Friday, October 21, 2011

Specific Heads, Specific Expressions, Specific Gestures and Mannerisms

At both upcoming animation festivals, they asked me to do a seminar and talk about and show some of my influences. Obviously I'm really influenced by classic cartoons and I love cartooniness and magic - the stuff that the cartoon medium does most naturally and better than other media.
But maybe the one thing I do differently than most cartoons is the acting. I'm not that influenced by cartoon acting. I find it too generic and restrictive.
My acting influences come mainly from live action actors and real people I've known in my life.
Real life is a lot more varied, subtle and nuanced than most cartoon acting.
Let's take Kirk Douglas as an example. He is one of my favorite actors.
First of all, Kirk has a really unique look, the equivalent of a character design in cartoons. Animation tends to reuse the same basic character designs over and over again. Everyone has the same eyes, the same mouth, the same square fingered hands etc.
Kirk as a general character design is the hero type. In cartoons most hero types have the same face and body and just wear different outfits. Kirk has a specific head shape, specific eyes, nose, chin, hole in chin and even the musculature of his face is completely unique to him. His teeth are recognizable and his lips are totally specific. Even his body - while generally being of the manly heroic type is a one-of-a-kind variation of it. He has a really wide back, skinny waist, skinny arms and legs and a giant head. So...not only is he built as a unique individual, he also moves all his unique features in original ways. For 2 reasons:
1) His anatomy physically has to move according to the way it's built.
2) He has extreme talent and is one inventive sonuvabitch.
In Detective Story, Kirk is a self righteous police detective who hates criminals and thinks they are scum. He is street wise but also has a very sarcastic side as you can see from some of his expressions here. Sarcasm is an emotion that is hard to draw and animate even in its most general form, but Kirk displays it with great charisma and confidence and in ways unique to himself.

When you watch Kirk in action, his changes from expression to expression are fluid; they go through intermediate transitions that are unique and fascinating. He doesn't just inbetween from happy to sad.

Look at that mouth shape! I like the one hanging tooth on the upper right and the group of teeth on the lower left. Who in animation would think of that? -especially for a heroic character?

Here's the Burl Ives all properly raised children know and love.
As a general type, he is the jolly fat guy, but everything else about him is totally unique-his face, his voice, his personality, his expressions and mannerisms. He's one of the most unique characters in entertainment I can think of.Even his hands are completely specific shapes.

You have to see how his tongue flops around in his mouth when he sings. If you come to one of my seminars you will.
...sorry for the cursor grabs...
Here's the evil side of Burl from "The Big Country" He's actually not evil, he's just a poor, rough hewn but ultimately noble character. That's the kind of character a writer can write with a handful of adjectives. But what Burl brings to the character is so much more - a lot of layers and specific nuances that can't be described in words. They can only be acted - and only by him.
Here's his son, played by Chuck Connors- another generally heroic type but with another completely unique character design. In this movie he plays the villain. Raised by Burl on a poor ranch he is huge, strong, handsome, a bully but ultimately a sniveling coward. Again, the adjectives don't begin to describe the gripping specificity of Connors' brilliant performance.

The chemistry between Chuck and Burl is wonderful! They should have spun them off into a TV sitcom because every scene they are in together is gold.
Here's Chuck trying to kill his loving Pop.
Here's that rough-hewn gruff powerful Dad cradling the beloved son he had to shoot down like a dog.
Kirk punch drunk. One of the most intense scenes in movie history.
Robert Ryan is another actor that I love. He is not quite as richly layered or talented as Kirk or Burl, but he is a completely unique character.
He oozes charisma and you can't take your eyes off him in his best films.
Here's a good comparison of two heroic types. Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan are both big, burly and manly but still look completely different. They are both unique physical specimens. They also act completely differently.
Robert Ryan is a lot more active as an actor than Robert Mitchum. He really thinks about his performances and colors them with very specific second layers.
Here he is having a confrontation with Mitchum. He could have just read the script and made all the expositional story points, but instead he adds a really fun layer to the performance. He uses an apple as a prop and completely violates the damn thing in front of your eyes.

You have to see this in action to get the full effect. He makes you feel really sorry for that apple.

Peter Lorre has to be one of the very best actors in movie history. He has a million subtle things going on in his head. Both on top of the skin and underneath.

I'll show you the incredible wealth of expressions Peter can concoct for just a single scene and a few lines of dialogue.



Hurricane Leslie said...

Please leave this up forever, so I can use it forever!

Brunomac said...

Goddamn. Burl Ives still creeps the hell out of me. I thought I had gone past that when my childhood ended. That huge face...

Just a suggestion John - when next you have something to promote, you should try and get on the Adam Carolla Podcast, a very popular venue. Saying that because he often rants about how terrible a lot of Hanna Barbara was when he was a kid, and I bet you could offer him a lot of insight into that, and maybe even Filmations "Crapmation" period.

BlakeJ said...

Awesome post, John! For a curious person like me, would you care to divulge the main movies these photos are from? I think "Detective Story" is where R. Ryan violates the apple, but what about the punch drunk Kirk Douglas?

Thanks for all the awesome and insightful posts!

Your Fan,

andrea said...

I love all these classic actors;
I would study them all the time.

I recently did a rough caricature of Kirk Douglas. If you wouldn't mind in please taking a quick look, I'd appreciate any feedback.


Pokey said...

Ren's three favorite actors!!!! Haaa-haaa-Haa Haa, [classic Peter Lorre sinister laugh].

daniel said...

aww, man. i wish there was something like an animation con. in mexico or even just animation.
hey.. john, have you seen the new top cat movie,...
cough(i know people who worked on it)cough. jk(as in just kidding)
that is the animation that mexico achieves, theres no way we´re having a convention around it.
btw that very same thing you say about character expresions is the reason i watch live action films.

Elana Pritchard said...

This is the kind of acting I want to do. I make faces for hours in the mirror practicing for the day when I stumble into some situation where I actually get to use them.

This kind of acting has always been rare for women though. Well, it used to be rare and now it pretty much doesn't exist. Someone decided that too much character in a woman's face will make people uncomfortable or something, I guess. Usually the best outlet we're afforded is eye acting.

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
markus said...

looking forward to here you TALKING about this, john.
will you allow some time for "fan photos" in fredrikstad?

Juz Capes said...

You gotta add Lee Marvin and Richard Widmark to that list.

'House of Bamboo' has a amazing Robert Ryan scene in it.

What do you think of Sam Fuller movies John? He has fantastic characters, 'Shock Corridor' is just incredibly intense.

Oh and Gregory Peck.

kurtwil said...

Fascinating post, JK. Thank you.

And yes, I do see these influences in your work.

Did you enjoy Burl Ive's performance in EAST OF EDEN?

Isaak said...

What do you think of Adventures of Robin Hood? Errol Flynn is very good in it and with the technicolor it looks like a real-life cartoon (in a good way). The sword fighting is brilliant.

David said...

Good theory. Would love to see this kind of "specific acting" used more in animation.

It's great to talk theory , but honestly I'm just not seeing these fine theories actually put into practice in any animation being made these days.

JohnK said...

That's why I'm going to show some at the festivals.

Lamont Cranston said...

I've seen Peter Lorre copied countless times in numerous cartoons, he had a very distinctive voice and mannerisms

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Great pictures! The problem with drawing acted faces is that, if you're not used to that kind of sketching, the drawings can appear very ugly.

When inbetweens are ugly it doesn't matter much because the held poses can bring the character back on model, but nuanced held poses are more problematic.

Don't get me wrong...I strongly believe in acted characters, and am not overly worried about being off model. I'm just saying that cartoonists who are committed to real acting will need practice in order to exaggerate without being ugly.

Isaak said...

Have you seen Spongebob Squarepants the Movie? It is the only animated film I have seen made after 1960 that gives the characters personalities.

Good luck on the movie

Nate said...

John - are there any specific sequences with these actors that you pulled directly into your animation? I'd love to watch them side by side and see which choices you made.

Did you pick specific frames and caricature them into key poses?

Amir Avni said...

Great post!

Peter Lorre is about to channel Ren in a few frames :)

The unique and fluid transitional expression is something I like in all your favorite actor, I especially enjoy it in Jackie Gleason

Mykal said...

Fascinating. Thank you, again, for an interesting lesson.

J C Roberts said...

I've always found your use of expressions to go way beyond typical the cartoon standards and really show those influences. There's still a heightened sense of key poses, but you and the artists you employed packed a lot more natural acting emotion into those poses. I could always tell there was a great eye for the nuances.

I still remember thinking Stimpy's last pose in "Stimpy's Invention" was a perfect take for his reaction to Ren. It really captured the confused, nervous inner reaction along with the show of support he's trying to put up. And that's just one example. "Sven Hoek" alone has tons more.

Being able to sell that whole range with a few simple lines is sharp skill. It was always clear that a keen eye for expression was in full use. The type of acting done in that era was itself a bit more animated, so it lends itself well as a source of inspiration.

Bwanasonic said...

Love all these guys. I'd love to see the day where animation strives for individuality of characters. Which are your favorite women of this era? I'm partial to Ida Lupino, Gloria Grahame and Claire Trevor. And that's just star billing. Beulah Bondi, Una O'Connor and Billie Burke are all great.

Bwanasonic said...

John, I'd love to see you animate Charles Bickford's hair! Talk about a unique individual! He was acquitted of murder at around 14, because he shot the guy who ran over his dog, and was mauled by a lion on the set of of one of his films.

HemlockMan said...

Wow. I've seen all of the movies/performances you cite. Chuck Connors always scared me. Even when I was a kid and he was playing the guys I was supposed to like and admire. Instead, I was generally scared of them.

Peter Lorre was probably one of the best actors of the 20th century. He was just amazing. My favorite of his performances was in SECRET AGENT playing the quite horrid and dangerous character known as "The General". Great humping Jove he was scary good in that.

And I love the story of how he came to travel to the UK to be in Hitchcock movies. When asked if he spoke English, he lied like an asthma hound. He couldn't speak English at all! What balls.

kurtwil said...

How does one achieve the every-frame fluidity of live animation without having to draw every single frame?

If you're drawing key poses from live action, to get full frame animation you either use inbetweening or intelligent use of CGI techniques to fill in the poses between drawings. Or otherwise accept the "posey" results (twos will strobe in some cases, no matter how good the artist is).

Is drawing every single frame the only way to do nuanced classic animation? And if so, where's the money going to come from to pay for the time to do that?

JohnK said...

I do it a lot, not all the time though.

The Simpsons thing has lots of stuff on 1s.

Mister 1-2-3-4 said...

Great post, John! Thanks, and I'm looking forward to the one on Peter Lorre.

hazzard65 said...

Kirk Dougles of course why didn't I realise before! I always wondered who Powdered Toast man reminded me of!