Actors lend more than voices to toons

As the line between live action and animation dissolves, performers see more of themselves onscreen

As filmmakers blend elements of live action, traditional forms of animation, CG, motion capture and other filmmaking technologies, actors and animators have become close collaborators in creating performances.

“The experience can be a little surreal when you realize they’ve taken the way you move and made it part of the character. I’m a fan of animation, so I look at great animators as great actors,” says Patton Oswalt, voice of Remy the rat in “Ratatouille.” “Great animation is like a great actor reacting to something you’re doing and creating and adding something to that.”

Oswalt, who has also done voice work for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and “Kim Possible,” found working with helmer Brad Bird and the animators at Pixar not unlike much of his live-action experience.

“Brad was able to summon up any of the other characters when we were doing the voice, so I never felt like I was alone in the booth,” Oswalt says. “I was reacting to something and there was someone there to work with.”

Popular on Variety

Bird says his conversations with animators are not much different from those he has with actors about a performance and the shades of emotion involved for a particular scene.

“You’re really giving them the same kinds of cues,” Bird explains. “Great animators have the same skills as a great actor because they understand how much can be communicated with just the raising of an eyebrow.”

James Baxter, supervising animator on Disney’s “Enchanted,” agrees and found himself gathering a lot of inspiration from the live-action reference footage given to him.

“We were taking living actors and trying to create sort of traditional 2-D animated versions of them,” Baxter says. “They were trying to behave — in real life — as though they originated in that traditional animated world, so there was interplay and we were inspired by each other.”

Bill Nighy worked closely with helmer Gore Verbinski to create the character Davy Jones on the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” so the tentacles in his beard could be more easily animated later.

“Bill didn’t have tentacles, but the tentacles are part of his performance,” says Verbinski, who had talks with the actor about what his beard would be doing at any given moment during his scenes. “That octopus beard had to be driven by Bill’s performance, so if he’s agitated it would be kind of boiling around him and Bill would move accordingly like the beard was there.”

Verbinski believes fusing the skills of carefully planned and executed animation with the intuitive, spontaneous performance of an actor can yield something unique.

“Actors perform organically and in a sort of chaos because with live action you’re never quite sure exactly what someone is going to do, so you get something from that you could never get from animation alone,” Verbinski observes.

Verbinski also says it’s not a violation to take the actor’s performance and alter it using the technological tools at hand. It’s just part of the evolution of filmmaking.

“We’re in the manipulation business,” Verbinski asserts. “You’re always taking the best parts of one take and then editing them together with best parts of another. This really isn’t that different, and it’s all in the service of telling a story.”

For “Enchanted,” producer Barry Josephson believes the tools are advancing the way stories can be told and that actors and animators will find themselves working even more closely in the future.

“We couldn’t have done ‘Enchanted’ the way you see it now — even just a few years ago,” says Josephson, who was on the project for 10 years. “I think you’re going to find filmmakers will want to push this much further as time goes on and both actors and animators have to be part of that.”

Films such as “Beowulf” blur those lines even further by using reference footage to capture a performance and then animating the performance so it may be incorporated with dragons, monsters and a host of other creatures.

“We were trying to take the essence of what (actor)Ray Winstone gave to (the character) Beowulf and really preserve and enhance it with what we did,” says Kenn McDonald, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. “Our goal is keeping as much of the original performance as we can.”

“What we do as animators is study life, and sometimes that involves taking acting classes and just watching people,” notes Keith Smith, a senior animator who worked on the Beowulf character. “When people talk about using software to create performances without actors, I’m the first one to say there’s no replacement for what an actor can give you.”