Tips & Tricks  >  Thought Process

Thought Process


I wanted to bring up and talk about something that I feel always adds a whole different dimension to any character. The unspoken dialogue. The thoughts reflected and what we say without saying anything. In many cases, from an animator point of view, this becomes both one of the most challenging things to sell, yet one of the most fun ones. Timing is more than a powerful tool in an animator’s toolbox. You can say a lot of things by the way things are timed, both from a character animation point of view, as well as from a shot pacing or editing point of view. See these two examples to know what I’m talking about. They are two clips from Mike Leigh’s film “Naked” and another scene from the HBO show “Six Feet Under”.

Both shots say so much through timing. One is using the timing of a simple blink/look to show how a character feels about the other character. The other clip is using the editing’s timing to show what just happened to a character. This can be studied in so many ways. But I wanted to focus on the timing from a character animation point of view and how it affects internal thoughts and subtext. 

One quote I read from John Lasseter back in College started making me seriously think about each single one of the actions we do and why, regardless of how subtle they can be or not.

“It is important to spend enough time (but no more) preparing the audience for: the anticipation of an action; the action itself; and the reaction to the action (the follow through). If too much time is spent on any of these, the audience’s attention will wander. If too little time is spent, the movement may be finished before the audience notices it, thus wasting the idea.”

So its very important that we give enough time to not only physical actions, but thoughts as well. In most cases the thoughts will drive the physical actions.

I picked a scene from the film “American Beauty”. It’s towards the end of the film. I would highly encourage watching this film, as this scene is a great moment that basically summarizes the character’s journey throughout the film.

Kevin Spacey’s character is not even saying anything. Instead he thinks it…and we know exactly how he feels. He’s gone through a lot…both in his life and especially within the last day. He’s even surprised the girl (or anyone) asks him how he feels. Therefore, in this scene there are a lot of emotions and feelings. Proper time from the time the question is given to the time the character answers for us to know how much has been going on. I did a small test and cut the time where there is thought process, and it’ll give you a pretty good idea about how powerful and how much though process adds in the original clip.

It’s not nearly as convincing or powerful.
Now if we look at the original clip form the film, you’ll see that once the question is asked, time is given for the character to show:

-Surprise (that someone asked him that)
-Realization (of what that means)
-He assimilates the actual question.
-He thinks about what he’s gone through.
-He gains confidence.
-He answers.

In addition, each of these thoughts are timed out properly. They are broken down so that they are not even in timing, and the time spent on each tells us a little bit more about the character. Watch the clip one more time.

This will give you a pretty good idea of how important it is to spend time thinking about the character before animating your scene. Sometimes we do it, other times we forget and we have to force ourselves to think of these things once again. How the character feels, what he’s gone through, what he’s learned up to that point in his life, etc. Kevin Spacey’s acting through the whole thing is highly inspiring and educational.

Here is another clip that I love and that again it shows how powerful thought process is expressed through timing/contrast, even in a character that displays no emotion. As opposed to the American Beauty clip, in this particular case, the end result is an unexpected reaction leading to an entertainment moment for the audience.

I hope this helps.