Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Writing For Animation - 6

Working Without Actors – More conclusions

Facial Expressions

When I was an actor, I learned the technique of how to hold a pose and keep it “alive”, and how to look at camera, or at another actor, and keep the look animated.  This was essentially about keeping tension in the body, and an intensity of the gaze.  Synthetic characters do not have these possibilities.  Animation is about an illusion of movement.  Long holds are difficult to sustain.  For reasons we have already discussed, expression of feeling or character is best achieved with action, or a dramatic pose.

There are times, though, when you want to show that a character is happy, sad, angry, etc without making them leap for joy, break down and beat the floor with grief, or punch someone in the eye.  We have already discussed why long looks to camera are not a good idea.  More usual is a REACTION SHOT, a quick cutaway to somebody’s face to show an expression.

Animators show how a character might be feeling by manipulating the angle of the head, eyebrows, and the shape of eyes and mouths.  In some cases this can be quite sophisticated. Much depends on the character design, and the budget.  The more realistic the design, the more possibilities there are for expression, and the more skill that is required. 

At its crudest, though, facial expression in animation is more like a mask…  or an emoticon…   an iconic symbol that indicates a feeling or state of mind. 

You should think of your reaction shots as if you were cutting away to a mask.  It would be quite usual to see HAPPY REACTION or SAD REACTION in a script, or, if it is blatantly obvious what the character is feeling, simply a REACTION from a certain character.

There are, of course, other ways of using the face, or entire head, for expression.  For a start, in animation, it is possible to animate facial elements that would be impossible in real life.  You can animate eyes, mouths, ears, moustaches, hair, etc., or distort the shape of the head.  We made a whole series about a family of reindeer who used their antlers as if they were hands. 

You will have seen examples of this in early cartoons.  The eyes that become heart-shaped and pulse with love, and steam that shoots from ears, have become crude clichés. In his Red Riding Hood films, Tex Avery animates eyes and tongues to great comic effect.

Bill Plympton animates the face with a different type of absurdity.

Of course, you can only write this sort of animated effect if the style of the show allows it, and the fashion currently is for styles that are more realistic.
Proverbially, the eyes are a window to the soul, but, in animation writing, you should think of the eyes, and the whole face, as a canvas.  If the eyes are a window, then you might be able to see a reflection in them.  In animation writing, it is possible to animate reflections in eyes, if the budget allows.  You could do this in a realistic way.  For example, you could track in to wide open eyes, in which we see the reflection of a wild beast approaching.  Or, if you want to be more fantastic, you could show the reflection of a lonely castaway on a raft at sea, a figure running through a firestorm, an ivy winding its grip around a tree, etc.  In these latter examples, you would not need a reflection; you could animate the scene directly onto the surface of the eye, or even push through the eye into the brain.

I am getting ahead of myself.  I shall talk later about the use of camera in animation writing, and the impact of not having a traditional cameraman

Next week, though, I shall complete the section of this blog about working without actors, and talk about other ways of showing character and emotion.

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