For my final assignment at Animation Mentor (aww!) I was tasked to pick a 10 second piece of dialogue to animate to. After rifling through various movies, how could I go past the brilliant young Saoirse Ronan in this scene of Atonement?
It’s a SUPER subtle scene (*background context provided below) that has everything you could ask for in a character performance: hesitation, conviction and also – A LIE.
Ughhhhh. That’s the sound I made when I delved deeper and discovered how hard it is to create a good lying reference.
As with all assignments at Animation Mentor, it’s crucial that you have video reference of yourself or others acting out what you want your animated character to do in the scene. For my character Briony (Ronan), I had to put myself in her shoes and think what she would think while trying to convey deception.
“No duh Stephanie, that’s acting 101. What’s so hard about that?”
The tricky part was this: you can’t be too good at lying.
After my first attempt at lying:
– the feedback I received from my mentor Erik was that the body language looked nervous but too convincing. If you want to show deception, you have to let slip hints of the truth.
The ultimate question you have to ask yourself is:
“How good of a liar is your character? Will they give it away very easily or can they hide the truth pretty well?”
If I had to set it on a lying capability scale from 1-10 (1 being Cindy Brady who can never hide the truth and 10 being the sly deceiver Hannibal Lecter) I would say my character should be about a 6. She’s a doubtful ten-year-old girl who is hovering between believing the lie and confessing the truth. She can look the person in the eye while lying but at some point she’s going to give the game away with a few pieces of hesitant body language.
So to gather a better video reference, I had to study the shifty body language that gives the game away, commonly called “tells”. This was weirdly fun and interesting to do. Think of watching videos of poker players who bluff their way through high stakes and President Bill Clinton shifting in his chair when questioned about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
There are also various videos (eg. How to Read Hands) and writings (eg. I Can Read You Like a Book by Gregory Hartley) analysing what certain gestures or expressions mean. These interpretations were fascinating to study but also conflicting depending on the source, so I took any analysis with a grain of salt and tried to be merely an observer of body language.
What my research led me to conclude was that everyone deceives differently and I don’t think there’s a definitive guide to lying. Sorry Samuel L Jackson, but when you look left I don’t believe it ALWAYS means you’re lying.
However I do believe some deceptive behaviours can be repeated amongst different people, like this picture shows here:
I found the best thing to do when researching lies is to watch a variety of lies in progress and pick some behaviour that a liar exhibits which you can replicate. I liked the idea of my character shifting her body weight, rubbing her hands and darting her eyes around.
With a bit more knowledge in mind, I set about to re-record video reference. And man oh man, did I live in front of a camera:
The reason I have so many pieces of reference is because when I was on camera, it was hard to remember all the details I’d planned for the action, like wringing my hands while shifting my eyes and frowning. Compartmentalising the actions of my hands and face helped me to overlap them later, even if I didn’t use every piece of reference in the end.
Once the action was roughed out in my animation, the main piece of advice I kept receiving was: “Contain the action.”
Huh? CONTAIN the action??? What the heck does that mean?! As far as I know, when you want to show off your animation chops, you create big, broad pieces of action that loop-de-loop all over the screen like this:
Doing subtle performances where your main focus is the face is the complete opposite of what I’d been encouraged to do previously. In short:
Big actions = comforting.
Subtle actions = TERRIFYING.
However, Erik was right. You can hear in her voice that she doesn’t need to prance around like a unicorn and you can see from the original film performance that Briony is almost completely still in her chair. If she had sounded more nervous, I might make her move around a little more, but minimalism was what this piece required, so no muss, no fuss.
And there it is! As you can see she began by moving around a little too much in the early stages but I eventually stripped it back at the polishing stage. I still have some more passes to get through to refine the action further, but at least I now know that when you animate a lie you should:
- Determine how good the character is at lying.
- Research different lies and pick behaviours your character could exhibit.
- Compartmentalise your reference if it’s difficult to act out all at once.
- Strip back the action if it doesn’t suit the dialogue.
P.S. If anyone else has ideas for improvement with my animation or tips about lying, please feel free to comment! It’s always very much appreciated :D.
*SPOILER SIDE NOTE: This is a scene where 10-year-old Briony is testifying that she saw the groundskeeper Robby (James McAvoy) rape her cousin. However she never saw Robby’s face, she has just misjudged his character and assumed it was him.