Mike Makarewicz on Performance and Acting

Hosted by Tea Time Animation, Mike Makarewicz came again to give another lecture on animation! Mike is an AAU alumni that has been working at Pixar for ten years now and is a supervising animator and also an instructor and owner of the Animation Collaborative where he teaches animation. One thing that I love about his lectures is his workflow as he animates with a layered approach which I find fascinating as I was taught pose to pose. Maybe I would have liked animating more with a layered approach as Mike makes it look so easy while I was so frustrated with my animation way back when. Tonight he gave us a lecture on performance and acting.

In animation there are those who are pose focused, animating pose to pose, and those who are motion focused, animating layered. Each have their own advantages but the foundations to both are necessary for animators to know. However, what is even more vital, whether animating in pose to pose or in layered, is choices. Animators must make good choices in their decisions on how to go about portraying the animation in a shot. There are so many different choices and variations that can be done though so there are some things to consider that can help eliminate bad choices.

Some preliminary points for animators to start off with.

  • Be invisible. Don't let the audience think about the animation. Not even to stop and think "that was some beautiful animation right there". The audience should 100% believe what they see and inhabit the world of the film instead of having to step outside of it.
  • Acting choices come from within the character
  • Do less. Focus on ideas. Instead of having 3 good ideas, 2 great ideas would be better.
  • Moving stuff isn't animation, instead what animators need to do is to bring soul to the work.
  • Avoid the two common mistakes: not thinking through the animation and trying to cram in too much in attempt to show off.

From a macro look, animation consists of a character and the shot. From the character's standpoint, you must think about who that character is and the shot is the purpose. The character drives the "how" to the purpose of the shot. The shot provides context of where the character is in relationship to the main story, which infers to the history of the character. In a shot you may also have dialogue so things to consider are the mood, the subtext, and the thought process. At the same time, consider the length of the scene to make sure what there is time for and to ensure that there will be enough to show a thought process. When thinking about a character, consider who they are and what they have been through to create a history.  What does the character want, the motivation of the character in the main story, and consider what is the character willing to do to understand how far a character will go to achieve his/her/its goals. Get to know the character well enough to predict how the character would react to any given situation. To help understand a character, list main definable adjectives and list actors, family, or friends that resembles the character psychologically to draw reference from. It's important to draw inspiration from real life or from other films, but try to avoid using animated films as reference as that has already been filtered through the mind of another artist. Really get to know the character, get inside the character's head. Think about if the character is a head, heart, or stomach type. However don't overdo the actions trying to portray the character. Leave some space for the audience to fill in. The audience has already and will be going on a journey with the character so overkill isn't necessary and leaving the space also lets the audience project thoughts and emotions onto the character.

The energy of actions is critical to selling believable animation to match dialogue. Energy is portrayed through time, distance, and value and to achieve different feelings the progression and contrast of energy can be played with. Having less contrast has less energy as it spans the action out across a period of time. More progression gives more thought to an action as decisions are given more ease in and out.

It is important to balance energy levels but also vary the texture of the energy levels so that there is a dynamic balance. Think about how the character reacts both internally and externally and to break apart a dialogue. Try breaking the dialogue in thirds, as halves tend to be static, where each partial section is called as a phrase. Don't do it during pauses though as while people talk they are always thinking and switching between the two and not coming to a full stop to switch and continue a thought process. Structure your phrases for the shot and make sure not to over or under act. As Ollie Johnston says, "communicating without complicating". Consider the subtext of the dialogue as characters don't always say what they mean and it can give another layer of depth.

Give the character a soul and make the character relatable. Animators aren't just animating to mimic reality but, as Walt Disney says, to take the foundation of fact  in order that it may more richly possess sincerity and contact with the public. Animators are a sort of puppeteers but just moving isn't enough, animating is to give a soul and life to a character. Animate the character in ways that are relatable so that the audience can connect and project upon the character. Give the character some gray areas as they are interesting and to be imperfect and flawed is to be human.

For shots with two or more characters, think about the relationship between the characters, their history as it will influence how the character will act and react to each other.

Don't betray your characters though. Have them be true to themselves. Such examples that were given were considering how a character will act and keeping the character true to that personality and the actions and motions involved instead of going off on a tangent that would be less true to the character. Another would be to keep an animal as how an animal behaves instead of giving it humanistic motions and poses that would break the animal character.

Eighty percent of human communication is done through pantomime, body language. Body language can support info, add extra info, alter info, or even contradict info. No matter what the character may be saying though, the truth is in the body language.

When posing, consider the angles and direction of the head and body as different angles and direction transmits different amounts of energy. A tilted diagonal head or body decreases the amount of energy while straights are more focused and the energy goes forward,

Give the character specificity as it helps solidifies the character and the character's history. Things that would be considered would be the physiology, such as material species, action, gender, age, and personality. When thinking about the character's thought process, make sure that there is enough allowed time for thought and give the thought action priority first before full action. So important to the process of thinking is to consider what a character's reactions would be like.

Consider the status of the character and in relation to other character. The character with the higher status is the one in control and can most easily achieve what the character wants. Then there is endowment. Everything has potential value to give and take. Objects, for example, can be endowed with an idea or symbol and so consider how characters would act around or toward it.

To finish up the lecture Mike gave us some tips. For reference, act out the shot to feel the performance, Let it be natural and don't force characters in to poses. Try not to pretend or fake acting, instead build an environment to react to. Pretending to hold a heavy item is different than actually holding one with how the body actually moves. Find someone to act with to be able to get some honest reactions. When having issues with a shot, try playing the shot in a mirror. Try playing the shot in the morning to see it with fresh eyes and write done issues. Try playing the shot at double or half speed. Try playing the shot backwards. Don't just believe what the computer is trying to sell but look at the shot from many different angles to get a greater sense of what is wrong and how things are working.