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.