• Let me hear your body talk!

    Leave it to the refrain of a campy, Oliva Newton John, 80′s pop hit to clearly lay down an important principle of strong acting. Body language. It is something that I’ve been looking at and paying more attention to in my own work over the years and is something I find consistently lacking in student work. Mike Wu and I gave a talk in our Pixar 2 class at the Academy on this very topic not too long ago. How a character holds him/herself physically provides a tremendous amount of information to the audience and provides the real truth in a scene as to who your character is and how he/she is feeling. The body language may support dialogue being spoken or, in appropriate circumstances, completely contradict it. Of course, in situations where there is no dialogue the body is your only means to communicate to the audience how your character feels. Why do you think news shows bring in body language experts after presidential debates or press conferences? It’s because when it comes to communication, the truth is always in the body.

    Having said that, bear in mind the context and content of your scene. The rookie move I often see is to start adding a bunch of extra poses and peppering the animation with arbitrary gestures that don’t support or, worse yet, take away from what you’re trying to communicate. Start from the ground up. What’s going on? A guy is asking a girl for a date. How does he feel? Nervous. What graphic elements could I put into my pose that will help communicate that? Concave curves. A sunken or deflated line of action. How is he holding himself physically? He can’t look her in the eyes. He’s holding his arms in tight around himself. How is he moving? He can’t stay still. Just as your animation should build in a layered fashion, working from the root outward, so should your performance build. Start with content and context, and gradually layer elements which help support those ideas.

    Mike Wu showed a clip in class from “Godfather II” that shows a brilliant example of skilled, well choreographed body language. It takes place shortly after young Vito has killed the old Don of the neighborhood. He is now speaking with a landlord on behalf of a friend “asking him for a favor”. Watch it with the sound off like we did. It is obvious that Vito wants something from this man and the landlord is very clear about his dismissive attitude toward this thug who has the audacity to demand something from him. Now, in the very next scene, when the landlord learns from the neighborhood who Vito is and what he has done, the physical changes are sheer poetry in motion. The landlord has completely changed his physical demeanor. Vito, on the other hand, has what amounts to be a single pose that says more about how he feels than any line of dialogue ever could. Absolute gold!

    Study similar examples and bear these things in mind as you work out the foundation of your performances. The eyes can’t do it all. Factoring in these elements is what separates the great acting from mediocre or bad. Now, as Olivia would say, “Let’s get physical.”

  • New Doctors… and News..

    - We have added two Docs to the site. Adam Burke and Ross Stevenson. Both are animation Vets. Adam has been in the industry for 15 or more years and has worked at Bluth, Warners with Brad Bird on Iron Giant and other projects and even started his own Studio in the Boston area. He has been at Pixar since the Incredibles. Ross is teaching the first level class at the Academy and has been animating at Pixar since A Bugs Life. Look for a more detailed profile and hopefully some interesting posts in the coming year. Feel free to ask these guys any questions in the comments section.

    - We are in the process of updating the Web Site so that we can archive all the past articles and Splinecasts. As you already know, we are in Crunch on our current film, so its difficult to get much of anything done. Its all done with help of volunteers. If you would like to be a volunteer, let me know and I’ll gladly take any help with the web site and other stuff.

    - I am trying to do another Spline Cast. Hopefully it will be with one of the animators. I also am in the process of doing a written interview with Doug Sweetland. I am at his mercy, so be patient. It should be a good interview!

    - Sorry if I have not answered emails. My account was filled with 5000 spam emails, so I couldnt get in. my new email is gordo@splinedoctors.com

    - Thanks again for all the support and continued interest.


  • The Brows

    As we get into facial animation in class, one thing that is often overlooked is the brows. The brow is such an important signal for telling you, the audience, how a character feels. So what?, you might say… What do I really need to know about the brow? Well, here are few things that you want to keep in mind when animating them…

    For one, the brows should be treated as a unit. You often see animation notes that show the invisible line that connects the eye brows. This is done to retain a sense of anatomy and design. You don’t want two French frys sitting up there. Another thing you want to try to incorporate is how you design the poses. An example of this would be leading the eye. If a character is looking screen left, you really want to pose the brows in a way that complements the direction of the look. It seems basic, but it is missing in a lot of work.

    Transitions. The timing between brow poses is important to get right. You really want to think about how the actual muscle works. When I see a brow drifting for a lot of frames, it just doesn’t look right. Usually, the transition between poses is relatively quick. Also, think about the clearest “change” from one pose to another. Don’t over complicate it. The most successful brow animation I see is well designed, has good timing and is subtle as well. You can get really fancy with how your brows emote. Think of all the small details that a face has. Understand the difference between a brow going up and down, as opposed to Left and Right. Each has different meanings.

    Complement them with the eyes. Usually when the brows are moving, you will get some small movement in the eye lids. This is important to understand. There is no rule for how much, its just something to be aware of. I can go into detail about this, but observation is your best friend here.

    Happy Brow-loween


  • Improvimation

    I wanted to talk a bit about what we are doing at the Academy this semester. This semester, Scott Clark and I recorded 4 improv actors doing random scenes. We then picked the best one out of 20 or so skits and are animating to it. The students are in charge of every aspect of the process. We started by doing visual development. Then tasks were assigned to each student. Some Model, Some are doing layout etc… We have cast out the scenes and the students are beginning animation. Each of them will have a chunk of very juicy shots to animate. The dialogue they are animating to is full of great stuff. It give them the opportunity to animate something original with interesting characters. Granted, the story is improvised, so it aint Bambi but its good and alot can be learned. Scott Clark coined the term “Improvimation” I think its a great way to generate content, especially on the student level. Alot of the time, students take dialogue clips from movies. Unless they are done really well, most of them are lack luster. Expect to see the final film at the end of the semester.

    The image is of one of our characters “The Captain” It is a skit involving three characters.


  • Residual Energy

    Someone asked me to talk more about residual energy. There are alot of different ways this can be put to use. Residual energy is the energy left over from a primary or secondary movement. For example, a character does a gesture. When he hits the pose there may be a slight settle in the arm, hand and fingers. It is paying attention to these details that make the gesture look more believable. It could be how a hand comes to rest when it is placed on a surface. It is the small details that make it look physical. Overlap is another way of explaining this. When you think overlap, you think about hair or appendages or other broad things. Residual energy is a bit more subtle. There is a great scene in the incredibles that Animator John Kahrs did. Its when Violet is on the plane and is jostled by the turbulence. The way her leg bounces bounces up and down really makes her feel like she has flesh and bones. Understanding where the energy comes from is one of the most important parts. Then you need to figure out how it should be used. You don’t want to over do it so that it take away from the main action.

    Another thing you want to try an get into your work is patterns. I’ll try to cover this in a future post.