Ed Hooks is a professional actor who has been teaching acting to animators since the late 90’s and witnessed first hand the explosive growth of the industry. We asked Ed about what he sees as the real opportunities and challenges ahead for both artists and studios.
How did you find yourself teaching acting to animators?
I was invited to teach the animators at PDI just after they were bought by DreamWorks and were working on the movie Antz starring Woody Allen back in 1996. One of the acting students in my regular San Francisco acting class was in the daytime a VFX supervisor with PDI, and he told me “We think we could do with an acting class for a movie we are working on”. I went over there and screwed it up frankly, because I tried to teach the animators the way that I was teaching actors, and that is where I was fortunate to learn the difference between animators and actors. Once I got that, I developed a way of teaching acting theory to animators instead of stage actors, and that’s what lead to me to do what I’m doing today.
What was the biggest adjustment going from teaching acting to animators as opposed to actors?
The main difference is that actors want to appear on Broadway or the West End, or be in movies with the likes of Robert De Niro. Most animators have no interest in that kind of thing at all. They want to know about acting so that their characters on screen can do the acting.
Stage and movie actors work in the present moment: I reach over I touch your cheek, you have a reaction, I react to your reaction, you react to my reaction, and we do all of this under a huge amount of pressure with thousands of people watching or with cameras and lights in our faces. Actors work a lot on sensory things, on stimulating themselves emotionally in the present moment and working under an intense pressure, working with relaxation and such. Animators don’t have a present moment, animators have 24fps, an illusion of a present moment and therefore animators don’t have any need at all for all of this sensory work that actors do.
“Animation to me is the most underdeveloped art form of the 21st century. In my work, I’ve met some of the most talented people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting and they are invisible, nobody knows what they do.”
However, animators do need to understand acting theory the same way that actors do. They need to understand the connections between thinking, emotion and physical action. They need to understand the difference between regular reality and theatrical reality. They need to understand how empathy works, structured characterisation, all of those things. An animator doesn’t need to know how to stimulate himself emotionally in the present moment. I can teach an animator how to cry on cue, but what good would it do him? He wouldn’t be able to see to animate! He just needs to understand what crying is about, why people cry, what that does etc.
Surprisingly, I was the first one to figure this out and codify it. Probably because of my background in acting and teaching and then having the run of the studio at PDI, where I was able to follow the animators around and ask questions. After finishing with PDI/DreamWorks, I wrote ‘Acting for Animators‘ which nobody wanted to publish. The publishers felt there were plenty of acting books on the market and if animators needed their own book there would already be one. I told them “no, no, no, you gotta listen to me, I’ve seen the light here and animators really are different”. I finally got the book published in 2001, and now it’s in its third revised edition. I’ve been fortunate to teach for many, if not most of the major animation and game studios and events all around the world, and I head to the airport a lot. It’s become the tail that wags the dog in my life, and I’m having a great time.
Do you feel that the lack of good storytelling is the biggest issue with animation features today?
Storytelling is a big problem and as I travel around the world I can see that this is the most glaring weakness. I think it’s because people lose sight of why they are telling stories. Fortunately for studios audiences can be very forgiving. An example of this is the Disney movie Frozen, which I recently wrote an acting analysis of. This movie is the most profitable movie in animation history, but it has extraordinary structural weaknesses and problems, inconsistencies in character as well as a lot of problems with the screenplay. The fact that the antagonist, the villain, does not disclose himself until 15 minutes before the end credits is just one example. It also has difficulty with whose story it is. The screenwriters want to say it’s about both sisters, but you can’t do that; it has to be one or the other. On top of that, the little snowman character is totally superfluous, in there for nothing but comic relief; you could take him out and it wouldn’t hurt the story at all.
But yet, when people go to see a movie they go with so much good will: they are on a date, they’re gonna see a movie, have a pizza, they are not looking to analyse a movie like you and I would. I remind my students of this: we are like magicians and what we are talking about is where the rabbit is hidden. Regular people who go to magic acts don’t want to know where the rabbit is hidden because it ruins the act for them. We, on the other hand, have to know where the rabbit is hidden, and once we know this, it changes the way magic acts are experienced forever. I look at a movie like Frozen and I see very clumsy rabbit hiding, I talk to professionals about this but I can’t talk to my neighbours who take their kids to see the movie because they don’t want to hear that. My point is that Disney can do better, Pixar can do better, we can all do better, and it all has to do with getting back to the very reasons why we are telling stories, why we are talking to the tribe, what the point of it all is.
The movies make a lot of money, but there is a lot of room for improvement. I believe that my students are the next generation of animators, and that the big studios are doing what they are going to do, they pretty much creatively peaked. Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks are very successful, and they are doing what they are doing, they are basically just marketing now. But the industry is changing and we have now a lot of opportunities, other kinds of companies are making movies and TV shows: Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, all of these places are making shows and producing. There’s a lot of opportunities for new animators, and I tell my students ‘look if you get a job over at Pixar then good for you’ but I would just as soon see you competing with Pixar. If you think about it, it was only 20 years ago since Toy Story (1995) came out, and the industry has changed so much since then. If you consider where we could be 20 years from now, if it changes anything close to what it has in the past then what we are doing today isn’t even going to be recognisable. Today’s new animators must learn how to tell stories, how to talk to the tribe, how to make animation for adults. We aren’t making movies for adults in the west, and there is a huge opportunity there.
Do you think there exists genuine ‘family’ animations?
Walt Disney used to proclaim that he made movies for the whole family but he also said, and what he was really doing, was that he made movies for kids and then he charmed the adults into coming to see them also on the grounds that there is a kid in all of us. When you watch Snow White today it turns back the clock on you. I’ve been re-watching Snow White and Pinocchio and a few others for a book I’m writing, and what happens is you turn into the younger you from when you originally watched them.
When they made Up at Pixar they had only written till the point where the house is lifted into the sky with the balloons, that is all they had before they put it into production. Once they got there they tried to figure out “now what happens”, so they made up all this stuff about paradise valley. My guess is there were some executives somewhere who said “you know what this movie is getting really serious, all about people dying and falling in love and we better lighten it up”, so they added the talking dogs and the chocolate eating birds and all of this stuff. The first half of the movie is all about falling in love, courtship, commitment, wanting to have children, a family, not being able to, sickness, death, survival as a widower, all of these things a child of five or six has no clue about, nor should they, it’s adult stuff. But then when it goes to paradise valley all of a sudden you’ve got those talking dogs, flying airplanes and the adults are checking their watches. A movie like Up is really a hybrid, part for adults and part for children. It’s possible to make a movie that is 100% for the whole family, I think Toy Story achieved that, I think Monsters Inc also. It’s just very, very difficult, and Hollywood want an assembly line to satisfy Wall Street and turn out movies on predictable release dates for the next 2-3 years. For many of those release dates they don’t have a movie, they just have dates with a budget of 150-200million dollars. So they just have to come up with something to fill those slots, and it’s all a matter of marketing. This whole situation has turned storytelling on it’s head, really you should make a movie when you have a story to tell, but they are making movies because of commitments to release dates. In my classes I try to tell students that maybe down the road they may have to follow suit, but they should always try to tell stories first.
In my view Miyazaki, is the heir apparent to Walt Disney, it wouldn’t be the Hollywood studios, I think today’s Disney studios is not even an heir apparent to Walt. With Miyazaki, we can hope he will make movies, but he will only make movies when he has a story to tell. Pixar and DreamWorks don’t even hire generalists anymore. I remember a couple years ago a guy from Pixar giving a talk at FMX in Germany, and talking about ‘the Pixar grid’, how they only hire operators, it’s an assembly line, where they want you to sit at your place and work on whatever is shoved in front of you, irrespective of what the movie is, or what the story is. I think there’s a lot of room for growth, animation is the only art form where the most talented artists are invisible, they are kept out of site. It’s always a ‘Pixar’ movie or ‘Disney’, it’s very difficult to find out which animators worked on the character such as Carl on Up, I’ve tried, it’s impossible to find, the animators are invisible. I think this is a pity, a shame, an outrage. Animation to me is the most underdeveloped art form of the 21st century. In my work, I’ve met some of the most talented people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting and they are invisible, nobody knows what they do. I think it’s time for animators to raise their hand and say “I did that, I did that character, it was me!”.
What did you think of Andy Serkis comments that animators are essentially ‘digital painters’?
Andy Serkis is a pioneer but he got lucky because Peter Jackson gave him the opportunity to be a pioneer, he almost didn’t even take the job for Gollum, it’s just that they had rock climbing in New Zealand and he likes to climb rocks and so went down and learnt how to do this. Andy Serkis wants an academy award, he wants to be considered in the best actor category alongside De Niro and Hoffman and Clooney etc. All of this stuff about him saying animators applying digital makeup is really designed to make him appear to be important enough to get a best actor nomination. The fact is what we need is a new academy award category for best digital character and when the winner is announced Andy can go up there along with the animators who worked on that character and can accept the award and everyone can get their statue, that’s what needs to happen and he could do a lot of good with his influence and celebrity by pushing for that, but what you see him doing is pushing to get into a category that he does not belong in. He thinks that the big obstacle is that Screen Actors Guild does not appreciate the depth of his talent, and they do, they fully understand what he’s doing, but it’s really a money issue.
I was a working actor in 1992 I was still a professional actor and there came on commercials for Coca-Cola I believe and they had taken old footage of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart from their movies and reconfigured them to make them do things in these commercials. These adverts scared the pants off of the members of Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood because nobody saw this coming, they saw this digital stuff as an attempt to get rid of actors, and saw their services becoming obsolete. From that start Screen Actors Guild has had an adversarial relationship with the entire digital world. I blame the digital world for this: the producers, the big companies, I blame them, the guilds, the VFX people. No one from the digital world has ever gone over to the Screen Actors Guild and put their arms around them and said “let us show you what we are doing, this is gonna be ok”. Some of the most innovative digital people, guys like Paul Debevec of University of Southern California, who put together how to do clones of live actors with The Digital Emily Project. When he comes out and says something like in “10 years live actors will be obsolete” he doesn’t realise the damage that does, it causes Screen Actors Guild to shut out VFX. The reality is that live actors are never going away, and that the digital world is only an enhancement, they have to come together, and they need to stop this business of fighting one another.
“Screen Actors Guild has had an adversarial relationship with the entire digital world.”
I ran a panel at FMX, and I tried to get together actors that did motion capture to talk to producers that do motion capture, to have a candid conversation in front of an audience. I brought over a guy from Hollywood named Woody Schultz, he’s an actor that does a lot of motion capture, and I also had one of the animators that worked on Benjamin Button’s face. Right before we were going to go out on the stage, I asked Woody (who had been in Avatar), “Oh what Navi did you play? tell me that and maybe I can make a joke about how people might recognise you”, and he said “Oh I don’t know maybe a 100 of them, at least”. I couldn’t believe it, he said there were just nine actors that did all the thousands of Navi. When I asked him if he was paid for doing multiple characters he said how he just got a day rate! Well this is a problem, they don’t have a decent contract at Screen Actors Guild for people like this. You can’t have nine people doing a thousand different characters even if they are background characters. The reason why they have this situation is that the producers will not acknowledge yet that actors in motion capture suits are even artists, they don’t even acknowledge it. So here comes Andy Serkis, who is supposedly worth upwards of 25 million dollars. So Andy Serkis is floating around in a celebrity bubble all on his own, what he is doing really has very little bearing on what Screen Actors Guild is going to do with motion capture. It all has to do about the dialog or lack of, between Screen Actors Guild and producers, and the rank and file membership, and Andy Serkis will continue to do what he’s doing.
Obviously digital characters are collaborative characters, actors are not one man shows, and not even Andy Serkis is a one man show. Acting on stage requires that you be cock sure of yourself from day one, it’s not something that you think I’m gonna study this work 2 or 3 years and then I’ll be an actor. In order to be an actor you have to consider yourself to be one from the first day, it requires the shamanistic knowledge that you deserve to be in that circle and that people need to listen to you. The British actors of which Andy Serkis is one, are very good at this, they are trained in a theatrical heritage that goes back to Shakespeare not to Stanislavsky, they have a different orientation, and they do have this confidence of being out there and leading the audience which is unique to British actors. Andy brought that orientation to motion capture, and saw the animators as outside the circle, almost handing him props or whatever he needs, but he’s the one in the circle. He brought that mindset to motion capture and has never invited anybody else into that circle in his head, and I don’t think anyone has ever explained to him that there is someone else who belongs with him in that circle, it’s just a default mechanism for him. In time there will be more celebrity motion capture actors and I’m sure in 8-10 years this will have worked itself out, but right now Andy could be doing a lot better if he would embrace animators rather than trying to minimise their contribution to these characters.
With the growth of schools and courses for learning animation, do you feel they are actually producing real talent?
Most of them are not, there are probably five or six really excellent animation schools in the whole world. The problem is that a lot of animation schools are for profit and we got into a bunch of trouble when DreamWorks opened and Katzenberg was in a spinning match with Eisner from Disney. His split from Disney was very acrimonious, he sued Disney and in winning his case, he used it to hire away Disney animators, often doubling their salaries in order to get them away from Disney. This got publicised and drew a lot of attention to animation as a lucrative career, the schools jumped right on this and promoted the prospects of having an exciting high paid career as a professional animator, but it was never true. Now we have a lot of what I would call ‘animation technicians’. They go to these schools, they start off on computers learning Maya, but they don’t understand storytelling, they’re technicians. The schools are turning out an overabundance of what I call ‘animation technicians’, and what the real need is for in the marketplace is ‘animation storytellers’. There are very few schools that are even trying to fill this niche, they just aren’t set up to do it. It’s something I talk and preach about a lot, and hopefully it will get better. It never has been true that animation was a linear career field like accounting or being a lawyer, where you can go to school for this many years, graduate and then you go to work for this firm. Animators are artists, and art has never worked like that, there is no rational reason to become an artist, you don’t become an artist because you are looking to make money or to have a secure career. Becoming an artist is like finding God, you wake up one morning and you realise that God spoke to you during the night and you don’t have a choice, whatever you have been doing in your life you have to scoot it over and make room for you to be an artist because that is what you must do. People ask me all the time, ” do you think i have what it takes to have a career as an artist, as an animator or actor” and my default answer is “no you don’t” and many times they are quest fallen “really, I don’t have what it takes?”. I say to them “if you can give up your pursuit of this because of what I’m saying, then you should” because the answer that you really should be giving me is that I should go screw myself, because you are an artist and that’s what you are going to do. If I can talk you out of it, then you shouldn’t be doing it.
“The schools are turning out an overabundance of what I call ‘animation technicians’, and what the real need is for in the marketplace is ‘animation storytellers’.”
There was a dean of a school down in Singapore who got mad at me after he said he was having trouble getting students to enrol at his school and I remarked that was probably a good thing. He said “what do you mean its a good thing? I should have more students”, and I said “no, It’s a reflection of the real world, what’s happening is that the real world is catching up with you”. They’re not buying inasmuch, that they can have this glorious career. What they could do is change the teaching, actually teach them what they need to learn in order to be storytelling animators. But don’t be complaining that people aren’t coming anymore to what you were telling them before, because what you were telling them before was not true. He got mad, and I understand why, but I was telling him the truth. I think animation students should be actually be screened, there needs to be obstacles. The early Disney animators didn’t come from schools, they had no career paths, those guys were misfits, they were the people who threw spitballs and drew pictures of the teacher at school, the ones who nobody’s mother wanted them to get involved with romantically. They were misfits with no professional career potential, they were crazy but their technique was something they used to express their caricatures, they were natural storytellers. Now we don’t have so much of this, where do you find the crazies, the system isn’t set up for them, it’s setup for the technicians, and I think in the future this coming 20 years, what we need are more crazies, we need to go back to crazies. Now they’ve got CG, we can have crazies with CG, but they need that same impulse to simply make comments about the world and people, and tell stories. Z