Saturday, May 24, 2008

Whats It All Mean?

Animation students are working our way through a critical time of the year at Southbank Institute of Technology at the moment, the second year folk are working on the very first pieces of animation for their major projects, and the first year students are about to start storyboarding for their first dialogue scene. Everyone is deeply immersed in the technical aspects of getting their animation to work, and that's fair enough really, lets face it, there isn't much point in making animation that doesn't work. But I did think it might be worth dropping a pebble in the river at this stage to prompt you to ask, “what's it all mean?”

This also gives me a chance to point out one of my favourite pieces of meaningful animation in recent times. Its a scene from Ratatouille, where Remy is hesitantly explaining that he has spent some time with humans, trying not to give away just how close and dependant he has become on one of them. He is trying to establish his credibility on the issue of how dangerous humans are, but knows that he can't revile how he knows so much about them ( i.e. he's been living and working with one).

So the line is, “I've been able to observe them at a close-ish kind of range.”

But have a look at his fingers, he curls them around each other. His gesture betrays what he is saying. His lips say he's observed a human from a close-ish range, but his fingers say we are completely intertwined.

When a character is telling untruths, either to the listener or to themselves then its fertile ground for this kind of gesture. I love watching animation of liars, its intriguing to see how the animator chooses to show the duplicity in the character.

At the Sydney Disney studio (where I worked in the 90's) we had a whole bunch of talks and demonstrations that had been given at the feature studios in LA on video tape. Watching one of these tapes was the first time I really became aware of who Brad bird was (even though I had been watching his work for years). He was giving a lecture at Disney LA just after The Little Mermaid had been released. Brad Bird was a slightly chubby young man with a mullet hair cut, but despite his youth you could see he was already frustrated with the lack of meaning that the animators had put into the animation they had done for Mermaid. I remember him impersonating King Triton and waving his arms around in mock meaningless movement, pretty ballsy as an invited guest lecturer. He went on to explain that everything in a film is an opportunity for meaning, lighting, colour, shot composition, clothing, props, sound, you have to do all these things anyway, so why not make them mean something?

When the way a character poses or uses its hands relates specifically to or means what the character is thinking (which may not be the same as what the character is saying), then that's a psychological gesture, which is straight out of Ed Hooks' book, Acting For Animators. A great book, but one that contains a fatal floor when it comes to marketing. You can't sell a book to animators if it has no pictures in it. I've seen many students pick it up and flick through it, see page after page of text and then put it back down. I'm generalising of course, but its true that most of us respond to pictures better than text, its an occupational hazard. Anyway it is a very good book, and if you can find the patience to get through all those words I highly recommend it.

So students, I pose the question. Where is the meaning in the piece of animation you are working on now?

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