Thursday, April 05, 2007

Acting 1 - Expressions- Cartoon VS Live Action

Acting starts with the face. No part of the anatomy tells you more about how a person is feeling than his or her face.

Cartoon Expressions:
Early cartoon expressions covered only the most general emotions in the simplest graphic way.

This is only happy. Not any particular kind of happy for any particular situation.
There isn't a shade to the happy.
It's not specific to a particular character either.
This happy smile can be pasted onto any character in any situation.
It works for most purposes in old cartoons, because old cartoons weren't about acting.
They have lots of other qualities.

AngryThis angry expression can be applied to any character. It doesn't define any particular type of anger or any specific character. It's a general visual symbol that we can instantly recognize.

This Donald is probably confusion, bit it's not graphically different than just plain sad.

Confused, Eager


Most cartoon expressions can be described with a single adjective - Happy, Sad, Mad, Surprised etc...
These expressions represent the simplest and most basic emotions.

These are all instantly recognizable and relate able by the audience.

Then there are kinds of expression that were invented for animated cartoons. Particularly Disney style animated cartoons.

Animation Expressions
These aren't really expressions. They are merely animation tricks to keep the character looking asymmetrical and pliable, and thus somewhat alive.

These expressions are made with a simple formula.
Squash one side of the face while stretching the other.
This adds a seemingly slight dimension to the symmetrical type of general expressions. But it doesn't add any actual definition to the emotion.

It's an animation trick that many animators rely on to make their characters seem organic.


In this elaborate piece of highly skilled magical animation, there aren't any drawings of specific expressions. The animation is all about the subtle overlapping squash and stretch and difficult actions and timings.

"Organic" equals "Alive" to many animators.

This is a beautiful, well constructed and composed drawing, but it has only the simplest possible expression.

These aren't even expressions. They are less expressive than the basic Happy, sad, mad, surprised expressions. At least humans can understand those simple emotions. These kinds of expressions are for animators, not general humanity.

Amazingly, animators make a big deal out of this simplistic replacement for acting.

These types of squashed and stretched animation exercises don't represent any kind of human emotion that you can identify with. They avoid the problem of acting by replacing it with animation tricks - smooth actions that seemingly keep the characters alive merely because they feel organic.

Now I love classic cartoons, but usually for other reasons than acting. Animators love to quote: "An animator is an actor with a pencil." But if you acted out an animated scene from your favorite Disney movie in real life to a live actor, he would fall to the floor laughing at how unnatural it is.

Modern animation expressions

Modern animation has taken the unnatural unrelatable expression idea from classic cartoons to a hideous extreme.
Here's no expression at all.

Here's the squash one side and stretch the other side to connote the dreaded 'tude expressions.
This is the actor with a pencil's automatic response to a male character falling in love. It's in every animated feature since it first appeared in Jungle Book.These kinds of expressions are done by animators who have never observed real people in the real world. They don't get their ideas of personality and acting from anyone they've ever met, or from real actors in movies and TV. They get them from animated feature films and Cal Arts student films and for generations keep redrawing them by rote. I'm sure every artist is capable of more, they just haven't thought of it yet.

Now animators have mixed Anime in with 70s Disney/Bluth style and Saturday Morning Cartoon construction.If you ever met anyone who made faces like these, would you hang out with him?

This is the Cal Arts style that originates from Valencia, California. It's a look derived from 60s Disney cartoons, a few stock animation expressions, liberally mixed with a gay flourish.
This "wacky" expression seems to be in every feature now.
And in case you think this style is a thing of the past-as someone said in the comments, here it still is:

Warner Bros. More Specific Expressions and Designs
As I've pointed out before, Warner Bros. went quite a bit further in doing more specific acting. They started by drawing more specific expressions. More relatable characters. They took the first steps in making their characters act like real people, rather than always relying on stock Walt approved expressions.
Live Action Expressions
The best acted animation in history is still not anywhere near what live actors can do in real time automatically.
In one scene from the Honeymooners, you can pick out more specific expressions than in the whole history of feature animation. (Marc is gonna give me lots more frame grabs of really specific expressions and poses from the Honeymooners for further posts.)

Expressions that can't be described even with 20 adjectives but are instantly felt, understood and enjoyed by the audience.

Specific to the characters: Alice makes different kinds of expressions than Ralph
Specific to the scene situation and emotion
Specific to each frame of film in many instances.

Animation can just not compete on an acting level with live action. It takes forever to draw 10 seconds of film. It takes 10 seconds to act it in real life.

Does it need to? Not always. Tex Avery cartoons have just enough funny specific expressions to get the cartoon gags across and lots or unreal impossible expressions that live actors could never do.

Can animation benefit from better acting? Sure. But if you want to be a better actor in animation, don't study animation for acting. Study your friends and family. Study classic movies and sitcoms. Study evangelists on the Jesus channel. Look for uniqueness and entertainment and individuality.

Start by observation of the real. Look for funny quirky expressions that people you know make that are unique to them. Understand real people's personalities and draw them-don't translate them into stock Cal Arts expressions!

But don't merely do realistic acting...because you'll never be as good as live action. You have to be better so add exaggeration and impossible stuff that only cartoons can do.

Ren and Stimpy stood out from all other cartoons in 1991, not because of beautiful fluid animation, or solid principles or great timing. 30s and 40s cartoons beat the crap out of us. The thing that really made it different is that I tried to make the characters seem real. People aren't used to seeing cartoon characters act like people they know so it seemed shocking when it hit. I don't study cartoons for my acting. I study people and figure out ways to draw individual expressions, poses and emotions that not many have ever attempted in animation. I will show you as best I can how I did that.

Anyway, this is just part 1 of a series on cartoon acting. There is a lot more to cover and I just wanted to put down some basic visual vocabulary of terms for you.

A combination of "realistic" human expressions with expressions that can only happen in cartoons....


Roberto González said...

I don't totally get the idea on this one. The specific acting in Jones' LT is supossed to be more based on real people? I think it's the contrary, they don't relied in stock poses and they invented new ones, but they are purely cartoony expressions, aren't they?

In "Cal Arts" style there is probably a mixture of stock character acting (inspired by Sword in the Stone, 101 Dalmatians and such) but I remember they said that the animator that drew one of the scenes at the very begining acted the scene himself, that scene in which a squirrel got in Dean's pants and he makes weird facial expressions.

I mean, I like LT style a lot more than Cal Arts but I think Cal Arts is kinda more similar to real people's expressions but the fact that it adds so many details results in weird , unnatural stuff. That's the way I see it, but I think your point is a little different and I still don't get it.

JohnK said...

Hi Roberto

>>I mean, I like LT style a lot more than Cal Arts but I think Cal Arts is kinda more similar to real people's expressions <<

you've seen real people make the expressions in the section on "animation expressions"?

It's time to get some new friends!

all the other stuff you ask is answered in the post.

Roberto González said...

At the end of the second paragraph of my previous comment I forgot to mention I was talking about Iron Giant. I'm just a little too sleepy to write right now.

Roberto González said...

>you've seen real people make the expressions in the section on "animation expressions"?>

Well, not really all of them. But I'm pretty sure I've seen children (or even adults) making expressions similar to Mowgli's, but that's maybe cause, like you said, that's the "original" one.

As for the rest, probably not real people, but actors or comedians. I think I have seen Tom Cruise making a expression similar to Aladdin's. Some rappers doing a similar one to that bear's. And , even if he seems VERY gay, I think I've seen something similar to Hercules' ones too.

The others I don't think so. I'd like to defend The Iron Giant one cause it's the best movie in this bunch IMO, but it's really one of the most unnatural expressions in those examples. About Dragon's Lair, I haven't studied a horny guy's reaction to a sexy woman touching his hair too much, so I don't really know, but yeah, that's a pretty ugly/weird expression (but the drawing of the girl is quite sexy, you've got to admit).

Now I'll go to sleep.

Mad Taylor said...

hey this is a great post! Really steers us animators in the right direction on where to look for acting reference. And you are 100% right on taking real expressions and mixing them in with a cartoon character that can do the impossible. I don't know where the fun in animation is when they just animate real life stuff.

Jesse Oliver said...

Expressions are one of the main reasons why your cartoons are really the best! The expressions that you Eddie, Vincent, Jim and Katie draw have no specific names and I love that! I love the expressions that were drawn in the R & S episodes "Man's Best Friend", "Sven Hoek", "Onward & Upward", "Ren Seeks Help", "Altruists" and "Stimpy's Pregnant".

Austin Shields said...

Hi John, I'm kind of new here, but I've really enjoyed reading your posts. Anyway, when you brought up the Honemooners it got me thinking about the Andy Griffith show. I remember there was one episode where Barney gave Otis something to drink to wake him up and he made some of the funniest expressions I'd ever seen on TV. Have you seen this one? I had never really thought about the amount of different expressions you can find in classic tv shows, but now that you compare it to cartoons today I can totally see your point.

Shawn said...

This is great! I'm glad you're posting this stuff because I've always loved the expressions in your cartoons more than any other cartoon in history (even Clampett's, which is saying a Hell of a lot). I know I gotta work on my expressions. I try to get extreme yet subtle acting in my comics (and try to never draw the same expression twice), but sometimes it's hard to keep coming up with new ideas. I'll even admit I'm guilty of drawing the dreaded "tude" expressions. I'll try to get some Honeymooners DVD's and copy more expressions from other people I see in real life. Thanks for the tips! Can't wait for more!

I think there's some good expressions in Get Smart and The Dick Van Dyke Show...What do you think?

EternalAtlas said...

I have a question that just popped into my head when I saw the frame from the Spike Tv Ren and Stimpy. Why did you draw those huge black lines around everything? I mean, as compared to how the lines were drawn in the original episodes. It just always really bothered me because it made the colors look as if they were dropped in with a paint bucket tool, and it really took the energy and organic element out of the cartoon for me. The big black lines were very distracting and I never had that problem with the original episodes.
I also always wondered why Stimpy seemed so shiny in the Spike tv episodes. His colors just never seemed quite as soft as they appeared in the original episodes.
I'd really appreciate an answer.
Long live Ren and Stimpy.


Anonymous said...

Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., I got that DVD set and Sargent Carter has tons of expressions. He has multiple levels of mad, confused, and so on.

Gomer has the multiple levels of happy, sorrow, ashamed, pride and so on.

I watched it and somehow it reminded me of Ren & Stimpy.

Gomer would do something silly and then Sargent Carter would be there yelling, "Why Pyle?! Why?!" Gomer would just smile because he like Sargent Carter.

I can see how older shows and movies help with expressions and help with ideas with character development. (If the cartoon calls for character treatments.) Study life and draw.

Thanks, John.

Timothy Merks said...

can you put up some Mr Horse expressions? I think they are some of your best

ardy said...

eternalatlas (or just eric):

I know I'm not the authority on Ren and Stimpy, but I noticed the same thing in APC and came to my own conclusion about it.

John hates to repeat himself. He's said it many times, and feels that a cartoonist's work should constantly change and progress over time. If he had returned to television with a Ren & Stimpy that looked and felt exactly like the old Ren & Stimpy, I think he would have considered it a failure. So the show evolved and adopted some new styles, partly out of a desire to change and partly because new artists were working on the show. I think that the thick/dark black outlines were inspired by early HB stuff. After making those Yogi Bear cartoons a few years earlier and essentially spoofing the Hanna-Barbera style, I think John saw some things he liked and thought would work well in his own cartoons. I don't know about the "shininess" part, though. I actually thought Stimpy's color was softer than it was in the original series, but the contrast against the black lines might be what makes it look that way.

So yeah. It's either that or I just completely over thought the whole thing and it's a technical issue. Maybe John will clear it up.

tomlight said...

In the WB cartoon, "Bully for Bugs", I love the confused/sad expression on the bull's face when Bugs slaps him for the first time with his glove. What do you think about that expression? I've always thought that Chuck Jones was kind of a 'wildcard' when it comes to animators.

GinoMc said...

hey John, were you in TO when Chas Lawther was doin' THE ALL NIGHT SHOW as chuck the security gaurd? it was wall to wall classics [bilko,car 54,burns and allen, honeymooners,twilight zone]on ch47 till some jackass pulled the plug.....anyhow....i know it's not in black and white or anythin',but ALL IN THE FAMILLY has some pretty impresive range also [you can turn off the color on your TV an'pretend like it was made in black and white, if that's what it takes..... keep on....

murrayb said...

YIKES.I feel like a cockroach after the light comes on.

I do the 'compress one side, stretch the other' thing allll the time.
I can hear myself in my head as I draw saying "eyebrow goes up,other eyebrow down, S curves, squash and stretch,"

It's such a fall back; a visual code that you've been "trained" as an animator. thats freddy moore's invention right?I have that eye chart on my desk (the one from illusion of life.)Maybe It would be better try and draw those honeymooners stills.

GinoMc said...

it's great,he's MAD, and STOOOPID,but he's smart enough not to stare directly in her eyes[and you KNOW some of that was Gleason just tryin' to keep from crackin'up].....there's GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS!

Hector Cortez said...

Another great post John. Thank you for your dedication to this blog. Please continue to post. We all appreciate your hard work. Thanks!

Kevin W. Martinez said...


You've got me curious about something; Can comics and comic books use specific acting to some extent? Can some of the ideas about acting be spplied there? How it differ from acting in animation?

Anonymous said...

The idea of a Cal Arts style is probably a little out-dated. If you are referring to the Bluth-style of animation, I think you would be challenged to find much of that at Cal Arts now.

Actually, the last decade or so has produced some diverse work of note from the school, and your comments seem general and old-fashioned. I see a lot more work concerned with making interesting animation than fluid "realistic" movement coming from the school.

I know you came to the school for a tour of the gallery show, but that is really the tip of the iceberg; hardly a representation of what the student output is, particularly within the realm of animation.

There are two fine animation departments at Cal Arts and I think the work has changed considerably since the Bluth school of animation was popular.

If you come to the animation showcases I think you will see exactly what I am talking about, but then, who has time to do that? It is much easier to make blanket, charismatic statements.

Kent B said...

Is it a coincidence that all the examples of specific acting poses are Chuck Jones?

Kyle said...

great post.
I thought you said you would lay off the term "cal arts style" though. not that I go there, but it does seem a bit offensive to the students who attend. still, I do get the meaning behind it.

I don't get your overall point though. in words it seems to check out, but visually I don't really understand the difference in your examples. aside from more exaggeration of course. I cant really picture a character like Ariel with really unique looking mouth and brow shapes.

Id really like to see more of your own interpretations of peoples expressions side by side(photo and a sketch). maybe that could help me (and other readers) understand.

waveybrain said...

Thanks John, I'm learning alot. This one is hard medicine realizing where I'm at and where I want to be. I agree you're generalizing about CalArts too much. I was there 97-99. The gifted/experienced students didn't fit that mold at all. My theory: For the most part it's 17-25yr old impressionable kids with so much to learn and very little to draw from. As far as I know, nobody is teaching acting with a critical eye like this. I guess that's not really an argument though...My question is: what's the secret to keeping the characters consistant especially considering how far you take them? I know size and spacial relationships are important. Lately, I've been watching Ren and Stimpy and those characters vary in scale, proportion/distortion so much. Yet, they always seem "on model". I wonder if the voice talent is the glue. Like Mel Blanc's voice always seemed to keep his character's "on model" despite the obviously divergent director styles. I can't figure out what the key to that is. Hey, do you read thes longer posts?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!! This is the most intelligent discussion of cartoon acting that I've ever seen in print! What you said about one half the face compressing while the other half stretches is profound and I too am tired of seeing the same old 8 or 9 expressions. Animation is capable of so much more!

Benjamin said...

As usual, I agree on some points and disagree on others... Some thoughts:

- The Aladdin expression isn't one where he's falling in love. He's been in love with her for 3/4 of the picture by that point. That expression is part of a sequence where he at first was just thinking about Jasmine, but then suddenly realizes their marriage would mean he'd become Sultan.

- Reading your posts on acting, I can't possibly say I'd call that acting. I call it indicating. Unfortunately, it's what most animators consider acting. But acting isn't showing emotion, it's ACTING as you would in reallife. This becomes clear when looking into method acting (for example the famous book by Edward Dwight Easty). Not that the method is the only way... I just find they've got a very clear and logical way of explaining what the goal should be.
Now, indicating, that's just showing the idea of an emotion, trying to communicate a certain emotion to the audience, no matter if they're specific or cliche expressions. Which seems like what you do, and which also seems present in the Honeymooners pictures you're showing (haven't seen the film). But even though this film was released a year after On The Waterfront, remember that Brando changed it all. He doesn't show emotion, he captures truth. Often times, people HIDE their emotions. And don't say that can't be funny, because Some Like It Hot has wonderful acting and is hilarious.
Now, this doesn't mean everything should look and move realistically. What we should do is capture that type of acting, through motion and drawing. Do what Hirschfeld did, only with movement too. This could go from fairly realistic, to way over the top. There just has to be that sense of truth and soul in there. When I recently was looking through Katie's drawings on her blog, I noticed that often, she does this wonderfully. She really seems like an impressionist, just like Hirschfeld.
This doesn't mean indicating doesn't have its virtues. Many live-action comedies still use it, and often times, it's funny. In Ren & Stimpy, same thing. But it's "just" performing, it's not acting.

Or at least that's my opinion...

Phillip Skeen said...

I've been studying expressions and acting for animation, but only in cartoons. It makes sense to pay more attentioon to the wrinkles on a real person's forehead and chin. Thanks for the tip, John.

Brian B said...

I don't know. I think this an interesting post, but I can't agree. You're comparing older Disney, which as you've noted before did use a lot of stock expressions. And traditional older cartoons which had massive talent put into their creation, but was limited by what a cartoon was. Especially Tex Avery, early Chuck Jones(Disney-influence). You look at Bob Clampett's cartoons, and because he was so energetic and had Scribner doing some wild, funny, specific exaggerations you really got something. It was unique to animation as a craft and in its reward.

But yeah, if you're comparing animation comedy to live-action comedy as far as character performance, the debate's over. You have to use specific acting and exaggeration. Everything animation has at its disposal. You really can't come close to comedic geniuses like Jackie Gleason playing fairly. It's a performance art, an improvised art many times. The ammount of original thoughts and emotions put on in entire show or even 10 seconds is ridiculous. But it was also a product of its time. Overracted at parts to get the audiences reaction. Every frame of film would be specific, funny, and undefinable if you were to watch an episode. It was part of their craft to search for those things. But it's not necessarily realistic.

Realistic acting came with Brando, and has been done beautifully by Deniro and others after. There's talent today like Dicaprio, Depp, Christian Bale. Watch Brando or Deniro's early performances and nothing about it was a string of specific, un-imitatable poses. It was the thoughts behind what they chose to show. Their was depth to the characters. The consistency of the performance is what made the character - the sum total. The duality of what a character says and what a character shows, and timing of how the character develops. The talent's all in the mentality of the performance. Not in a unspeakable ammount of specific mouth shapes and facial gestures. If it's that barren, anyone could act. It's the approach, and that kind of performance is completely doable in animation when we're not talking 1950's sitcom comedy genius. Though acting is not at all easy or fully achieved yet even.

I think a director like Brad Bird is popular for being someone who is trying this right now. Who has a bar for acting in his films, and isn't repeating what he's already seen in other films or especially animation. But he's not judging by still frames, and saying get rid of this inbetween for not being something new. Rather judging the performance as a whole and the idea behind it. Personally, I don't think the challenges animators face in acting is simply specific expressions, though bringing that to your work is admirable.

I think a greater and more important challenge would be consistency of the performance when directing a full crew. Or the animator's challenge of maintaining the character's mentality itself enough to perform it through animation. Which is interpreted and put on screen through lot of different methods. If you're going to go pose-to-pose and pretty much the performance in storyboards, you're going to miss a lot of subtleties. And if you refuse to miss subtleties, you're not going to get the work out on time for tv animation. Just look at the brilliance of Sven Hoek. That short had to take forever I imagine. I think there is a limit to what that approach has. Like "limit acting" as parrallel to "limited animation". And to combat it exaggeration and the impossible [i]is the answer. But all animation can't really be judged on the same merits.

You have all kinds of material out there to show how bad mainstream animation is, because it does suck in general. But I don't think a frame grab justifies animation's inability to match Jackie Gleason and live-action acting. I could grab a frame from Deniro in Taxi Driver and argue he doesn't match Jackie Gleason or live-action acting as well. But it's not true. One great display of what acting can be without an overflow of specific gestures and overacting is Michael Caine's "Acting in Film" on youtube: . He shows the power of barely subtle facial movements, the drawback of being too busy, strength in actively listening, and just the power of putting depth into a character through performance.

I don't believe animation's acting has achieved live-action's level yet, but I don't think it's unattainable. With the right approach, I think it's there. If you ask me, Ratatouille's already going to trump most of what's come out this year live-action wise. I look forward to where animation can progress in that respect.

>>Is it a coincidence that all the examples of specific acting poses are Chuck Jones?<<

Nah, Chuck had some powerful poses, and controlled his cartoons pretty well instead of allowing his animators to give as freely a performance. Really a pioneer of pose-to-pose that was adopted but lost the poses along the way as John's said. The only problem I have with Chuck is his using the same evil smile late in his career, to the point of it becoming a signature. That, and like I said, I believe the approach has it's limits.

Adele K Thomas said...

maaan, i get so shakey about doing my own stuff after your posts John, but I love them. I kind of get what your saying but I always really enjoyed the doorknob in Alice in Wonderland and Tramp's human impersonation in Lady in the Tramp...then again, Ive always enjoyed the expressions in Ren and Stimpy...I think I have to read the article again...Im abit thrown.

Raff said...

Hmm...I'm a little surprised there's no mention of sequences of expressions - to me that's where acting really comes in. A sudden deadpan after a very lively face has more meaning than either expression in itself.

>> Why did you draw those huge black lines around everything? <<

I'll make an arguement that it IS technological.

Cartoons back in the day, most classic R & S being an obvious example, had the cleanup pencil work photocopied onto the cels, which were then painted on the back. So the lines that made it to the screen were pencil. Look closely at the Dirk the Daring picture 2.jpg , notice how the lines are all scrawny and sketchy. That's photocopied pencil.

Digital inking, especially with Wacoms and Cintiqs, lends itself better to big fat lines. You have to zoom in to get skinny lines right, espcially if the screen and tablet are small like mine. It's a pain.

Vanoni! said...

When I visited CalArts 7 years ago or so I thought they had a VERY diverse art program! Some students were drawing on the floor. . .some students were drawing on the walls. . .some were drawing on each other. . .why, some bright young chap was doing the most wonderful portraits with pickle relish and dandruff. Imagine!

I look forward to more posts on specific acting.
I tried keeping an eye out for expressions when I was out sketching the last couple nights - but nary an expression did I see.
I guess I'll stick to DVDs and movies until I find a more exciting venue to spy at.

- Corbett

zoe said...

adele, I know what you mean about feeling thrown, but you just have to tease apart what (I think) he's really saying. I think John has the greatest affection for a lot of the old Disney stuff -- when it was new. The problem is how derivative and unoriginal things have become. This is one of those, "Don't look at my finger, look at the moon" situations, where people study the interpretation of the thing instead of interpreting real life themselves. If you feel a legitimate pang of guilt for being derivative (I know I do), then take it as a wake up call to return to the basics. I think John is trying to tell all the artists of the world that what WE see and feel is every bit as legitimate as what the Nine Old Men did, if not moreso.

Mr. Semaj said...

To broaden his viewpoint on "specific" acting, John should use examples from other sitcoms. I personally see a lot of cool acting in Married...with Children.

Ron said...

This is a good discussion. I really believe that objective oriented acting is the best acting method for live action and cartoon. I do think that cartoon needs exaggeration. This is where I agree with John K. You need to push certain elements of an acting bit, and perhaps edit out others - otherwise it would be too much information. I also agree with someone else's notion of a "sequence." It is difficult to concentrate too much on mugging in individual moments. As a famous instructor of theater says, "How you do what you do, is who you are." This would include emotion, but more importantly it includes behavior and underlying gestures (both felt from the voice, and seen in the body language).

In this first post on acting, however, the concentration is on individual frames and the emotion that is present. Another source for studying facial emotion is Paul Ekman. Check him out John:

Thanks for your topics - cool stuff.

Ron said...

This is a good discussion. I really believe that objective oriented acting is the best acting method for live action and cartoon. I do think that cartoon needs exaggeration. This is where I agree with John K. You need to push certain elements of an acting bit, and perhaps edit out others - otherwise it would be too much information. I also agree with someone else's notion of a "sequence." It is difficult to concentrate too much on mugging in individual moments. As a famous instructor of theater says, "How you do what you do, is who you are." This would include emotion, but more importantly it includes behavior and underlying gestures (both felt from the voice, and seen in the body language).

In this first post on acting, however, the concentration is on individual frames and the emotion that is present. Another source for studying facial emotion is Paul Ekman. Check him out John:

Thanks for your topics - cool stuff.

S.G.A said...

I knew it ,...Bu tI could never articulate it, yup the whole squash and stretch thing, and something that bothered me when I was a kid was those gritting teeth frowns when somebodies mad or ready to fight, I think I first realized it with the ninja turtles,, It used to really irritate me, I thought who, does that?... well apparently every anime guy that was ever drawn ever...hahaha
I twas really cool to see my frustration articulated so simply put!

Justin said...

If Cal Arts changed their style and starting doing expressions more to your standards, would you criticize them for ripping you off?

JohnK said...

Not if they made up their own. Lots of people have used specific expressions from my cartoons-out of context.

I want people to create new ones on an ongoing basis. But they gotta start somewhere-first by knowing that there aren't many expressions in modern animation.

ardy said...

>>Lots of people have used specific expressions from my cartoons-out of context<<

You should do a whole post on that. You always talk about how animators poorly imitate Disney out of context, but some people only see it as you insulting Disney or Cal Arts. If you did a post on animators who have imitated Spumco out of context, maybe they'll understand what you mean.

Tom Dougherty said...

This is extremely good stuff John, and I wanted to thank you (again) for doing this for all of us.

I think you're more than fair with the selections of Disney images you chose for this entry. The Tarzan, Aladdin and Hercules pictures perfectly show exactly why those projects fail visually. That shot from the scene where Aladdin wet nurses the princess back to health made me choke with bitter laughter.

I'd second that call for a post of the Spumco swipes used out of context. That would really be rich.

Thanks again, Boss.

David Germain said...

Start by observation of the real. Look for funny quirky expressions that people you know make that are unique to them.

Can I add to this? I think real-life animals are also good to study for both facial and body expressions. I'm sure anyone with a pet could tell you that you really get to understand that animal's personality once you've lived with them for a few years. I think that's one of the many many reasons Chuck Jones became the master of expressive characters, he even studied the animals he knew in his lifetime. Hell, the first chapter of his first autobiography is all about his cat Johnson.

I remember this cat I used to have. I looked out the window to the back yard and saw that she was in a fight with some stray white cat. After a bit of a struggle he had her pinned to the ground and it looked to me like she couldn't breathe. So I ran outside and chased that stray away. He darted over the fence quite quickly. I looked down at my cat thinking she'd be greatful for having saved her or whatever. But instead I got this look of resentment. "Hey, I was handling that!!!", she seemed to be saying to me. I wish the entire world was there to see that expression of hers. It was priceless.

So, like I said, study animals too for that and many other reasons.

Oh, yeah, and also thanks for pointing out that "squashing one side of the face while stretching the other" cheat. I never even considered that before nor have I ever put it into any picture I've drawn. I definitely prefer the Chuck Jones method of doing anything you want to the face and/or body for an infinite number of emotions. And the reasons for that have been so eloquently phrased on this blogpost by you. Thanks for the ejumacation.

Ms. Jane D'oh said...

my favorite post so far. for personal reasons, shallow expressions in cartoon females really BUG. the three that bug: 'concerned mom' , 'wacky punky asexual girl' and 'generic sexpot'.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I've really enjoyed this post the past few days.


Marcelo Souza said...

This is a bit off topic but what irritates me the most concerning Ren and Stimpy imitators is that in just about every show after that they gotta have at least one character with a foreign accent like Ren. A depressing lack of originality.

Paul B said...

Hi John!

Great post again, thank you very much!

hey, what do you think about Crusader Rabbit?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

OK John I'd really like some feedback on this one because i'm finding it alttle difficult to undestand.

So what you saying is: We need to stop reusing the same stock facial expressions that Cal Arts started and start using unique expressions that we can only find in real life, like from our friends and family, expressions that only specific individuals can... express.

But, what about the possibility that there are certain expressions that you REALLY want to use for a specific character that just won't work for that character? Would it be a problem with the facial expression? Or possibly the character design in general?

waveybrain said...

Hey, if the lead animator is gay and he draws gay poses, is that wrong?...Of course, this is Hercules we're talking about.

Rene said...

One thing I really like about your expressions is that you actually use the eyes (instead of just the mouth) to convey happiness. If someone smiles with just their mouth, watch out because they are faking it! A real smile is a duchenne smile.

I once applied to CalArts and was rejected, and I pretty much gave up on my dreaming of doing animation at that point. Reading your blog now, I don't feel quite as bad!

Virgil said...

I think you have some good points here, but you're wrong to say these expressions are artificial and you can't relate to, and don't belong to the real world. they're simplified, but they're inspired by the real thing, and people connect to them, no problem. the squash and stretch does happen in the real face and the squash/stretch expression you consider artificial it's actually very based on reality. it is stylized, but you can't call it artificial. you critique the Disney style, but it's a style nevertheless, and its strengths are actually the natural quality of the expressions and acting, even if simplified/stylized. you only show the tip of the iceberg, as already mentioned in these comments.

ok, now the examples of real world acting... hmmmm, I'd like to see that scene on video. But those Honeymooners expressions, even though more detailed, don't look natural to me. they look more like the kind of movies my mom is watching, and I go - "what is this old crap"? well, exactly because they're not natural/believable. why didn't you give examples from real life, or maybe more recent movies, having in mind that the quality of acting in Hollywood has seriously improved in the last 2 decades.

now, back to Disney cartooning. even if stylized, and therefore not naturalistic... it does feel, often times, very natural. while acting like that in the old movies (the Honeymooners images look totally like what I'm thinking about right now) feel more artificial, because exaggerating and stylizing in the cartoon medium is ok, but doing similar things in live action is weird, and it's much more annoying.
which is why you're right in that acting the Disney-way, while using your real-world-body, will look stupid. but you leave aside the fact that in the cartoon medium that stuff works beautifully.

the Disney style (ok, other people will go more specific, but I'll generically call it Disney) has its merits anyway, and under the hood of an unified framework, you actually find a lot of brilliant artists studying the real world - they did it in the 30s, they're still doing it now. it's silly to deny Disney animation exactly that which made it famous... in fact, great acting can be done using simplified shapes, it's not the exact shape itself that makes acting natural and believable, it's HOW you use that shape, in what context. it's not the fact that the eyes look away... but the fact that they look away at a given moment, not sooner nor later, and at a specific speed, and where exactly they look, and for how long.

I agree that we should look into improving acting and diversifying facial animation though!! ;)

finally, if you're looking for subtlety, you have to admit that the smile in this image:

is not the same smile as any of the smiles in this other image:

in a world of subtleties, a small difference can make a big difference :D

Virgil said...

also, we don't reinvent the face, we study it... a simple smile is something necessary, and you diversify it in context. anyway, most of the emotion is in the eye movement, and that you really can't stylize much... so why worry about the mouth shapes, why distort them like crazy, when in fact, what we need perhaps... is in the eyes? I really think wild expressions are unnecessary, most of the time, in naturalistic acting.
(on The Incredibles DVD there is someone explaining what "pushing" is all about, in animation - "push a pose", "push an expression" - it's not about how extreme you get with it, but how accurate).

Herman said...

Interesting Read, Thanks again to help us think out of the box, and not be sheep.

Earendil said...

Very interesting post. As someone who is interested in making kick ass 2d/3d films, acting is something that I'm trying to push the envelope in. The stock/squishy expressions have always bugged me, which is why I prefer some of the higher produced Japanese series/movies. I refer specifically to Ghost in the Shell 2 Innocence, and the two TV series.

While even that style of animation falls back on stock expressions, there are some "moments" where characters act, and not just indicate.

The water on her face helps, but this expression conveys, at least to me, more than "Angry". I'd add, hurt, livid, and a real sense of pure rage. And considering the events that have transpired in the previous 2 minutes, it really makes it the high point of the entire episode. The point at which a character, who normally is the rational, commanding personality, absolutely loses control. And I see it here in this frame, which is unfortunately small. While it's nowhere near live-action, this [i]moment[/i] from Episode 21 of Season 1, I think is a step in the right direction.

There was also a brief moment in the 2nd Movie, Innocence, right after Batou drops into the Chinese production ship, where he kind of fingers his gun, and you see his mouth twitch a little, and he swallows...all in about 1 second. It's an amazing little "approaching the inner cave" moment.


Cori said...

I've never even heard of animators looking to other animation for realistic acting references. That would be like trying to make porkchops from chicken breasts; both tasty, but different beasts altogether. Granted, I'm just a student, but when I look for a reference to draw, it's a live model, video reference, or photos. When I think of the old addage "animators are actors with pencils," I take it to mean that if you don't know anything about acting, you aren't going to give much life to your characters. A person who has never surfed in their life is going to have a hard time telling someone else what it feels like to walk the board. If you don't know basic acting principles, it doesn't matter if you're the most brilliant artist in the world, your work is going to come out wooden and forced.

Anonymous said...

Just went through a slight revelation on this post: most Disney characters from the 90's on have the same eyes (different colors, of course, but still the same eyes!). Look at the pic from Aladdin and then the one from Tarzan: they're the exact same eyes, just with different colored corneas.

Anonymous said...

And, by the way: I love the poses and facial expressions in the APC Ren and Stimpy episodes more than the originals. That, and the animation and coloring style.

Aida Sofía Barba Flores said...

thanks for all the good information in your blog!!! you are a great artist and a professional to share all you know and your experience.... I'm an illustrator and an animator and I'll take all your advices of course!

tobor68 said...

i'm kinda late to the conversation, but you've nailed it on the head for me.

i haven't noticed the squash one side, stretch the other for a while and i hate it.

but more to the point, i've noticed stock expressions beginning to creep into pixar films.

i know you're not a pixar fan but i am, mostly because they tend to surprise me with their content and beautiful pictures.

i did notice an ORIGINAL expression in 'the incredibles' when mr. incredible exudes appreciation for another heroes costume to e, the costume designer. it was some original acting on the part of the animator and sticks out everytime i watch it.

regardless, you are absolutely right about expressions in animation. the same thing drove me to give up on modern comics as a young man and go back to some of the older toonie reprints.

animation acting is incestuous.

tobor68 said...

>i haven't noticed the squash one side, stretch the other for a while and i hate it.<

umm, that should be 'i HAVE...'

fandumb said...

I don't like the look of the Spike TV episodes because the colours are so harsh and violent. I prefer the softer colourings of the original series contrasting really well with the content. I prefer the old style of the characters; Ren's longer ears, Stimpy's shorter hairs...