Is there a missing 13th principle of animation? Why does this fundamental truth about animation fly so much under the radar? Let me explain…
The animator's goal is to make a connection with the audience - a connection so strong that the audience with empathise with - or share the feelings and thoughts of a character. Wait a minute…thoughts?…feelings?…only living things can think, right? So that means before any serious entertainment can take place, the audience must believe the character is alive.
Okay so what is it specifically that animated characters do that makes an audience believe they are alive? Is it the quality of the motion - will an audience 'connect' with a perfectly crafted walk cycle? Is it a compelling pose - will an audience empathise with a well executed expression? No - and here's the thing - a character is only truly 'alive' and therefore able to connect to an audience when it thinks, or at least…when the audience believes the character is thinking
And don't take my word for it - Ollie Johnston said in his famous book "It is the thinking that gives the illusion of life". While the overall performance is important - the face is the most powerful indicator of what a character is thinking or feeling. A strong facial expression in itself can convey an emotion, but not thinking. And here comes the 13th principle - the thing that conveys that a character is thinking is…
CHANGE OF EXPRESSION
The central concept of facial animation is that for each single thought there is one expression, and while it can change in intensity it will not change in feeling. When a character gets a new thought or has a realisation about something, she will change to a new expression, indicating thinking has taken place. So...change of expression = thinking = life!
Here's the essentials to make thinking (and therefore life) happen…
1. KNOW THE CHARACTER
Before you can make a character think, you must know her. If you thoroughly understand the personality of the character, then you will know how she thinks, and combined with the emotional cues within the dialog you will be able to make decisions about what those expressions could look like.
2. STRONG POSES
In the same way that animators create strong poses for characters, and the changes from key pose to key pose propel the audience through the character's performance, the face must also move through strong poses or expressions.
3. BREAK IT DOWN TO FIND THE EXPRESSION CHANGES
If there's dialog, listen to the track. A typical scene might be a few seconds long. During those few seconds identify the thoughts driving the dialog. Ask yourself these two questions - how many thoughts are there in the dialog, and where are the changes of thought? These are the places where the expression will change.
By exploiting this fundamental concept - especially in close ups, characters will make a powerful connection with the audience. So look for opportunities to show a change of expression when you are storyboarding or animating, and your characters will come alive.
By Steve Bristow www.stevebristow.com
Images from Sherazade The Untold Stories, initially developed by Hahn Film.
©2017 Hahn Film | Chocolate Liberation Front | Toonz Entertainment
Lip sync can make or break your character animation - done well it can take your character's performance to another level - done badly it can turn your shot into a train wreck. This post is for the animator who submitted the offending shot, and the producer or director who can see that it's not working but aren't sure what's wrong with it.
1. The dialog seems too early or late
I've seen it happen more than once where the dialog has accidentally been nudged along the timeline a few frames - so my first take on this would be to slip the dialog track back and forth on the timeline and see if it falls back into sync.
Offsetting the lip sync can actually help - sometimes the mouth shapes may be accurately timed to the dialog sounds, but it still doesn't seem to be in sync when played back. Try offsetting the mouth key poses a frame or two earlier than the corresponding sound - this can improve the readability of lip sync. The exception is the closed mouth sounds B, M and P, which should fall right on the closed mouth pose.
2. The mouth shapes are too big
If the character's mouth moves through BIG shapes for open mouth sounds like A, E and O - this can look pretty grotesque. An animator tackling lip sync for the first time might have referenced a mouth shape chart like Preston Blair's famous 'DIALOGUE' page and created key mouth poses that are oversized. Lip sync mouth shape charts often show exaggerated poses - to make the point, rather than to be followed verbatim. Scale down the size of the extremes of the mouth shape and try it again.
BTW - that single page was the only published document on lip-sync pre-internet days, and a generation of animators owe a debt of gratitude to Preston Blair (RIP) for getting them out of trouble.
3. Too many mouth shapes
If the mouth is moving through too many shapes in the dialog it will looks jittery and unnatural. It's a common mistake to try to hit every single phoneme with a key mouth pose. Identify the important shapes that define the word, and skip over the lesser ones.
Generally you should try to create lip sync with as few mouths shapes as you need to make it convincing - real speech is like that - the mouth doesn't move all that much. An extreme is anime - whose limited animation style typically achieves lip sync with two mouth shapes - open and shut (millions of anime fans never complained about this).
The best way to check what's really going on with speech is to rehearse it in a mirror - and all good animators have one on their desk - right?
4. The wrong mouth shapes
If the mouth is open when it should be closed or wide when it should be narrow, it should be pretty clear that the wrong mouth pose is being used. I know it sounds obvious, but I've seen it many times and unless it was somehow accidental - there's really no excuse for it. As a supervising director once told me - animators who do this should be publicly flogged. That might be a little harsh - but you get my drift.
5. No follow through
It's not a good look when a mouth slams shut - back to the default closed position at the end of a word. Unless the word ends on a closed mouth shape, the last shape of the spoken word should hold for a while.
The final word is that there are no hard and fast rules for lip sync. What works for one character design or animation style, won't necessarily work for another. It may seem bewildering at first, but once you nail it - it's magic. And lip sync is just a subset of facial animation - which is another blog post.
Sherazade The Untold Stories (2017) is an animated TV series initially developed by Hahn Film. Images are from season 1 episode 10 and episode 17, directed by Steve Bristow.
Here's a link to the storm sequence from episode 17
Got any more lips sync tips and tricks? Post 'em as a comment.
Motion Capture (mocap) is the process where actor performances are captured as motion data, then applied to computer generated characters. An 'optical' mocap stage is a large room lined with infrared cameras, which track markers on actors wearing black body suits.
Choice of mocap for an animated TV series
During pre-production of Saladin: The Animated Series the big question was whether to use mocap or to keyframe the animation manually. After much deliberation - it was decided to use mocap. Reasons were - the character designs were humanoid, it was an action genre that would require a lot of complex animation, and there was a belief that mocap would be a time and cost effective solution for the volume of animation needed to make 26 x 24 minute episodes.
Bye bye cartoon physics
The decision to use mocap meant we would have to forego those appealing cartoony qualities like squash, stretch, anticipation, exaggeration and snap. Instead the animated characters would move with realistic human motion. While it's true that mocap'd motion can be edited, in practice it's not that easy to manipulate mocap motion curves (think spaghetti), and in a busy TV series pipeline where artists are under the pump to meet daily quotas, not a practical option. It was a big decision stylistically, that set the tone for the look of the show.
Casting for actors
Not all actors are interested in playing mocap characters. While they will get a screen credit, their face will never be seen, and their voice never heard. Actors will be acting on an empty stage and will often be acting parts alone - unable to play off other actors.
Generally actors will need to be pretty athletic, with good physical performance skills, and if they have other abilities such as martial arts or dance then they may be able to double up and play other characters as well.
Actors are essential - they are trained in performance and can express emotion with their body movements. And the same goes for stunt performers and dancers - so don't skimp on your mocap talent.
Directing mocap actors
Directing mocap actors is more about choreographing movements in time and space, than extracting sincere emotional performances. With the task of capturing thousands of shots for a TV series - it's a production line.
Before performing a sequence - play the animatic to the actors. Brief them on what's happening in the story at that moment, the emotion in the scene and your vision for the scene. Rehearse the shot. Let the actor interpret your instruction - allow them to have input. Help to locate their starting and ending positions on the stage. Rehearse the shot until you and the actor are ready to go for a take.
Timing of actions is critical - the animatic should have already been cut and timed to dialog recordings before starting any mocap - or at bare minimum the storyboard completed. Sequences are therefore in effect pre-edited - so if a storyboarded shot has the actor taking three steps, turning left and jumping - in three and a half seconds - then that's what has to be performed. There's little room for improvisation - the actors are essentially performing what's already been storyboarded and voiced by vocal actors.
When the mocap technician is ready, she will call 'standby' then 'recording'. Like a film director, the mocap director calls 'action' and 'cut'. This protocol might vary from one studio to the next.
The mocap technician will review each take first. If the take was technically good - without corrupt data caused by occlusion (explained later) or other system limitations, then it will be reviewed by the director and actor to assess whether it's a keeper or not. If not, subsequent takes will be made until a good performance with clean data is achieved. Sometimes a continuous sequence of several shots with different camera angles may be captured in one take, and later in the animation department, the shot cut up into the different camera angles.
Mocap stages will have some basic props and performance aids such as platforms and boxes to simulate stepping or climbing motions; mats for actors to fall or tumble on, and other props such as weapons (typically simple non-reflective wooden or plastic proxies).
The active area of the stage is a performance limitation - actions in the storyboard that need more space than the stage can provide will need to have workarounds figured out - such as cycling a running action or capturing big actions in parts.
Occlusion (in optical mocap systems) is when a marker is obscured from the cameras. Markers need to be visible by at least two cameras to triangulate their location in 3D space. Whether it's self-occlusion or occlusion by other players or props, the result is bad data and retakes. Generally, the more cameras and the fewer players on the stage, the less chance of occlusion. Unless you're on a Hollywood budget, you may be working in a small mocap stage with 12 cameras or less, in which case you can probably put only one or two actors on the stage at a time.
On a mocap stage there is no physical camera to compose the shot, and the actor/s may have no awareness of camera placement or shot composition. So the director has to imagine the performance as it will finally appear on the screen.
However, a well equipped mocap stage will have a virtual camera - a small hand held screen that acts as a viewfinder for the director to frame the shot. The scene is rendered in the screen in real time - and may also include virtual props and set. The director can use the virtual camera to get real time feedback and make composition, staging and lensing decisions. The virtual camera also has markers so it's position and movement can be recorded.
Mocap directors must understand screen direction and continuity if they are capturing scenes for continuity cutting. When all the shots are conformed in the animation timeline later, they must be continuous, otherwise it's back to the mocap stage for a retake, which means time and money (and an anxious producer).
Selected mocap takes are sent for 'clean up' before they can be added to the animation pipeline. Autodesk Motion Builder is the standard app for cleaning mocap data. If you're lucky your data will be pretty clean, if not there will be jerks and bumps caused by occlusion, reflections or other system glitches that need to be smoothed out.
Mocap vs keyframe - conclusion
So did mocap make it easier or faster to make 26 half hours of animation? Well... no. Mocap added a whole other layer of complexity where things could go wrong. The time taken to capture 8,000 shots and the cost of the mocap stage, technicians, stage hands, actors, clean up artists, mocap directors could arguably have been better spent on more animators, resulting in a more traditional animated motion and simpler pipeline. End of the day the realistic motion didn't look out of place on the stylised human characters and the co-production partners were pleased with the outcome.
I'd love to hear about your experience with or thoughts about mocap - leave a comment.
Steve Bristow is an animation producer/director based in Melbourne Australia.
Melbourne Feb. 2016. Paleontologists are excited about the discovery of a Mickey Mouse fossil that dates to the Early Cretaceous period, and may be up to 115 million years old. The fossil was discovered coincidentally by animation director Steve Bristow on a remote stretch of coastline near Cape Otway in Victoria, Australia. The site of the discovery is near "Dinosaur Cove", Cape Otway, where scientists in the 1970s and '80s, unearthed the richest diversity of animal fossil samples ever found in Australia.
The age of the fossil predates the Disney creation by around 115 million years, which would therefore put Mickey Mouse in the public domain, which may have serious legal implications for the House of Mouse.
Paleontologists surmise the prehistoric mouse came to grief in what was then a warm tropical muddy swamp, which over millions of years formed into the sedimentary rocks that are a feature of this particular stretch of coastline.
Condensing a complicated message into a minute or so of compelling web video is a tricky business. Here's some tips that will have you writing like a pro.
1. Write for your audience
Who are you talking to? Plumbers, students, migrants, accountants…whatever. The "voice" you use will depend on your audience. Always try to put yourself in the shoes of the audience - what are they really interested in? How can you help them to get what they want / solve their problem / save them time or money? Don't write stuff your audience can't relate to or are not interested in.
2. The first ten seconds must be killer
That's about how long it takes for online audiences to decide whether to abandon your video or not. It's the hardest part of the script, so write and re-write the first ten seconds until you're sure you are making a connection with your audience. Say something shocking, interesting, emotive, funny, clever or empathetic. If you still have them beyond ten seconds, chances of them hanging around for a while is good.
3. Don't write literature
It's a visual medium - so write for the screen. As you write, always think "what will the audience be seeing when I say this?" Also ask yourself "do I even need to say this - maybe I can show it." Don't say it if you can show it - exploit the medium for what it's best at - showing stuff. Remember - you don't want to tell the whole story anyway - you just want to tell the essence, enough for your audience to "get it". Long flowery descriptions are for your brochure, not your video.
4. Brevity is King
Studies show that online video abandonment is directly related to duration. More people will sit through a 60 seconder, than a 120 seconder. So the briefer the message, the larger your audience. Research by Wistia shows that audiences will even abandon a video just because of the length of the timeline - regardless of the content! Detach yourself emotionally from the script - keep only the really important stuff - be ruthless.
5. Structure it
Since the beginning of storytelling, stories happen in three acts. Web videos are no different. The first act will set the scene, introduce characters, give context to what follows. The second scene is where the story unfolds and the audience gets all the information they need to understand the message. If there is a character, this is the part where she overcomes obstacles on her journey to get what she wants. The third act is where the story wraps up, the character has evolved (thanks to the product), and the message is driven home.
6. The ideal explainer video duration is 60 seconds
OK I said it. Now I know you're thinking "there's no way I can say all this in 60 seconds." Yes online videos come in all shapes and sizes, and often 60 seconds is really not long enough. I'm just saying if you want maximum viewer retention; you want to get across one strong message with say three key benefits; you want the viewer to stay all the way to the end where your big finish and call to action is, then 60 seconds is the way to go. Most explainer videos run for 90 seconds - okay that's doable but not ideal. Beyond 2 minutes and most of your audience have moved on or are comatose. BTW - the writer's rule of thumb - about 150 words gets you a screen minute.
7. Say it with animation
Animation is awesome. It crosses cultural, age, gender and whatever barriers with ease, and is the medium of choice for explainer video makers. Animation can show whatever the mind can conceive - I think Walt Disney said that. Animation can make even the most dull or complex subject matter look cheerful and easy-peasy.
8. Use Video Script format
Pro's write in the Video Script format, so write like a pro and impress your video production company. Video Script format is a portrait-oriented page divided into two vertical columns (Google "video script" to see hundreds of examples). The left column is headed Audio, the right column is headed Video. Write the Voice Over (VO) in the left column, write the corresponding video description in the right. Separate each scene with a horizontal line. Only write one idea per scene.
9. Read it out loud
I love this tip. If you read it out load you will discover things that sound clunky or long-winded. You will discover the mood of the script. You will discover places where you need to add a word for emphasis, or delete a whole line. You will discover that it's dry and doesn't sound like "talk". You will also discover (because you have your stopwatch running) that it's too long and needs to be shorter and more punchy.
10. Forget everything you just read
Just start writing - don't worry about the grammar, the tone, the structure, the word count or format. Just get it all out - let it flow - however it comes. Then leave it for a couple of days. Come back with fresh eyes and discover how long, dry, repetitive, and horrible your first draft is. But hey, you have a first draft - congratulations! Now the writing can really begin because script writing is about re-writing….and re-writing…and re-writing. Now you can use this 10-point checklist to transform that first draft into a beautiful thing.
Author: Steve Bristow lectures in Screenwriting at JMC Academy Melbourne, has screen credits as a script editor, has written scripts for corporate videos, TV commercials and web explainer videos.
The agency likes what you do - that's why they've called you in to take a brief, but they need to be confident your vision for their TV commercial is aligned with what they want. They might ask you to write a Treatment. A Treatment is a pitch - a selling document, to win across the agency and client to your vision for their commercial. It's your opportunity to show that you totally understand the advertiser's requirement and that you are able to deliver it in the most compelling way.
1. Totally understand the brief
Ask a lot of questions so that you are crystal clear on the brief. Try to gauge how flexible they are about the story and visual style. This is important - the amount of creative freedom you have on a project can vary widely from one brief to the next. Some briefs will be very specific, with little room for additional creative input. While at the other extreme the agency will have one of those "no idea" briefs - the bare bones of an idea that relies heavily on your creative input to flesh it out and make it work. Know the demographic and don't lose sight of who your audience is when crafting your treatment.
2. Is the ad Story or Spectacle
If it's Story then it should have a beginning, middle and end, with at least one character. Traditional story telling techniques come into play here (see next point). The objective of Story is to engage the audience with a plot that resolves at the end with the advertiser's message embedded. If it's Spectacle there is no story - the ad is eye candy in the form of motion graphics, montage or visual effects. The objective of spectacle is to attract the audience's attention with appealing visuals and catchy audio to get the message across.
3. Get your story essentials in place
All stories must have a CHARACTER that the audience can empathise or identify with. The character should have a GOAL - he/she/it wants something. Finally there should be CONFLICT - an obstacle to the character getting what she wants, which must be overcome.
STRUCTURE is equally important - most stories have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is where the character is introduced and the setting is established. Then a problem or incident moves the story to the middle part, where obstacles are overcome. Finally the story resolves and the character is much happier now that (thanks to the product) the problem is solved - cue the logo and park it for the last second. If your TV commercial has these story elements in place, you're in good shape.
Ask yourself these questions - will it fit into the duration you have to work with? Can it be funnier/scarier/more dramatic/whatever? Can I withhold some information from the audience until the end to give them a surprise? Is the main character appealing enough? Will the audience connect with him/her/it? Could I add a prop or setting that makes the story more interesting? What about the technique and visual style - how can I make it look original/quirky/retro/ whatever. Look at lots of films and commercials for inspiration. Some ideas should be starting to gel as you get a feel for how you want to tell the story.
5. Keep it simple
Don't lose sight of the message - and there should be only one main message in a TV commercial. You will come across clients who insist on trying to squeeze 10 product benefits into 30 seconds. This is counter-productive and the end result is never good. One main message and maybe a secondary message is enough for a 30 seconder. An agency worth their salt will back you up on this one.
6. Getting it onto paper
Start by writing about the objective of the commercial, and how your treatment will get the desired result. Reassure the client how this commercial will integrate with existing content and branding. Give the impression you know the product and what it stands for - but don't over analyse this - the client knows their product way better than you do. Write with confidence and with intention to influence - make it a good read.
Next take the reader through the story beat-by-beat (a beat is the smallest element of a story). Write in such a way that the reader can visualise it. Don't get technical with descriptions of camera angles or visual effects - just tell the story as it is. If your treatment is a Spectacle, then keep the description brief because a MOOD BOARD (see next point) will better describe what you want to say.
Write about how your proposed visual style will give the commercial a unique look, and make it stand out. Mention the colour palette - the three main colours that will dominate the commercial to give it a certain look or mood. If there's a special technique you are proposing, this could be the place to get a little technical (don't overdo it), and impress with something unique you are bringing to the spot that's going to make it special.
Write about the audio. Is there a VO (voice over)? Why - and what kind of voice? Will there be music -what kind? Will the music drive the commercial or will it be used subtly, as sound design, to accent story moments? How will the sound and the visuals integrate to work together?
Finally, close with a short summary to wrap up your treatment and drive home that you and your team are going to make this commercial a hit.
7. Make a Mood Board
A Mood Board is a montage of images you have borrowed from the web, that create an impression of the visual style, colour scheme and brand values that you want to come across in the commercial. Your mood board might be one or more full pages of your PDF document. It might be projected at a pre-production meeting.
In total your treatment might be two to four pages. The design of the document itself is a statement about the aesthetic you are bringing to the project - so make it look good.
Author: Steve Bristow has lectured in Screenwriting, Story and Screen Language, has screen credits as a Director, Creator and Story Editor, and has directed hundreds of TV commercials and videos. Find him at Kite Media.
TV commercials – love ‘em or hate ‘em, they keep a lot of animators in jobs. That 30 animated seconds that just flashed past on your TV was the result of weeks or months of meetings, brainstorms, blood sweat and tears. A typical pre-production meeting might have 20 people present in the agency boardroom - so it's useful to know what they all do, and which ones are important. Here's how it usually works:
The Client is the advertiser. They have a product they want to sell. The product may be great (or it might be crap), but it doesn't matter how good it is, if nobody knows about it then they can't sell it. The person with the responsibility to make sure their product moves off shelves is called the Marketing Director. The Marketing Director considers herself the "guardian of the brand" and makes sure the "brand values" are upheld during the advertising process. Marketing Directors may delegate responsibility to their Marketing or Brand Managers, who in turn may delegate to fresh-faced young Marketing Executives.
As a general rule when making an animated TV commercial, the Client is always correct (after all they are paying the bill), no matter how absurd their suggestions or requests might be. Bear in mind that the Client is not an animation person, and is more concerned about how much screen time their product gets in the 30 seconds they are paying squillions for, than squash and stretch. Be very nice to them, and don't talk in animation jargon - they won't get it.
The Client appoints an Advertising Agency to work out a strategy to create desire in consumers to buy their product. The Client sets aside a good part of their money for their advertising budget, which can run into big $$$'s and can involve multiple media such as TV, Cinema, Outdoor, Social, Radio, Print and so on. The Client places trust in the Agency to cook up the best way to tackle this. This can be a very creative process, and so the Agency employs a lot of creative people ("Creatives") to come up with these ideas, and they also employ a lot of executive types ("Suits") to take briefs, strategize, plan and generally act as the interface between the Client and the agency Creatives.
Coming back to the commercial - there will be a reason why animation has been chosen by the Client or Agency as the most appropriate medium. It’s often because they want to appeal to children for products such as snack foods, toys or breakfast cereals. It could also be because the product is associated with a cartoon mascot (such as Michelin Man, the Raid mosquito or the Trix Rabbit). It could be it’s because animation is just plain awesome and appealing. Whatever it is, remember that the particular segment of the audience the Agency wants to influence is called the Target Audience, or in agency speak the "demographic". Animators and Animation Directors need to be mindful of the demographic of the commercial they are creating, as this will influence the design and the discussion during pre-production.
The Agency will have a whole gaggle of people on the project. Here's the people you will likely meet on a TV commercial production:
The Creative Director (CD) is the creative whiz who sits in the big office with the view and dreams up ideas to advertise the product. The CD mostly wants to make sure the commercial meets or exceeds aesthetic expectations, while simultaneously meeting the Client's marketing requirements. Basically he's holding the hand of the client through the mysterious creative process. He's a seasoned pro, can talk your language and is usually pretty easy-going to work with.
The Art Director is the person tasked with fleshing out the CD's ideas into artwork, storyboards and sketches. In some agencies, the CD is very hands on and gets actively involved in the creation process. In others the CD might take more of a back seat, giving the Art Director a lot of leeway in developing ideas. Art Directors can sometimes be more pedantic that their boss as they climb the ladder to creative advertising awesomeness - but be nice to them because one day they're gonna be a CD, calling the shots on which animation studio to use.
Keeping a close eye on all proceedings will be the Agency Producer, who's on a mission to get the job done on schedule, on budget, with as little grief as possible. She's the go-to person for everything and won't stand for any nonsense that gets in the way of her mission. She has a phone permanently glued to her ear as she co-ordinates her five other projects, so don't give her any grief of you might never work with that agency again. By the way, if you do want to bring up any problems or gripes, don’t do it in front of the Client, who at all times must have the impression that the job is totally under control.
Agency Creatives usually look cooler and more hip than their suited cousins, the Account Service people, nicknamed Suits, who are, from the top down:
The Account Director - She's the one who has to schmooze the client, keeping them as happy as possible, while making sure the Creatives don't go off on a tangent with the Client's brief. The Account Director has been in advertising for years and knows the drill inside out. Be nice to the Account Director, because she's close with the client and good to have on your side if the road gets rocky during production - which it sometimes does.
The Account Manager - He's an aspiring Account Director working his way up through the account servicing ranks. On some productions, you might only see the Account Director at important meetings, and be dealing with the Account Manager most of the time. They are sometimes jumpy and nervous, as they try hard to keep their client happy. Be nice to them, in fact just be nice to everybody.
The Account Executive - That’s the person who when the Client says "jump", they ask "how high". They are entry-level account servicing general dogsbodies who probably work harder than anybody else in the room. Be nice to them - pity them. I've known eager young Account Exec's to sometimes get creative and pipe up with a bizarre suggestion during creative discussions - curve balls can come from places least expected.
Suits are generally doing whatever it takes to keep the client happy, are often worried and nervous about the slightest hiccup in a production, because it will be their ass that's first kicked with a multi-million dollar account at stake. Because of this the servicing people don't always see eye to eye with their creative counterparts, especially when their creative ideas are perceived as a bit risky or straying from the brief into "I want to win an award" territory.
What's all this "Account" stuff? Well it has nothing to do with accountants or accounting. An "Account" is agency speak for the contractual relationship they have with a Client.
OK are we all clear on that stuff? Had to get that out of the way before I talk more about writing a Treatment in the next post.
1. Know about Malaysia's ethnic mix.
In an ideal world, the ethnicity of the person sitting across the table shouldn't matter. In Malaysia it sorta does. Malaysia's melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and indigenous races, each with unique quirks, is a potential cultural faux pas minefield for the hapless foreign traveller. Luckily Malaysians are a pretty forgiving bunch - but it's a good idea to know the basic cultural dos and don'ts to make a great first impression.
2. Whoa…"relak lah".
Meetings can sometimes be lengthy with a lot of small talk. Westerners who are focussed on doing a transaction quickly might be seen as pushy or impatient - take time to form relationships first. Being too direct may be interpreted as rude or disrespectful. Like people anywhere in the world, Malaysians like to do business with people they know and trust. Don't underestimate the need to establish a relationship before any real business can commence.
3. Business card etiquette.
Business cards or 'name cards' as they are called in Malaysia are essential meeting accessories. All meetings are preceded with an almost ceremonial exchange of name cards. A Malaysian will offer her name card holding it with both hands, face up towards you. Accept it respectfully with both hands and read it, before offering your card in the same manner. Place all collected name cards face up on the table in front of you where you are seated, for the duration of the meeting.
4. Food business.
In all business encounters food will be involved. It may be as simple as 'kuih' (local cakes) served during the meeting, it could be an offer of lunch at a nearby restaurant, or it may even be excessive hospitality in the form of an elaborate dinner washed down with abundant alcohol followed by a karaoke session. In any case, Malaysians love their food and they love to see foreigners enjoy it too. Do partake of the hospitality, and in some cases don't expect to do any serious business until after a lunch or dinner.
5. Be punctual - but don't expect everybody else to be.
In a country where the daily temperature range is only a few degrees (from sizzling to sweltering), where amazing food is a constant distraction, and where the mother of all downpours can erupt at any time and turn already bad traffic into an ankle-deep parking lot, it's no wonder that Malaysians don't really take an appointment time that seriously. They even have a name for it - "Malaysian time", which refers to the rubbery nature of timekeeping in Malaysia and helps explain why meetings often start late or last longer than scheduled. Don't get uptight about waiting a half hour in the reception for the boss to appear, or waiting an hour for a VIP to arrive at an official dinner, before the meal can be served.
6. How many meetings can you schedule in a day?
For a start forget about scheduling anything before 10am. In case you haven't noticed, in Malaysia everything starts late and ends late - shops open around 10am to 11am and close when customers stop coming in - usually around 10pm. A safe estimate is two meetings a day, maximum three. There are just too many variables to schedule more than that - possibilities of extreme traffic, extreme weather, extreme lunches and the effects of "Malaysian time" can torpedo the best-planned schedule.
7. Shaking hands etiquette.
Not all Malaysians shake hands like Westerners. A customary Malay handshake is a gentle clasp - no shaking - then releasing and placing the hand gently over the heart. A foreigner would not be expected to do the same, but anticipate it - don't squeeze and shake the arm off your Malay counterpart who might be giving you this traditional form of greeting. Most Malaysians will probably reciprocate with a regular handshake, but do anticipate the other type. Also, for some conservative Muslim woman (likely to be wearing a "tudung" or headscarf) it is inappropriate to hold the hand of a stranger in a handshake. Rather than risk her having to awkwardly decline to shake your hand, it's probably a safer bet to just greet her with a smile and nod of the head, and wait for her to offer a hand first.
8. "I showed up in a suit and everybody was wearing Hawaiian shirts!"
That's not a Hawaiian shirt - it's a traditional batik shirt, worn tucked out, which is considered formal attire for Malays in particular, or for any race attending a formal function. Business attire for meetings is suit and tie for men, skirt and blouse for women. Evening functions can be more casual and you can dispense with the tie. Women should be aware of Muslim sensitivities when dealing with Malay counterparts, ensuring clothes are modest and not revealing.
9. Understand and respect the concept of “face”.
Many Asian cultures pay great importance to the concept of “face”. It relates to maintaining a status level in the eyes of peers. Giving your client face is important in business and social life. Causing a business counterpart to lose face would be a deal-breaker. It's mostly common sense, but be careful to never criticise anyone in front of their peers; avoid sarcasm or jokes at the expense of a business counterpart (which may be perfectly harmless in western society); never treat a business counterpart as a subordinate; praise business counterparts for their great work in front of their colleagues - genuinely.
10. Apa khabar?
English is widely used as the medium for conducting business meetings in Malaysia. However, knowing a few local words will go a loooong way as an icebreaker, and will gain you respect for having made the effort. Some more conservative organisations such as government agencies might be more comfortable conducting a meeting in Bahasa Malaysia. In which case you will need to have a local colleague or ally, familiar with the business dealings, to interpret. Also, if a business counterpart is not fluent in English, forcing a meeting in English might not be giving him face - if they are seen to be struggling to understand proceedings. Although English is widely spoken and near-fluently by many people, some meanings can still slip through the cracks due to unfamiliar accents or colloquialisms, on both sides of the table. It's best to follow up with a contact report to make sure everybody is on the same page.
11. Expect to bargain over price.
For a Westerner, the quoted price usually is the price - for a Malaysian it's a starting point for negotiations. Always allow some room in your costing to give your Malaysian counterpart a discount. Having no room at all to move in a price negotiation is a deal breaker. It is ingrained in Malaysian culture to expect a small victory in any negotiation, as well as being great 'face' for the victor. Malaysians never pay the opening price for anything - they love a bargain, and probably love the chase for it even more.
12. Safety and Security issues.
Don't assume vehicles will stop at junctions when crossing streets. Don't make yourself a target for thieves by wearing expensive jewellery or watches. Avoid carrying briefcases or handbags in the street. Try to walk with a group at night and don't venture off well-lit streets. Be very careful of the deep, open monsoon drains, which are everywhere. Many a foreigner has come to grief at the bottom of one (including the author), which will absolutely bring your business trip to an abrupt end.
About the author - Melbourne-based Steve Bristow spent 20 years in Malaysia - 4 years as a consultant for broadcaster TV3, followed by 16 years as a co-founder and manager of three media production businesses in Kuala Lumpur. Contact him at email@example.com
Steve Bristow - animation producer | director | creator