Stillness

Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910), Summer Squall, 1904. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (61.6 x 76.8 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.8

No one captures the sea quite like Winslow Homer. His paintings connect you to moments that aren’t just seen but felt.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” – T. S. Eliot

Placidity is everywhere in nature, but absolute stillness – pure quiet and inactivity – is rare. We only perceive its existence because of the sudden change in our state of awareness prior to experiencing sound or action. In other words, we’re not looking closely enough. Any office employee who stops whatever they’re doing at any given moment can immediately hear the hum of their hard drive or the footsteps just around the corner. Our awareness of visual movement, something we animators must deal with and manage, works on the same principle.

Upon repeated viewing, clear holds are apparent in this beautifully planned and animated sequence by James Baxter, but they hardly seem to matter. Thoughtful acting choices, excellent posing and exquisite timing, help balance held movements with actions that have weight, force and focus making this sequence a lovely introduction to the hero. From Walt Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

There’s a lot of request for stillness these days in the animation industry. We think we’re doing it out of good taste – throwing out terms like “acting” and “subtlety”. Unfortunately, a lot of the times we just end up with a lot of dead, lifeless and non-believable animation – work that neither moves the character nor the audience. Plus, creating convincing stillness, is immeasurably difficult.

“There’s nothing harder to do in animation than nothing. Movement is our medium.” – Milt Kahl:

MarcAnthony

Contrast is everything. Small is only small next to something larger. Cute and cuddly kittens are extra cute and cuddly next to rough and gruff bulldogs. From the magical hands of Chuck Jones.

It’s easy to forget that movement is a given – the question, more correctly, is to ask how much. As with all things in art, creating contrast should be the aim by which to indicate an idea. Change of pace not only introduces new information to an audience, it’s essential for staying connected to them.

Brad Pitt and Edward Norton star in David Fincher’s controversial film, Fight Club. Perfectly cast for their roles, one can see that total immersion into character and great acting doesn’t necessarily mean actors barely move to achieve subtlety or convincing performances. This scene shows that live actors are often in constant motion.

The advantage of 2D animation is that holds (even those that appear frozen) seem to read okay, but it still isn’t preferred if larger budgets are allowed. The fact that classical animation is mostly shot on 2’s (as well as being susceptible to imperfect shifting of the paper on the peg bars), makes holds in the 4 to 5 frame range somewhat tolerable. The inherently rough nature of the pencil line also helps with the illusion of some forgiveness in final results – lower budget 2D shorts use this to gain extra frames and life, seen often as kind of a boiling effect. The 3D animator is excluded from such fortune.

A lovely little sequence of shots by the masterful Ollie Johnston. There are holds in various places but they are carefully placed and helps moments read without feeling frozen. In 2D animation, holds are far more forgiving, but they still must be handled with care. From Walt Disney’s Robin Hood.

The magical Merlin by Frank Thomas from Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone. Stills/holds at the opening of a shot are acceptable especially if it’s the start of a shot on a character or establishing shot, rather than a match cut of action. The first 5-8 frames are hardly noticed by the viewer since it takes some time for the viewer to adjust to this new found visual information (inherent in all cuts between one camera view to another).

An immensely complicated approach to animation, Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov’s Oscar-winning interpretation of Ernest Hemmingway’s great novel, uses paint on glass to achieve the results he wanted. Like most richly drawn or painted animation, individually animated artwork is recorded over a number of frames, and changes in the imagery are created by shifts in the camera or recording software to keep things lively, giving it a watery, or sometimes, boiled effect. In Petrov’s film, the results are suitable and stunning.

In 3D productions, it’s best to keep either or both the camera or character moving at least a bit. We don’t want it to look like it’s glued to the background. And don’t expect lighting department to save your art (or your ass). Although real light does shift in reality (due to changing luminary conditions such as a setting sun, or movement of surrounding elements in passage of said light), animators in general, must ensure to keep the characters alive themselves.

It’s a reminder that the cold, calculating perfection of the computer has it’s price – robbing life from the animator much like excess wealth does to a person.

ToyStory3_climax

In this sequence from Toy Story 3, the shifting environment, flickering light and moving cameras ensure continual movement and life – the characters need not move much – in fact, restrained animation allowed for greater clarity in contrast to its continually shifting environment. Director Lee Unkrich demonstrates great control in this brilliant climax to Pixar’s most popular film franchise.

Here are some ways an animator can get around this dilemma:

1.) Great Posing

Solid posing is a good start to eliminating stillness. It sets the standard for good animation. The quieter the movement, the better your poses better be – an audience has got all the time in the world to see its errors and can easily fall victim to boredom or irritation.

The best still paintings and drawings and sculptures evoke a sense of movement to stir the imagination and the soul.

ilya-repin-ivan-the-terrible-and-his-son-ivan-on-november-16th-1581-detail-1885-1345645121_b

A stirring painting of “Ivan the Terrible” by the Ilya Repin, the great Russian painter who, according some experts, held a position “comparable to that of Leo Tolstoy in literature.” The immense power of his work was often accompanied by moral or social purpose.

You should make your poses live – give them weight force, form, and a sense of action and feeling –  before you even begin to move them from one frame to the next.

“Make a positive statement. Do not be ambiguous with your approach.” – Glen Keane.

File name: 2835-018.jpg George Bellows Stag at Sharkey's, 1909 oil on canvas framed: 110.17 x 140.5 x 8.5 cm (43 3/8 x 55 5/16 x 3 3/8 in.) unframed: 92 x 122.6 cm (36 1/4 x 48 1/4 in.) The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection

Robert Henri disciple, George Bellows, would’ve made an excellent animator. His paintings are often defined by movement, human emotion and story.

 

2.) Small Drifts

Slight shifts in weight or path of action such as a  continual swing or drift can some times do the trick, but it’s dangerous and often very hard to do convincingly. Moving holds require exquisite handling and a ton of skill.

Small shifts in weight are hardly detectable in live action. To study the reality of the situation, artists much watch what happens to the character relative to the background to gauge the amount of activity.

A marvelous little scene between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors in the world, complements non-action with distinct gestural action. Notice carefully that even in stillness, he keeps life stirring by with his tiny facial expression changes on top of his heavy almost, hesitant breathing – revealing bit by bit what’s inside the heart and mind of this calm yet frightening character. From Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York.

3.) Secondary/Tertiary Actions

The better choice sometimes is to plan small actions (secondary actions) that add to or exhibit for enrichment of a characters actions/attitudes or personality. They don’t detract from the main acting, but support it, and by extension buy time for poses to hold, as it takes longer for overlap and follow thru actions to play themselves out.

Nicely handled changes in expression keep the character alive, yet still enough to convey the expressions required for the scene. Animation by Thomas Grummt. To see an in depth interview with the artist, go here.

4.) Camera Drifts

If you have control of layout direction, this can sometimes be an option to keep it all alive and give it that “live action” feel. This was used in films like Sony  Picture’s Surf’s Up, where a documentary-style camera technique was employed à la Christopher Guest, who wrote/directed famous mockumentaries like This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show.

In live action film-making, physical cameras are subject to physical contact, balance and stability of the supporting equipment and the operators hands. If the camera is “hand-held,” shifts in the framing become even more obvious and allows the filmmaker a little extra give to offset any rigidity.

Paperman

The recent Oscar-winning animated short, Paperman, directed by John Kahrs, exhibits the acknowledgment of physical cameras by adding the slightest of movements in the camera throughout the film – giving it a “live-action” feel. Produced by Walt Disney Animation.

Therefore, in handling held poses or quiet moments in a scene, we must learn how to execute that moment convincingly.  Too much movement and the sense of quiet, often required for an idea or mood to be understood and felt, will be lost. Too still, and things will come across as frozen or unbelievable. The animation artist needs to achieve relative stillness versus movement to create life because life is movement – without movement, we register death. We must keep the magic act alive and convincing or the cards fall.

FechinDrawing

Sensitive drawings like this one from Nicolai Fechin convey movement and beauty even in silence. A great artist plays with contrast in texture, form, line and value – everything at his disposal – to breathe life into their works.

“An artist’s job is to surprise himself. Use all means possible.” – Robert Henri