Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Animators and Acting Part 3
(June 27, 2006)

The speed at which animators work (or rather the lack of it) is responsible for many aspects of animation production. It’s also something that separates what animators do from what live actors do.

One thing that live actors do is rehearse. They do this in order to help learn their lines, but an equally important part of rehearsal is to work out staging. What kind of relationship should characters have with each other in a scene and how should it be expressed? When should an actor sit down or stand up? When should an actor pause and look at the floor? These are the kinds of behavioral details that actors work on in rehearsal.

In the case of a play, rehearsal may last for weeks. Film directors hope to get a week or two for rehearsal before shooting starts, but even if there’s no time, there’s always the possibility of multiple takes. Actors may need half a dozen takes to really nail a shot, but that’s an accepted part of the process.

If every animator did every scene six times, no film would ever get finished. Animators are too slow to allow them to rehearse, so the rehearsal function has migrated upstream to the story department.

In features, story artists are part directors, part writers, part layout artists, part actors and part editors. I’m concerned here with where they overlap with the function of acting. Story artists have to understand the emotional beats in a sequence and their job is to make sure that the staging, character business and poses all work towards communicating those emotions. Because story artists are using fewer drawings than animators (and often drawing more loosely) they are the ones with the opportunity to try a sequence in different ways until they find the approach that works best.

Even in TV animation, where the story artist is expected to stick to the script and has no time to try variations, the story artist still works to make the characters’ physical business and emotions clear. In cases where animation is being sent to a subcontractor, there may also be a character layout stage refining and adding poses before the animator gets the shot.

By the time an animator gets started, the emotional arc and the physical business have been determined by the voice track, the story sketches and possibly the character layouts. The animator is free to do thumbnails to refine what he or she has been given, but the animator has much less room for interpreting the script than a live actor would.

The animator may have a better idea, in which case the voice track and story sketches may be reworked, but the realities of budgets and schedules mean that there are limitations as to how often this can be done. In TV, it’s almost never done, as the schedules are so tight that producers are uninterested in anything that will slow down production.

Though it varies from project to project, animators are not so much actors as refiners, taking what they’re given and polishing it as best they can. There are more ways this is true than I’m detailing here and future entries will explore other limitations that are placed on animators.