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Digital Acting

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Acting Technique

Once you understand your character, you will need to put that knowledge into action by acting and performing the character. Acting is an art form, and, like any art form, it has a number of core principles. These principles, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. As with any art form, the deeper you explore, the more you will see there is to learn.

Creating Empathy

The big goal of an animator, as well as the writers, is to create empathy for the character. Empathy means that the audience emotionally connects with the character on some level and identifies with him. This is not to be confused with sympathy, where the audience simply feels sorry for someone. When a character evokes sympathy, members of the audience simply say, "I pity that guy." When the audience feels empathy, members of the audience can say, "I know how that guy feels—I've been there myself." An empathic character plays to the heart.

Creating Movement

Until a character moves, it is simply a nicely modeled mannequin. Animating a character—bringing it to life—requires that you move it. The first thing that a novice animator will do is simply start moving body parts around to see what happens. This trial-and-error approach can have its moments, but a professional animator will need much more in the arsenal. First, you need to understand that characters always move for a reason.

Most of the time, people do not think about the individual actions that they perform. When you walk, you usually do not think about placing one foot in front of another. If you're in love, you're thinking about your lover—while you happen to be walking. The emotions will dictate the character of the walking motions.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect are what drive a story. A story is a sequence of events. Each event has an effect on the next. Cause and effect also drive how a character is animated.

The cause can be any sort of action, from a force of nature to the actions of another character. The effect is how your character deals with those actions. Your character smells smoke—he looks around for flames. Your character sees a bully walking down the street—he decides to turn in the other direction. Your character hears funky music—he starts dancing.

Object of Attention

As we move through the day, our attention shifts from place to place and object to object. Things happen. Those things demand attention.

Right now, your attention is focused on this article. You're exercising only those parts of the body that are used for reading. The rest of your body is relaxed. If the telephone suddenly rang, your attention would shift away to the telephone. You would then exercise those parts of the body needed to travel to the phone and pick up the receiver. As you did this, you would forget about the article momentarily as you focused completely on the phone.

Lee Strasberg would say that that, in this case, the individual's object of attention has changed from this book to the phone. The object of attention is a basic building block with which both actors and the animator works. By having the character concentrate on an object that represents the task at hand, the animator establishes a sense of belief that the character is truly involved in what he is doing.


Making your character 100% focused on the task at hand will give your performance clarity. The audience will know exactly what the character is thinking at any given moment. Even when a character is distracted momentarily, he will focus 100% on the distraction for that fleeting moment.

If a dog dashes into the kitchen looking for a drink and encounters a cat, the cat's body suddenly changes its demeanor as it focuses on the new object of attention: the dog. The cat may tense up and arch its back, but it still uses only those muscles necessary to concentrate on its new object of attention. The cat's task has changed; she has momentarily forgotten the toy, and her new task is to put the dog in its place.

The dog's object of attention, which had been water, now becomes the cat, and his original objective to drink water now becomes to growl at the cat. The dog is using only those muscles necessary to accomplish this task. He is focused on the cat, not the water.

Let's take the dog and cat situation a step further. Perhaps the dog becomes indecisive—he really needs that drink, but he still has to deal with that pesky cat. If you simply split the difference, the dog will focus 50% of the way between the cat and the water. The audience will say, "Why is the dog staring into space?"

Even in it's indecision, the dog needs to switch between objects of attention—100% on the water, 100% on the cat. He will look longingly at the water and then turn back to growl at the cat. When he is looking at the water, he can really imagine that cool drink. When he is facing the cat, he is totally absorbed in that task.

Figure 3 When the dog is focused on the water, he can almost taste it.

Figure 4 When the dog is facing the cat, his attention is focused 100% on the cat.

If your character is 100% focused within the scene, the performance will be crystal clear. If the character is not focused, the performance will be muddy. Even when your character cannot make up his mind, he is fully focused on one possibility or the other.


Another way to achieve clarity is through simplicity. There's an old animation adage of "one thing at a time." This is similar to the concept of attention, but it also helps clarify the individual actions. A character trips, then falls, then gets up—he doesn't do them all at once.

You also should be clear on what the individual action represents. Don't animate anger—that's too broad and general. What exactly is the character angry at? It's better to animate "I hate my boss." This will simplify the emotion as well as give your character focus.

In addition, try to simplify each of your character's poses and actions to keep them as clear as possible. The actions are like the links of a chain. They all fit together sequentially. If each action is clear and easily read, then that link of the chain is strong. An overly complex pose or action could possibly break the chain and lose the audience.

These are just the basics of acting technique. As you have seen, acting is very important to the animator's craft. Study your characters and understand them fully before your tackle a scene. When animating, be conscious of your character's personality and the objectives of the scene. The audience need to be able to relate to the characters on the screen; a character always needs to evoke empathy from the audience. Without empathy, you're sunk.

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