Thursday, April 12, 2007

Acting 4 -SUBTLETY- Specific Expressions-exposition scene

Using subtlety and broadness together creates richness and entertainment.

"Pardon My Glove" (1956)

Variety is what makes things seem alive and certainly interesting. Some commenters have called this comedy acting "broad" and I have to challenge that. Yes, it's partly broad when Ralph screams and hits Norton, but even within the broad gestures there are very subtle nuances in the facial expressions and body language that make Ralph a specific character, not just a generic blusterer as you see in many cartoons.

Now these expressions are very obviously subtle to me but some would call them extreme, just because they are noticeable at all. We are so used to blandness today, especially in cartoons, that anything that makes a clear statement is considered broad or extreme. I disagree.

Subtle means nuanced to me. It means very slight twists and turns of details that add rich information to the main statement. The difference between "mad" and "sarcastically pleasant while trying to convince Norton that Ralph is not mad so he can lull Norton into blind trust and then strangle him".

That second emotion cannot be made simply. It can be done with a single expression though that you can recognize in an instant, just as fast as you can read "mad". But it's a lot funnier and interesting. Here is cartoon mad:

Gleason's mads have subtle nuances in meaning and appearance. And he has a million different ways to be mad.

And on top of that, an entertainer such as an actor or cartoonist has to do more than achieve merely a rich meaning with his skill of subtlety. He has to make it entertaining.

That's what Jackie Gleason and Art Carney do that the average person down the street can't and even 90% of professional entertainers can't. That's what makes them great and lasting. And cabable of extreme subtlety. They have a wide range of specific expressions, gestures, rhythms, vocal control and on and on. That's why they have lasted 50 years and are still laugh out loud funnier than most other sitcoms.

If you don't believe these expressions are subtle, tell you what. Try drawing them and see if you can capture the nuances in the expressions. Then post your drawings and we can all start to see why it's so hard to get specific acting in animation.

I know someone who could probably do it:

Kristen not only caricatures real people's heads, she caricatures their specific expressions. She oughta be an animator, if she isn't already.

It's admittedly very hard to animate subtle specific nuances, but I'm not sure why so few have tried. I don't expect every animator to even want to. Animation is primarily about motion. Acting is another thing to add on to all the skills it takes just to move something smoothly at all.

But I'm hoping that once animators start to see the difference between specific and generic acting, some may be interested enough to want to add specific acting to their own characters.

What makes a character a specific personality?

Specific personalities are only specific in the evidence that our senses take in.

Personality cannot be explained in words as richly as it can be shown in actions by a creative skilled performer. You can promise in your script that a character has a rich personality, but someone has to prove it with evidence that our senses agree with.

Visual evidence. Audio evidence. An actor and an animator has to tell the story with pictures and some of the time, with added sound.

Their design, their unique and varied mannerisms, but first of all their expressions are what the visual evidence is. This has to work in context and coordination with the dialogue- the sound evidence.

These artificial artistic signals have to relay a clear and entertaining message to the audience. It can be broad like most classic animation, subtle like some old animation, or a combination -like the best of Warner Bros. cartoons, or it can be extremely bland, limited and formulaic as in most of today's cartoons. (Yes, you can find exceptions but too few.)

Animation tends to re-use the same expressions over and over again, many of which are not even general human expressions. Instead we rely on "animation acting" which is very limited because we animators blindly choose it to be. Probably not even on purpose. We are just so used to it being done the same way over and over again that we don't stop to question it.

The expensive studios even spend a lot of money pretending to study from life, but then make the final decisions to just animate and design things the same way they did in the last 15 pictures.

I put this live action acting up to show how much higher we have to aim if we truly want to have our animation heralded as good acting, or "realistic" acting.

This is great acting. It reminds me of many real life incidents I have personally been part of or have witnessed-with the boring parts cut out. That's what entertainers and artists ought to aim for- relate something about their view of the world to you in their style, but cut the damn boring parts out.

Great performers are also great editors. If they were perfectly realistic, then what would be the point of them? You can sit around the house and watch realism all day.

All this applies equally to "serious" actors but I'll leave that for another day...

Look what Gleason does with exposition. Exposition is generally considered a bad writer's sin, but in some comedy it can be very funny. Moe Howard was great at reading exposition; he made it funny and obvious that he was just telling you an elaborate setup for a great payoff.

Tex Avery started almost every MGM cartoon with the boldest exposition, just to get the idea of the story over with fast so he could get to the jokes.

Clampett made many of his setups entertaining without exposition ... through character, atmosphere, music and tension.

In this great episode of the Honeymooners, Ralph just tells Norton (and the audience) the setup for a gag, and he does it with such entertainment that we aren't bored by it. At least I'm not.


Kris said...

It seems like trying to draw some of these expressions and other ones we see on TV would be a good exercise. I'll give it a shot sometime soon when I'm a little less busy (graduation coming up! Yikes!).

Peggy said...

Totally unrelated: I was just reading a preview article about Shrek 3 and something said in it made me realize why so many cartoon executives rushed to pronounce 2D animation dead:

It's easier to realize their writer buddies' tendency to write lines like "a horde of five thousand cheering windup dolls circles around our hero, all shouting in unison that she is the One Princess of the Land" in 3D.

Sure, they're all the same. But there's five thousand of them. And nobody had to sit there and draw them. They can put this sort of shit all through the picture, and not have the poor bastards who have to realize it want to kill themselves quite as soon.

meanwhile, I should get off my butt and draw off of those screencaps I've only been able to skim over the past week due to workload!

GinoMc said...

.....these expressions are very obviously subtle to me but some would call them extreme, just because they are noticeable at all...
and you're 100% right too (don't you feel sorta validated now that i've chimed in?no?oh well)it's all about CONTRAST and rythm(kinda like other arts huh?).
one of the greatest shows ever made,no debate.they knew their characters inside and out,and nothing happened by mistake,even if it wasn't scripted initially,things developed because they knew their own characters so well,and that made them "real",so their interactions were natural,and built off each other.
they weren't one dimensional stereotypes (they had many subtle shades) but caricatures of people they knew and studied.the contrast and rythm applies not only to the individual characters,but also to the way they interact.the TRAP is wathing something that's already a caricature,and aping it,rather than studying the METHOD that brought that caricature to see that alot with comedy teams that end up doing a caricature of a caricature later in their careers - it's time for people to look a little closer...RANT ON.....

some 'typo' fixes - rant to come soon

Brian B said...

I don't disagree that broad acting has it's place. That subtle and broad create richness. A lot of great actors like Sean Penn are exceptionally broad at times, but he's also got a bit of a reputation as being overly intense. Sometimes scenery chewing or overacting. Which is acceptable given the right role and story, but not for a whole show or film to be filled with such. It's just unnatural.

It works in The Honeymooners though. It's a comedy that's specific and subtle as well. It's great for learning expressions and specificness in character. It's a rich comedy. Not only that, but Gleason has the versatility to be either/or. Evidenced by his win for best supporting actor for The Hustler.

But the characters in this show \are indicating, and depending on what you're doing with a film or show, that's not always the right method, and certainly not the only method or bar for "good acting". If you're trying to bring realistic acting to animation it can even be detrimental.

"It's important not to indicate. People don't try to show their feelings, they try to hide them." - Robert Deniro

I wouldn't argue you can include both entertainment and realism in the same role though. It's just not the same as "cutting out the boring bits" considering some of the great performances in film history.

Btw, Kristen's work is amazing. Thanks for the link.

Jordan said...

Hey John

Great post. Have you ever seen the British Office? It's acclaimed for it's "realism" but whatever you call it, it has some great broad and subtle acting. In every scene the characters have multiple layers to how they are acting, mostly because the characters KNOW they are being videotaped. They are constantly eyeing the camera, adjusting things they say for it, etc etc. (This is just one example.)

Another great expression in the show is when the boss David Brent says or does something revealing, or embarassing...he gives the camera a sort of "oh shit! help me!" look, where his mouth is a little open, and his front teeth are sort of resting on his bottom lip, and his eyes look almost angry and disappointed, and his head kind of lurches forward from his body like a turtle.

I think one of the best facial expressions I've ever seen is an episode where Tim finds out that Dawn (whom he loves) is coming back. He sits there and his face is hysterically and sadly overwhelmed by this fact, and outwardly he THINKS he's making some casual la-dee-da expression, but it's coming off as this psychotic stifled painful look mixed with fake-indifference and eye bulging intensity. It's sort of undescribable.

Wish I could find a jpg of it..


Kali Fontecchio said...

Great analysis John!

You should start a blog campaign of no filler! The slogan could be like, "filler is a killer!" And so on.

Andreas said...

The Honeymooners was so easy to understand and get, that when I was a child, any time it was on, I HAD to watch it. Same today. The clear acting of the subtleties of emotion, not just the simple happy, sad, mad, made it so easy to understand. I think this is something stage actors learn early in their career. That is something that is clearly lacking in today's batch of "You look good, wanna be an actor" crop on TV (and movies). I guess when you have to produce X feet of animation a week it is easier to say "F#@$ it!" and use stock expressions that are easy for you and your assistant to draw. Just plug and play.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Kristen by the way, has and will forever rule balls! As in dominate testicles!

Joe said...

John, what are your thought on the "acting" in "The Iron Giant"? I find some scenes/characters to be exceptionally fun to watch and full of subtlety and nuance, like the scene where Hogarth is pretending to say grace at the dinner table, or the scene in the diner where the government agent goes nutso. While admittedly, the animation is somewhat rigid and adheres to some pretty strict "rules", I think it's a fine example of nuanced animated acting in a non-overtly "wacky", but still very entertaining way. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the movie.

Clinton said...

Speaking of Tex Avery, Droopy's finally on DVD :) I hope that they aren't edited. I can't wait for this :P

Anonymous said...

So when did the industry become a toolbox factory? Was it WWII? I think it was WWII.

Shoryuken said...

Loving this blog John, been reading for a while now but haven't posted before. I found something today I just had to share...

It's not really relevant to this topic but some of the stuff you were blogging a while back about cartoon writers.

This is from the blog of one of the writers of Hellboy the animated series--sorry about the length but it just highlights your point perfectly;

I'm heading into the action climax of the script. Because animation requires the writer to direct on the page, I can't simply say, "they fight." That's possible in a feature film where the writer is a guy with a story sketch pad and 4 x 8 foot bulletin boards to fill, but in anything like television production you have to give the overworked storyboard artist something to start with. And you can't write, "Hellboy hits the monster. The monster hits him back." You have to break the action down into detail.

"Hellboy hits the monster with his big right hand which ripples the octopus-like mass of its body. Hellboy smiles. "How did that fee--" BAM! A tentacle smacks him out of the shot. Hellboy smacks up against the wall, chipping the granite. He lands in a heap at the bottom. "Crap."

It goes on and on

Really explains why the Hellboy animation was so dry and generic.

R said...

Here's my attempt to capture the expressions. Hope you like them!


peldma3 said...

I shocked my kid. He was watching a forghorn Leghorn cartoon,And I was just admiring how incredible the from and construction and movement was, I said to my son , "look at this stuff and compare it to your cartoon network stuff." I think his responce was everything on cartoon network was "everything has short arms and legs and doesn't move like this." and then he watches, Ughhhh, Richie Rich , As it was coming on I told him to remember the the Foghorn Leghorn cartoon we just saw."
His responce was wow richie rich hardly moves( he imitated it's jerky movements ) " and the other cartoon( foghorn Leghorn) had different colors." ..What he might have meant was that Richie rich had bright but ugly colors.... any way the point of this was... See John this blog is working , you taught me to notice this stuff now I'm getting my kid to notice! Thank you!

Kristen McCabe said...

Hey John, Thanks for the nice words about my people drawings. I wish I was an animator but sadly I'm not. I'm trying to teach myself character design at the moment. (Turnarounds are such a bitch)

Keep the Honeymooner screencaps a-coming! They're Fantastic.

and thanks again!