Wednesday, June 06, 2007


You can have different levels of specificity.

1) General emotions common to all beasts: Humans have certain basic expressions that are common to all animals









2) Specific to Humans

and then certain emotions, interests and traits that are unique to us as a species.





3) Gender Specific
Specific to women or men-all women have certain basic emotions and expressions in common, that are different to men.

This is where animation separates from live action. Animated characters barely get past the gender specific level. Once in a while maybe, but hardly ever do animated characters come off as individual characters.

5) General Character Types

Types are a level more specific than male or female, but belonging to a type is still not individually specific.

Looney Tunes is as close as we ever got to personality, and even they only slightly got past specific types:


In a cartoon, you can have an asshole blowhard character-like PegLeg Pete, Stromboli and a million others.

Warner Bros. had some more specific variations of this type-like Foghorn Leghorn or Nasty Canasta.

In live action, the variations of any type are much more specific-Archie Bunker and Ralph Kramden share some broad general characteristics but come off as totally different characters with their own packages of expressions, gestures, voices, "character designs" and quirks.

Live action actors, start with huge advantages over animators:

1) Human actors actually
are individuals. Every person is different. in real life.

2) They don't have to spend a lifetime learning to draw. They can spend their time learning to act.

3) They have a medium that is based on individuality. The star system. You like certain actors because they look unique, have charisma and or have very unique mannerisms, expressions and voices.

4) Animators have to draw every single frame to fake life. They have to learn a ton of physical things that actors don't:


Mechanics of motion.

Squash and stretch

Live actors do all this naturally and in real time. They don't have to figure out how to walk convincingly.

By the time animators get to the problem of acting, they usually rely on expressions, mannerisms, gestures that they have seen in other animated cartoons.

5) All real people look different. Most cartoon characters are repetitions of designs already created.

6) It's really hard to draw real specific expressions and then wrap them around cartoon construction. An actor doesn't have to think about what muscles to move to make an expression. He just makes one.

How then can animators break away from formula animation acting and enter the realm of fully realized individual characters?


If an animator has time left over from learning to draw and animate to learn how to act, or even care about it, he has to ignore most animated formula acting and study real people and great actors who all have interesting and specific expressions and mannerisms.

6) Individual Character Specific

Each individual woman for example, on top of her basic shared woman expressions has her own personal specific expressions and mannerisms. And this is what separates real people from animation people. Specific versus generic.

A good actor takes what's common to all and then adds what's unique to the individual.

Alice is a "sassy girl" but a very specific individual one.

Alice's sarcastic reply to Ralph about her dress...

Jackie Gleason covers every level of general man and beast traits to a very specific unique version of a loud mouthed asshole.

Ralph acts like he's not suspicious of Alice...

These are not expressions or poses you would ever see on a cartoon model chart.

And he has a million more in his repertoire. This is just one scene!

Norton's reaction expressions are very specific and entertaining too.


David Francis said...

JohnK, just started reading your feed. Great stuff. Love those lost episodes. But why don't the pictures show up inline in google reader?

James Sugrue said...

Great acting. Jackie Gleason was a friggin genius. Too bad they don't act like that on tv anymore. =(

PCUnfunny said...

Alice's facial expressions always kill me. And also how Ralph always tries to remain calm about soemthing he's mad about and he slowy starts to get madder and madder until he explodes, another great exmaple of this was "A Matter of The Record".

Kali Fontecchio said...

I like it when men beat their hands in frustration- or in moments of joy! Men are weird.

Felix E. said...

I feel the same as david francis, why images don't show up in Google Reader?

Forbes Browne said...

You missed the still of Alice's annoyed expression at the end. That punctuates the others perfectly. I feel Ralph pain, women can be tricky buggers! ;-)

Jim Rockford said...

Why do people keep standing in line to see the same generic cookie cutter crap over and over,I just dont get it!

Why the hell are all CG characters so hideously ugly? Look at how deformed looking that womans face is,the other characters arent any better either.
cant the animators come up with an attractively stylized character? one that doesnt look like it suffered a genetic defect at birth?
Maybe that would take too much skill on their part.


why is this the only type of woman we see anymore whether animated or acted?
I am so sick of every character being arrogant and riddled with attitude and feelings of superiority.
they make smart ass,acid tongued remarks every five minutes,and generally act like 13 year olds.
this "battle of the sexes" crap is tiresome.
There is nothing even slightly appealing about this "Rat" movie....if we are seeing the best parts in the commercials, it doesnt speak too highly of the intelligence level of the audience who will go see it.

"you dont know what it is and you're eating it"


They must hire six year olds as writers!

Spinnaker said...

John, your analysis of the Honeymooners cast's technique is great.

But of all the images to pick to prove your point, why pick on a single advertising pose of a character(from "Ratatouille")like that?

I haven't seen the film and I don't know what she's like when moving either, but you know there were loads of ad poses of Ren slapped on drinking glasses et cetera where he was just staring into space. Expressionless stuff taken from some consumer products ad sheet that offered as much of Ren's verve and personality as a turnip.

This particular female character is designed in a catlike way-it isn't a typical wide-eyed, high-forehead, snub nosed "girl" design-and isn't that kind of refreshing to see?

I know what you mean about the "smarter than a man", snarky "look" that a lot of female cartoon characters sport(god, it's been much, much too pervasive a cliche on TV for years) but you've also given character descriptions of girls in your own ideas that are far from dumb blondes or suchlike. Why, some are man eaters!
And why not?
It's all what you do with them that counts, not a single pose.
Anyway I doubt this chef character will be any of the above. We'll see.

I just think there could be a better example than this image from the as yet completely unknown quantity of "Rat".
...thanks for giving me the comment soapbox, and for your blog. It's always entertaining and enlightening whether I agree with you or not.

JohnK said...

If you've seen any of the clips of the other characters from the movie, then would you still expect anything new from the girl characters?

Girls are even less specific than guys in animated features.

Jim Rockford said...

"This particular female character is designed in a catlike way-it isn't a typical wide-eyed, high-forehead, snub nosed "girl" design-and isn't that kind of refreshing to see?"

No,it isnt refreshing to me!,its just ugly!
whats refreshing about ugliness?

there are too many poorly designed things in the world as it is.
Is a yugo refreshing because it was ugly and different?

Based on what I've seen this movie is no different than Shrek or dancing penguin movies they churn out endlessly.

they are poorly designed,have generic expressions,boring redundant plots,stupid "jokes" and the dreaded "'tude" that seems to pervade almost every cartoon made nowadays.
hasnt there been enough of these things made? When are we going to see something that is refreshing,entertaining and dare I say FUNNY again.
The more of this shit they keep churning out the more I am amazed at the genius of the past cartoonists,and entertainers.

greggerg said...

Virgil Partch was great.

JohnK said...

Hey Jim

it's not that bad!

I just posted it to show how it's hard for animators to come up with specific characters. We are too busy animating to have lots of time to also make up complex individuals from scratch every time we do something.

I also posted old cartoon characters who although more cartoony, have the same disadvanatges.

Roberto González said...

I have mixed feelings about the design of the girl in Ratatouille. I partly agree with spinnaker that she looks kinda different to another female characters, but I also agree that she had a 'tude pose in that frame and her acting doesn't seem too specific in the trailer. Also, she actually looks kinda ugly, considering she's supossed to be a pretty girl.

This type of design I find it very weird. If Cal Arts is based on later Disney like Jungle Book, Sword In The Stone, The Rescuers, etc. where are that type of female characters? I think this is kind of a new trend. Maybe it's the way they draw ethnic characters when they avoid to be offensive or something? They just give them big noses?

Girls, especially cute girls, don't have noses like those normally. That seems a lot more natural in the masculine character from Ratatouille, the red hair character. It seems more similar to the 70s/80s Disney style.

But girls like the ones in Pocahontas, Lilo and Stitch, Mulan or this design...those look quite awkward to me. Especially the noses.

But, like John said, take it easy Jim, it's not that bad. I even think it's going to be pretty good (especially compared to the rest of the stuff we have nowadays), though I see John's points. But the whole plot description actually seems like a little fable, instead of a "sarcastic" meta-joke or another trendy story like that. And actually, the rats' expressions remind me a little to Chuck Jones' style.

Anyway, the examples were quite good in this one. It would be good to see some specific acting like Alice's in that clip, and the other one with Ralph and Norton is hilarious too. I had never watched this sitcom before but yeah, I can see why it was so popular. Norton really looks like a cartoon character.

JohnK said...

I think all the human characters are supposed to look like rats. Maybe it's supposed to be ironic, I don't know.

Other than that, it looks just like the last 40 animated features to me.

PCUnfunny said...

John, is this a good example of a Boss ?

I.D.R.C. said...


Put long blonde hair on her and she's the villain's assistant from Incredibles. Put stitches on her and she's the girl in Nightmare Before Xmas. I have to confess I don't mind those designs, but some new takes and more actual personality would be refreshing.

Jackie gleason has such a sheer volume of specific gestures that it's staggering to contemplate. Almost not a syllable gets uttered that he doesn't find a way to goose with something fun. I think the small subtle things he does are more fun than the big ones.

Jim Rockford said...

I didnt mean to come off so harsh sounding,but I am honestly sick of the crappy unfunny computer generated stuff.
the characters are just wierd looking and ugly,why do they have gaint beaks? its not funny its just wierd!

I understand its hard to come up with original individualistic characters,but it seems they put very little effort into it or dont even try at all.

Even when you made cartoons with pre-existing characters,like Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith,they had incredible *specific* acting and were hilarious! they had more personality than the originals.
Boo Boo Runs wild was genius!

most of these G-G films have the same generic Shrek style and feel to them,they are stylistically ugly,stiffly animated,and are mostly filler that you have to sit through to get to what may only amount to one or two remotely funny
how many times can they pull off the same bland characterizations and formulaic plots?.they seem corporate and all about making money.

Would you honestly call them refreshing yourself?

the c-g cartoons uninspired ugliness wouldnt be so bad if they were funny,but they arent.

NateBear said...

Speaking of Nasty Canasta, who the @*^& does this guy think he is:

I.D.R.C. said...

who the @*^& does this guy think he is:

If he can get 8600 bucks for that, I think he is a frigging GENIUS.

Adam said...

I think there is an inherant difficulty with achieving this type of specific acting in animation. In real life all faces are made of the same structure. Sure we all have our own unique look, but its all based on small variations of the same mold. We all have our own way of showing emotion too, but again its all our own specific variations on the same basic shapes for those emotions. We are all studying the human face everytime we interact with each other, from the day we are born practically. Every one of us has built up an incredible library of knowledge on recognizing human emotions.

In animation, however, your character can be anything at all. Goofy looking human, animal, plant, piece of chalk, etc... To get that specific level of acting from a character that the audience is visually unfamiliar with would be asking quite a bit from both the animator and the audience.

While this may seem as a limitation in animation, I also think its one of the best aspects of the medium. Visually, animation is a simplification of the world around us. I think our brains take some sort of primal delight in figuring out this new but simple world as we watch it as opposed to the intensely detailed three dimensional world we live in day to day.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see an animator figure out a way to get that specific level of acting in their performance. It would be a mind blowing experience to watch somebody master the artform to that degree.

Great post as always John.

Amy said...

I'm starting to think that all a character animator needs to know can be learned with box sets of the Honeymooners and the Dick van Dyke Show.
I love your analyses of Gleason and co. :)

Roberto González said...

Shrek looks A LOT WORSE than Pixar movies in general and Brad Bird's movies in particular look a little better than other Pixar movies. The humans in The Incredibles look much better than the humans in Toy Story 1 and 2. In fact I think the Incredibles designs were better than the humans in Ratatouille (I like the rats).

Also the characters and gags in Pixar movies are usually better than the Dreamworks ones. The stories have cliches and fake pathos, but at least they tell something instead of copying all the scenes from other movies, and saying it's parody. However, they actually don't use the cartoon genre to its full potential. Ratatouille is aimed as a comedy, and I think it's going to include some funny parts in the dialogues and situations, but yeah, the acting is probably going to imitate human acting. That's clear when you see the red hair chef in the trailer, he overacts in the way a comic actors overacts but not in a way a cartoon overacts. These movies are like watching cartoon characters trying to make us laugh using the manierisms and gestures of comic actors instead of doing the things only cartoons can do. And it would be a lot funnier if they'll use the medium to get more laughs. That's the part I agree with.

Whether the acting is totally copied from previous movies, well,I admit I'm not very observative in this kind of acting, I memorize Daffy Duck's expressions much better. I can certainly see a similar style in all new movies. But also they said that they were inspired in Brad Bird's gestures and way of walking for the villain in The Incredibles and that the animator acted the scene in which the beatnick guy tries to hide that the squirrel is in his pants in The Iron Giant. At least, if this is true, they were trying to copy from reality, so the results should be somewhat new.

Thomas said...

Norton "really looks like a cartoon character" because Hanna-Barbera, starting while they were still at MGM, latched onto his essence, wardrobe and voice and regurgitated it for years. In Ed Norton, Art Carney provided a distillation of a dated New York street character type that Barbera especially understood and appreciated. Hanna would've been happier making cartoons about little ducklings who went to Sunday school.

Cory and Tashina said...

Boooo. As much as I love hand drawn animation, I'm going to have to say I dislike of the negitivty going on in animation these days.I'm tired of dreamworks ruining CG movies..which.. sets this thought in peoples brains that all CG movies are utta crap. Shrek 3 was all poop and fart jokes, Ratatouille has meaning, and story.. and a brilliant one at that.

It's starting to seem like there is more battling between hand-drawn animators and CG animators. Than there is embrassing the love of animation and the animation community as a whole.

Mitch said...

Great post, thanks :)

learned alot from it. And I will try to watch some more Honeymooners :)

R said...

One of the best examples of lazy cartoon "acting" is Disney's ubiquitous guilty grin.

Just about every character in every Disney film since Little Mermaid has used it. It has even "jumped the fence" and is occasionally used outside of Disney. This demonstrates that stock expressions are too often used instead of developing individual personalities for cartoon characters.

I cringe every time I see this expression. It needs to be retired!

Jacob Rossi said...

"But girls like the ones in Pocahontas, Lilo and Stitch, Mulan or this design...those look quite awkward to me. Especially the noses."

Okay, Native American... Hawaiian... Chinese. Are you serious? No, no, you're right. There's really been a shortage of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, big-tittied, narrow-nosed, tight-wasted bombshells in films during the last couple decades, what was I thinking?

This kind of concentrated negativety is disheartening to see: gender-role frustration guised as artistic critique. You sound like a bunch of horny old men who can't let go of the glory days--The days where a pulp cartoon could run for 3 seasons on stretch and squash alone and the novelty of animation diluted the moral expectations of its content.

Go check out a handful of the shorts from Annecy this year. The richness of character and originality in most of them is awe-inspiring. We're seeing hundreds of films coming from dozens of countries, many doing something special for the medium and few fogging it up with female objectification. I think we can do a lot better as contributors to that collective than homogenizing the business of film with gender stereotypes and ignorant insinuations that foreign=ugly.