Revisiting the mission.

The mission statement that is. The tongue-in-cheek genesis of this blog was an attempt to pass on information about the great masters of animation’s past to a generation of students who spend more time learning software than they do the principles and history of their craft. In an attempt to reinforce what this blog was created for, I’d like to share a little about an evening I had recently with a wooden puppet, a dog, and a doorknob.

My teaching partner Mike Wu and I were in class last week giving a lecture on dialogue. It wasn’t so much about mouth shapes or the technical aspects of animating dialogue, as it was about the “phrasing” of your animation in a dialogue driven performance. For those unfamiliar with the term, animation “phrasing” has a similar meaning to it’s grammatical and musical counterparts. It is the composition of movement used to communicate your ideas to the audience. In addressing several principles and old guidelines (some of which we can post about later) we showed several clips that we felt showed what we were talking about better than we could ever explain it.

The first was from Pinocchio. We were talking about the design of your mouth shapes being consistent with the expressions and attitude of the character. We showed the sequence of Pinocchio and Lampwick shooting pool together on Pleasure Island. The shape of Pinocchio’s mouth had a great asymmetrical smirk which worked with the vocal performance and reinforced the idea of that young, forced bravado and trying so hard to sound grown up. Next, after talking about designing mouth shapes and maximizing their appeal, we showed the doorknob sequence from Alice In Wonderland. This is one of my favorite classic Disney performances. Frank Thomas took the challenge of animating a talking doorknob and designed it and handled it in a way that was not only entertaining to watch, but made you believe it! The artistic choices he made for mouth shapes using the key hole were inspired. Then, discussing phrasing and clarity, Mike Wu brought out some big guns. Lady and the Tramp. This oft-forgotten movie has some of the most brilliant character animation ever done on film. We watched the sequence of Tramp warning the neighborhood dogs of how things change for a dog once there is a baby in the house. This sequence, animated primarily by Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas, has scenes in it that as an animator took my breath away. I felt like I was watching it for the first time the other night in class, or perhaps with different eyes. In the context of our lecture it demonstrated that animating dialogue is more than properly articulating mouth shapes to an audio track. It is about whether or not the character “feels” like he is delivering the dialogue.

What made the biggest impression on me at the end of class was how high the 9 Old Men and other Golden Age animators had raised the bar for us with what they achieved, and how rarely contemporary animation comes even remotely close to that bar. There are certainly diamonds in the rough out there, but by and large we still have so much to do when it comes to living up to the legacy of those who forged this medium. Take the time to watch and study the artistry of some of this classic stuff. Also try to remember, that when these great films were made it was a new and exciting technology. However, in order for these films to resonate with audiences they need to go far beyond a bunch of moving images. Funny how some things never change.