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Article – The Pencil Vs The Voice: Discovering the Real Talent Behind Animation


Posted September 15, 2014 by

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Discovering the Real Talent Behind Animation

In live action, an actor is a person who gets up in front of people and dances the dance, whereas in animation, an animator has his character get up and do the dance for him. These divisions have somewhat been blurred in that the average member of the audience would believe that in animation, the actor is likely to be the person who voices an animated character. If we take Woody from John Lasseter’s Toy Story (1995) for example, it is misguided to assume Tom Hanks is the actor. Although voice acting is integral to the overall, the animators have a much more demanding responsibility as they must animate their characters to suit the dialogue and to immerse inner life. We take a close-up look at the role of the animator and uncover the hidden extent of his duties in a bid to restore credit taken by actors.

Thoughts, Actions and The Objective

In live action, there is a repetitive process that drives a narrative forward in that an individual would think or feel something before he acts. There is the same principal at work with animation, and the duty of the hyperrealist animators is to design the acting to give a live action impression that the mind and body work as one; it is important to construct the illusion of a self-motivated individual. Walt Disney describes the mind as a pilot and stated “we think of things before the body does them”. So in order for the animator to create the illusion of life, he must reveal a character’s thought process before creating the movement.

In echoing reality, the animators must permit their audience to emotionally engage with their animated characters, as they do with live action characters. Humans empathise only with emotion. We felt sad when Bambi’s mum died because the characters had emotional depth and because the animation conforms to reality. The Walt Disney Company, known for developing the term ‘hyperrealism’ in their features as early as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), presents its characters and environments as broadly conforming to the physics of the real world. When it comes to The Simpsons however, a show that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics, we are happy to see Itchy and Scratchy repeatedly kill each other as they have been characterised without emotional depth.

A successful actor must be a believable one, i.e. the audience must believe that the characters’ actions are the result of their own inner motives. Walt Disney gave Mickey Mouse a brain, and as soon as animated characters started having brains, they became actors. In live action Hollywood, we need believable acting both to create the illusion of reality and for an audience to emotionally engage. Acting in hyperrealist animation (such as Toy Story) also needs to be believable, as the characters, objects and environment within hyperrealist animations are all subject to the ‘real’ world.

Acting should be seamless. One action leads to the next. Something that helps achieve this continuity across action is the objective. A scene’s objective is what a character is in pursuit of and is what determines how a character acts. If a character’s objective is to get to work and he is late, every microscopic gesture must reflect the urgency of his situation. The animator must consider the objective when manipulating his characters. They must re-motivate the moment and impulse over and over again in order to adapt to these given circumstances.

Every Action Meets With A Reaction

Each character feels, thinks and reacts consistently according to its own personality. Where actions define personality, the animators are committed in that they must remain consistent and cohere to each character as a unique individual. A character must react to an action in the same manner that he would perform the action himself. The construction, movement and behavioral tendencies of ‘the body’ in the hyperrealist animation will correspond to the orthodox physical aspects of human beings and creatures in the real world. The movements in other animation such as the Looney Tunes cartoons are far more amplified as it purposely rejects reality to achieve its comic effect.

The Verdict

Miraculously, the animated performance has much of the immediacy and vitality of a live one, because the animators make it so. Therefore, an animator’s duty is far closer to magic than that of a live action actor, as each time they animate a character, they are creating life from nothing. The average audience member can now believe the “actor” to be the one with the pencil and not the voice.


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Anthony Lowery
Freelance Contributor

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