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In this article we’ll focus on how Character Animation merges with sciences such as Biomechanics, Personality Behavior, Kinesics, and Phonetics. The purpose is to understand certain details more deeply and to improve animation skills and execution by simply incorporating new learning resources or new perspectives.

Character animation is both an art of visual storytelling and artistic science of human behavior. The greatest animators are more than artists of the entertainment industry, they are performing actors capable of creating complex characters through both physical and psychological aspects.

Animation is more than a theatrical entertainment industry, it’s the medium where storytelling, creativity, and technology blend extremely well together in order to create a “real” illusion of life. However, I believe that Character Animation is both an art of visual storytelling and, a science of Human Behavior.

What does a character animator do?

Character Animation involves a broad range of skills, such as imagination, improvisation, observation, storytelling, acting performance and of course technical-skills.

The role of a character animator is to “give” life to a character, to create the illusion of “being alive”.

The character can be anything in terms of physical appearance, from an object to an animal, to a human to a creature, it doesn’t really matter. The animator makes the character “feel alive”, and makes the audience think that this character is “real”.

The animator creates the character and has the answers to all the questions. Who is the character? Where is it coming from? Where does it go? How does the character think, acts and reacts? It’s basically about figuring out the psychological makeup, the character’s identity.

“Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.” – Walt Disney (entrepreneur, film producer, animator, voice actor)

Character animation as an acting performance

The whole point is to “get inside the character’s head”, right? But how do you do this?

Shortly to explain the essence.

The basic needs of character animation are packed in the animation literature as “The 12 Principles of Animation” which stands as guidelines or rules for planning and executing the animation. These principles were created by the early Disney’s animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, top animators, directors and story men with a 43-year career.

Animation Principles are basically the harmony between 3 aspects: Motion – Emotions – Acting Performance, a harmony which captures the “illusion of life”.

pie schematic in 3 equal slices of what character animation means

The first step is to understand character posing and motion. The second step is to have a good grasp of the character behavior and the third one is of course to craft everything into a theatrical performance.

  • Step 1. Motion as mechanical believability. Based on the physics laws of motion or classical mechanics (mass, velocity, inertia, opposite forces, gravity, momentum).
  • Step 2. Emotion as the inner life. Based on human behavior related to the basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise).
  • Step 3. Performance as acting performance. Based on a theatrical entertainment experience given to an audience (verbal and non-verbal communication).

It’s very common for animators to take acting classes such as Acting 101 because it is necessary for making the performance more entertaining and more real. Plus, it stretches the imagination and improvisation skills.

However, as I become more interested in animation, I start being more and more curious and conscious about the details of the work. I started being interested in the details that are connected to the real background of the unreal “inner world”.

Character animation as a mix of human behavioral sciences

So here is where I kick-in with my perspective on how I see Character Animation connected to the Sciences of Human Behaviour.

Instead of limiting the extent of the area-of-expertise literature such as Animation Principles, Anatomy for Artist or, Acting for Animators, why not connect the dots with the real-world implications and resources?!

I’m not saying that the specialty-books are not enough, or that you need to master the human sciences in order to become a skilled animator. I’m trying to find a way to make it more interesting and dynamic, to expand the knowledge and the results. And also, to grow on a personal level.

Then my logic is, why not go to the source?!

Even a 101-approach to these fields of science are important to build a pretty decent amount of knowledge that will deepen the animation skills.

schematic in 4 progressive stages showing that character animation is made out of 4 different human behaviour sciences
  1. Biomechanics (the science of human locomotion and motion)
  2. Personality Behaviour (the science of human behavior through thoughts and behaviors patterns)
  3. Kinesics (the science of human non-verbal communication)
  4. Phonetics (the science of sounds of human speech)

So let’s start and break-down the science from the animation point of view!

Science #1. Biomechanics

Biomechanics is the science of the mechanics of the movement of a living body, from a small biological organism to a human. A particular branch is Sports Biomechanics which is the study of human motion during exercise and sports. Both imply a mixed knowledge of physics, laws of mechanics and anatomy.

Sports Biomechanics is used for understanding sports’ performances and endurance, to understand the causes, treatment, and prevention of sports injuries. But also it’s used for designing professional sports equipment.

From an animation standpoint, Biomechanics gives an overall understanding of the physicality and functionality of the character ‘s body-system.

The animator is basically doing a motion analysis of a character’s body system, either as a position or a movement by looking at: the feet, hips, knees, shoulders and arms, and how everything is connected to the spine.

Here are 4-key elements of analyzing how humans/characters move in space.

  1. Statics elements, as analysis of the body’s equilibrium and balance at rest or with constant motion
  2. Dynamics elements, as analysis of the body’s motion with different acceleration and deceleration, not with constant velocity
  3. Kinematics elements, as analysis of the motion patterns over time, as key positions and speed limits
  4. Kinetics elements, as analysis of the forces that cause the motion of the body

Science #2. Personality Psychology

Personality Psychology is one of the most popular branches of psychology, is the study of the human mind focused on thought patterns and behaviors that make each individual unique.

This area of psychology deeps into understanding the human personality and how it varies among individuals. There are different theories that explain the aspects of personality. Some theories focus on explaining how personality develops, others are looking into individual differences of personality, and others how personality is changing.

From the animation perspective, Personality Psychology creates the base of understanding and creating characters’ behaviour in connection to the types of personalities.

Here are the elements of classification on how humans/characters behave in connection to their personality traits.

  1. The Big Five Personality Traits, as types of personalities such as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism
  2. The Cardinal Traits, as the dominant and specific personalities such as Einstein (genius), Scrooge (greedy), Martin Luther King, Jr. (justice and equality), Machiavelli (ruthlessness), Freud (psychoanalytical), Hitler (evil leader), etc

Science #3. Kinesics

Kinesics is the study of body movements and gestures as a form of non-verbal communication. It is also known as Body Language or, Non-Verbal Communication.

Some scientists believe that kinesics is about 60-70% of human communication, others say it can’t be quantified because it depends on the cultural values and environment. However, everybody agrees that it gets divided into two layers of communication, the conscious and the unconscious.

Meaning that nonverbal communication involves both the conscious and unconscious brain operating system, everything from macro to micro, to intentional to non-intentional gestures or expressions.

From the animation perspective, Kinesics is an important indicator of a character’s mood and state of mind; the body language of a character reveals its attitude, intentions or worries.

The elements that are significant in understanding the body language of humans/characters are:

  1. Space, as the use of proximity space, the interpersonal distance between humans/characters
  2. Body, as the overall body posture in rest and movement
  3. Eyes, as in eye contacts, eye movements, eye blinks
  4. Face, as in the facial expressions as a whole, including eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, and mouth
  5. Hands, as in the use of hands in gestures or actions such as touching, grabbing
  6. Breathing, as the breathing patterns in extreme situations

Science #4. Phonetics

Phonetics is a branch of science called Linguistics which studies the sounds of human speech. It generally looks into how humans execute facial movements to produce speech, how different mouth movements affect the resulting sound, or how humans convert sound waves into information. So broadly, Phonetics deals with two aspects of human speech: production (the ways humans make sounds) and perception (the way speech is understood).

Let’s take for example the English Language. If the animator is not a native English speaker (like myself) and he/she usually is not aware of some phonetic differences between sounds, or perhaps a different accent. Therefore Phonetics is actually a very powerful tool in understanding oral communication by mapping speech sounds with visual speech recognition.

From an animation viewpoint, Phonetics is important for capturing the illusion of speech by understanding the character’s mouth movements in connection to the speech sounds.

Here are the key elements of analyzing how humans/characters communicate through speaking.

  1. Sounds and symbols, as a one-on-one connection between speech sounds and alphabet symbols.
  2. Lips and tongue, as the physical connection between lips and tongue in order to produce the speech sounds
  3. Vowel sounds, as a visual mapping with a mouth shapes
  4. Consonant sounds, as a visual mapping with a mouth shapes
  5. Patterns of groups of sounds, as a visual mapping with a mouth shapes

Takeaway

In my own personal experience, I figure out the need to understand how the characters move, think, react and communicate. The whole point is to “get inside the character heads”, right?

So when I work on an animation shot or when I teach animation, I always look outside the box and research unconventional ways of resources.

You’ll be amazed how much relevant info is out there, important information which is “outside of area-based”.

It becomes powerful to incorporate new learning methods, or new perspectives because the more you get better at your craft the more you desire to work with new ways of thinking. It’s about observing the reality around us and using that information as a new artistic skill-set.

Therefore, the cooperation between area-of-expertise & outside of are-based information will definitely improve the animation skills and experience.

Without any doubt, the science behind the animation will:

  • Increase the style of execution
  • Increase the observational skills
  • Make the results more enjoyable, and deeper
  • It gives personal satisfaction
  • It may create new interests or passions (in my case passion for understanding the human mind and potential)

The animator is, in fact, an actor capable of creating complex characters with unique personalities. But also … the character animator is a storyteller and an artistic scientist of human behaviour.

Resources

  1. Scott Turner, Udemy course, Physics of Life 2. Biomechanics. How life pushes the envelope of physics.
  2. Dr. Daniel McGrath, Dr.Yannick Griep, Udemy course, The Beginners Guide to Personality Psychology: Big 5 Traits. How Personality Traits and Psychology Influence our Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviour
  3. Vanessa Van Edwards, Udemy course, The Secrets of Body Language. How to interpret the body language of the people around you while perfecting your own nonverbal communication.
  4. Luke Priddy, Udemy course, American English Pronunciation. How to listen to and pronounce native English. Vowel sounds and rules, consonant sounds and mouth positions.
Cristina Zoica Dumitru

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

I teach digital art courses online and on-location. My mission is to challenge students to reach their maximum potential for creativity and authenticity.

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