If you haven't seen yet the James Baxter's Animation lecture over on Seward Street, you are missing out!
James Baxter Animation Lecture - Day One: Acting
March 26, 2008
For those who are unaware, James Baxter is returning to Dreamworks Animation in the Summer of 2008. Having completed two successful hand-drawn projects at his own studio (Enchanted and the opening credits of Kung Fu Panda), James finds himself wanting to concentrate solely on the art of animation. To commemorate his return and in an effort to improve the quality of animation at the studio, Dreamworks sponsored a three-day seminar for their animators.
The first day concentrated on Acting in Animation.
I transcribed my notes from today’s lecture. James used a lot of clips to make his points. In the interest of time I’ve written out the important parts. If I get a chance I’ll post the actual video clips. As today’s lecture concentrated solely on acting you’ll find a lot of what James said in his recent podcast with Clay at Animation Podcast.
Hopefully you’ll find these notes relatively coherent and useful:
Animators are the ones that throw the switch; the ones who make an audience forget that they are animated characters.
The most important thing is to try and find the truth. But you can’t do this by “method” animating. You can’t be in the moment for the length of time it takes to complete a scene. Actors do, while animators describe.
Best note of the day: You don’t have to do improv classes (Yeah!)
When you act out a scene, it’s important to remember that it is your body you are acting with, not your character’s. Your character can do things your body can’t (and is probably better at them as well).
Bill Tytla was the first animator to take acting in animation seriously.
Stanislavsky was the one who focused actors more on their preparation rather than on acheiving results. Method acting is the process of moving away from thinking about what you are going to do in a scene and instead, focusing more on what you need to do to prepare to make the scene honest and true. In this way, you allow the spontaneous to happen.
Meisner believed it wasn’t enough to rely on sense memory - that your memories were inadequate for the task of acting.
Sandy Meisner’s famous quote that great acting is - “the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
James showed a clip comparing Ben Kingsley’s acting in Ghandi with that of his performance in Sexy Beast.
Approaching a Scene
Many things to consider in your preparation for a scene:
The context of the scene in the sequence
How does a character move physically; what sets them apart from others in the same film?
Best way to stage a scene. Consider the correct angle to sell an emotion. In CG, it’s easy to lose the point of a scene behind all the lighting and rendering.
Aware of the composition of a scene.
Referring to the Shere Khan/Kaa sequence in Jungle Book.
Milt has set it up so you only look at one thing at a time. He crafted the scene so that when Shere Khan pops open his claws, everyone is looking there. Nothing else is moving. (Waste of time to always be moving all the background characters).
Your eye reacts to movement, color and contrast. Use those to direct your audience’s attention.
Fred Astaire good at that - staging a dance so you look exactly at what he wants you to.
For James, the life of a scene usually leads him from a very emotional point to a very technical one. Emotional as he figures out the acting; technical as he makes it look good.
Need to block things out with enough juice to communicate your intentions to the director.
Showed the Pinocchio scene with the tail popping out to point out: clear line of action and a clean and natural balance and rhythm to the poses.
Not a ton of different attitudes within a scene. Usually there is one or two major poses per scene. Used Horton as an example of animation having too much to it. Loved the scenes with JoJo because you could actually focus on what he was doing.
Remember the timing within a scene - make sure you have enough time to do the action that you want. Don’t force something in there just because you think it looks cool.
James’ Perfect Animator
James’ perfect animator exists somewhere between Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, and Ward Kimball:
Milt for pure draftsmanship, posing and technique.
Frank for truthful acting.
Ward for shere graphic ingenuity.
Ward Kimball is the one that constantly pulls James away Milt and reminds him that animation is not real; you can actually do whatever you want.
Comparing the work of Frank Thomas to Milt Kahl
Frank Thomas always considered the “actor’s animator.” While Milt used poses to communicate his intentions, often focusing on a single drawing, Frank used actions to communicate the intentions of his scenes.
Milt’s scenes tend to have very strong “tentpole” poses; what happens inbetween them is often the same motion (headshakes, hand gestures, etc.).
Frank was more concerned with the feeling and flow through a scene. He made drawings that wouldn’t necessarily work on a model sheet, but in motion they feel right.
Showed a sequence with Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone where she speaks to Wart on the table. The “one little finger” and “ugly” scenes were Milt and they look very familiar (move like other characters). Beautiful but reminiscent. Frank’s scene is the one directly after where she walks by Wart looking down at him from the corner of her eye. Milt would probably never have done this kind of acting, but it feels more truthful to the scene.
Showed sequences from Jungle Book comparing the different ways of approaching animation on Baloo. The scene of Baloo screaming “Bagheera!” at the edge of the cliff was Milt’s. Baloo gets up and starts punching the air. Milt seems more considered with making awesome drawings that animate beautifully. Seems to get carried away with the mouth shapes on “mangy monkey.” Frank probably would’ve used that opportunity to have Baloo connect more with Bagheera.
Then he showed the scene of Baloo waking up Mowgli - very different acting choices.
Analyzing Live Action
If you find yourself watching a greatly acted scene but not knowing exactly why it works think, how else could they have done it? That helps you figure out what kind of preparation they had to go through and helps you to see the kinds of choices that had to be made.
A Real Actor
Then Allison Janney showed up and I stopped taking notes - too captivating!
One thing I did write down that she said: Find what is important to your character (what they themselves think is important). If it’s not in the script you have to make it up.
A good technique to help you stay true to the character.
If you want more of the lecture Click Here