Pulling Faces
As cartoon characters get more sophisticated, how do animators keep pace?
January 2003


Long John Silver from Disney's Treasure Planet

Early in the morning when there’s no one about, Glen Keane shuts his office door and pretends he’s a pirate. On this particular morning, the well-respected professional with some 30 years of experience behind him, swivels around in his chair to face a small, round mirror and strikes an unlikely pose. Gurning like Popeye and hunched like Quasimodo, Keane becomes John Silver, a bombastic tyrant whose sole aim in life is to seize a stash of treasure from a dysfunctional orphan called Jim.

As one of the lead animators on Disney’s latest animated feature film, Treasure Planet, a space age take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (release date: November 27, 2002), Keane has been conjuring up Silver’s unsightly mug hundreds of times a day over the last four years. By the end of the working day he frequently goes home with an aching jaw from the effort of imitating the character’s spastic pirate grin in the mirror.

Keane doesn’t only do pirates. In the past, he’s successfully embodied everything from a wilful mermaid to a man who thinks he’s an ape. Armed with a mirror, a drawing board and a pencil, there’s seemingly no limit to this mild-mannered, middle-aged man’s transformational abilities. “I’m Silver. I’m Tarzan. I’m Ariel,” he says. “My physical limitations don’t affect what I can be.”

An animator’s talent for turning a few pixels on a computer screen or lines on a page into compelling characters and believable drama is one of the most underrated and scantly understood aspects of animation art. When we laugh at Shrek’s infatuation with Princess Fiona or cry when Bambi’s mother gets shot, typically it’s the director and voice-over artists who get the credit for moving us. Very few people thank the animator for giving an Oscar-winning performance – even professional movie critics rarely comment on the acting in animated films, beyond mentioning the voice talent.

That’s why Bugs Bunny might be a bigger icon than Marilyn Monroe, yet Chuck Jones, the animator who sent the rambunctious rabbit hopping about our screens, is hardly a household name. “What is typically lost in discussions about animation is the fact that when you watch an animated film, the performance you’re seeing is the one the animator is giving you,” says Brad Bird, director of the animated feature, The Iron Giant (1999), in the Foreword to Acting for Animators by Ed Hooks. “If an animated character makes you laugh or cry, feel fear, anger, empathy, or a million other emotions, it is largely due to the work of these often unsung artists, who invest a lot of themselves in the creation of these indelible moments.”

To some extent, audiences can be forgiven for not applauding the animators’ performances in animated films. Firstly, these “unsung artists” are not themselves visible to the crowd. They are puppeteers, skilfully pulling the strings of their celluloid marionettes from behind the scenes. They tend to self-effacing, obsessive-compulsive types, who think nothing of working 18-hour days and like to decorate their offices with Star Wars memorabilia and plastic chandeliers. (With his toy-packed office, penchant for wearing lurid Hawaiian shirts and history of sleeping under his desk, John Lasseter, the founding animator at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, is a perfect illustration of the type.)

Secondly, animated films, at their very best, seem to elicit the viewer’s complicity to an even higher degree than live action movies. “People just don’t think of acting when it comes to animation,” says Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney’s feature animation division. “An animated character is so believable that it never occurs to people that they’re watching a performance.”

Despite the fact that audiences tend to ignore performance quality in animated films, acting has long been one of the most important facets of the animation process. In the early cartoons, the biggest emotions a character could muster up were hyperbolic approximations of fear and anger. Then, in the 1930s, Walt Disney realised that thoughts lead to movement and emotion, and applied this ancient Aristotelian principle to Mickey Mouse. Suddenly cartoon characters appeared to have brains and audiences found them irresistible. The simple yet revolutionary idea that the mind thinks before the body moves gave each of the Seven Dwarves individual feelings and personas, and presented animators with a new emotional palette with which to work.

Yet since Walt’s apotheosis, acting hasn’t always been of the highest quality. During what many animators like to call “The Dark Ages” of their art, the studios turned their attention, in the 1960s and 70s, to churning out cheap and cheerful television cartoons. While many people look back at the era of Fred Flintstone and Scooby Doo with affection, very few animators would consider the work, with their hammy characters and clumsy plots, as art.

Today, following an industry-wide resurgence of interest in making quality animated features, prompted some 15 years ago by the popularity of such films as The Little Mermaid (1989) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), performance plays a fundamental role in the animation process. Independent animator Bill Plympton says that acting is the most important skill an animator can have, placing draughtsmanship second, and designing, storytelling and entertaining further down the list. Performers W C Fields, The Marx Brothers and Jacques Tati rank alongside animation greats Walt Disney and Winsor McCay on Plympton’s roster of influences.

Andreas Deja, a lead animator at Disney, puts his relationship to acting succinctly: “Acting is the most important aspect of an animator’s work. You have to be a good draughtsman and a good actor. But at the end of the day, people respond to acting. They do not respond to a beautiful thing that doesn’t have a soul.” Meanwhile, when Pixar advertises for new animators, the company’s human resources department asks for three qualities in would-be employees: “a strong storytelling sense, a comprehensive understanding of animation fundamentals and acting ability.”

For digital animation companies like Pixar, the emphasis on acting has grown with the development of computer technology. The subtle physiological effects enabled by today’s digital animation systems demand an acute awareness of human behaviour. Where once upon a time, animators relied upon broad gestures to express a character’s mood and intentions, animators today have computational “scalpels” at their disposal and can express an emotional universe in the tiniest flaring of a character’s nostrils. Animators at the California-based digital animation studio PDI, for example, use a computerised system with more than 500 commands arranged by facial feature to help them create subtle expressions. There are 15 commands devoted to the right eyebrow alone.

The emotional complexity of today’s animated feature plots also presents increasing demands on both 2D and 3D animators from an acting perspective. Owing to the elevated production costs of making animated films and the increasingly high expectations of audiences, studios typically spend anything between one and three years simply trying to get the story and characters for an animated feature right. That’s why Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmations (1961) is plainly the Devil in a puppy-skin coat, while John Silver, the half-human, half-cyborg baddie in Treasure Planet (2002), has many different sides and a constantly changing view of the world. “He’s probably the most complex of all the characters I’ve ever done,” says Keane. “It was particularly difficult to figure out how to play moments where Silver is truly torn and doesn’t know what is happening to him. How do you show a fire starting in someone’s soul?”

It’s the ultimate question, and one that stage and screen actors also ask themselves. Most western acting theory today descends from the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), who first outlined a technique for harnessing inner impulses to motivate outward actions. The transference of energy between thought and movement is what separates a believable, immersive performance from plain, bad acting. But when it comes to “starting a fire in someone’s soul” with pixels or pencils, acting systems created for live performers may be of limited help.

This is because there are fundamental differences between the way a live action actor and an animator approach a role. Perhaps the most obvious disparity lies in the fact that unlike a traditional actor, an animator always starts from scratch. When a live actor walks onto the stage or in front of the camera, he or she can move – completely spontaneously and at apparently at will – any and every part of his or her body. But an animator doesn’t work with existing forms. The shape, movement, attitude and voice of the character have to be built from the ground up. Consequently, there is nothing spontaneous or “in the moment” about an animator’s performance; every detail, from the blink of an eye to the gait of a walk, takes days or even weeks to develop.

Thus for many animators, animation is the art of creating a fresh and spontaneous-looking performance over the length of time it takes to draw the necessary images. If it takes a live action actor ten seconds to walk across a room, a comparable scene in an animated film, at 24 frames per second, would consist of 240 separate drawings. Bird describes this as “trying to catch lightning in a bottle one volt at a time.” Meanwhile, Pixar animator Doug Sweetland calls animation, “acting in slow motion.”

Animators use a variety of different techniques to freeze life for long enough to get it down on the page or screen. They listen to the vocal soundtrack over and over again, act movements out in front of a mirror and capture the broad actions on paper. Some animators, like Disney’s John Ripa, who animates Jim Hawkins in Treasure Planet, videotape themselves as they act. Many animators advocate the use of thumbnail sketches – quick, little drawings that capture the essence of each pose. Then it’s a process of constant refinement in consultation with other animators and the director until the scene is fully developed.

Today, a digital animator can check to see if a scene works by pressing a button on the computer and replaying the action. The 2D animator has more work to do to – finished drawings are photocopied and photographed using a digital camera. The camera transfers the images into a computer, known as the “scene machine”, which allows animators to review a sequence instantly. In the old days, with no such technology available, animators had to get the sequence right first time or risk weeks of lost work.

This labour-intensive process of putting together a performance means that by the time a scene is finished it is usually meticulously polished. But the slowness can make it difficult for even the most fastidious of animators to maintain their perspective. Pixar animator Glenn McQueen says that the initial burst of inspiration an animator feels when he or she begins to work on a scene is difficult to sustain over the weeks it takes to animate. “The first couple of days is like a honeymoon – I imagine it’s a bit like what a live action actor feels when they speak their lines,” says McQueen. “But after two weeks, you only see the minutiae.” McQueen’s solution is to leave the scene alone for a while. He also advocates going back to look at the storyboards: “these rough drawings have an energy and spontaneity to them that helps you get back on track,” he says.

Another crucial difference between actors and animators is the direction from which the artist approaches the motive for an action. Actors may find the inner impulse using a variety of techniques, but generally speaking, all actors work from the inside out: they figure out what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and then they move. In animation, the opposite is true: animators start with externals – either a pre-recorded voice track and a storyboard or just the storyboard if the scene is silent – and work backwards, searching for the inner motivation that would prompt the particular reading of the words or series of actions. In traditional acting, this way of doing things is called “indicating” and is frowned upon because the outward display doesn’t appear to match any inner feeling. But an animator’s craft lies in learning to “indicate” well.

For this reason, animators prefer to work with a strong vocal track, and sometimes attend recording sessions. They are also often asked for their opinion in casting voice actors to parts. (“The animator has to listen to that actor’s voice for several years, so they have to like it,” says Disney’s executive vice president of creative affairs, Pam Coats.) Back in the office, the animator listens to the track over and over again. “When you hear a great voice, you know exactly how it should play,” says McQueen. “The intention of the actor comes right through. Having that to work with is inspirational and clarifying.”

Sometimes, animators find watching a video of the voice actor performing the lines useful. When Victoria Livingstone, a lead animator at digital animation studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), animated Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode II: The Attack of the Clones (2002), voice actor Ahmed Best’s physical approach to reading the lines greatly helped her develop movement for the character. “Ahmed used a lot of body language in the voicing sessions. The concept for the character came from development and storyboard, but Ahmed contributed greatly to the physicality of the character.”

If there’s anything that unites animators with live actors, it’s the common quest to render truth through performance. Animators often talk about finding the “emotion” of a scene in order to make it “sincere” and “believable”, but the gap between talking about truth and conveying it through a bunch of drawings is hard to bridge. Keane learnt how to turn the abstract concept of “sincerity” into something he could work with during his struggle to get the little mouse Bernard to sweep the floor properly in The Rescuers (1977). “Bernard’s sweeping scene was the first scene I was ever given to animate,” recalls Keane. “They gave me something minor to do, something they thought I wouldn’t screw up too much, but as far as I was concerned, this was my big moment.”

Keane already had already heard about the importance of sincerity in creating a role, because his mentor, the veteran Disney animator Eric Larson, was always talking about it. “‘If it’s not sincere, the audience won’t believe it,’ was a mantra of his,” says Keane of Larson. But hearing Larson carp on about sincerity didn’t help the young animator. “What does sincerity mean? Does it mean you press harder with your pencil? Try as I might to be sincere, the scene wasn’t working.”

So Keane went to see Larson. “I thought he was going to give me some secret about how you draw a sweeping action. Instead, he said, ‘what kind of a job does Bernard want to do?’ Bewildered, I said, ‘a good one, I guess.’” Larson helped Keane by leading him to Bernard’s emotion and intention, rather than demonstrating a technical point. It was all Keane needed. “Eric wasn’t animating the scene, but he got right into Bernard’s head. I suddenly knew what sincerity meant. Although I still struggled with technical things, I had a greater force behind me now.”

Inhabiting a character’s head is as much the key to giving a great performance in animation as it is in stage or screen acting. So it’s no surprise to find animators drawing on some of the same techniques actors use, such as undertaking background research and remembering their personal experiences, to help them find a character’s motives and emotions.

When Ripa was developing Jim in Treasure Planet, he analysed Mel Gibson’s performance in Braveheart (1995) and James Dean’s in East of Eden (1955). While these two live action films seem to have little to do with Disney’s intergalactic pirate romp, Ripa drew upon Gibson’s vulnerable eyes and Dean’s sulky posture, in order, “to convey how Jim was feeling through tiny details.” Ripa likes to use live action footage for research purposes, because he feels it’s more detailed and authentic than watching animation. “When you’re animating, it’s important to go to the source,” he says. There’s an intensity in Ripa’s gaze as he studies a particularly resonant excerpt of Gibson creasing his brow in anguish. He replays the two-second sequence some twenty times, getting more and more excited with each take.

Animators also “go to the source” in another way, by using their own memories and experiences as fuel for their work. In the scene where Lilo and her sister have a fight in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, Deja drew on memories of his two sisters fighting when he was a boy. “I realised that the scene wasn’t about yelling and fighting, it was a genuine moment of flying emotion,” says Deja. And when Keane was working on scenes between Silver and Jim in Treasure Planet, thinking about his relationship with his own son helped bring the animated scenes to life. Recalling the time when his son was going through a rebellious phase gave Keane the ability to understand Silver’s internal battle. “Thinking about my relationship with my own son made me ask myself two questions: what is a father and how do you direct a son?”

Live actors often prepare for a stage or screen role by inventing a background story for their character. This practise comes from an old Stanislavskian idea that having a conception of a character’s home life or childhood can help the actor contextualise the role. These days, animators also imbue their characters with fully-fledged pasts, but this wasn’t always the case. For years, animated characters were given only the briefest of outlines. Mickey Mouse, for example, is described by veteran animator Fred Moore in the book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, as an “average young boy” of “no particular age.” Although this level of detail was sufficient for the time, it looks like a pencil sketch compared to the exhaustive, five-page, full-colour portrait of Ariel that Keane prepared for The Little Mermaid, describing everything from her age to the fact that she is her father’s “biggest headache”.

Acting might be a core issue in animation, but as the industry transitions into a higher gear, there is a danger that acting skills might get left behind. One of the problems stems from the pressure of financial success. Keane felt Disney’s accountants breathing down his neck when he was working on John Silver. “It’s difficult to create such a complex character in such a penny-pinching era at Disney,” he says. Because Disney was attempting something quite new with Silver – the first character ever to be created using both 2D and 3D animation – Keane felt a strong urge to experiment. But the Suits had to okay every scene before Keane and his team were allowed to move on. “As an artist, you want the freedom to run with your ideas, but instead there were financial hurdles – you needed to constantly prove everything out before getting the go ahead to proceed,” says Keane.

In an attempt to keep up with the demands of making today’s animated films, studios and animation schools have tentatively begun to offer acting classes. Although many animation studios have run acting workshops over the last few years, so far there’s little evidence to suggest that classes might one day become a regular part of an animator’s working week. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of ambivalence surrounding the role of acting classes in the animation curriculum.

Livingstone says that acting classes at her company are a rare occurrence. During six years at ILM, she says classes have only been offered once or twice. Ripa – who draws standing upright, legs akimbo, at his desk; it helps him “feel the character,” he says – attended his first and only acting class at the start of the Treasure Planet production process. He says the class, which involved such exercises as “walking across a room to pick up a $100 bill that only you can see, or walking across the room towards someone you’re angry with,” helped him understand “why we move.”

But ultimately the animators, who, as a breed, never seem to be comfortable when they are too far from their pencils or pixels, just wanted to “get back to work.” It was as if the workshops were unconnected from the real business of animating. Meanwhile, McQueen doesn’t think acting classes help much at all: “I have yet to see an acting class that nails what our process demands. Pixar hasn’t run acting classes in a while – for me, it felt divorced from what we do.”

Over the last few years, Ed Hooks, a professional stage and screen actor who has taught acting to animators since 1996, has been trying to develop an animator-specific approach to teaching acting. When he was asked to teach acting to PDI’s animators as the company was revving up for production on Antz (1998), he soon discovered that you can’t teach acting to animators in the same way as you might teach it to regular actors. Initially, he tried to get the animators to workshop scenes from famous plays in front of each other, a common technique in traditional acting training. But the animators weren’t very responsive. Many – unsurprisingly – dropped out of the class.

These days, Hooks advocates a “low impact and non-threatening” approach. His classes, which he teaches internationally, typically consist of a lecture on acting theory, followed by improvisational exercises and screenings of clips from live action films to illustrate acting principles. Occasionally, animators bring in their work for Hooks to critique. He thinks that animators learn best through observation, discussion and example, rather than through scene-work. Lately he’s become interested in work being undertaken by animation professor Leslie Bishko of the Emily Carr Institute for Art and Design in Vancouver, who is developing a system for applying Laban movement theory to computer animation.

The well-known axiom of the animator being an actor hiding behind a pencil, explains, at least to some degree, why standard acting practises such as rehearsals, classes and auditions have not made much of an impression on the animation world. It is worth remembering that very few animators would actually go as far as to call themselves actors or exhibit any of the qualities associated with traditional live action performers. For starters, animators rarely come from an acting background – most are trained in fine art and pick up what acting skills they need on the job. Hooks says that one of the biggest challenges of teaching animators is the fact they are very shy. “When I walk into a room full of animators, only about a quarter of them want to get up on their feet. The rest want to sit with their notebooks and ask questions.”

Similarly, animators don’t often attend acting classes, rarely rehearse scenes with their fellow animators and generally create their performances alone in their offices, perhaps only surrendering their work for peer review once a day, if that. Once – and only once –Keane and Ripa got together to work on a scene. Jumping up and down in front of the drawing board in Ripa’s office, the two animators took it in turns to draw lightning-quick sketches until they had the main movements of the scene blocked. To a fly on the wall, their antics no doubt made for a very strange performance, but the pair must have got about as close as it’s possible to get to real-time animation with their “tag team” approach. Sometimes animators working on the same scene will work from completely different physical locations – when Deja was working on the villain Jafar in Aladdin (1992) from Disney’s studios in Los Angeles, his scene partner, who was animating Princess Jasmine, was based in Florida.

Then there’s the issue of casting. Unlike the rigorous audition system for stage plays, live action film and television, the approach to casting animated features is much more casual. “We try to look at what animators are really good at,” says Coats. “Some animators specialise in doing cartoon-like characters, whilst others are particularly good at doing women.” Depending on their strengths, animators are then assigned to roles. Not all studios cast by character. At Pixar, casting occurs by scene, with teams of animators assigned to particular chunks of the story. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages. The Disney model allows animators to follow the arc of a character from start to finish, but can lead to a degree of staleness. The Pixar approach gives animators the opportunity to try a number of different characters, but careful monitoring is essential to avoid continuity problems between different animators’ styles.

In the old studio system, the lack of a formal approach to performance was taken for granted. Young animators would typically enter the workplace with a talent for drawing, and the old hands, through mentoring, would hand down acting skills to them. When Keane, who joined Disney in 1974, couldn’t articulate Bernard’s sweeping scene in The Rescuers, it was Larson who came to the rookie’s rescue and nudged him in the right direction.

These days, with the trend amongst studios for hiring animators on a project basis, rather than nurturing life-long careers, the mentoring system is not what it used to be. Young animators whiz into the studios on their skateboards and micro-scooters, and a few months later, they whiz out. With little continuity and a pressing workload, it’s hard to imagine that acting tips get passed down. Some animation professionals are worried that animated films could suffer if studios and animation schools don’t pay special attention to acting. “The studio system has been broken down. The industry is not nurturing the young talent,” says Hooks. “The result is that animators aren’t equipped to deal with the demands of today’s animation.”

Copyright 2003 British Film Institute