Acting for Animators Book Review

by Ed Hooks, published by Heinemann Drama, 125 pages and a CD-Rom, softcover, b&w illustrations by Mike Caputo.

It’s interesting that Walt Disney found so many useful lessons from watching Charlie Chaplin and the silent comics. 

The animators behind the Disney “revolution” recognized that for animation to reach its heights it needed to employ aspects of other similar fine arts, and acting was one of its key elements. 

The concept of acting has certainly been addressed in animation books, and even in excellent fashion from distinguished animator/authors such as Chuck Jones, Shamus Culhane, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, but there has never been a book devoted solely to animation acting.

In fact, there’s probably been a glaring need for it. Ed Hooks has been teaching a traveling seminar on just this topic since 1996, and has written this book based on his experience teaching “Acting for Animators.” The good news is that he has now opened the discussion in booklength format, while the bad news is that he seems to have rushed in to write a very hurried treatment, leaving a reader a bit wanting.

There is plenty to glean from his pages, as he manages to describe enough innovations and useful practices from professional acting that should be applicable to animators. For instance, his advocacy of treating every scene as a status negotiation is noteworthy, and I liked his insistence that characters must never be doing nothing, or that a conflicted character is best portrayed as shifting between strong convictions rather than being ambivalent.

There are definitely enough good bits to make ACTING FOR ANIMATORS worthwhile, especially for students (and it’s a very reasonably priced book), but it comes with the understanding that Ed Hooks is not an animator, and thus does not make that crucial leap in ultimately applying his lessons to animation. 

He also brings up Laban movement theory, suggesting that it might be useful to animators, without really making a case that it does have a practical use, even conceding that it is “a largely unexplored subject for both animators and actors.”

Much of the accompanying CD-Rom further illustrates Laban theory and the results that can be gotten from improvisation. As with the book, the CD-Rom stays very much in the realm of acting by actors, never really crossing the bridge to acting by cartoons. The illustrations in this book are minimal, and they don’t help to convey or underscore the acting principles that are described.

In defense of Ed Hooks, he doesn’t promise any more than he offers. He is a theater professional, and he has chosen to inform animators about acting, which he does. Yet it is hard not to notice the depth to which animation is not really represented in this book, either with character poses or by the more informed voice of someone who has both acted andanimated.

One thing, though, remains constant and true after all these years, and Hooks again affirms it: who better for animators to watch for inspiration than the comics of silent cinema. For all the innovations that make silent film seem more and more distant from contemporary filmmaking, the performances of Chaplin and others continue to be a rich example for animators. Animation acting is a topic on which many more books deserve to be written.

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