The giant Ear from China’s 8th century stone statue of the Buddha, the largest stone Buddha in the world.
“Hear with your eyes, see with your ears” – William Shakespeare
The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, here dancing at the American Ballet Theatre.
As a society we’ve become more and more reliant on sight than almost anything else. But to be a good visual artist, one should use more than his eyes – in fact he should use all his senses to capture things his eyes might never be able to perceive. Sound for instance is incredibly powerful – not only can it overwhelm you with feeling in an unsurpassed manner – it also happens to be the last sense to leave us before our final moments on this planet.
So when I get the chance, I try to immerse myself in environments where the other senses shine, senses like hearing. When paired with visuals, it can be an experience to behold. That particular marriage of sensations is why I love to watch dancers – like in musicals, operas and ballets – whenever possible. The way their carefully practiced movements work in sync with the music can make your heart soar. You’re reminded of how beautiful movement is, how you can hear it in the footsteps and in the brush of movement in their costumes. It’s like a visual symphony – a concoction that moves the heart while your mind fills in the rest.
Cats move silently – but there is elegance in timing and rhythm in how all animals move. Using your inner sense of sound and feel, you must be able to discern the tempo and force of the movement.
So when you animate, feel the rhythm, search for and feel the beat. If there’s a dialogue track or music, the animation part is easier – the pacing and subtext are provided there for you. Present the visuals in a way that does that sensation justice.
This marvelous scene from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, animated by Art Babbit, demonstrate strength, creativity and beauty in the handling of weight and rhythm.
But what happens when there is no sound?
In live action, they say that “real” acting is between the lines. So in those moments where there’s no music or dialogue, you have to find that sound inside you, that unique resonance within the silence. This is especially true in pantomime, where the visuals speak volumes.
In Mike Newell’s 1997 Donnie Brasco, we see Al Pacino, known for portraying loud and dominant characters, deliver some of his most subtle and poignant acting. In this scene, he silently settles some personal business before accepting his fate. The moment sums up the sense of dignity, devotion and honor that exemplifies his character in the movie.
Sometimes if there’s no sound, it helps to supply it yourself. An old colleague of mine could be heard growling and barking, when he was doing one of his amazing creature shots. Even in “acting” shots, I like to hear my character move, speak and express his/her feelings, even if they don’t officially speak a word. So I’ll often provide my own sound effects doing a walk or acting out a speechless emotion. I think this is why, I’ve never been comfortable listening to music/talk radio while animating a scene (unless it really fit the mood of the shot). I need the quiet so I can feel/hear my character speak to me. According to Richard Williams, Milt Kahl had similar sentiments.
The replaying of events courtesy of Richard Williams, from his landmark book, The Animator’s Survival Kit.
“Since it came from a genius, this made quite an impression on me. After this, I learned to face the silence and think before swirling my pencil around. My animation improved right away.”
Can you “hear” the movement of this Arctic bird as it takes flight from the waters?
We visual artists look often, but seldom listen. To see better, we must listen. Try to feel the resonance of things. You’ll be forced to be really present. It’ll improve your work, and your appreciation of what’s around you as well.