Saturday, December 14, 2013

Head Shakes and Nods

I am without tech help for a few days, so perhaps I can elaborate a bit on a point I brought up in my previous post. Let's say you are about to animate a scene in which the character says; "I don't know."
It would be more than tempting to shake the head during dialogue, after all, the words express a negative statement.
The good news is that by using a shake, it will add some life to the scene, providing it is well timed and the head turns correctly in perspective. When animating on 2s, you only need one in-between that favors one of the two extremes (I usually favor the most recent extreme.)
The bad news is that you don't necessarily get any personality by applying this. It is such a common and non descriptive piece of acting, and not a character specific motion.
The same can be said for the head nodding. The dialogue might be: "Oh yes, I know." If Mama Odie would nod, I'd get a nice squash and stretch in her neck area. Tempting…tempting!
I remember starting way back on my first scenes for The Black Cauldron. Many times I had no clue what a good acting pattern would be for specific scenes with Taran or Eilonwy. So…I nodded and shook their heads because I couldn't come up with anything better for them to do.
One particular scene involved Eilonwy telling Taran: "You're so boring!" I animated a head shake, closed eyes facing downward on "You're so". Then on "boring" I quickly tilted her head upward.
I remembered Medusa doing a thing like this in one of her scenes. Veteran effects animator Jack Boyd commented on my pencil test: "This kid animates like Milt Kahl".
Of course I felt like a million bucks, but there is a real problem in all of this.
Eilonwy is not Medusa, and therefor should act completely differently according to her own personality. My Eilonwy scene would call for much deeper analysis in order to communicate something unique about her. She is addressing Taran and accusing him of being a boring person, how would she REALLY act out her frustration…forget the bloody head shakes! She might point her finger at him, roll her eyes (good one) or even push him.
I blame my bad acting choices on inexperience and my infatuation with Milt's work.

So, let's talk about Milt. I encourage all of you to re-watch the sequence from Sword in the Stone, when Wart falls off a tree and right into Merlin's living quarters. Ollie Johnston animated a few scenes before Milt takes over…and the sequence becomes a festival of head shakes and nods.
Wart says: "You mean you can see everything before it happens?" Merlin: "Yes, everything!" etc.
Even Archimedes shakes his head as he asks: "Ah, ah, ah Merlin, everything?"
It goes on and on, a missed opportunity to introduce these two characters with more depth.

Of course Milt didn't always fall back on these formulas. Roger and Anita in 101 Dalmatians work just fine, and his animation of Bagheera and Shere Khan shows more sophisticated acting choices.
Then again, Edgar, the butler in The Aristocats shakes and nods his head a lot , and so do the characters he animated in Robin Hood. Madame Medusa comes off pretty good, her head is certainly holding still
when she removes her false eye lashes (which helped to make this one of the most innovative, original scenes ever).

Frank, Ollie, Marc and all the others animated head shakes and nods too, just more selectively, when they felt it was appropriate.

It's good to know that this crutch is available to you. If you absolutely can't come up with a unique acting pattern because of deadlines or whatever, go ahead and shake or nod.
But keep in mind that there probably is a more interesting way to act out your character's emotions.


  1. Awesome post! I feel like I learned more here than I have in class.

  2. WOW great post, Andreas. Best one I read this year! thanks you!

  3. "When animating on 2s, you only need one in-between that favors one if the two extremes"
    the word "if" isn't the word "of"? Please excuse me for correcting you, if I have understood the sentence correctly at all :)

    So this means that the animator needs just 1 in-between which has to be closer (aligned towards) the favoured extreme?

    1. You are right, and I corrected my spelling mistake. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for post. These kind of acting info are superb, and like to read more of these kind.

    It's so easy to test example with "I don't know". It depend so much how to say it. You can feel immediately that, is shaking the head natural reaction. Example more interrógative "i don' t know", shoulders rise naturally. Maybe for scarier "I don't know" shaking head comes for natural.

    What scenes Milt animated in Alice in Wonderland? I just watch that, and notice on "Mad Hatter´s tea party" scene, that there was some head nodding and shakes going on.

  5. Great points! I'll definitely cut down on using head shakes in the future and try to think more outside the box. No crutches for me!

  6. That might be true but I could watch Milt Kahl head nods and shakes until the cows come home. Nobody could animate them like he did.
    Great post Andreas, even without tech-help.

    1. I am with you on this , Uli. I love seeing Milt's head shakes and nods and that particular shot from Sword that Andreas mentioned is beautiful done and fun to watch, an exaggerated action that I think worked so well. The characters in Sword in the Stone are so well caricatured that makes that kind of action totally acceptable. In a film designed like the likes of Pocahontas, for example, that kind of pushed animation choice would not work.

    2. Damn that Milt Kahl and his tendency to draw and animate like Milt Kahl! He should have mixed it up some more to give his legions of imitators more to mimic poorly! Same goes for other one-trick-ponies like Jimi Hendrix, Moebius, The Beatles, Rockwell, Alphonse Mucha, etc. It's like these guys were too wrapped-up being singular voices of artistic mastery to consider how the unique and memorable character of their work would hold up to the perpetual imitation and scrutiny of future generations of less original artists. The nerve!

  7. The head shakes have never bothered me one bit. Sometimes I think we all get too hung up on "Acting" when, particularly in humourous scenes, there's actually a lot more satisfaction in just watching a character "Performing". Besides, I've always felt that animation is more akin to stage acting than its live-action screen counterpart where, just like a stage actor embellishing his physical body language to communicate visually and clearly to those sitting up in the back rows, the animator gets more mileage out of keeping his drawings alive with a few fun physical quirks. The various head nods, shakes, tilts, etc. also seem to work well with keeping eye direction strong and less static.