The following concepts are interpretations of Ed Hooks’ “Seven
Essential Acting Concepts.” We’ve adapted them here to focus
on the V-people and their faces.
1. The face expresses thoughts beneath. The brain, real or artificial, is the most alive part of us. Thinking, awareness, and reasoning are active processes that affect what’s on our face. Emotion happens as a result of thinking. Because these characters don’t have a natural link between thinking and facial expression, your job as animator is to create those links. In effect, you want your synthetic brain to emulate recognizable human cognition on the face, which leads to the illusion of real and appropriate emotions.
2. Acting is reacting. Every facial expression is a reaction to something. Even the slightest head and hand movement in reaction to what’s happening can be most convincing. If the character tilts its head as you begin to speak to it, or nods on occasion in agreement, you get the distinct feeling of a living person paying attention. A double take shows surprise. Because you have very few body parts to work with, you have a superb challenge in front of you.
3. Know your character’s objective. Your character is never static. He is always moving, even if the movement is the occasional twitch, a shift of the eye, or a blink. Your objective is to endow your character with the illusion of life. As such, it is wise to follow Shakespeare’s advice, “Hold the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet, III. ii.17-21). Notice that when a person listens, she may tilt her head to the side or glance off in the distance as she contemplates and integrates new information. When she smiles and says nice things to you, her objective is to please. Always know what your character’s objective is because it is the roadmap linking behaviors to their goals. Knowing her personality and history are essential here.
4. Your character moves continuously from action to action. Your character is doing something 100 percent of the time. There must always be life! Even if she appears to be waiting, things are going on mentally. Make a list of boredom behaviors and use them. When people talk, a good emotion extraction engine will feed her cues on how to react to what’s being said. Her actions expressing emotional responses are fluid. They flow into each other forming a face story. You should be able to tell from the character’s expression how she’s reacting to what you’re saying. Say she takes a deep breath and you see the cords on her neck tighten. They then relax. Her body slumps a bit and perhaps she nods. Always in motion, she maintains the illusion of life.
5. All action begins with movement. You can’t even do math without your face moving, exposing wheels spinning beneath. Your eyes twitch. You glance at the ceiling, pondering. Your brow furrows as you struggle with the solution. Try this experiment: Ask a friend to lie as still as possible on the floor. No movement at all. Then, when he is absolutely stone still, ask him to multiply 36 by 38. Pay close attention to his eyes. You will note that they immediately begin to shift and move. It is impossible to carry out a mental calculation without the eyes moving. Sometimes movement on the screen needs to be a bit more overt than in real life. That’s okay, even essential. It nails down the emotion. Done right, people won’t notice the exaggeration, but will get the point.
6. Empathy is audience glue. The main transaction between humans and Virtual humans has to be emotion, not words. Words alone will lose them. You will catch a viewer’s attention if your character appears to be thinking, but you will engage your viewer emotionally if your character appears to be feeling. You must get across how this V-person feels about what’s going on. If you do it successfully, the audience will care about (empathize with) those feelings. I promise you it can be done. A great autonomous character can addict an audience in ways a static animation cannot. The transaction between audience and character is in real-time and directly motivated, much as it is on stage. This is a unique acting medium, which is part live performance and part animation. It’s an opportunity for you to push things–experiment with building empathy pathways.
7. Interaction requires negotiation. You want a little theatrical heat in any discourse with a V-person. To accomplish this, remember that your character always has choices. We all do, in every waking moment. The character has to decide when and whether to answer or initiate a topic. If your character is simply mouthing words, your audience response will be boredom. Whether they know it or not, people want to be entertained by your character. Artonin Artaud famously observed that “actors are athletes of the heart.” Dead talk is not entertaining. There must be emotion. Recognize that you’re working with a theatrical situation and that the viewer will crave more than a static picture.
Sure, there are loads more acting concepts we could talk about, but these seven are the hard-rock core of it. You’re faced with a unique acting challenge because you have an animated character that is essentially alive. If that character is a cartoon or anime design and personality, you’ll have to read Preston Blair , for example, to learn the principles of exaggerated cartoon acting, and then incorporate these squash and stretch type actions into your character’s personality. If you take the easier road and use a photorealistic human actor, you still must make their actions a bit larger than life, but not as magnified as cartoons demand.
The stage you set will depend on the Virtual actor’s intention. If he’s there to guide a person around a no-nonsense corporate Web site, you’ll need to think hard about how much entertainment to inject. Certainly you need some. Intelligent Virtual actors in games situations–especially full-bodied ones–present marvelous opportunities to expand this new field of acting. You’ll know their intentions. Let them lead you to design their actions. Embellish their personalities, embroider their souls, and decorate their actions. Making them bigger than life will generally satisfy.