Giving Your Characters the Illusion of Life

What is it that gives an animation the Illusion of Life?
You could say it’s the pose, because the pose can tell you what the character is feeling.
You could also say it is the timing, because you can set the mood of your character through the timing.
And yet, when you watch great animation it feels like there is something more.

What is that *more*? How can you achieve it in your animations?

In order to demonstrate, I’d like to breeze through the animating of a scene:

  • First, I get the storyboard, the audio track, the character model sheet etc from the
  • Next I pose out and thumbnail the action of my scene
  • Finally I keyframe it out on the computer with the proper timing

This is the general process that most of us go through when animating, but I’d like to suggest a few more steps to really add that ‘Illusion of Life.’ Now think about what life is. Now there are
about 20 definitions over at Merriam-Webster, but I’m talking in specific about definitions 6 and 11:

 6 : a way or manner of living
11 : the form or pattern of something existing in reality

We want to give our characters the Illusion that they exist in reality! The illusion that they have developed their own manner of living!

How do we give Our characters the Illusion of Life?

Well, you should be talking with your character lead if you have one, and/or the director.
Discuss character traits:

  • Does he nervously dart his eyes around and act like Woody Allen?
  • Did he have a traumatic experience in childhood that makes him walk through every door backwards?

There are some strange personality quirks that people have in real life, and you know what this expresses? That’s right, that they exist in reality!
They have lives outside of their interaction with you!

A great example of this is Peter Lorres character Ugarte from Casablanca

Peter Lorre interacts with Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca

Peter Lorre interacts with Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca

Just look at that face, the way he’s trying to mimic Rick’s (Bogart’s) confidence. And yet he always, even if momentarily, reverts back to his worried, weasely self.

That is a great character and one that lives on in your memory! But what made it a great character? Well, it was the fact that he existed outside of his scenes so well.

We never saw him kill the German Couriers or get the papers, and yet we knew he did it by the way he acted! The way he held his body (posing) and the manner in which he moved between poses (timing).

Another great example of Ugarte’s character is the way he enters the Film. He could just walk into Rick’s Cafe, but that wouldn’t tell us very much about him as a character. Instead he ‘weasels’ in between an arguing customer and the door man with a passing “Hello Rick…”!

From his first frames in the movie we understand what kind of character he is! Plus, the entire time he is talking with Rick, we sense that he and Rick have history together and Ugarte really wants Ricks approval.

We get this, not so much through dialogue, but through the posing and timing of Ugarte’s movements. There is a great gesture Ugarte does at about 9:50 into the film which is very odd, and yet tells us so much about his personality!

These things are what give characters that Illusion of Life!

“But we can’t compete with live actors!” you say.
Guess what? Peter Lorre, Humphry Bogart, these people are dead, and yet their characters live on in the same form that ours will: 2D images mixed with sound.

We have the same tools as any actor, real or imagined. If we use them properly, we will be able to create characters that truly live, maybe even longer than we will!

So lets go back to our list and see what we can add:

  • First, get the Storyboard, audio track, character model sheets etcetera from the director
  • Next, talk with the director and your character lead about the personality of your character
  • Discuss with the lead and any other animators possible character traits, poses, nervous ticks
  • Sit down and imagine your character acting your scene out in your mind, let it run free at
    first, then subtly direct it
  • Thumbnail your characters action out on paper
  • Take these thumbnails first to your character lead for approval/suggestions, then take it to
    your director for approval/suggestions
  • Now set your keyframes, and MAKE EVERY FRAME COUNT
    • Everything from the way your character enters and exits a scene, to every pose they hit, to the timing between the poses should have a purpose and tell us something about that character.

Well, I hope that helps a few of you. And if anyone has any further comments on this topic, please share them! Until next time…
Happy Animating!