this shot that deserve it's own topics.  But check out the balance and forces at play.  Look how deep he swings his hips down to lower his center of gravity in order to get as much under the gun as possible.  He leans REALLY far back and you can feel the tension in the chest.  The first jerk to the right gets the gun moving horizontally, but it takes a huge amount of time and effort to raise it up as well.  The inertia that he has to overcome is really powerful which takes more time to get it moving and thus the spacing starts out small.  However when the gun is in motion, it wants to stay in motion and takes significant amount of effort / force to stop it.  Kevin treats this brilliantly by having the gun almost pull Stewie along for the ride just for a split second, causing him to readjust with each swing.

Environment and Materials

Another important aspect that tends to get skimmed over is what the objects / characters are made of as well as what environment they are in.  Is the object slippery?  Is it made of rubber (and therefore prone to a lot of friction)?  If you push down really hard on a chair, wouldn't it give way just a little bit?  Yes, these are extra tidbits to the main action, but don't forget about them as they can add a lot to that illusion of weight.  It's about making it relate-able to the audience, if the object or character doesn't interact believably with the environment, an audience member can snap out of your scene and realize it's just a piece of animation.

Likewise when a character acts on an object, be sure to remember Newton's third law!  The object will also be acting on the character!

Totally exaggerated example, but just something to keep in mind.  When pressing on a table (using your palm and finger tips to push with) the knuckles might buckle to give your fingertips more force.  Also check out how the fingertips in this image are being shaped by the object.  If you press the side of your arm against a wall the roundness of your arm might squash and conform to more of a line against it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Way of the Student

Going through the Animation Mentor program has been a really rewarding experience.  Along the way though I've been told that I seemed to "get it" easier than others, something I still don't completely understand, but thought I'd share my view on some of the topics on how to get the most out of AM and shed light on certain areas.  Keep in mind that this comes from my own personal experiences and viewpoints, that it might not work for everyone, and I'm just a student like everyone else.  But hopefully at least some part of this helps someone.

1.  Collective Learning

Any kind of success I've had thus far I attribute mostly to the study group I've been lucky enough to be a part of.  These people have been my friends, my teachers, and my partners in crime.  Surround yourself with people you feel are better than you and have that unending drive for new input.  Needless to say, you have to inhabit that same drive as well to make this successful.  Having multiple brains to bounce ideas off of is something I feel holds so much importance to improving as an animator.  When people of different backgrounds, trades, and skill levels are looking at your work you are reminded of so many fundamentals as well as exposed to many new ones.  Because this art form is so vast, having this circle reels in a lot more information and serves as a great filter for new input to be easily digested.  Another huge advantage of the study group I'm a part of is that we showed our work every week.  It gave me a mini-deadline that I felt I needed to hit and it made me less shy about putting my work out there for people to critique.  On top of that, you learn how to critique work, which improves your animation eye constantly.

2.  Most Education is Self Education

One of the earliest realizations of my time at AM is that though they provide you an amazing platform for you to learn from, much of the effort is on you as the student to dig through the information as well as seek new information from outside sources.  This is also why Collective Learning is so important because many times when someone stumbles upon new information - it gets shared!  Further more, discussion on the topic solidifies understanding, which is the goal.  It does take a lot of time and I empathize with those who don't have the luxury of just scrounging the web for notes, but try your best to make SOME time for it.  There are critiques littered through the AM program that you can watch for tips.  Split up some critiques with a few friends, take notes and share.  There are tons of free tutorials and articles online, just to name a few of the goldmines I've stumbled upon:

Kevin Koch's Synchrolux

Keith Lango's Youtube Channel

Aaron Koressel's Maya Tools

Jonah Sidhom's Animation Article Database

Brendan Body's Tutorials

Michael Amos' Action Analysis

And there is sooo much more out there to be digested.  Don't rely on the school to give you all the answers, the reality is that they are there to help - you have to do the legwork.

3.  Be Scared, Not Lazy

It's alright to question if you're good enough to do something, or believe that you aren't ready to tackle a challenge.  But it's another story to talk yourself out of something for the sake of not having to do it.  A lot of the time, I've found that the obstacles I thought were too complicated turned out to be much easier than I thought.  If you have a hard time figuring out what the graph editor does, go back to the basics with a bouncing ball and really dig into how the graphs work, how they work with each other, and how the tangents  behave.  If a ball is slowing down, how does that look in the graph editor?  If someone runs into a wall, how does that look?  Do you feel constraints are scary?  Find someone who knows how to set it up and ask them to run through it with you (it honestly doesn't take that long) and take notes.  A big one for me personally was (and still is) video reference.  I find myself just sucking pretty badly when I shoot acting reference of myself, it's one of the biggest obstacles for my animation process - but I'm still chipping away at it.  I really want to point out that failure IS an option.  Especially now while you're in school - it's a perfect time for you to make mistakes.  The key is to learn from them.  In the end if you tackle something head on and honestly gave it your best shot, the worst case scenario is that you've learned a lot.  You will run into people who make excuses and you'll find yourself making excuses as well.  Don't be lazy.

4.  Fundamentals

This is stressed in so many places on so many levels and yet it's still worth repeating.  Know the rules, know the basics.  One of the major pitfalls I see people trapped in is to move ahead of certain principles before really grasping them.  If you don't understand the basics of something like gravity, or transfer of weight, tackle it immediately!  It's true that we are always improving in all of these areas, but don't allow yourself to be put in a position where you're delivering two-person dialogue shots when you're unsure about how to correctly swing a pendulum.  If you get that far, you completely stunt your education because you simply will be lost.  The goal is to present our ideas to it's maximum capacity and in my personal case I'm trying to do that with acting.  But I can't represent my acting well if I didn't know my mechanics.  And I can't show my mechanics if I don't understand the fundamentals.

Take a step back sometimes and evaluate yourself.  What are your strengths and weaknesses.  Pick a weakness and design your next assignment to improve that way.  A good tip that helped me through some problems was to do very short mini-tests on the side in order to tackle some of my weaknesses.

5.  People Like People

I am a pretty shy person and I know there are many out there who feel the same way.  But a friend recently reminded me that people like people.  Animation Mentor has one of the strongest communities out there.  And the truth is a lot of these folks are extremely open and willing to help you out.  Be reasonable and respectful of people's time, but if you're in deep doo doo don't be afraid to ask for help.  Don't be afraid to reach out and help others.  Don't be afraid to put yourself out there!  More often than not, you'll be pleasantly surprised.  This also gets you away from the danger that is corner-animating.  The opposite of collective learning, where you go into a corner and animate by yourself - uploading your assignments five minutes before the deadline.  Go the other way!  Use your Public Reviews early and often.  Put whatever you have up in the middle of the week.  Your peers are a huge resource, use it well.

6.  Be Curious

I feel like it's important to open your mind to allow yourself to be objective and have the ability to think outside the box.  Discovering more provides more solutions, and if you break animation down to it's core it's really just problem solving.  Plus it's just damn interesting.  As I was getting into the acting courses I started reading all of these books on the human body and the human mind.  I started learning things about myself I didn't even know about and that totally blew my mind.  Fight, flight, or freeze.  Micro-expressions.  Anatomy and just how amazingly built the human body is.  Heck I discovered how my hips actually move in Class 1 (up until then I had no idea the side with the foot in the air drops down in Z).  It's just fascinating!  So get out there and read some books, experience new things, play an instrument, pick up hobbies, travel, and be forever curious.

7.  The Art of Feedback

It's imperative that you give and receive feedback.  Giving feedback has been an essential tool for me to improve.  Many times I've noticed an issue with someone's work only to go back to my shot and find myself making the exact same mistakes.  Now there is an art to giving feedback on two levels - what your notes are and how your notes are delivered.  When I approach someone's work I personally try to figure out the core ideas / fundamentals.  It's very easy to get caught up in details at any stage and I try not to go there until the main building blocks are cleared up.  While you're at it, study their work.  I sometimes go look at the shots that really inspire me and pick THAT apart as a way to dissect their successes.  It's important to be willing to give feedback completely void of expectation.  Use feedback as a study tool and know that giving feedback is never a waste (even if it gets completely ignored).  Feedback is animation eye-training.  How you deliver your feedback can be pretty complicated in itself.  My take on it is to approach with sincerity.  I'm honest not to be blunt, but to be passionate.  I try to be nice in the way of compassion, not to blow smoke.  I feel like one of the biggest cheats it to run around and tell everyone they are awesome... and then that's it.  I believe that anyone who takes the time to dissect someone's work is a person who actually cares.  The goal is to plus the shot.  Find bits you think could use some work, then offer a reason and a solution.

8.  Attitude

Realize that the people you're studying with and from will likely be your colleagues at some point.  I wasn't sure how to take it when I was constantly told that this is a tiny industry.  But it couldn't be more true.  This line of work requires a lot of collaboration, and nobody wants to work with a jerk.  There is a fine line between being passionate and being mean and high-brow.  You gotta stay humble.  Not just for the sake of being easier to work with (which is huge), but to gain a wider perspective.  People from all sorts of backgrounds and levels will teach you things that you can't see from your single vantage point.  If you're willing to allow that to happen, you'll learn more!  In the end, the field we've chosen is a team sport.  The reason why a good attitude is treasured is because it improves everyone's work and is no longer just about the individual, yet individually everyone is better off.

9.  Take Care of Yourself

Pretty self explanatory.  Sickness and pain will completely put you out.  The torture comes from sitting on the sidelines trying to heal when you want to be animating.

10.  Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

I'll leave it with Steve Jobs' famous quote.  This is a personal subject that I've been putting more stock in as time goes by.  I was lucky enough to meet Glen Keane during my time at Reel FX and listen to him talk about his work.  I immediately realized that when it came to animation we were looking at it from different sides.  I saw animation as visual art.  (I'm not claiming this is his view but this is how I came to interpret his talk)  He saw animation as an extension of his soul.  Think about how profound that difference is.  As it should be, I'm new and right now I'm learning the craft.  But I'm reminded that there is much more beyond mechanics, how many frames it takes for someone to blink, how a foot peels off the ground.  There is character, there is connection, there is meaning, there is soul.  There is you and all that you have to say.

There's so much more to talk about, but for now I think that covers a few major points.

Finished Reading:

Damn Good Advice by George Lois
Similar to Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.  Coming from the perspective of an advertisement man but has a lot of good tidbits on creativity and work ethic in general.

Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators by Mike Mattesi
Anyone who is interested in drawing should probably own this book.  I loved reading this as a newbie to drawing.

Currently Reading:

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
I'm only half way through this book but it is so fascinating.  He deconstructs some of the most creative people / companies out there to see how and why they are so successfully creative.  I think there is a lot of golden information in this book for any artist.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bigger Picture

I was lucky enough to find myself here in Dallas when Glen Keane rolled in to receive the Tex Avery Award.  He spent a night at the studio to give a very inspirational talk about his life's work thus far.  He ate lunch with us the next day and offered more words of wisdom.

What it boiled down to for me was this:

Creating moments on that screen that connects with an audience tends to come from a real place inside of you. The challenge is to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to reveal the truth about you through the characters.

If you're going to do this, do it with all of your heart.  Something half-assed will never fulfill.

Live the life of an artist, without walls.  Explore it all, absorb it all, recreate it all.  Stand on the shoulders of your predecessors and reach beyond.

This last tidbit had me thinking a lot about myself and made me take a step back to try and view animation as a whole.  The grand message I got from these few nights was that the field of animation feels like it's being confined within corporate walls.  Andreas Deja spoke of it much better than I can:

There are glimpses of hope in things like Spanish Buzz, Nigel from Finding Nemo, and Tangled.  Overall though I find the smell of money (it is a business after all) veers the field off-track.  Given my no-experience, I'm not really in a position to define the state of the industry, but never-the-less I was inspired to start exploring and absorbing so that one day I can recreate.

Finished Reading:
Save The Cat! Strikes Back by Blake Snyder
This book rocks.  So much insight into story, definitely recommend to anyone related to the film / story process.

Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll
A nice encyclopedia of film techniques.  Nothing new but a good book for those trying to understand film language / need a reference for film techniques.

Steal Like an Artist  by Austin Kleon
What started out as a cool posting turned into a book.  I really love this book, very small - huge on advice.  Puts things into perspective and is a fun, quick read.  I like having this one around.

The Flinch by Julien Smith (Free)
This book summed up my life up to this point and has changed it forever.  With many things now I'm learning not to flinch anymore.

Currently Reading:
Force:  Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators by Mike Mattesi
Two Guys Named Joe by John Canemaker
In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch