Busy doing nothing

Add life to your secondary characters in ways that enhance your animation rather than detract from it.

A common issue that I see in TV animation and student work are secondary, or background, characters who appear lifeless.

TV deadlines are tight and, in order to create the strongest performance in the time available, it’s common to devote most of the time to the main character in a shot. On the whole, this is a sensible strategy. The main character, the one who is talking or is the main focus of the shot, will draw the eye of the audience to the point where secondary characters can largely go unnoticed.

The problem comes when too little time is allocated to these secondary characters.

When animators are short on time, these characters may end up with just a few blinks or a stock idle cycle added to “give them life”. Unfortunately, these quick solutions to give a character life can, more often, come across as robotic and lifeless. When handled badly, these lifeless characters can actually draw the eye away from the main focus of the shot.

A common complaint

Whilst the solution may seem obvious (spend more time animating the secondary characters), a common complaint that I hear from junior animators is that the characters don’t have anything to do.

TV animation is often plagued by exposition. Characters will stand around in a group discussing the story. What just happened, what is happening, what is going to happen next!

In these situations, the main character will have dialogue and this is straightforward enough to animate. The problem comes with knowing what to do with the other characters who just seem to be standing around.

Nobody ever does nothing

The trick to knowing how to handle secondary characters is coming to the understanding that, in life, nobody ever does nothing.

Even when someone appears to be standing around doing nothing, something is still going on.

Depending upon the character, their situation, and their personality, they might be listening, thinking, or reacting.

The degree to which this is obvious will be heavily dependent on the character and, what many people miss is, this is an excellent opportunity to show the personality of the character in a subtle way.

If the character is listening, make sure their attention is clearly on the character who is talking. If the main character moves, the secondary character’s focus will need to follow them.

When a character listens, they will also be thinking. Depending upon the situation, they might be thinking about what they are hearing, what they are going to say, or what they’d like for lunch.

The biggest giveaway that time has not been devoted to the secondary characters is a lack of reactions. If the main character says or does something significant but the secondary characters stand around blinking lifelessly, all believability is lost.

Reactions can, and should, be subtle, you don’t want to draw attention from the main character in the shot. You just need to react enough to make you character seem believably alive and do so in a way which is consistent with their personality.

The other element to consider is the situation. Have the characters just been running from something? Are they out of breath, tired, or scared? Consider how factors such as these might affect their pose, thoughts, or reactions.

A challenge

Many animators see animating the secondary characters as a chore. Something to be rushed through so they can focus on the main performance of the shot.

The trick is to realise that the secondary characters present their own acting challenge. How to create the illusion of life in a subtle and non-distracting way.

Handled well, the animation of secondary characters will both support the main performance of the shot whilst also subtly showing the personality of those secondary characters.

Inbetweens by Into Animation

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