June 6, 2007
Ed Hooks is an actor and acting coach who has been helping animators understand the importance of acting theory to improve their craft. He is also the author of Acting for Animators, the first book that was written solely on the subject and has taught the principles of the book to animators the world over.

He will be in Montreal on June 11 at Centre NAD to teach his Acting for Animators workshop. Ed was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him.

Tamu Townsend:
The first group you instructed were animators on the crew of Antz. How has your workshop changed since then? Besides all of the knowledge you have conferred to animators, what have they taught you and how has it affected your workshops and approach?

Ed Hooks: In 1998, Pacific Data Images had recently been acquired by DreamWorks and was in pre-production for its first feature, Antz. Ken Beilenberg, the Special Effects director, happened to be one of my students in my ongoing Palo Alto acting class for actors. One night after class, he asked me if I would be interested in teaching an acting class on-site for the animators at PDI [Pacific Data Images]. He explained that the animators at PDI were working on their first feature film, that they had previously only worked on commercials, and they needed acting training. I'm the kind of person who rarely says "no" to something, and so I agreed.

Mind you, I did not know squat about animation at that point. I knew I was a good acting teacher, but that was as far as it went. After that talk with Ken, I shortly thereafter wound up standing in front of a group of about 25 animators at PDI. I made the mistake of trying to teach them acting the same way I taught it in my acting-for-actors classes. I was arrogant enough to belive that there was only one way to teach actnng. I brought in scripts, had the animators get up and "cold read" them, assigned them scene partners and told them to go home and rehearse, to commit scenes to memory. By the third week, I had lost about half the class. That was when the Human Resources people at PDI took me to lunch.

"This isn't working, Ed," they explained.

"I can see that," I replied.

"But Ken says you are a good acting teacher and so, if you want to try something else, we'll keep paying you."

I went back to the animators and started all over again. "I know a lot about acting," I said, "But I obviously do not know much about animation. If you guys will tell me exactly what you do, I will do my best to bring what I know to bear on your work process." And so they sat me down at their computers and showed me what they did, which was an eye-opener to me.

I went back to the drawing board. How could I teach acting theory to people who did not, in fact, want to be actors? Very few animators even fantasized about appearing on Broadway or in a Robert DeNiro movie. Indeed, probably more than eighty percent of the animators were too shy to get up in front of people. This was a different situation than I faced in my regular acting classes for actors. I decided to teach the animators at PDI with a combination of lectures on basic acting theory, supported by clips from live-action movies.

That was how it all started. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. What I do today in my Acting for Animators workshops had its beginnings back there at PDI in 1998. I have expanded and refined on it, of course, but the basics of the class began there. Since those early days at PDI, I have taught for most of the major animation studios and game companies. Each time, I try to improve on what I did the last time.

A year or so after I taught for PDI/DreamWorks, I started looking for books that addressed the difference between actors and animators. There were none, and that is what led to Acting for Animators. To this very day, I continue to refine what goes on in the class, but I now have a concrete understanding of what animators do and how it differs from what stage actors do. I continue to teach stage actors but, when I teach animators, I essentially change hats. Actors operate in the "present moment"; animators, by contrast, do not really have a present moment. Animators have twenty-four-frames-make-a-second. Animators have the illusion of a present moment. One must therefore teach acting theory to actors in a different way than one teaches it to animators. I learned the lessson, with the help of PDI/DreamWorks, the hard way.

TT: Do you feel that animators that use different techniques - 3D, 2D, stop-motion - will get the same use from the course? Are there certain components that may speak more or be more important to one person because of the technique he or she uses?

EH: Acting theory is acting theory, and it doesn't matter what animation technique you use: it is all about storytelling, and the process is ancient, going all the way back to Aristotle. I teach that the origins of acting lie in shamanism. An actor steps in front of the tribe, draws a circle in the dirt and says, in effect, "Listen to me. I have something to tell you." The tribe gathers round, hoping to learn something about survival on earth. The story is everything. It doesn't matter if you are using 2D, 3D, stop motion or... whatever. If you have something useful to say to the tribe, it will be well taken. If you do not, it will not.

TT: Mark Mayerson would like to know, when you are doing talks at studios, if you make recommendations for keeping characters consistent given that multiple animators will be working with the same character. That's obviously a problem that live actors don't have to deal with.

EH: I recommend that, at the beginning of a project, the animation director establish a "character bible" that contains everything there is to know about each individual character. Usually, the character bible is a three-ring notebook. It contains drawings of the characters, biographies, descriptions, et cetera. All of the animators working on a particular character should refer back to that bible. It should be kept in some place that is open to the entire production team.

TT: Do you have a specific teaching experience you would like to share?

EH: One of my students- Sharon Coleman- received an Academy Award nomination in 2006. Ms. Coleman was in my class in Swansea, South Wales and again at the National Film School in the UK. I had the opportunity to monitor her progress, from initial idea all the way to final 2D execution of Badgered. I was fortunate to be able to give her advice at several different stages of development. Sharon is a brilliant storyteller and animator, currently working for DreamWorks in Los Angeles, but at that time she was a student. I am proud of my input into her project.

My worst experience would probably be at a game company- not to be named. I was hired to teach an Acting for Animators class and, before the class started, the company owner took me into his office to explain what he wanted. He showed me a sports video, a football thing. He explained that he had himself performed as a mo-cap [motion capture] performer for some of the crashes and falls. He wanted me to teach his animators to do "good acting" such as he was doing in his mo-cap suit. Oh, Jesus! The man was very nice, but he didn't have a clue about acting! Taking falls on-camera had nothing whatever to do with acting theory. I can remember grinning at him and assuring him that I would teach them how to do it right. Then I went into workshop and taught my regular class.

TT:After Montreal, where will you go next in 2007?

EH: For certain, I will be working at Swansea Animation Days in Swansea, South Wales, and at Animex in Teesside, England and at FMX in Stuttgart, Germany. It is looking like I will be going to Australia for the third time in late September. The last time I taught in Oz was for Animal Logic, which was at the time working on Happy Feet.

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