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Postcard from GDC 2004: Acting for Animators

March 24, 2004
Ed Hooks

Ed Hooks, a professional acting teacher known for his work with CG animators, spoke this morning about the ways in which character animation in games can be informed by the history of traditional stage acting.

Animation, said Hooks, has as its end goal the elicitation of an emotional experience that causes a player to empathize with a given character. And yet, even though gaming brings the audience closer to the experience of a character than in any other medium, we find emotions being conveyed through objective thoughts and ideas, when it is direct action that holds the key to empathy.

Acting, said Hooks, is a performance by a character in a "theatrical reality," a space in which characters play out actions and must overcome obstacles in the pursuit of certain objectives. If a character feels an emotion, it is his subsequent action that will convey that emotion to a player. And so, according to Hooks, game developers must focus on re-discovering the key to conveying those emotions directly.

The Ancient Roots of Drama

The dichotomy of empathy vs. sympathy -- feeling vs. thinking -- is as old as acting itself.

Acting's roots, said Hooks, are in early shamanism, when shamans would intentionally induce in themselves intense emotional states for the purpose of teaching and inspiring their tribes. This later evolved into the Greek chorus, a 10-member group of faceless singers who sang out the praises of their Gods.

It was not until Thespus -- the first "Thespian" -- stepped out from the chorus to sing the praises of Dionysus that the idea of actors "playing" roles began to take shape. Yet it would be many millennia before Konstantin Stanislavsky, in many ways the father of modern acting, introduced the idea that actors could do more than move from pose to pose in an attempt to objectively convey the idea of an emotion.

Instead, Stanislavsky suggested that an actor could view a scene as a necklace of emotional "beads," a series of moments that convey through action the experience of a character. Although Stanislavsky's thick Russian accent led the term to be mis-interpreted as "beats," this idea now forms the basis for modern acting theory.

Emotions in Games

So, said Hooks, the key to creating an emotional experience is to create a series of high-impact beats that are so critical to the experience of a character that they impact the player just as deeply.

The driving force behind moments of action, of course, is conflict, said Hooks, and whether with the self, with another character, or with a situation, it is conflict that drives emotion. Hooks pointed out that game characters spend much of their time running around or simply standing about -- actions that do not convey emotion and thus leave the player emotionally disengaged.

Of course, said Hooks, there is another element that has evolved with modern theater that needs to find its way into games: humor. If drama is the ability to convey human potential, then humor is the conveyance of human limitation.

"Games take themselves so seriously," said Hooks.

In summing up, Hooks said that if game developers could find ways to integrate humor, drama, and the trinity of action, obstacle, and objective into their storytelling, then we might finally start seeing games with characters that convey the same range of emotions as those in film and theater.

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