Disney’s The Princess and the Frog — the studio’s first traditionally animated feature since the ill-fated Home on the Range in 2004 — provides a welcome reminder of how effectively hand-drawn animation can create vivid characters who jump off screen. Communicating through their drawings, the animators offer performances as nuanced and believable as any live-action actor does.
Character animation — the art of making a figure move in ways that convey a unique personality — dates back to Walt Disney’s 1933 watershed cartoon Three Little Pigs. In it, Practical Pig looks exactly like his frivolous brothers, Fifer and Fiddler, but his movements reveal his stolid, sensible nature. Oscar-winning director Chuck Jones commented, “Three Little Pigs proved it wasn’t how a character looked but how he moved that determined his personality. All we animators were dealing with after Three Little Pigs was acting.”
At a time when so many CG characters chatter nonstop, it’s easy to forget how many memorable scenes in animated films communicate feelings through pure movement, from the Seven Dwarfs weeping over Snow White’s bier to Chihiro riding the mysterious train in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Ideally, the vocal performances, which are usually recorded before the animators begin drawing, will inspire the artists, suggesting emphases and attitudes. But the animators have to make their characters believable and consistent, whether they’re speaking in a scene or not.
Animators constantly study human movements, gestures and expressions. They watch their friends, strangers and film actors, storing ideas they may use on future characters. They don’t repeat the movements literally, but by exaggerating the angle of an eyebrow, the turn of a wrist or the rhythm of a walk they’ve seen, they reveal the essence of their imaginary characters.
In The Princess and the Frog, Louis, the jazz-loving, trumpet-playing alligator, sneaks onto a riverboat hoping for a chance to perform. During his set, he moves like a cool musician blowing hot licks on his horn. When people realize he’s an alligator, he freezes: Only his eyes move as he searches for an escape route. Obviously, no real alligator could move that way, but the anthropomorphic expressions and body language are so effective, the viewer believes them. Similarly, when 197-year-old voodoo priestess Mama Odie grabs her snake, Juju, and uses him as a cane to tap her way around her home, her unique style of motion reflects her age, the arthritic joints in her skinny legs and the sway of her pudgy torso, all of which bring her to life.
Japanese animation generally stresses sophisticated direction and storytelling over polished drawing. But when the title character in Miyazaki’s recent Ponyo tastes a bowl of ramen noodles, her expressions capture a child’s delight at encountering a wonderful flavor for the first time. A small incident in the film becomes an honest, well-observed moment the viewer recognizes — and shares.
The skills needed to create a memorable performance transcend the medium and can be applied to drawn, CG or stop-motion animation — although different films require differing approaches and levels of stylization.
In contrast to the broad comedy of Louis and Mama Odie, the main characters in Pixar’s Up! are underplayed to suggest subtler emotions and more poignant situations. As the aging widower, Carl, looks through the adventure book his wife, Ellie, kept, tiny shifts in his facial expressions suggest regret, longing and loneliness, revealing the old curmudgeon’s aching humanity. When his Junior Wilderness Explorer sidekick, Russell, describes sitting on a curb with his father, counting cars and eating ice cream cones, he says, “That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.”
The use of minimal gestures and changes in expression suggests the unhappiness of an 8-year-old who doesn’t understand what has happened to his family.
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John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, observes, “There’s an incredible simplicity in Russell’s design, yet there was so much depth in the acting, especially when he’s talking about sitting with his father on the curb. It’s challenging to make something so simple yet give it so much depth.”
That sense of individual performance has not been evident in the protagonists of other recent CG films: Aster in Astro Boy, Flint in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Lem in Planet 51 all run the same way, their knees and elbows flailing, with no sense of weight or individuality. Their movements are so similar, the viewer wonders if the studios bought a software package that came with preanimated runs and walks.
In America, stop-motion has never been as popular as drawn or computer animation, and is often regarded as less expressive. In Wes Anderson’s twee Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animation is stylized but stiff, and the fur covering the characters’ faces prevents effective expressions: The results are cold and uninvolving. The balletic movements of a pair of skeletal steel hands sewing a doll of the title character in Henry Selick’s Coraline are strikingly elegant, but they don’t communicate a sense of character.
There’s much more expressive stop-motion acting in Nick Park’s new Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, which recently debuted on DVD. Having been insulted by his latest flame, a wounded Wallace asks his canine companion, “I’m not a fruitcake, am I?” Gromit narrows the corners of his eyes as he forces himself to smile and pat Wallace’s forearm. The moment is so well-observed and executed, we know exactly what Gromit is thinking. Like all the best character animation, it transcends its medium to touch the audience. It doesn’t matter that Gromit is a little clay figure, or that Louis the alligator consists of lines on paper, or that Russell and Carl are just information inside a computer: On the screen, they’re alive.