Have you noticed that many animated movies feel like they have the same kind of acting? It’s because they do, and it’s something that’s endemic with our art form beginning in the 2D era.

Animators are called upon to imitate and mimick one another. 2D animators have to conform to the same drawing styles that have been set by the designers and leads.  It’s a requirement. Same is true for our acting choices. When you have 20 animators animating the same character there has to be consistency.

The point is that to be an animator you have to exchange part of your individuality for imitation.

As artists we also know the value of learning our art forms by imitation. In learning to animate we study other animation that inspires us, and we adopt same practices, and our “animation voice” is heavily influenced by animation that has come before.  And when you have hundreds of animators who are all influenced by the same animation repertoire you can’t help be feel that the new animation is little more than a regurgitation of the old.

The telling irony in our short history of the animated art form (still less than 100 years old) is that Disney’s nine old men, who defined the maturity of the animated art form, have not yet seen their equal.  They set the bar for character animation performance and we’ve been struggling to match it ever since. They have been imitated over and over. Their great poses, succession of poses and facial expressions have been carefully studied and repeated to death. But we have not seen animation mature beyond their work.

A significant part of the problem is that animators are “mono-lingual” in their animation study. We only study animation. And because there is so little good animation in this medium’s repertoire we’re all studying the same material, and we all begin to look like one another.

When I was learning to animate I was studying old animation, but then one of my mentors, Stan Sommers, told me something that stopped me in my tracks. “Stop studying animation,” he said. “You will only look like everyone else. Study life. Study good acting performances in  movies. That’s what the nine old men did.”

What an irony.  The nine old men who took the animated art form to such a high level never had a repertoire of animation to study.  They studied life. They studied good acting. Their work is fresh because they had not filled their bellies with all the animation cliche’s and performances of other animators.

Don’t study animation. Study life. Study good acting. Most of you are good enough animators to throw off the training wheels of studying animation and take our art form to the next level. If you do, I think you will be surprised at how quickly your work will mature.

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2 thoughts on “Regurgitated Animation

  1. I think in general you make a good point, but I would add that animation is not creating life, but creating the ILLUSION of life. It is that illusion which made the 9 Old Men such fantastic animators. They took what they saw around them and exaggerated it or simplified it just the right amount so it would translate to an animated character on the screen. That is why it is important to study not only life, but how great animators translate life into a believable character. Otherwise,animators could skip all that hard work and just use motion capture (but we all know how poorly that turns out!).

    Undoubtably, with so much content being created in the “fast and cheap” production model, there is a lot of mediocre animation out there. The danger is that audiences, and even animators become accustomed to it and start to imitate that. So it is important that we watch and learn from the masters as well as the world around us.

  2. Connie, thanks for your comment. Yes we are to create an illusion of life, but what I’m driving it as something much higher. Even a beautifully executed illusion of life can be boring whether it comes from motion capture or a skilled animator. What I’m reaching for is performance, great acting choices. Animators are actors, and at some point they need to throw off the training wheels of monolingual animation study and develop their own voices in the broader study of life and acting. The animation medium is far richer than where we seem to cash in on it’s value.

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