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February 12, 2008

the director-animator

by sven at 7:00 am

(A note-worthy comment that I made on this thread at

"If for example your puppet is to laugh in reaction to something, you conjure that feeling inside yourself in order to portray it through the puppet.It's that same sort of thing in animation, only slower."

Ah! This comment helped me a lot, Ron. Yes: that sense of finding a feeling in yourself and using it to express something through the puppet is a core part of the performance. No matter what else I'm doing when I'm animating, there's still always going to be some part of me that is engaged in this very intuitive, organic, improvisational approach.

BUT, let me now propose a distinction. If there can be an Animator-Actor, then there can also be an Animator-Director.


Think about the division of labor between actors and directors in theater. (Acting and directing for film is pretty different in a number of ways, so set that aside for the moment.) Her are some observations in broad strokes...

An actor's concern is revealing character. A director's concern is telling story.

An actor creates their performance out of a script, blocking, gestures, and expressions. On top of these observable things, though, they also add emotion, motivation, meaning, and an energetic awareness of the other actors whom they're interacting with.

A director creates their version of a story by suggesting blocking, gestures, motivations... If the actors are good, then the director doesn't have to micromanage. On the other hand, if they're working with beginning actors, the director might have to get very specific about things such as cheating poses to the audience, explaining to actors what motivates their character to "pick up this ball, which reminds you of your childhood" -- and so on.


When we're solo animators, not working in a studio, then we get to be both actors and directors at the same time. And yet, there is still a fundamental difference in approach. It seems to me that an actor works from the inside-out -- whereas a director works from the outside-in. (E.g. finding poses that will communicate an emotion, rather than emotions which will communicate no matter what action you do.)

I strongly suspect that I am a Director-Animator more than I'm an Actor-Animator. Sort of like how I know that I'm more of a Fabricator-Animator than a Motion-Animator. (Or a Set Builder-Animator, as castlegardener has identified himself.)

When you're directing live human beings on a stage, you can make suggestions -- but the performances are ultimately up to them. Directing puppets, I have a profound level of control... It can almost be like being a dance choreographer! You can choreograph blocking, gestures, expressions to a phenomenal extent with puppets... My sense is that you could assemble pretty great performances out of these elements, without having to experientially go very deep into the puppet's head.


I'm going to go a step farther, and suggest that there are different types of theater directors too, depending upon what kind of play is being staged. For instance, if you stage something like Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," you're probably going to use a fairly melodramatic style. Something more modern, like Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is going to be more naturalistic.

Myself, well, given what I've done so far, it looks to me like my innate directing style may be musical theater. In my Professor Ichbonnsen clip, I'm pairing up gestures with words and phrases -- which is what you do when you have actors who are singing. (It's kind of like what the 2D animators call "Mickey Mousing," where you have the characters bouncing in time with the beat of the music.)

If I know that this is my directorial style, it allows me to consciously alter it for good effect. For instance, rather than hitting all my cues with full energy, I can pull the punches for a more subtle performance. Or, I can intentionally choose physical actions that contradict what the character is saying with their dialogue, to create a more sophisticated meaning.


It's all very nice, of course, that I'm getting a grip on what my own preferences are... Where this might be useful for other folks, though, is in looking at how we develop our performances.

What I think I'm hearing from most folk is that they imagine what they want their character to do, they act it out a few times, and then they animate.

The types of theater directors that I find exciting (from reading and hearing speakers) seem to be the ones who put their actors through exercises to discover more information that can be channeled into the actual play.

Here's an example from the book "Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire":

"She devoted the early rehearsals to finding ideographs -- essential, emblematic gestures. Her Prospero, Robert Stattel, looked for the movement that captured despair at the loss of one's library, one's source of knowledge, pleasure, and power. His ideograph -- holding his hands together like a book, which then opened like a door, leaving him outside -- used literal images to heighten the sense of his loss when those pictures dissolved. Ferdinand and Miranda searched for expressions of the discovery of physical desire. Ferdinand's gesture -- running his right hand down his left arm, finally grasping the wrist -- mixed sensuality, urgency, and awareness." (p.34)

When I read this, what immediately comes to my mind is how Harryhausen characterized Mighty Joe Young. He decided that whenever Joe gets frustrated, he bangs his fist on the ground several times. It's a simple concept -- ("ideograph" is a fancy word) -- but it's a powerful one, and one that comes from the world of directing more than acting.

I find myself asking: What else is there in the world of directing, besides ideographs, which I don't know about yet? ...Which could maybe contribute to creating great performances?

I absolutely want to study books about acting (which I've heard recommended to animators several times)... But hypothetically, how far could I go towards creating great performances if I read nothing but books about directing?

(Anyone want to recommend any good books about directing?)


posted by sven | February 12, 2008 7:00 AM | categories: stopmo