Here’s a scene from the Robert Altman film, The Player. I had been thinking about this post for a while and after reading Gordon’s latest I thought this would be a perfect extension of his point, but more related to dialogue as opposed to pantomime.
Watch Grant (the British dude) pitch part of his movie idea to Tim Robbins, a studio executive. Robbins’ performance is equally as interesting for all the subtext going on but I won’t spoil that for you. Here we’ll examine the texture of Grant’s performance in his body acting while he’s talking. Normally I wouldn’t advise hitting beats so “on-the-nose” as he does, as it tends to flatten a performance: why illustrate with the body exactly the words the character is saying? And certainly if all he had done was hit the obvious poses, the scene would be boring, or even worse, annoying. I want to talk not about the poses he hits, but what he does in between them that makes this scene so entertaining.
Take, for example, the first close up scene of Grant as he explains the car accident investigation. An animator would find it very easy and tempting to skip right from the “brakes have been tampered with” to the pose for “murder.” But Grant makes it interesting and convincing by doing a hilarious anticipation before the line. I broke the beat down into the five keys I’d pose for his action:
1) “brakes have been tampered with”
2) eyes close, head up
3) head down, hands up
4) hands hit down: “it’s”
5) head up to look at Tim Robbins: “murder”
(You’ll probably note that he actually hits a slightly different pose for “murder” before arriving and holding at the one I picked.)
Now he’s not just illustrating the line, he’s added a whole new urgency to it, and subtext that reads “no if’s, and’s or but’s, it’s murder!” And he’s broken up the action by having his hands follow his head as a second accent. He’s also acting within poses very economically; long holds with subtle texturizing movements. He’s covered all the principles! This whole scene is chock full of such juiciness (including preceding lines I cut for time). Look at the antic for the running action or the dramatic pause before “there’s not a dry eye…” And these are extreme examples; in animation even a two frame eye antic *before* your body antic can help show thought process and make a scene more entertaining. Bottom line: characters thinking = believability. Believability = entertainment.
Look for places to do this in your work!