Studying underacting

Posted by Michael on June 17th, 2006, in Development

Bogart & Bacell in Key Largo

Perhaps underacting is a form of stylisation that can help us limit the amount of hand-crafted character animations that we need. For this purpose, I studied Humphrey Bogart’s and Lauren Bacall’s acting in Key Largo with the sound off.

Here’s some observations that don’t necessarily apply to underacting as such but perhaps to human behaviour in general.


A very inspiring thing regarding idle behaviour -which came up a few times before in this journal- was that I noticed that an real actor doesn’t have a neutral pose. He does a certain motion and then freezes in the end pose of this movement. Later he does another motion that ends in another pose.

This could be translated to virtual actors if, rather than blending out of and into a neutral stance in between actions (which most games, including The Endless Forest, default to), at the end of an action, an idle animation is played that pauses in a certain pose (with a loop for subtle motion so the characters don’t look frozen). Then when another action is chosen, the idle motion continues to play to its end while the action animation blends in. In theory, there would still be a neutral stance at the end of the idle motion and at the beginning of the action, but it would disappear in the transition, or at least be displayed only for a very short time.

Walking speed is used for expression: slowing down means attention, speeding up means enthusiasm or urgency.

In 8 and in The Endless Forest, the character walks fast if the target is far away and slow if it is closeby, thus ignoring the expressive potential of walking speed.

When something happens, e.g. when someone talks to the actor, the actor’s body does not respond immediately. He sits there motionless and we think he’s listening. Only a little later does he turn his head towards the event.

When a third person arrives, the actor looks at her and steps back a little to make room for her in the circle of the conversation.

When the actor looks down briefly during an interaction, it expresses thought or (mild) embarassment.

When an actor stays in the same pose while another is talking, he seems to be listening, even if he doesn’t look at the other. In fact, not looking seems like he’s listening more intently.

When several actors are in a scene, the viewer pays attention to the one who does the action, more or less ignoring all the others.

Bogart almost never holds his head straight. It’s always a little cocked. At least when he’s sitting or standing still.

When a woman touches her hair in the company of a man, it expresses romantic interest.

An actor can be standing still until he is spoken to. Then he moves into another pose (hands in back, e.g.).

When a shock happens, the actor changes pose as well.

When the actor is still in a pose and wants to move, he will first look elsewhere.

The actor stands still when listening and wobbles when talking, especially when starting to talk.

Just staring at somebody without moving and without facial expression expresses hatred. When the eyes are wide open, it expresses aggression.

Unrelated to actors but interesting nonetheless: a slow ventilator expresses heat. :)

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