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. So here's my proposed 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 that 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 changes of expression 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 DOWN THE SCENE 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.
Maybe you already do this intuitively. 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
Images from Sherazade The Untold Stories, initially developed by Hahn Film.
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