Working without actors
When you write a film script, you usually have an idea about how it should be cast, and often write with a particular actor in mind. We know what sort of characters most actors like to play. With Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen you pretty much know what you’re getting. One look from Clint and you know he means business, and you’d better watch out. Woody Allen will always be a neurotic New York Jew. You could never imagine him playing the lead role in a bio-pic about some serious politician, or as a comic superhero, unless it was purely for comic effect.
The best film actors do not do a lot, and yet we are able to read the slightest change of “look” in their faces. A lot of their acting is done with their eyes. If we engage with anybody, don’t we look at their eyes?
Of course, we cannot change the way our eyes look, though we do have some control over eyebrows, eyelids, moisture, etc. Yet we all know people whose eyes seem shifty, and, if we’re lucky, we’ve all looked into someone’s eyes and seen love. An actor’s face is a canvas upon which we are encouraged to project our own emotions, and sometimes the blanker it is the more feeling it seems to possess.
Isn’t this the fascination of the Mona Lisa? The fact that there is so little expression in her face makes us project our own ideas about her eyes, and her smile.
Most animators do not possess the technical skills of Leonardo, and, if they did, they would not have the time to practice them in an animated show. However skilful the character animation may be, it is almost impossible for an animated character to hold our attention with just a look for any length of time. Some 3D characters are semi-realistic, but many 2D characters are very graphic. Many animated characters are not even human.
It is possible to read something into this face:
But not much into this:
This is a bit simplistic, I admit, but I'm sure you understand my point. Facial expression in animation may not be as limited as in this smiley, but it is going to be a lot more limited than that of any actor.
Compare this photograph of the Jackson Five
With an image from the animated series
In the photograph, whatever the reality, we get a feeling for the different characters. We see the tired smiles for the camera, the uneasiness of the pose, and maybe can read a fresh optimism in Michael Jackson’s face.
In the drawing, you can’t tell one Jackson from another. They are defined by the colour and shape of their clothing, the (slightly strange) positioning of eyebrows and eyes, and the smiles. If you are not a fan of the Jackson Five, these characters look almost interchangeable. Which is which?
The implication of this is profound for the writer. If you are writing a script for Clint Eastwood, you are not going to write what he should be feeling, pieces of business for him to do, etc. You need to respect his ability and craft. When you are writing for animation you are writing for a drawing, or a model, or a synthetic image. Of course, animators will use their own “semaphore” of facial expressions and gestures, positioning mouths and eyebrows to signal to us what characters should be feeling, using teardrops almost symbolically in eyes that are almost always disproportionately large.
The writer’s role is not to write any of this, nor to explain what the character should be feeling. We’re not taking about a manual of expressions, nor about a novel.
Animation is about finding imaginative visual means of expression that do not rely on an actor's skill, and the writers’ job is to propose ways of doing this.
More about this next week.