The Power of Nonverbal Communication in Animation

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The animation industry has endured the test of time, adapting and evolving with technology, creating a seemingly timeless artform. Animation owes much of its success to its ability to harness nonverbal communication as a form of storytelling. Nonverbal communication transcends the barriers of time and culture – it is a universal form of commination that works everywhere humans interact (Navarro 5). As technology advances and the demand for animations to be more realistic increases, it is becoming increasingly important for animators to understand the role nonverbal communication plays in the success of animation.

Nonverbal communication is a means of transmitting information through facial expressions, gestures, haptics, physical movement, adornment, and even tone and timbre and volume of an individual’s voice, rather than the spoken word (Navarro 2). Nonverbal communication comprises approximately 60 to 65 percent of all interpersonal communication (Navarro 4). This is something that has become increasingly clear to animators and perhaps was stated best by Disney art director & designer Ken Anderson when he said, “pantomime is the basic art of Animation. Body Language is the root and fortunately, it is universal” (Williams 324).

Richard Williams, an animator best known for his work on Who Framed Rodger Rabbit (1988), recounts the moment he learned just how important nonverbal communication is in animation:

I was with Ken in Tehran just before the revolution and I had a nasty shock and a big lesson when they ran my ½ hour Oscar-winning ‘A Christmas Carol’ for an Iranian Audience. We had tried to have as much body language in the film as we could but we still were left with Dickens’ literate story. Of course the audience didn’t understand a word, a Chuck Jones cartoon came on after and blew us out of the water. So for us, we should keep words as clear as we can through pantomime. We should feel we have only the body to tell the story. (Williams 324)

Richard Williams personal experience speaks to the power of nonverbal communication in animation. Words can be consciously crafted to accomplish the speaker’s objectives, such as telling a story, but they can also be lost in translation. Nonverbal communication, however, is something everyone can understand.

When thinking of nonverbal communication, the first thing that often comes to mind is facial expressions. Without question, the face is one of the most powerful tools for communicating. It has been estimated that humans are capable of over ten thousand unique facial expressions (Ekman, 2003, 1-37). Paul Ekman, an American psychologist best known for his work as a pioneer in the study of emotions and their related facial expressions, identified happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy, rage, shame, anguish, and interest as universal facial expressions (Ekman, 2003, 1-37). It may come to no surprise that Paul Ekman’s work is well known in the field of contemporary Animation.

Paul Ekman developed The Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which is a system that breaks down the actions of the face based on the facial musculature that stimulates movement (Buchanan 77). Ekman’s FACS has been used in contemporary CGI, perhaps most notably has been its implementation in the creation of the well-known character Gollum in Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers (2002), which resulted in a character performance that was widely regarded by critics as emotionally believable (Kerlow, 2004).

Animators can learn a great deal from individuals, like Paul Ekman, who dedicate their efforts to the study of the human limbic system. Much of our nonverbal communication is controlled by the limbic system in our brain, which is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us, reflexively and instantaneously, in real-time, and without thought (Navarro 22-23). The importance of limbic survival responses is vital to creating compelling animations. The great animator, Bill Tytla, once said “there are only 3 things in animations – 1: anticipation 2: action 3: reaction, (Williams 273)” all of which are limbic survival responses.

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The limbic survival responses go back to our ancestry, are hardwired into our nervous system, and are largely responsible for our survival as a species (Navarro 22). Man’s relationship with fire is largely possible thanks to the limbic system. That force that jerks the hand back from an all too hot flame before it gets burned – that’s the limbic system at work. Likewise, that uncontrollable smile that lights up the face when receiving good news, that too, is the limbic system at work. The limbic survival responses manifest themselves throughout the body, anticipating, acting, and reacting to the world around us. Understanding these responses can allow an animator to tell a more compelling visual story and imbue their characters with a greater sense of being, as was achieved with Gollum in the Lord of The Rings movies.

A great deal of importance has been given to the face throughout human history. It is often seen as the center for human communication. What we feel, is exquisitely communicated through a vast range of facial expressions we can create, as Paul Ekman’s work has proven. It is important to note, however, that the face is also the most dishonest part of our body. We can, to a degree, control our facial expressions, as the term “poker face” implies (Navarro 166). Nonverbal communications specialist, Joe Navarro, argues that “when it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.” The feet are the most honest and perhaps most overlooked body part in terms of interhuman communication.

For millions of years, long before the spoken word, our legs and feet reacted to environmental threats instantaneously, without the need for conscious thought (Navarro 54). The feet communicate in a subtle, but important way, that animators looking to achieve realistic and compelling performances cannot overlook. The direction an individual’s feet point is an excellent example of this. Feet tend to point towards people and things an individual finds agreeable, and turn away from things they don’t like or finds disagreeable (Navarro 60). Feet also play an important role in an individual’s walk.

Veteran animator Richard Williams points out that, “there is a massive amount of information in a walk and we read it instantly” (Williams 104). An individual’s walk is reflective of their mood, attitude, disposition, and history – their entire story can be told by the way they walk (Williams 103). A person who is happy will appear to float, as their feet appear to defy gravity, whereas in contrast a person who is depressed, perhaps from the loss of a loved one, feet will drag as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders (Navarro 76). Our emotions start in our feet and radiate up through our legs, into our torso.

The torso is a body part that should not be overlooked because when it moves, everything moves. The torso houses many vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and digestive tract, making it a top priority of our brain to protect (Navarro 85). A limbic survival response we see in the body is its inherent awareness of danger, leaning away from anything stressful or unwanted, distancing itself from perceived dangers (Navarro 86). In our minds this movement is subtle, and often goes unnoticed, as it is being performed by our subconscious, but with the body bearing a large portion of our weight, visually it is anything but subtle (Navarro 86). It is important animators remember the significance of the torso as they animate, and think as the subconscious brain thinks, prioritizing protecting that which is vital.

Protecting that which is vital is the ultimate goal of the limbic system, and this is perhaps best expressed visually in the arms. Our arms and legs are so oriented on protecting us they will rise up to defend us even when doing so is illogical or ill-advised (Navarro 108). This can be seen when someone throws an object at someone else, and the targeted person’s arms raise up and block the object, instinctively and accurately. Arms also protect our body emotionally, performing subconscious acts of comfort, discomfort, displays of confidence, and many other feelings. This can be seen when a person is injured, threatened, abused, or worried. Their arms come straight to their sides or close across the chest, which is a survival tactic that helps protect the individual when real or perceived danger is sensed (Navarro 112). Arms are not just used for protection; they are also used for communication. Arms, like feet, can accurately indicate an individual’s attitude and sentiments. When a person is happy and content, their arms move freely, even joyously, and when they are experiencing negative emotions, they get that sinking feeling, which brings the arms down physically (Navarro 111-112).

Attached to our arms are our hands, and despite the acquisition of spoken language over millions of years of human evolution, our brain is still hardwired to engage our hands in accurately communicating our thoughts, emotions, and sentiments (Navarro 133). This can be seen when an individual is laying down the law about something and both of their hands move in a twinning fashion emphasizing their point (Williams 324 -325). Hands also are capable of a wide range of subtle forms of nonverbal communication, such as thumb displays. When an individual postures in such a way that their thumb is clearly visible (hanging out of their pockets) it is a sign of high confidence, while in contrast, a thumb that is hidden (thumb in the pocket with fingers hanging out) is a sign of low confidence (Navarro 150-153). This can be seen in the laying down the law visual. When an individual does this, they do so with their palms up and thumbs out, expressing their point of view with great confidence.

When it comes to communication, the spoken word falls short in comparison to the symphony of the bodies of nonverbal cues. The nonverbal cues our limbic system gives off are universal, honest, and important for animators to observe. As technology advances and the demand for higher levels of realism in animation increases, animators will need to look to the work of psychologists, like Paul Ekman, and nonverbal communication specialists, such as Joe Navarro, for guidance to understand the subtleties of nonverbal communication. Implementing nonverbal communication in animation has been a large factor of its success throughout history, and continues to be, increasingly so, to this day.

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