I have written previously that one of the uses of dialogue in animation is to express character. As in all movie writing, it is so much more interesting to come up with visual ways of doing this. Film, and animated film in particular, is a visual medium, and good film writing should aspire to express plot, character and emotion through pictures and action. Films without dialogue can, of course, seem strange and uncomfortable. We need dialogue for realism and punctuation. When used for subtext or humour it can pack a powerful punch.
Some years ago, I went to Robert McKee’s excellent story seminar. He made some observant comments on creating character through action, and used as an example the opening scene from The Drowning Pool, which features Paul Newman as Ross MacDonald’s famous detective, Lew Archer. Archer wanders into his kitchen in the morning looking rough, and searches for some coffee. Finding none, he looks in the bin, where he finds a used filter with some black sludge at the bottom. He brews up, and knocks back the coffee, ready for the day.
This kind of characterisation is probably too realistic for animation, which relies on exaggeration and illusion. One of the first things we do when developing a series is to come up with walk cycles for our main characters. I studied movement at the Laban studio, and was once given an assignment to stand in a crowded railway station and observe how different people walked. I then had to imitate these walks, carrying my weight in different parts of the body, using different dynamics in the way I swung my arms or lifted my feet. The way you move expresses something about your personality and when I imitated someone else’s walking style I began to understand what it felt like to be that person. This was a technique I used later as a professional actor.
I am not suggesting that you can write this. In animated films animators do the acting. Good animators understand the value of observation and imitation. They draw their inspiration not just from observing people going about their business, but also from the exaggerated mannerisms of mime and silent movies. The advantage of animation is that it is not bound by realism. Animators can play around with timing, place limbs in positions that would normally not be physically possible or create walks with multiple legs.
Some characteristics are easy to express visually. If a character is clumsy you can show him forever knocking things over. In a live action film, he would knock over glasses of water, vases of flowers or umbrella stands. In animation, he is more likely to knock over a wall, a house or a line of trees. In animation, a shy character might climb under a rock, stick himself to the ceiling or disguise himself as a piece of furniture. Animation lends itself to fantasy and exaggeration, and its characters work best when they are unequivocal and larger than life.
This is why animated films are full of characters who are stupid, accident prone or neurotic, who don’t know their own strength, who are naïve, psychopathic or gushingly emotional. Normal people don’t cut it. But then they seldom do.