Why animators need acting lessons: An interview with Ed Hooks

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Ed Hooks is a featured speaker at big animation events around the world and the author of a book Acting for Animators, now in it's revised 4th edition published by Routledge in London. He has presented his masterclass at most major animation studios and game companies. After being a professional actor and acting teacher for many years, Ed Hooks developed a unique method of teaching acting to animators instead of stage or movie actors. RENDERU.COM spoke to Ed over a phone about the most common mistakes animators make, even at big studios, and why the future belongs to European animation.

RENDERU.COM: For a start, for those who have not read your books or attended your classes, how do you teach acting for animators and why do they need it?

Ed Hooks: In 1996 I was given an opportunity to teach animators for the first time. Before that I had been a professional actor and an acting teacher for many years. When I started working with animators, I discovered that there is a difference between actors and animators.

Animators are not trained to be on Broadway. They do not need sensory training. They might enjoy it, some of them, but they do not need it. What they need is to understand acting theory, the connection between thinking, emotion and physical action. They need to understand scene structure, characterization, character development and storytelling. Also, because many animators are shy, they do not enjoy getting up on their feet and doing improvisation exercises. So I developed a way of teaching acting to animators. Apparently, nobody had ever tried to do this before. There was no literature. Nothing. That was when I decided to write the first edition of Acting for Animators.

I submitted it to several respected publishers and none of them wanted the book. They said "Ed, there are lots of books about acting and if the animators wanted to know about acting they could read those acting books”.

I said to them: "No, listen, I have been to the mountain! Acting and animation are different art forms that have some overlapping aspects. Animators need their own acting book”. And the publishers said “If they needed their own book there would already be one”. I said “No. There is no literature”.

Finally the Heinemann Company published it, and the book was embraced very quickly by many people in the industry. Since then, I have worked for many movie companies all around the world. Not long ago I tried to figure out how many animators I had actually taught. It's something more than 200 000. I have had the opportunity to teach sort of a generation.

RENDERU.COM What is the main difference between your classes for actors and those for animators?

E.H.: If you were at my acting class for actors you would find me sitting on a chair and watching scenes that I have assigned. You, as an actor, would be rehearsing a scene from some famous play, you would be up on your feet and I would be giving you notes.

If you came to my acting class for animators the animators would all be sitting. They do not get up. I am the one standing up in front. I have reduced acting to 6-7 essencial acting principles. We discuss them and then I show clips from movies that can illustrate these acting principles. I point to scenes in which the acting just does not work. So the classes are very different.

You will hear it said that an animator is an "actor with a pencil". That is not entirely true because an animator is not an actor. In an animation, the on-screen character is the actor. From the audience’s perspective, Mickey Mouse is the actor, not Walt Disney.The animator’s relationship with the character is one of empathetic direction; she is helping her animated character to be a good actor.

RENDERU.COM: What are the most common mistakes you see animators make?

E.H.: Ever since the early days of Walt Disney, animators have been taught to create characters that are "appealing”, “сute”. That can lead to animators creating characters that move in unmotivated ways. They are cute just for the sake of being cute.

A lot of animators think that if they can endow a character with an illusion of life, that’s enough. But there is a difference between theatrical reality and regular reality. Regular reality is what we see at the supermarket, and nobody wants to pay to see that onstage. Theatrical reality has structure and form. It is compressed in time and space. It has action, objective and conflict. Yes, it is essential to endow a character with the illusion of life — to give the character a thinking, feeling brain — but that is where acting begins, not where it ends.

So answering your question, the most common mistake is that I see characters moving with no purpose. Aristotle said: “Every human action has a purpose”. You should be able to freeze frame a character at any time and ask: "What are you doing?", and the character should be able to answer in theatrical terms: "My objective is...; the action I am playing to achieve that objective is...; the obstacle I am overcoming to reach that objective is ...".

RENDERU.COM: Did you teach animators at big studios like Disney? Do they make these mistakes?

E.H.: Yes I taught Acting for animators to Disney studio several times, and the first job that I had teaching animators was Dreamworks. And, yes, even the Big Boys make the same mistakes.

Take the movie “Frozen”, for example, which won two Academy Awards and made nearly $1.3 billion in worldwide box office revenue. The character called Hans is badly written and sloppily animated. Fifteen minutes before the final credits roll that character stands up and says the he is a sociopathic murderer - he intended to murder the queen and to take over the throne. I took the DVD and looked at every scene where that character appeared in, even if he was not talking. He has no foreshadowing. If you were taking a screenwriting class at a University, the screenplay for “Frozen” would probably get you what you would call a “gentleman's C”.

When I bring this up to my friends in Disney and Pixar, they say that animated movies are developed differently than life action movies. They often begin production of animated movies without a complete script. And I say to them “Look, your character in “Frozen” does not have any foreshadowing. He is very badly developed. And they say to me “Yes, but Ed, the movie made 1 billion dollars”.

This is one of the reasons why I I left Hollywood and moved to Lisbon, Portugal early this year. The kind of thinking that I am describing to you is typical in Hollywood. I don’t know what to say to someone who is only interested in making money. I can not talk to him about a structure, I can not talk to him about what a solid screenplay looks like. They are just simply going to say “We can do whatever we want as long as it makes one billion dollars”.

What I find encouraging is that right now there are over 25 feature animated films in production in Europe. They have an average budget of only 10 million US dollars.

Will they be successful? I don't know. Some of them will probably make their money back. One of my favourite animated movies of the past couple of years was made in Brazil and it is called "Boy and the world". It's a wonderful little movie and it costs only 500,000 US dollars. to make it. There were 15 animators in the team.

I believe that we are seeing a shift in the entire industry. Disney and Comcast now own or control something close to 90 percent of all feature animation production in the United States, and neither of those companies is primarily in the movie business. They are selling toys and theme parks. Hollywood is not going to stop doing what it's doing. Aristotle says every human action has a purpose. In Hollywood their only purpose is to increase shareholder value and to make money.

I want you to understand something. I am not opposed to people making money. There is no glory in being a suffering poor artist. I think the artists should make money. The point is when you tell a story why are you telling it? What is your main reason? Are we simply living in order to make money? If we are, the whole world is in trouble.

RENDERU.COM: What do you think about using facial or motion capture in animation?

E.H.: Motion capture is a tool. It's very good if you have animals, creatures, and you want them to move around. Video games use motion capture quite a lot. But animators need to understand acting and often they do not. A lot of times they understand only what kind of data they want to get captured. And we are back again to not having purpose.

Also, there is a term “uncanny valley” (the hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion (or uncanniness) among some observers - Renderu.com). The closer to reality you get, the more sceptical the audience becomes. This is because every five year old child is an expert in what humans do. We have not gotten to the point yet where we can fool a five year old child. There is always gonna be something that is not right. Maybe the blinking. Blinking is one of the things which is quite often wrong. When I teach it to video games company it’s a very big note that I give.

During a motion capture session the actors wearing the mocap suit. They are thinking about their movement, they are thinking about being on the set. They are not thinking like a character. They are not thinking about blinking. Human blinking is calibrated to our thought process. Sometimes we see characters doing one thing but their blinking does not quite match with what they are doing. That's when you get the “uncanny valley”.

RENDERU.COM. You mentioned a shift in the entire industry before. How do you think the animation industry will change?

E.H.: I think that animators today are in the same position that Walt Disney was in the 1930s. He was the first one to do narrative driven character feature animation. Nobody ever done it before. He had to figure it out. I think that the animators today in all over the world are in the same position. Hollywood has abandoned the art of the animation in favor of merchandizing. Hollywood has taken the animation and said - what we going to do is to use it to make money. We are now at a new threshold. And it think that is a new very exciting moment. The animation industry is changing right now. It's becoming less Hollywood centric.

What you are going to see is more movies being made for less money. They will be targeted to narrower audiences. Most animated movies now are made for children or “entire family". But you don’t see a lot of animated movies that are specifically addressing adult issues. I think we are going to see more of that.

Also, people are watching movies now at home. They don’t want to go to the movie theater, And this is going to continue. You go to the cinema to see a movie which is full of special effects. But you don’t go to the cinema to see a movie because it has a good story. Going to the movie theatre now is like going to take a rollercoaster ride, its an experience.

My wife and I have just purchased a television that is 49 inches. It’s a big screen. And we have a sound bar. It makes nice sound in the living room and we watch movies at home. I’m in the business and I hardly ever go to the cinema. I watch movies on my computer and on my television screen. And this is typical.

RENDERU.COM. But people go to the cinema to meet friends etc. Do you really believe this kind of activity will be gone in the future?

E.H.: Yes, I do. People will communicate over the internet. I don’t think that direct communication and movie theaters will disappear completely, but there is no question the way that people watch movies and the way they play video games - all of it is changing.

People are playing videogames on smaller platforms, on ipads or cell phones, and cutscenes are going away because they do not work.

The technology is becoming very sophisticated, and people can receive all of this information on smaller and smaller devices. And they want to receive it in intense short doses. Everybody in the industry is orienting to these technological changes.

RENDERU.COM: The final question - which practical tips could you give to the animators who will read this interview?

E.H.: The biggest practical tip is that the character really needs to be doing something all the time. As I said to you earlier, you should be able to ask the character: “ What are you doing?” The fact that an animator can cause a character to appear to have emotions is not enough. That’s not acting. Acting is doing something. Emotions tends to lead to actions. Emotions are not actable. You cannot act “happy”, you cannot act “sad”. If you feel fear then you will tend to do something about it. You will run away or you will confront the thing that scares you. Acting is doing. Emotions tends to lead to actions. That is the most important thing that I can tell.

If you want to know more, check Ed Hooks’ selected newsletter archives here.