Ed Hooks

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Ed Hooks

Postby Barry » Fri Jun 20, 2008 8:40 am

I don't know if any of you have had the pleasure of watching Ed Hooks do one of his Acting for Animation masterclasses but he is a joy and very lucid and eloquent. He writes a monthly newsletter and this section from his latest one rather says it all. He comes at things from a rather more analytical angle than I do - my book was mainly about how to let things read. Here he is talking about what should be read. But both of us would be whistling in the dark if you don't have the basic skills of drawing or of controlling the movement or decent puppets. Master the movement then let is mean something.
I'm probably unlikely to see Kung Fu Panda - so if anyone wants to comment......

Ask George Lucas. You can't really go wrong if you structure a story as Joseph Campbell suggests in his book "A Hero with a Thousand Faces". That is what DreamWorks did with its most recent animated feature "Kung Fu Panda", arguably the finest movie to come from that studio to date. The story is worth telling and is shamanistic ("Trust yourself; there are no special secret ingredients to success in life..."), the characters are well defined, the close facial emotional expressions are among the best I have seen in any animated movie, and the voice actors - Even Jack Black -- were kept on a tight reign. The movie isn't tainted or dated by a lot of hip pop-culture scriptwriting, and the audience can empathize more often than not with the characters.

My only real problem with "Kung Fu Panda" is that, as wonderful as they may be animated, the fight sequences tend to go on too long. I realize I am simply shadow boxing with myself with this criticism because, as Miyazaki pointed out in an interview, western animators are somewhat afraid of stillness on screen, what Miyazaki refers to as "ma". There are a lot of action sequences in "Kung Fu Panda", many fights and Kung Fu training. I have in me personally a kind of switch that wants to turn off when this kind of thing goes on too long, mainly because a fight is predictable thing. Yes, a fight contains the elements of a scene: action, objective and conflict, but it is still a fight. The only real question is who will win and how long it will take. I personally prefer more subtle stuff in performances, but that's just me. As I say, the action sequences in "Kung Fu Panda" are among the best executed I have seen in any American made animated feature film, and I don't expect DreamWorks or Disney to stop highlighting action sequences any time soon.

There are also occasions when this character or that one will go into what amounts to a state of depression. Directors and animators often mistake such moments for "good acting" because the character is striking a mood. The truth is, however, that a character in depression is more of an illustration of a mood than a performance. Good performance must 100 percent of the time include acting in pursuit of an objective while overcoming an obstacle. It is always more interesting to see what a character does when he gets depressed than it is to simply point out that he is depressed. Does he try not to cry? Does he put his fist through the wall? Does he try to avoid interacting with other characters? Mood alone is never enough; emotions, in and of themselves, have zero theatrical currency. The audience wants to see what kind of action the emotions tend to lead to.

In "Kung Fu Panda", I was particularly impressed with the expression of emotion in the characters' faces. We humans have seven basic emotions but many thousands of possible expressions. For many years, animated characters displayed happiness, sadness, anger, etc. But the truth is that we humans rarely express a single emotion all by itself. Emotion is more like a painting that lives, shifting hues from one moment to the next. By the time the audience recognizes that a character is happy, he is probably going to be already into the next moment which will contain elements of yet other emotions. The DreamWorks animators on this film should take special pride in what they have done here with the expression of emotion, especially in close-up. They also have successfully created the illusion that the characters are actually listening to one another, which is something of a hat trick. Too often in animated films, the characters seem to be waiting turns to talk. Acting is doing, but acting is also reacting. Acting may involve words but, as an art- form, it has almost nothing to do with words. We want to see what a character is feeling and thinking and what he might be doing about that.

I also very much appreciated the detail work of Production Designer Raymond Zibach and Art Director Tang Heng, both of whom did their level best to make China look like China. Great work!

I have heard that this is the directorial debut for John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, and I applaud their launch. They may still have some things to learn about what makes a good and compelling performance on a moment-by-moment basis, but that comes with practice. The important thing for now is that they have done DreamWorks proud. Mr. Katzenberg, give these guys a raise!
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