Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Essential Acting Principles

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As defined specifically for animators by Ed Hooks.

1) A scene is a negotiation

"In any negotiation, there must be a way you can win and a way you can lose." -Ed Hooks. This is another way of saying every scene must involve conflict, or opposing concerns. Example: I want to sit in a chair and you want to sit in a chair, we are both standing there in a room together and we have only one chair between us. Now what?! This is where the negotiation begins. A scene is a negotiation.

2) Thinking leads to conclusions; emotions lead to action

Having a thinking character is great but a thinking character can just sit like a lump in his chair while thinking thoughts all day. Now what?! Well, if he has strong feelings regarding one of his thoughts, he is likely to get up out of that chair and get busy. If he hates the noise coming in from the street outside, he jumps up and closes the window. If he loves the girl in the photograph on the table, he reaches over, picks up the picture, and kisses it as if he is kissing her. If he desires a tasty sandwich for lunch, he gets up and heads out the door for the local restaurant to get a meal. And so on. Emotion leads to Action.

3) Play an action until something happens to make you play a different action

Actions are based on motivation. If something motivates a character to take action, then the character must have a change in motivation in order to change their action.

Example: I want to deliver a package to a neighbor. First, I head out the door to walk over to the neighbors house. When I arrive at the house I stop walking. Why? Because it would be stupid and robotic to keep walking once I arrive. Imagine me smashing endlessly into the closed front door of my neighbor's house. Funny? Maybe. But there is not much of a story there. Ok, now that I have arrived, and stopped, I knock at the door. Now, again, if I were a stupid robot I would keep knocking, endlessly. I'm not stupid, nor a robot so I knock a few times and then wait. Ok, I'm waiting. Waiting more. Still waiting. Nothing has happened. If I keep waiting I'm probably pretty dumb so I think it is time to knock again... I raise my hand and suddenly the door opens. If I were to follow through with my intention to knock again, I'd probably hit my neighbor in the face with my fist. At this point I'll leave it to you if this is a good thing since I have made my point about playing an action. You can always switch it up for comedic effect. Just know what your character is doing and why. This begins with setting him or her on a course and staying the course until there is good reason to change... or not.

4) Theatrical reality is not the same thing as day‐to‐day reality

"Theatrical reality has form and is compressed in time and space." -Ed Hooks. Ok back to me, the package, and my neighbor. If you animated me in "real time" walking from my house to that of my neighbor, knocking, waiting and so on, you would have one, terrifically dull story. Not only would the amount of screen time watching me head out the door and across the street be boring for the audience, it would also ruin the comedic effect of me waiting and waiting after knocking. The audience would spend a lot of time watching me walk, and not so much time watching me wait after knocking. Not very entertaining. Practically speaking it would be a terrible waste of time to produce as animation with little benefit for the audience. Live action filmmakers don't waste that kind of time and effort on simple and obvious story mechanics so neither should animators. Put your story into theatrical time, both for the sake of the story and for the sake of the effort needed to produce it.

5) Empathy is the key to effective performance animation

"Humans empathize with emotion, not with thinking." -Ed Hooks. Remember that part in item number 4 about the audience? Well, the audience is why we do this stuff. Without them, what is the use of so much time and effort? We need the audience... not want, but need the audience to identify with our characters. What can we as animators use as a basis for connecting with the audience? What the character does. Ok, that's easy. Why is the character doing what he is doing? Emotion. Refer back to item number 2 listed above regarding the source of action.

So, what we are communicating to the audience is the character's emotional reality, and we communicate this essential reality through action. And best of all we do this to get the audience to empathize with the character.

6) In acting, an obstacle is the same thing as conflict

"In life, we generally try to avoid conflict, but in acting, it is our friend." -Ed Hooks. Delve into your character and find motivations, concerns, interests, and intentions. With these intentions you have a rich assortment of possible obstacles and conflicts. If you are having trouble finding potential obstacles and conflicts then you probably don't have a character, yet. If so, then focus on developing a living character. After developing your character, you may want to define the circumstances in which the character is surrounded. By this I mean the nature, environment, or situation that surrounds the character.

7) There are only three kinds of conflicts or obstacles:
  • Conflict with Self
  • Conflict with a Situation or Environment
  • Conflict with Another Character
These three types of conflict are listed in a typical order of interest for good story telling. The best is a character conflicted with himself. A character suffering conflict with himself is going to have a lot of interesting problems.

For instance think of a boy, who likes a girl, but is also afraid to talk to that girl. This poses a problem, how to let a certain girl he likes in on the fact that he likes her. Hmmmm... internal conflict.

That is fairly generic so lets make it even more interesting. What if the boy has to dress-up and pretend he is a girl in order to hide from threatening and dangerous characters, then he meets the girl that he desires. Now he has two internal conflicts... avoid danger from bad people by pretending to be something he is not, and interact effectively with his desired girl even though he is in the impossible situation of being a girl, liker her.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag. Some Like It Hot, United Artists 1959.

Think this is a ridiculous story? Check out the classic movie, Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. In fact, both male characters are going through the conflict of hiding as women while being attracted to an ideal woman. And because each has a chance to be alone with her they encounter one additional issue, now they have a rivalry for her affection. And they each identify with her in their 'female' roles differently which changes how others, including this ideal woman, respond to the two men posing as women.

What a mess!

Billy Wilder obviously understood that heightened and powerful storytelling involves more than one conflict or obstacle encountered by the main character simultaneously. Storytelling and acting cannot be separated from each other.

Ok, that's pretty complex. So, let's start off in a place that is much more simple. Who is your character, and what does your character want?

For those who are interested in digging deeper check out these books by Ed Hooks. The first is linked to at the top of this post; just click on the image. Another good reference to acting for animation as it applies to storytelling is Acting in Animation: A Look at 12 Films.