Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mike Makarewicz Reader's Digest Style: Part III - Acting and Performance

Last week, Tea Time had the pleasure of welcoming Pixar Directing Animator / Animation Collaborative founder Michal Makarewicz to our stage for a third time -- as per usual, it was a humbling and inspiring experience. Though it wouldn't do to give away every little secret Michal graciously shared with us (you'll have to join us next time), I've done my best to translate any relevant information from my frantically scrawled notes here for the online community to enjoy (bear with me, it was a very visual lecture). Looking for more? Please feel free to join us at

Although our audience only had but a day's notice to change and/or cancel plans and/or skip class to attend our event due to unforeseen complications with AAU (Did you go to your Townhall Meeting this week?), ~150 of us piled into the theatre for the chance to hear some Pixar-grade insight into one of animation's most intimidating topics: Acting and Performance. He began with some comprehensive advice from Sir Ian McKellen:

Helpful, no? Well on the one hand - of course not. We have obviously learned nothing here. However, on the other hand, is there really any better way to sum up what it takes to be an actor? Any better way to dictate what it means to create a beautiful performance? Can you teach someone how to pretend? If so, how do we even begin to approach the subject?

"Well, as an animator, we can usually start with the principles," Michal continues, "in which case I generally see three important things to consider: 

One is POSING. I can then go through all of the principles and find which ones I apply to posing i.e: Pose to pose vs. straight ahead, squash and stretch, solid drawing (posing), exaggeration, appeal, staging, etc...

The next is MOTION. I can do the same thing here; find which principles directly apply to the actual movement of the character - They may overlap i.e. Followthrough and overlap, straight ahead vs. Layered, slow in/slow out, squash and stretch, secondary action, etc...

But over all, none of this will really matter. Obviously it will to a point, but it's the third category that will make or break a piece: CHOICES." If we make good choices, this is what will draw in the audience, make them believe in and connect with our characters. If we make poor choices, however, this is the exact same thing that will pull the audience away from us. When the characters make decisions that invoke thoughts like, "Oh, please, no one would ever do that" or "What? but..why?" in our viewers, we lose them."

"So, how is it we know what choices to make?" Michal asks. The answer is easy - we simply have to know our characters. Here's what Mike deems important to him when he begins a shot:

He considers his dialogue, he considers his characters, and then he considers this list. Why? Because it helps to eliminate choices! If you're able to whittle out the things your character would never do, it becomes easier to see the things they would. "We can't just move stuff,"he tells us, "our whole job [as an animator] is to bring soul to our work."...that being said, we also can't over do it.

As an animator, we should be invisible; we don't want the audience to think about the animation at all - not even in a good way! (i.e "what beautiful animation.") If the viewer sees the animator through the work, that animator is too involved. Remember: those acting choices are coming from within the character. It's not the animator moving a puppet around, it's internal motivation.

Do LESS as an animator - if you have a dialogue shot and you can get away with 3 main ideas - good! 2? Great! Stop trying to hold the audience's hand, you're overacting.

"The two most common mistakes I see in young animators are A) not thinking it through, and B) showing off. You need to move something, but you don't need to move EVERYTHING. There doesn't have to be a new pose for every word - And chill out on the eyebrows. "

First things first, we can take a macro look at the piece before we begin - what do we have: A character, and a shot. WHO is the character? What is the PURPOSE of the shot? HOW will the character fulfill it's purpose?

Let's start off with the shot - what is the context?
          --> Where is your character in relation to the main story? (what is their history?)

What is the dialogue?
          --> Mood? (what is the energy level?)
          --> Is the character saying what he's thinking?
          --> What IS he thinking?

What is the length?
          --> What is there time for? (enough time for thought process?)

Now, the Character -- who are they?
         --> List the main adjectives that define this person
         --> "You know my mother, she's just going to..."
         --> What are the ingredients? You should be able to identify this person! List actors, family, friends, anyone that resembles the character psychologically that can help you understand.

When you draw from films with great actors, or documentaries or - heaven forbid - even your real life experiences, your audience will feel closer to the characters, and can, therefore, help you fill in some of those blanks. Remember: you don't have to SHOW everything, emotions are closer in real life. If you depict them more accurately as opposed to so exaggerated, the audience will connect and insert pieces of themselves - things they recognize and identify with - into your characters, creating an even stronger connection.

If you know your character inside and out, it's easier for you to make appropriate, relatable decisions for them. Put your thinking cap on! What drives them: Their head? Heart? Stomach? Get inside their head. Take Remi and his brother Emile from Ratatouille. Remi is lead by his heart, meanwhile Emile is constantly thinking about filling his belly. 
Or, perhaps, Star Trek's Spock, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy:

Spock is lead by his head; very analytical, Captain Kirk is always lead by his heart, and McCoy, well, not exactly lead by his belly, but he is a nice balance of all of the above.

It's important to think about their history: What have they experienced? What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? Remember: Every character wants something, even if it's just a glass of water.

Moving into animation, it's important to remember that we should be "communicating without complicating"(Ollie Johnston). Moving the character does NOT equal entertainment. Feeling equals entertainment; you have to find the truth within your shot. What is the subtext of your dialogue?

It's important to have an answer to all of these questions that you may develop something relatable. Let's look at what makes a hero vs. what makes a villain. Both are characters who are fighting for something that they believe in (This working with the notion that rarely is it that we come across a villain who is evil simply for the sake of being evil), both are characters who clearly think that what they are doing is 'right' - so how is it we identify one as the hero? It's by how much we can relate to the actions that character. One character is designed to make the audience say "I wish I were more like him", while the other character is designed that to make the audience say "I would never do that!" or "who could do something like that?!"  

Often enough, history has a profound affect on the decisions our characters will choose to make. The pain from the past makes the choices of today. Consider the following clip from the film Groundhog Day. On the off chance you've never seen the movie, A) you should change that, and B) it's about a man (Bill Murray) who, for some reason, manages to get stuck living the same day over and over again. The clip shows a particularly uncomfortable meeting he is forced to endure day after day with an old 'buddy' from high school. As he lives this day over and over and over again, we can see how his history starts to affect the choices he makes in dealing with this situation each day. 

Unfortunately, Mike was obligated to speed through the last leg of his lecture, so my notes aren't quite comprehensive enough (or legible enough) to post here, but there is one, final subject that we touched upon that I found exceedingly important: Body Language.

"If your voice is saying something, but your body is contradicting it, the truth is always in the body".

Body language is such an important part of communicating ideas, and yet we so rarely get to really see that in an animation. If your character is too busy poignantly over-acting out each word with hand gestures and other motions that do nothing but re-say what we can already hear like gibberish ASL, that character will never have the opportunity to really speak to the audience in a resounding and worthwhile manor. Consider the following;


Despite the fact that we have absolutely no facial expressions or dialogue or really any of the usual tells of human emotion, we still know exactly what is going through little Darth's brain every step of the way. The trials, the frustration of the sandwich, the urgency to get to the car but, most potently of all, the absolute THRILL he has when he thinks that he makes the car rev at him. His body language is unmistakable, and as a result, supremely endearing.


Like what you read? There's far more where all this came from over at the Animation Collaborative. Check out their wide variety of classes including 2D animation and Demo / Lecture classes over at

Curious about any of the concepts or looking to ask a few questions? Please join our community over at to get the answers you seek.

Happy animating!

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