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Monday, February 25, 2008

Acting Reference: Die Hard

One of the really hard things to pull off is to inject personality into your cg characters. You're so occupied by making the motions believable and getting rid of pops and tweaking arcs, and on top of that you have to make the character unique and entertaining? Definitely not easy. Even animated features don't always pull it off.
But when it works, it's really a blast. Edna Mode from "The Incredibles" comes to mind. Such a fun character.

It's really difficult for animators who work on a single shot for their demo reel. A movie (or short to some extend) gives a character the possibility to grow and change. You have about 90 mins to get to know the characters, so sometimes after 80mins of a character being insane, one single shot of stillness could be hilarious. But if you take that shot out of context, it could fall flat. How can you show a substantial character arc within a 5 second shot? How can you make your character NOT look like your typical Norman/Hogan/Generi/etc. guy doing an animation exercise? I wish I could give you a MEL script that answers that question (although that would take the fun and challenge away...).

All I can say is study real life, study actors, study all types of reference. Think about the situation the character's in, think about a backstory, anything that gives the character personality. Make the character a unique living individual. To me that's what I'm missing when I check out student work. When you look at all the demo reels out there (by students), it's safe to say that the majority shows a 20 to 25 year old, well built white male, doing some goofy stuff, or lifting boxes, or walking in place going nowhere. :)

I'm exaggerating but I think you get my point. Of course it's really easy to write this and tell you guys to animate an Oscar worthy performance that lasts only a few seconds. It's very easy, but it's incredibly hard to do. Everybody is struggling with it, not just students.
With the flexibility that the Norman rig offers, we're starting to see different characters, young, old, male, female, etc. That's good stuff, keep it going, keep them coming!

Now what does this have to do with Die Hard? Well, it brings me to a handful of sequences that Hart Bochner is in. He plays Harry Ellis. The ultimate douche bag. The moment you see him in the movie you know he's an ass. An arrogant fool. But I love it. I picked out this sequence because you could take single shots out of this and his character would still be clear. The moment he walks in, every gesture, every posture just screams "I AM A DOUCHE BAG." :)

Watch for yourself:

I can take a few frames out of all that, but it's his movement, his timing that sells the attitude.

Now, within this over the top performance there are two little moments that I love. One, watch the face of Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman, around the 55 sec mark after he leans forward. Before he talks, there's a little moment where his face shows almost disgust. Might just be me but that moment still cracks me up. Internally he must be ready to barf after Ellis' speech. I also love it because don't think about the audio clip in your shot as the main selling point. Sometimes it's the little things during the pauses that make the shot stand out.

The other one is the framing of Ellis and the evil blond henchman. All you can see is the top part of the head, mainly his eyes. But they tell you a lot!

So again, look at how he walks in, how he leans back, how he uses his hands, his face, how he sits down and delivers that grin, etc. What a douche bag, love it!

Another section in Die Hard I wanted to point out is not acting related, but more about a film making rule and how subtle yet successfully it is being implemented in this sequence.
It was either the commentary or a making-of that made me aware of it and I've been paying attention to that ever since. It's not huge, people might not even care or won't have to care about in their one character shot, but as always, I love to nerd out on things and wanted to share it with you guys.

Every rule is there to be broken of course, but usually filmmakers stick to it. In this case it's about in which direction the actors are looking when they are talking to each other. Well, usually we are look at each other, right? But in a movie, you have to make sure that when character A is looking screen right, while talking to Character B, that Character B is looking screen left, otherwise it can get a bit confusing (are they talking to Character C?).

What I like about this sequence is how multiple characters are introduced and how Bruce Willis moves around in order to stick to that above mentioned rule. Let's take a look:

The shot starts with John McLane (Bruce Willis) talking to Sgt. Al Powell (Reginal VelJohnson). McLane looks screen right, followed by Powell looking screen left, establishing (if it wasn't already obvious from an audio point of view) that they are talking to each other. Then you hear Gruber joining them off screen.

Since a new person is being introduced, it would be confusing to have McLane look screen right, so he turns around and as Gruber's introduction comes to an end, McLane ends up looking screen left.

So now we have them looking at each other, perfect. The way McLane turns is subtle and doesn't draw attention to itself, but it's needed in order to not brake the rule. After a while another character joins the threesome, this time it's Ellis, our favorite douche bag.

And you'll see McLane do the same thing as before, again, not in a flashy way, it's done over time and across cuts, but nevertheless, eventually McLane and Ellis are facing each other.

Subtle, manipulative and audience directing techniques, love it. So many times those tricks are hidden. Just pay attention to colors which convey a certain mood, lighting that makes the main actor stick out just a little bit more than anybody else, etc. etc.

Again, not that you would have to think about all that in a shot with just a single character, but if you happen to have more and there is dialogue with them across different shots, might as well play around with those techniques.

Video clip(s) are for educational purposes only
Copyright © 1998 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
All Rights Reserved.


Cameron Fielding said...

The example of the dialogue direction is fantastic! thanks for this.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Thanks, but again, this was mentioned in the commentary somewhere, it's not just me. :)

David Bernal said...

Awesome and inspiring!! thanks :)

TJ Phan said...

"...The ultimate douche bag..."--lol. And when he kicked in his grin at the end--that was priceless!

Aside from that, these shot breakdowns always inpire me to observe even more. Thanks!

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Sure thing! I just hope I'm making any sense. :)

Saul Ruiz said...

thanks so much for this.. i couldnt agree more with TJ.. this is awesome. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I saw it again by accident whilst scanning the freeview channels we have here in England.

I think Die Hard is one of the definitive action films ever made.

Best Bad guy, best Good guy and best douche-bag!

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Definitely a great xmas movie. :)

Daniel said...

Fantastic post Jean-Denis, thanks for sharing! :)

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Thanks Daniel!!