The characters that you animate are the storytellers. They need to convey the script to the audience in a convincing and entertaining manner. The greatest story in the world can be ruined if it is told by a poor storyteller. To make the story jump off the screen, you need to understand the story, story structure, and how each scene moves the story forward.
Each scene has an objective, a point it needs to get across. Each character within the scene also has an objective. A policeman, for example, wants to take the criminal to jail. The criminal's objective is freedom. How these two objectives work out determines how the story progresses. If the criminal escapes, you have The Fugitive. If he goes to jail, you have a different story, such as Cool Hand Luke. When you animate a scene, be clear as to your character's objectives and how they affect the story.
You can also view the character's objective as a survival mechanism. Every character has a very primitive need to survive in the world, and most objectives are driven by the simple need to survive. If you understand that the policeman and the criminal are both simply trying to survive, you can clarify their actions and goals.
Know Your Tools
Acting is pure right-brain activity. You need to remain totally "in the moment" so that you can truly become one with your character. In a Zen sense, when you connect with the right side of the brain, your character flows through you and subconsciously takes control of the mouse. You don't have to think consciously about how a character is moving; it just moves. Posing in a 3D app is often too slow, and some animators resort to good, old-fashioned pencil and paper. Regardless of the medium, constantly stepping out of your creative frame of mind to solve technical problems or to consult the manual breaks the flow and can weaken your animation.
Before you ever start acting for animation, you need to master your chosen software tools: you should be able to set and modify keyframes automatically, without conscious thought. Your characters also need to be rigged properly so that they are rock solid and easy to manipulate. You don't want technical issues to crop up during animation that will break your creative flow.
In addition, a good knowledge of human motion, which is discussed elsewhere in this book, will help you remain in the moment. You should be able to construct natural, balanced poses without much effort. Thinking about the pose is a left-brain activity. Don't go there.
Know Your Audience
One thing that new animators tend to overlook is the audience. If you are animating for a Saturday morning children's show, your acting choices will probably be different than if you're animating for a late-night comedy show. Knowing your audience helps you create a performance that will be understood and accepted.
Don't, however, fall into the trap of letting the audience dictate the performance. Pandering is not allowed. Don't make obvious choices. If you do what the audience expects all the time, they become bored. Always think of taking the left turn when the audience expects you to veer right. What are you going to do in this performance to make it interesting and keep the audience entertained?
If a character goes to put a coin in a slot, the audience expects a simple motion, but you can step away from that expectation and make the action a little more memorable. Perhaps the character is a klutz and fumbles the coin. A suave character may toss the coin into the slot from a short distance. Little touches like this can help sell the character's personality to the audience.
Chester is a very young inventor with a large imagination. He loves to take stuff he finds around the house and turn it into just about anything he can dream upspaceships, cars, catapults, and automatic dog ticklers. Once he makes something, Chester goes into his imagination, where he takes his dog, Orson, on wild adventures with his new inventions.
Know Your Characters
The foundation of good acting is understanding who your character is and what makes him tick. If you truly know your character, you innately know how and when the character is going to move and how it reacts to the world. Gaining an understanding of a character can be a long and involved process, and actors use many techniques to accomplish this.
One method is to ask yourself some questions about your character. You need to ask about the basics, such as height, weight, age, gender, overall health, and so on. Knowing the character's personality, dreams, aspirations, and flaws are also important for this process.
To answer these questions, you can create a simple character description. The writer often does this as part of the writing process. If you are animating a one-shot character in a commercial, however, you may have to come up with your own description.
Orson is Chester's dog and constant companion. He follows Chester everywhere. Orson is always up for adventure and oftentimes will even lead the way. Sometimes Orson comes away from these adventures a little worse for wear, but he always recovers and has a constant smile on his face.
A character description is a paragraph or less, and goes over the basics of the character. Usually, it covers just the important features, such as age, sex, and basic personality. It can also go into other little details, such as the character's quirks and personality flaws.
A simple description is often fine for short-form projects, such as commercials and interstitials. If you are animating a longer-form project, however, such as a feature, you may want to create a more in-depth biography that really nails down the character's personality. On larger commercial projects, the writer will usually create a biography for the production to reference, but for your own films you'll need to do this work yourself.
A biography is more formal than a description and is usually a page or two in length. Like the description, it gives the basics of the character but with a lot more depth. It might go into a character's education, family, traumatic events, or anything else that has shaped the character's life.
Some people go totally overboard in a character biography, writing what amounts to a good-sized FBI file. For a feature film, this is probably a good idea, because the character needs to be as fleshed out as much as possible before animation begins. If your character is going to show up for 15 seconds in a malted-milk-ball commercial, though, you'll do just fine without knowing the names of the character's maternal grandparents.
For characters in a TV series, the biography is constantly evolving. Sometimes it's best not to lock things down, because the writers and animators invariably discover new things about the characters as the series progresses. When Rocko's Modern Life was pitched, there was no information about Heffer's parents. In the first season, Vince Calandra wrote a terrific story about how Heffer's parents were actually wolves, who adopted him with the plan of fattening him up for dinner. Instead of eating him, however, they fell in love with him. This episode was both funny and poignant, and it added a whole new dimension to Heffer's character, which was used in many subsequent episodes.
Chapter One. Basics of Character Design
Chapter Two. Modeling Characters
Chapter Three. Rigging Characters
Chapter Four. Basics of Animation
Chapter Five. Creating Strong Poses
Chapter Six. Walking and Locomotion
Chapter Seven. Facial and Dialogue Animation
Chapter Eight. Animal Motion
Chapter Nine. Acting
Chapter Ten. Directing and Filmmaking