Group Culture through Shape, Posture and Gesture

April 8, 2023

Let's take a look at Croods: A New Age for a great example of how movement defines the culture of groups of people!

In this clip, you can see clear movement differences between the Croods and the Bettermans. The Croods are very Shape oriented, with Postures and Gestures integrating to form broad shape change. They sleep in a pile, where collectively they form one big, organic shape! This reflects their values of togetherness. They also inhabit more primitive movement patterns, such as running as quadrupeds or sitting in a squat.

The Bettermans value individuality, intelligence and the use of tools. Their movement appears more "contemporary" in comparison with the Croods. Their postures are upright, and they use more arm and hand gestures. In the scene that starts at 4:37, where Eep is playing up her cave-girl characteristics, Guy responds to her with more differentiated hand/finger gestures, and less postural integration with his gestures. Throughout the argument between the two families, even though the Croods are gesturing with hands, they do not individuate their fingers, and there is a sense that the whole body participates in each gesture. In contrast, the Bettermans do a lot of finger and hand gestures, and a smaller range of postural integration.

The theme of group vs. individual is the backbone of this film. What a great opportunity for storytelling through movement!

Action Analysis vs Laban Movement Analysis

October 11, 2022

There are many books, videos and resources that cover action analysis for animation. So how is Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) similar or different?

Let’s take a look at an abbreviated history of action analysis in animation. In the 1930’s, the Disney Studios brought in Don Graham to work with animators on the dynamics of movement in the real world, and how animators “caricature” both drawings and movement to bring animated characters to life, not just in terms of body mechanics, but towards character acting. The Principles of Animation were developed at this time, and further elaborated on by Walt Stanchfield, who continued the tradition of drawing and movement study at the studio.

Much of what was learned along the way has more to do with “body mechanics” than expression. It takes practice and skill to create characters that move like they’re made of flesh and bone in a world governed by the physics of gravity! Yes, animators learned to create characters with intent, as evidenced by so many fantastic animated performances we all know and love, but is there a clear way to explain how they do it?

Here’s one answer: creativity. All artists understand that their creativity is intuitive, pulled out of their soul. Artists learn to trust their creative intuition. Yet, one of the challenges of animation is that, at times, it can be 80% engineering and 20% inspiration. Sometimes the tech, math and logic of animating really puts a damper on creativity!

If you animate a character moving in a certain way, how do you know what the movement expresses? When you animate an action, you must consider how the character performs that action. What is the thought, feeling or emotion driving the way they carry out the action? The answer to this question comes from layers of context: the storyline, who the character is and who they are interacting with, and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what their objective is. Once you are clear about all of these details, you’re left to discover how to bring clear dynamic qualities into the movement that synthesize all of these contextual factors.

This is where we have moved beyond action analysis and towards acting - but what is the bridge between them?

What does the movement mean?

Laban Movement Analysis takes a layered approach based on the movement categories of Body, Effort, Shape, Space and Phrasing. In each category, there are links between the elements of movement and what is being expressed, clearly showing how movers express and how viewers receive the meaning of their movement. It is an open framework that factors in the contextual nature of movement. LMA resists being formulaic and embraces creative possibility.

Here’s an analogy of how elements of Body, Effort, Shape, Space and Phrasing can combine over time to form movement expression. Let’s consider how we mix colour: we have red, green and blue in varying amounts. Combine a lot of all three and you have white. Remove all three and you have black. Blend them unequally and you get more colours that transition between them, such as orange, yellow, teal and purple. Hue, saturation and value are terms that describe all of these variations. The categories of LMA are to movement as hue, saturation and value are to colour.

I call Laban Movement Analysis the “glue” between animating and acting!  It will not tell you which movement equals what emotion, but it WILL give you a way to explore it creatively, intuitively and bring it directly into the movement you are animating.


September 17, 2022

It’s back-to-school season and students are learning how to animate walk cycles! I was contemplating what we call the “personality walk,” where you learn to reflect a character’s “personality” in their walk.

Something about this doesn’t sit right with me. Does a walk cycle really reveal a character’s personality? I tend to think if anything, it shows their intention in the moment. LMA works with the theme of Function / Expression: movement is sometimes Functional, sometimes Expressive, and constantly ebbs and flows between these two purposes.

In this scene from Klaus, there’s a great example of an intentional and Expressive walk. Jesper’s goal is to keep the kid from throwing a snowball. The kid is a bit of a bully, so Jesper uses scare tactics to discourage him, while his movement is direct and confrontational. He uses his advantage as an adult, towering over the kid, as well as holding secret knowledge about Klaus.

His walk, both towards and away from the kid, has a kind of measured pace, lingering a bit on the up-swing of the leg before planting each foot. The arm swing lingers in time with the lingering steps, with a quick twist of the shoulders initiating the arms. Jesper uses confrontational Directness, Time and a swinging emphasis of Weight to take charge in this scene.

Often, the walk is merely a Functional way of getting from one place to another, and not expressive of the broad scope of a character’s personality. I would say that personality shows up through what Laban called the Movement Signature: characteristic patterns and habits that we see consistently throughout a character performance.

Consider The Usual Suspects (1995), where the villain Keyser Soze fakes the Movement Signature of a man with a limp to disguise his identity. The walking in this final scene from the film reveals the villain’s true identity through movement.

snow white's use of light weight

May 2, 2022

The various song and dance sequences throughout Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) provide good opportunities to observe Snow’s movement signature, which constitutes her baseline movement habits and characteristics.

I’ve been focusing on Weight Effort in previous posts, since movement qualities that convey weight are essential to create characters that appear to move in relationship to gravity, and to have inner intent that mobilizes the weight of the body. Strong weight involving forceful muscular action is easy to spot. Lightness is its polar opposite and is a key component of Snow White’s movement signature.

In this sequence, we see that Snow White’s soft delicacy and beautiful, high-pitched singing voice express her sweet, kind, happy and caring qualities. Her qualities of Lightness can be seen when she lifts her sternum to begin singing, reaching out her finger for the bird to perch on. With birds being very light-weight creatures, Snow supports the bird’s weight with a light buoyancy. As her sweet singing voice and gentle actions invite the woodland animals to come closer, she gently reaches out to pet them. The animals surrounding her mirror her Lightness as their hesitancy transitions to curiosity.

One of the creative goals for this film was to elevate animated movement to new levels of realism. Snow White was rotoscoped, meaning that an actor (Marge Champion) was filmed, and then traced frame-by-frame by the animators. A known artifact of rotoscoping is that, unless the animator takes some creative liberty to exaggerate the qualities of weight, the characters will not appear to be grounded. This same problem exists to some extent in the contemporary use of motion capture. I feel that the rotoscoping of Snow White slightly undermines the appearance of a clearer intention of Weight Effort. At the same time, both the Evil Queen and Snow White were rotoscoped, and it’s easy to see the Queen’s clear use of Strong Weight Effort, and weight in general, as part of her emphatically evil movement signature.

weight and culture in moana

February 19, 2022

I’ll never run out of ways to explore Weight in animation! In the song We Know The Way from Moana (2016), I really enjoy the way that Weight is part of the voyagers’ cultural movement signature. This song is about the culture’s sense of self as people who search across the oceans to find new lands they can call home.

Moana opens the scene with Strong and Sudden drum beats. As she listens to the sound echo through the cavern, her spatial awareness takes in the whole three-dimensional space, then focuses Directly on a single boat, in recognition that her ancestors were voyagers.

The song begins with a powerful drum beat as the boats crest a wave and come slamming down. Now, boats are not sentient beings, so their weight has no intention! The weight and movement of the boats is all physics, and the voyagers are in a constant dance of balance and adjustment to the boat’s constant gravitational changes. The movement of the boats and voyagers all happen on the beat, which is emphasized by rhythmic edits throughout the song.

As the chief starts to sing, he senses his own body weight with a bounce-like action, while visually scanning the horizon, indicating the horizontal plane, then the vertical axis, looking and gesturing up to the sky and down to the water. This establishes the rhythmic theme of Weight in relationship to Space. Later on he sings, “We know where we are, we know who we are.” The themes of Weight, Space and Time throughout express “Me/We, Here, Now.”

Throughout the song, the voyagers lean into the direction of travel, with wide stance rooted to the boat and sternum lifted forwards and up. Yes, it’s the physics of standing on a boat, but here, it seems like part of their cultural identity as voyagers, and as a people connected to their boats as they glide across the ocean towards the horizon. As they lean their weight into the direction of travel, there is strong spatial intent and spatial tension. They hold the ropes to stabilize, while pulling away, leaning against the pull. The wind tugs the sails, tilting the boat, and the voyagers counterbalance against the pull.

When they reach land, the chief jumps off the boat, landing in a strong, grounded moment on the drum beat. We are home. Here is our place.

(ps: I take requests! Send me some movement and I'll write a post!)

An ode to passive weight

February 12, 2022

Have a look at this captivating piece by choreographer/acrobat/designer Yoann Bourgeois! I’ve been appreciating this as a master work of Active and Passive Weight, and today I dug a little deeper. Reading the comments thread on this video reflects that people are making a variety of meanings from their emotional response to the movement. Work featured on his social media channels (links in comments) reveals an artist immersed in the illusion of weight. It’s important for animators because all weight in animation is an illusion!

For me, nothing reveals the expression of intention more than qualities of activating and releasing one’s weight.

Everything about how we handle and move our bodies happens in relationship to gravity. While the force of gravity is always pulling us towards the earth, our every waking moment is in constant activation against gravity.

Irmgard Bartenieff, one of Laban’s protégés known for bringing Laban Movement Analysis to North America, asks us to consider:

“What is the mover’s attitude towards the use of his/her body weight? What is the quality of the exertion of weight?”

She describes neutrality towards weight, when the body weight is muscularly supported, passive weight in which the body weight is unsupported and gives in to gravity, and activation of weight when an attitude towards the body weight overcomes passivity.

(Bartenieff and Lewis, “Body Movement: Coping with the Environment,” Gordon and Breach, 1980, pp. 55-56)

What speaks to us in this piece about the repeated phrases of releasing and activating weight is the association of the vertical with accomplishing a goal. Through many attempts, the summit is achieved! However, once the journey is over, there is a complete letting go of weight, until the mover arrives at the lowest point in the space. It is a powerful metaphor about the journey being the whole point, rather than the destination. We’ve all been there, so we engage in this metaphor, but how we engage is through our kinaesthetic empathy with recruiting, then releasing, the activation of weight. We know this experience of mobilizing our body weight so intimately, through the every day experience of simply initiating movement.

Winifred's weight in boxtrolls

February 3, 2022

I really enjoyed the character performances in the 2014 stop motion film Boxtrolls from Laika Studios. Continuing with the theme of Weight Effort, the character Winifred uses Strong Weight to create an impact and command others’ attention. Winifred is the daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, who is too preoccupied with cheese to pay any attention to her. Her character comes across as entitled and bratty. I interpret her demanding attitude, and the corresponding “fighting” aspects of her movement signature, as a plea for her fathers’ attention.

Weight, Time and Space Effort are all clear components of her movement signature, which she uses to command attention, with Strong, Sudden and Direct impact.

In this scene, Winifred is introduced to Eggs, a boy who is thought to have been kidnapped by the Boxtrolls. As he follows her through the market, she pretends to walk casually and not notice him, with Suspended steps that fall Suddenly with Strong Weight to the ground. She turns to glare at him Suddenly with Direct focus.

At 0:26 she surprises Eggs, demanding to know what he wants with a Strong, Sudden and Direct stare, hands clenched into fists and weight advancing forwards.

She becomes quite excited when she learns Eggs’ true identity. At 1:00, she says “Father didn’t believe me, but I KNEW it,” literally punching the air in an action that goes across the body to her left lower side.

This action combines Strong Weight, Sudden Time and Direct Space efforts together. When these three efforts are combined in a single action, they crystallize as the Punch configuration of the Action Drive. Many people are familiar with Laban’s Eight Effort Actions which constitute the Action Drive:

Float - Punch

Glide - Slash

Flick - Press

Dab - Wring

Now that’s a lot to get into, so stay tuned for more on the Action and other Drives in future posts!

Meanwhile, Winifred’s demanding impatience shows up one last time in this scene with Strong, Sudden and Direct when she insists, “Come back here,” pointing to the spot on the ground and putting her foot down.

Winifred’s use of Strong Weight and other Efforts is quite different from Luisa from Encanto (2021), described in previous posts. Luisa has superhuman muscular strength, and continuously carries out lifting tasks that require Strong Weight Effort. Winifred uses Strong Weight to assert herself in her interactions with others. I can imagine that her movement signature would evolve and lighten up once she outgrows the need to command attention.

Note: the original video went offline - this one has alternate voice acting.

encanto's luisa gives up!

January 23, 2022

Everyone understands that animated characters are illusions! The appearance of weight in motion influences our perception that characters are made of physical substance, and move with intention. Luisa’s movement signature reflects her super-human strength: her ability to lift really heavy stuff. For the animation of this character, it’s critical that weight is handled effectively through both bio-mechanics and expressive intent.

Luisa’s identity is deeply connected with her strength. Many women identify with her song Surface Pressure, and the fact that women handle so many burdens in their family and societal roles. I appreciated Luisa’s character design that portrays her as strong and beautiful. For these reasons, I was disappointed when Luisa’s weakening powers were handled in a comical way.

This short compilation of Luisa’s “cry baby” moments show Luisa as the polar opposite of how she is portrayed in Surface Pressure. Not only is she weak, but she seems out of character in her inability to handle this change. As she comes crying up the stairs (0:30) she relays that she can’t lift the donkeys, then senses her weakness by heaving and dropping her shoulders, and runs off crying. For me, the quickness of each action in this movement phrase doesn’t allow for a quality of Passive Weight to be fully realized. The quickness and her extreme crying are what make her comical here. When she tries to move the piano, again we see her give up with Passive Weight, then instantly burst into tears.

Everything about this character depends on how she expresses through qualities of weight.  I wish the story direction had treated the emotion of her weakness with more sensitivity, as I felt that I lost empathy with the character once she was made comical. I enjoyed the ending where Luisa’s sisters help her lift a heavy beam, and the story returns to using weight and support as a metaphor.

Luisa: i'm the strong one

January 15, 2022

Weight is a major topic in animation! This post focuses on Weight Effort in the character Luisa from the 2021 Disney feature Encanto. Luisa’s magical power is super-hero strength, which she applies to supporting the family. In the song Surface Pressure, she reveals her emotional struggle with the demands of her role.

Weight Effort is how you sense and adjust to the pulls of gravity, with Light - delicate, sensitive, buoyant and easy intention, or Strong - bold forceful powerful, determined intention. It’s easy to see that Luisa’s movement signature is dominated by Strong Weight Effort.

Throughout this song, Luisa repeatedly demonstrates one feat of strength after another while singing about her struggle to “handle every burden” the family gives her.  As she sings “Watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks,” (2:48), we see her struggle to manage the increasing weight she is carrying. This moment is the climax of the scene, and I feel that Strong Weight Effort has been animated with great clarity here.

What makes this stand out as Strong Weight Effort is that we see the struggle of exerting her strength. It’s not easy to do it this time. Starting at 2:32, the scene builds as more weight is piled on for five repetitions. Each repetition is a movement phrase, where more weight is added, she adjusts and balances the weight, and then re-exerts her Strength before more weight is added. With the last addition of weight, her arm slips and face grimaces with the determination of exerting Strong Weight Effort.

In the scene preceding this climax of Strong Weight, Luisa and Mirabel are floating in the clouds. Light Weight is used to represent her wish for “joy, or relaxation, or simple pleasure.” This scene reminded me of Rhapsody in Blue from Fantasia 2000, where the character called “Flying John,” burdened by his wife’s demands, expresses his wish to be free by flying through the clouds.

These films and scenes within them are great examples of how the movement expression of characters forms part of the metaphoric narrative in each story!

tango: time effort

January 10, 2022

Time Effort is all about intuitive decisions concerning “when.” This tango has very few slow moments, however you can feel a sense of lingering and gradual acceleration or deceleration: Sustained. Not only are the fast moments very Sudden, but there is a sense of urgency. The challenge of understanding Time Effort is letting go of how we think of the measurements of time and speed, and think instead of the qualitative feeling of time.