The difference between a average animator and a great animator
One of the main things that sets apart a great animator from an average animator is the ability to act. First, we need to understand what acting is in order to do it. Acting is reacting, not just to the environment around you but also to the other characters on the screen and the situation at hand. Most animators don't consider what's happening; they simply animate the lines given to them with no clear idea of what is in the characters mind.
However, we need to get into the character's mind. How the character acts is not necessarily how you would react. This is how we can create performances that no one has seen before, with actions and mannerisms specific to this character only. So before you start any animation, it's worth planning out, and creating your character.
When you work on a feature film, this is already done for you. You have your character's bio, their past and future, their expressions, and everything is dialled in. This makes it easier to create performances tailored to your character. Some things to consider are:
Create Your Character
What the character wants.
Why do they want it?
What will they do to get it?
What will they do once they get it?
Where did they come from in the scene before?
Where are they going?
What is their ultimate goal?
What is their goal in this scene?
Why do they act the way they do?
Give them a backstory.
Craft a Story
Using the example above, you can create a more specific character like this: Sally wants to attend London's best dance school because everyone who goes there becomes famous. She is willing to poison her main competitor. Once she gets it, she will feel self-assured. They came from poisoning a drink, and they are going to audition. The ultimate goal is to become famous, and the goal for this scene is to convince the judges to accept her. Sally felt worthless as a kid due to being rejected by her parents, so she seeks love from everyone else. She got bullied in school for being an orphan, built a guard, and is willing to do whatever it takes, even murder.
Use the Story to create ideas and mannerisms specific to your character
So, by answering these questions, we have created Sally, the villain. These answers are arbitrary but give us a good understanding of the character and why she does the things she does and how she might do them. For example, when she is poisoning the drink, she might do so confidently without hesitation. When she walks out onto the stage to audition, it would also be confident because she knows her main competition is about to die. At the very least, this will help you come up with more specificity in your animation and fewer cliché ideas.
There is still more we can do
Although there is still one thing we need to understand. Even though you have your character dialed in, with some nice acting and specific unique choices, your animation can still look unbelievable.
This is because you just deliver the lines one after the other without any thought to what has just happened. Remember, acting is reacting. So, in order to react, we need to PROCESS the information. We are not machines; we cannot hear a sentence and then answer directly. We need to process the information we just received.
When you hear a challenging sentence you don't know how to respond to, you need time to process. Some sentences require less time, like "Do you like cats?" which are easier to respond to, but we still need to process the question. When we process information, it is generally an internal thing that we can express through the eyes. Given the information we receive, it may cause more of the body to be used, depending on how YOUR character processes information.
If you look at the scene below, Lupin House mentor and Pixar animator Andrew Lee Atteberry has done an outstanding job of showing Joe the cat, processing information.
For your reel to stand out, show that you can act. Truly act. Show that you have given thought to your character, show them processing information and reacting to it. You will stand out above many animators who simply read lines.
Just like learning animation, you need to learn how to act. It is a whole other skill, and It's a craft that unfolds gradually, a skill that blossoms over time, and an experience we are fortunate to accumulate while collaborating with some of the industry's most revered directors.
The invaluable notes we've gathered along the way have shaped us into the animators we are today and it's our greatest joy to extend this privilege to our students at Lupin House.