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2016 Oscar Nominations: Feature Animation Acting Analysis

This year’s Oscar nominees cover a broad range, from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s adult stop motion Anomalisa, about which we could provide an entire book, and Alê Abreu’s enchanting fantasy Boy and the World, a movie with equally solid acting.

Pixar’s Inside Out is the most expensive and ballyhooed film in contention because it is, well, a Pixar movie. It is a visual delight and includes some solid acting, particularly with the character Joy. Its mash-up screenplay structure, however, with parallel casts of characters – the human family plus the five emotions – get in the way of what probably might have been stronger performances, and we’ll talk about that.

Two other esteemed animation studios also have films in contention: Aardman and Studio Ghibli. Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie is a gag-driven film that is episodic in form, while Ghibli is represented by When Marnie Was There, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who for years was one of Hayao Miyazaki’s lead animators.

In writing about these movies, I hope to provide a teaching moment. I am an acting teacher and, in what I hope is the most constructive sense of the word, a film critic. I am not a reviewer, and I have zero interest in predicting this weekend’s Oscar winner.


Some animators believe that formal acting theory is too restrictive and has no place in their art. I disagree, of course, and will try to prove my case in these notes. Constantin Stanislavski’s system of acting follows the Aristotelian idea that, “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of action.”

Expressed more simply by Mr. Stanislavski, acting is doing, and what the actor is doing should be in pursuit of a provable objective. If, for example, you want to go to London, you will know whether or not you got there, right? Going to London is therefore a valid theatrical objective. You could not have as an objective “I want to be happy” because that is not provable. You will never come to a point where you say, “I am as happy as I ever can be. Objective achieved.” Hold that thought in your mind: A viable theatrical objective must be provable.

There is a difference between regular, everyday reality and theatrical reality. In regular reality, you show one hundred percent of everything. What you see at the supermarket or mall is regular reality, and nobody wants to pay admission to watch it. Theatrical reality has to do with storytelling, and you show only the parts of reality that are essential to the story or to illuminate a character’s motives.

At root, the theatrical experience is where actors and audience get together at the same place and time, for a common purpose. They pretend together. The audience is a participant in the theatrical transaction, not a lurker. When you animate a character, you are saying to the audience, in effect, “This is what I personally understand about how this character is surviving.” When they laugh or cry, they are saying to you, “Thank you! I never looked at it like that.”

The final essential element to keep in mind is conflict-obstacle. A lot of animation that I watch lacks conflict-obstacle. Happy characters doing happy things with no conflict-obstacle are not theatrically valid. There are three kinds of possible conflict: (1) conflict with self; (2) conflict with the situation; (3) conflict with another character. At least one of those should be present, and you can have more than one at a time. In the following notes, when I say that a sequence is “theatrically valid,” that means the character is playing an action in pursuit of a provable objective, while overcoming an obstacle.



Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

The reason acting theory works the way it does is because we act to survive. The operative word in that sentence is “act.” Contrary to what many animators have been taught, it is not enough to merely endow a character with an illusion of life and to make certain it is displaying emotion. Yes, we empathize with emotion, but humans are hard-wired to act to survive. An audience wants to know what the character is going to do about feeling the way he does. Acting is doing.

This is why the acting in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa satisfies most if we do not make too much of the lead character’s psychological disorder, Fregoli Delusion-Syndrome. As soon as you attribute a person’s behavior solely to a disease or affliction (alcoholism is a good example, PTSD is another), the theatrical value decreases because her choices in life are being at least partially controlled by the disorder.

I suspect that is why Mr. Kaufman plays loosely with Fregoli Syndrome, the rare mental disorder in which the afflicted person believes that different people around him are all the same person, in disguise. If the lead character, Michael Stone, requires treatment for Fregoli Syndrome, then we can’t really hold him responsible for his behavior, and we are left at final credits with little thematic take-away.

The most theatrically satisfying prism through which to consider this movie is that Michael Stone is struggling rather unsuccessfully with the Big Questions. He is suffering from depression and existential angst – the notion that life lacks meaning because, after all, we are dying a little bit every day, and death is forever. In this light, the fact that all but one of the characters in the movie looks and sounds the same becomes a poetic metaphor rather than a literal symptom of the disorder. Haven’t we all been there? Haven’t we all had the feeling, at one time or another, that routine conversation surrounding us is inherently banal? That today looks the same as yesterday and the day before and the day before that?

The acting in Anomalisa is consistently excellent in form. Michael Stone, the lead character in this movie is deeply conflicted about what he is doing with his life, and that conflict informs his behavior. His emotions are raging, but they are driving him to take actions that his work will not permit. Therefore, he must deny his emotions rather than obey them, which is theatrically interesting.

Selected Scenes

:00 – 3:45 Michael is a passenger on an airplane that is landing in Cincinnati. He does not want to be there. His work as a writer requires that he be there. Therefore, what we see is theatrically valid: His objective is to give a lecture in Cincinnati, on the subject of improving customer service. His action is physically going to Cincinnati, checking into a hotel, getting to the lecture hall, and so on – all of which is in pursuit of his objective of giving the lecture. He is in conflict with himself and his situation because he would rather be doing something else with his life, something more meaningful. During the first forty-five seconds of the film, we hear an over-amplified, jumbled-dialogue audio-dialogue track, establishing – almost violently – that Michael is an emotionally disturbed man that would like to block out the ambient sounds of the world.

20:18 After settling into his hotel room for the evening, Michael calls old flame, Bella. What is his objective when he makes this call? We cannot know for certain. Does he hope to have sex with her? Throughout the film, Michael’s objectives are vague, which contributes to the impression that he is emotionally flailing.

25:29 Michael embraces Bella just a little too hungrily when she enters the lounge. She does not reciprocate, remains physically tense. It’s been eleven years. This awkward hug is an example of a “status transaction.” We negotiate personal space in life, reserving close physical proximity for intimates. When Michael pushes in to embrace her, he violates her space. Note the intense emotional impact this interaction has on the audience.

27:08 Bella impulsively adjusts her sweater so that it conceals her suddenly-vulnerable hands. In acting, this kind of move is called a “psychological gesture,” which is defined as a gesture that speaks to a deeper psychological truth. This can be a powerful acting device because our sense of sight is so much more powerful than our sense of hearing. What the audience sees overrides everything else.

27:09 – 29:52 What is Bella’s objective? Why did she agree to meet Michael at the hotel? As is the case with Michael, Bella’s objective is un-clear, almost exploratory.

31:37 Michael over-reacts (“Fuck! Fuck!”) when he discovers that the shower water is too hot. This is an indication of emotional repression. In general, he is maintaining a calm exterior demeanor as he goes about his daily business. Inside, however, he is boiling, and the inner volatility explodes at unexpected moments, like here in the shower.

32:45 The acting in this sequence is fascinating. Preparing to shave, Michael looks into the bathroom mirror and sees himself literally falling apart. He hears non-existent female voices in the other room. He panics, hyper-ventilates, grabs wildly for clothes, trying to regain control. The more he tries to control, the worse the situation is. He trips over his pants and falls on his face at the foot of the bed. He runs out of room, down the hall, knocking wildly on doors, looking for the women he thought he heard from the bathroom. This is an emotional collapse, pure and simple. The fact that it could be so clearly enunciated with stop-motion puppets is frankly amazing. It is hard enough to do this kind of thing with a talented live-actor.

37:00 Bar scene with Emily and Lisa. Take a close look at Lisa’s behavior. She chatters non-stop, a sign of anxiety and self-doubt. This sequence exposes a limitation of stop-motion puppets because she should have a “high” power center, and that is extremely difficult to manifest with a puppet. Anxiety manifests itself as a feeling of weightlessness, a sense that you are not anchored securely to the ground. A person with a high power center will tend to over-gesticulate.

44:05 Note the long eye-contact between Michael and Lisa. Actors have a saying: “If two characters make eye contact for ten seconds or longer, they are either going to fight or make love.” At this moment of eye-contact, both characters have a solid objective: to make love.

48:17 Lisa sings “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” What is her objective? How does she expect Michael to respond to her standing in his hotel room, singing? This is an extremely interesting acting moment because there is so much un-spoken communication between the two of them.

1:14:15 Michael presents his lecture. By this point in the story, Michael feels like he is a human robot. He is totally disconnected from his own emotions. The acting note is to observe how hard he tries to present an image of normalcy. He does not want the attendees to know how far gone he is emotionally, and so he “acts normal,” the best that he can. Human behavior is interesting in the way that an iceberg is interesting: Only fifteen percent of an iceberg appears above the water line. Eighty-five percent is underwater, out of sight. We think we know one another based on what we see – but we really do not.



Directed by Alê Abreu

Much of the acting in this movie works because of status negotiations. We negotiate status all the time in life, even when we are not aware of it. Eye contact is a status negotiation, for instance, as is personal physical space. When you go to a restaurant, the waiter takes your order, but he doesn’t physically touch you. That is a status transaction. When you hold the door open so another person can enter first, that is a status transaction. With this in mind, consider status transactions from the perspective of a seven-year old child, which is the situation in this movie. Among adults, you feel pretty powerless, right?

The story of Boy and the World features a boy searching for his father in a hostile world, and it is told from the boy’s point of view. All of his interactions with adults are one-sided, with the adult having the position of authority. This is true even when the adult is a stranger. To a seven-year old, the entire world is high status, and he acts accordingly. This is why, in scene after scene, the Boy stands and watches what is happening – soldiers marching, workers being abused, people going hungry – without doing anything. As a child, there really is nothing he can do except live in a world that is created by adults. And that is the point of the movie.

The dialogue in the film is designed to be incomprehensible, leaving the audience to decipher characters’ intentions solely from their action. The energetic musical score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat functions as an additional sort of language, as well as providing a mood for the boy’s adventure. The animation looks like a creative kid did it with a box of crayons, a paper pie plate and a plastic ruler. The color palette and crazy-quilt design is often as whimsical and as imaginative as anything you might find pinned to a kindergarten bulletin board.

Selected Scenes

2:25 Cuca studies a colorful rock he finds. AN ACTING NOTE REGARDING BLINKS: Only three blinks per minute are necessary to physically take care of the human eyeball. All the other blinks are calibrated to thoughts. When you complete a thought, you blink, even before you express that thought in words. When someone talks to you, the pattern of your blinking is an indicator of your interest and comprehension. In this movie, the boy’s eyes are depicted by a vertical solid line. When he blinks, the line quickly compresses and then returns to its vertical state, and it is accompanied by a very slight “click” sound. This means that we can continually follow what Cuca is thinking. Alê Abreu’s use of blinking in this movie is simultaneously simple and brilliant. He establishes the boy’s blinking-thinking-comprehension pattern during the first three seconds of his appearance in the film.

5:30 Cuca plays alone, pretending he is running among the clouds. A diesel truck exhaust pipe protrudes into the white clouds, belching black smoke, turning the clouds grey. The boy stares. Note that he does not blink. He doesn’t get this bit yet about how fossil fuels create environmental pollution.

7:00 Cuca’s father leaves home to find work in the city. The boy is devastated, clings to his dad’s leg. Acting-wise, his objective could not be clearer, and his action in pursuit of that objective is to physically try to restrain the man from leaving. He has conflict with his situation, because he is a powerless child.

16:40 Cuca, lugging his packed suitcase late at night, begins the journey in search of his father. Objective: Find dad and bring him home. Action: Catch the train that dad caught. Conflict-Obstacle: I’m a child.

18:35 Cuca wakes up in an unfamiliar place, a makeshift tent. A migrant farmworker has discovered him, alone on the train platform, and has taken him in. Note how the boy instantly trusts the adult to take care of him.

28:00 Farm workers are inspected by a slick farm boss. He rejects the sick and frail workers, including Cuca’s kind host. The boy silently watches the process. He blinks.

35:00 Factory worker montage. Rhythmic and almost musical, the factory workers are, in fact, individual men, each of whom is pursuing an objective (get paid), playing an action (work the machine), and overcoming obstacle (stuck in a blue-collar cycle of poverty). Remember, we in the audience are literally seeing all of this through the eyes of a child. We feel powerless.

1:00:30 Cuca thinks he sees his father getting off a a train, and he races to embrace the man. Before he can reach the man, however, he notices (…blink…) that there are many men getting off the same train. They all look exactly like his dad. ACTING NOTE: Actions are literal. The theatrical interpretation of an action may well be metaphoric. Cuca truly does think for a moment that he sees his father getting off the train. The file of identical men getting off the train is the director’s POV. He is saying that there are many men like Cuca’s dad, maybe as many as a generation of them.



Directed by Pete Docter

The story being told is the justification for the characters telling it. That is why an acting analysis cannot fully be isolated from story analysis. In the case of Inside Out, an unusual story structure highlights a behind-the-scenes challenge for the way that Pixar rather famously develops its scripts.

In an article that Pixar president Ed Catmull wrote for Fast Company, he explained it like this:

The Braintrust developed organically out of the rare working relationship among the five men who led and edited the production of Toy Story…They were funny, focused, smart, and relentlessly candid when arguing with each other. [T]he Braintrust evolved from a tight, well-defined group working on a single film into a larger, more fluid group. Over the years, its ranks have grown to include…directors, writers, and heads of story — whose only requirement is that they display a knack for storytelling… We believe that the most promising stories are not assigned to filmmakers but emerge from within. With few exceptions, our directors make movies they have conceived of and are burning to make.

This is a marvelous setup if a director does indeed have a story that he or she “is burning to make.” In the case of Inside Out, however, Pete Docter did not have a story to tell. He was intrigued with his own daughter’s emotional development, and that fascination is essentially what the studio greenlit.

In the same article, Mr. Catmull describes a braintrust session for Inside Out before it had that title. At that point, it was called “Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind.” Catmull wrote:

Earlier, before the screening, Pete had described what they’d come up with so far. ‘What’s inside the mind?’ he asked his colleagues. ‘Your emotions—and we’ve worked really hard to make these characters look the way those emotions feel. We have our main character, an emotion called Joy, who is effervescent. She literally glows when she’s excited. Then we have Fear. He thinks of himself as confident and suave, but he’s a little raw nerve and tends to freak out. The other characters are Anger, Sadness—her shape is inspired by teardrops—and Disgust, who basically turns up her nose at everything. And all these guys work at what we call Headquarters.’

What Docter had was colorful character description. A story to tell generally has a form like this: “Once there was a person named ______ who set out to accomplish ________. But, one day, ________happened, which caused ________a lot of trouble. Finally, ______ was able to achieve/fail at reaching his/her original objective.” Even after the input of the braintrust, Inside Out still barely fits that paradigm.

Inside Out employs a mash-up screenplay construction that features two parallel casts of characters: (1) the human cast, featuring 10-year old Riley and her parents and (2) a cast of five emotions, Joy, Sad, Anger, Fear and Disgust. From an acting perspective, the dual casts are problematic. One character will stub her toe, and another one says “Ouch!” The protagonist in the film really ought to be Riley; instead, the emotion Joy is the protagonist. There is not an antagonist at all. So the human cast is sort of carried along in the narrative like so much baggage. Riley is a passive character until the third act, when she steals her mother’s credit card and tries to take a bus back to Minnesota.

The screenplay structure is episodic when the focus is on Riley, very much like a season of episodes in a television show. You could even put titles on them: “Riley Is Born,” “Riley’s Parents Show That They Love Her,” “Riley’s Family Moves to San Francisco,” “Riley Explores Her New House,” “Riley Has A Vivid Dream,” “Riley’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad First Day At Her New School,” and so on. To the degree that there is a big story in the screenplay, it involves Joy and Sadness being separated from Control Central in Riley’s head and their efforts to return. This non-story significantly affected the animators’ abilities to craft performances in the film.

Selected Scenes

2:45 Riley cries, an emotion attributed to Sadness. More accurately, the pertinent emotion is probably anger. Infants generally want something when they cry. Like, for instance, maybe her diaper is wet, or she has a stomach-ache. Sadness often manifests itself in tears, it is true, but rarely with the tears of infantile protest that we see here.

3:50 “Riley, if you don’t eat your dinner, no dessert.” Cut to emotion, Anger, responding to dessert threat. He (yes, Anger is a male in this movie, even in a female child) pushes volume control levers with both hands, causing her to howl like crazy. Acting-wise, Anger has an objective and an action, but he has no obstacle. There is nothing preventing him from pushing the levers.

4:20 – 5:56 Joy takes us – the audience – on a tour of Riley’s brain. Note that there is zero conflict-obstacle for Joy. She is charming, happy, energetic, bright, a\nd very likeable. But what she is doing during this minutes-and-a-half is not technically “acting.” A happy character doing happy stuff with no conflict-obstacle is not theatrically valid.

7:22 A “sold” sign is planted in front yard. Cut to moving van departing house and begin cross-country moving montage. All five emotions are alarmed when the “Sold” sign appears, and they react emotionally. ACTING NOTE: Emotions are not actable. Acting is doing. Emotion tends to lead to action. The audience empathizes with emotion, but it wants to know what the character intends to do about feeling that way.

12:20 – 15:38 Joy tries to cheer up Sad, unsuccessfully of course because Sad is obsessively – and by definition – sad. Joy’s effort is theatrically valid. She has an objective (make Sad happy), and there are actions in pursuit of that objective. She has conflict with her situation. She would have conflict with another character if Sad was more aggressively defending her right to be sad. Then we would have an argument, with each character playing objectives. Instead of that, Sad in this section is passive, non-aggressive. Ideally, both characters would be able to answer the “What are you doing?” question. However, if you ask Sad the question, she does not have a theatrically valid answer.

20:00 – 26:47 Riley’s first day of school. She introduces herself to the rest of the class and is overcome with sadness. Cut to Riley’s brain, and we discover that Sad has touched the memory. Apparently, Sad had no particular objective when she touched the memory. This is consistently a problem for this character, probably because sadness is a kind of “shut down” emotion, causing one not to want to do anything. When Riley turns sad, Joy starts trying to reverse the course, pounding on the master control in Riley’s brain. Conflict is between the emotions. Riley herself is purely reactive to whatever the emotions do, a passenger in the scene.

26:47 At the family dinner table, Riley is depressed. ACTING NOTE: Depression is a dreadfully difficult thing to act, whether in live-action or animation, because it is very often a “shut down” impulse. The urge is to do nothing at all. Yet, the audience wants to see what the character is going to do. When, therefore, you have a depressed character in a story, it is a good idea not to linger there. The longer a character hangs out on screen depressed, the more likely it is that your audience will start to emotionally withdraw. With Joy and Sad missing, Riley is left with only Anger, Fear and Disgust as expressive emotion during dinner. Riley gets angry at her father, who then sends her to her room. This sequence is strong, acting-wise. What makes it interesting is that nobody at the dinner table is expressing what he or she is really thinking. Each of them would have the objective of having a happy dinner, but none of them know how to achieve that, and so the actions do not fit the objectives. This is my personal favorite sequence in the film because it best captures the complexity in our human emotions.

37:35 – 40:45 Bing-Bong is introduced and starts leading Joy and Sad back to headquarters. There is no obstacle-conflict in this three-minute sequence.

45:19 – 46:52 Riley tries out for the hockey team. This is an interesting sequence acting-wise because, as was the case at the dinner table sequence earlier, the characters are not expressing honest thoughts. Riley’s anger is causing her to behave in ways that are counter-productive to her own well-being. The given acting objective is that Riley wants to win a place on the team. The actions in pursuit of that objective involve her suiting up and getting on the ice. She has conflict with herself. There is so much conflict, in fact, that she fails to achieve her objective.

48:33 – 49:38 Sad comforts Bing Bong. This is Sad’s finest acting moment in the movie so far. Up until now, the character has tended to mope and droop and be a burden for Joy. Now, for the first time, Sad has a clear and provable objective, namely to help Bing Bong feel better. She sits beside him and commiserates with his sadness. Listening intently, while not physically active, is a viable acting action.

52:06 – 59:42 Joy, Sad, and Bing Bong attempt to wake up Riley. This almost eight-minute sequence is theatrically valid because each of the characters consistently has a provable objective, is playing actions in pursuit of that objective, and there is plenty of conflict. None of it advances the story, though.

1:00:40 – 1:19:46 Riley steals her mom’s credit card and runs away from home. Her plan is to catch a bus back to Minnesota. This is all theatrically valid, with objectives, actions and obstacles.



Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

This is a corny, good-natured gag-fest without much on its mind. It is episodic in form. There are a few – very few – sequences that merit discussion from an acting perspective. The problem with physical gags is that they usually do not evoke empathy in the audience.

A distinguishing characteristic of children’s animation is that the objectives are shorter-term, and the conflict-obstacle is manageable. For a six-year old, an objective might be to get a box of sugar-cookies off the top shelf in the kitchen cupboard. Dragging over a chair to stand on is an action in pursuit of that objective, and she has conflict with her situation because she is physically short. It is a struggle to reach the cookies, and her attempts to do it would be theatrically valid.

If you freeze-frame her and ask, “What are you doing?” she would say, “My objective is to get the cookies; my action in pursuit of that objective is to pull the chair over and stand on it; my obstacle-conflict is that I’m a kid, physically small and can’t reach the top shelf.”

The entirety of Shaun the Sheep Movie is based on this kind of low-stakes transaction. The setup is that Shaun and his sheep-mates take a day off from farm work, accidentally send the farmer (conveniently named Farmer) careening into the city center, and then must go into town themselves in order to bring him back home.

Selected Scenes

12:00 – 15:50 Bitzer the dog attempts to wake up Farmer, who is sleeping inside the trailer. When the trailer starts rolling down the hill, Bitzer has a fresh objective, namely to catch it.

17:30 – 19:15 Farmer in hospital. Doctors diagnose him with “memory loss” because of that knock on the head. This sequence might have been more interesting if Farmer was actively fighting off the doctors, feeling threatened and more disoriented by them. Then, at least, the doctors, who already had an objective of providing a diagnosis, would have had some conflict-obstacle to work with.

22:50 – 26:45 A new character, the Animal Containment Officer (ACC), is introduced. This fellow will henceforth function as the villain in the narrative because his goal is to capture and imprison all the animals.

16:50 – 29:00 Bitzer dresses up in medical scrubs and enters the hospital to find Farmer. He is mistaken for an actual doctor and escorted into an operating room to operate on a human patient. This entire 12-minute sequence is nothing more than episodic gags. It adds little to the story.

38:05 – 40:30 Another new character, a “Famous Celebrity,” is introduced. He is in need of a haircut. The acting in this sequence is range-of-the-moment. There are no larger objectives at all, just gags, one after another. Famous Celebrity is a numbingly lame character that is never developed beyond the surface. He never acts at all in this movie, not even for a moment.

46:00 – 50:00 All the other sheep break Shaun and Bitzer out of prison, literally pulling down the jail wall in the process. Theatrically valid because they have provable objective (get Shaun and Bitzer out of jail) and actions in pursuit of that objective, plus conflict with their situation as well as conflict with another person, ACC.

52:30 -53:00 Due to the head injury, Farmer does not recognize Shaun and chases him away from the hair salon. Acting-wise, this is the most emotionally effective moment in the film. Farmer is, to Shaun, a father figure. When Farmer does not know him, Shaun is sincerely hurt. His reaction evokes strong empathy in the audience.

53:00 The sheep are homeless and living on the street. ACC takes Super Weapon out of its storage case, determined to catch the sheep. He has had this objective since he was first introduced. Now the objective is on steroids, causing him to strongly ramp up actions in pursuit of that objective. In other words, the movie is now in its third and final act.



Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

The central narrative of When Marnie Was There, concerns a twelve-year old girl that feels sorry for herself. She is trying to figure out her true identity and coming to terms with her self-worth. This kind of introspective story is difficult to analyze for performance because the main character is quite often left standing, watching, waiting, thinking, worrying, and trying to figure out what to do next.

Acting, never forget, is doing! It is not like she has embarked on a journey and must contend with definable obstacles. There is no journey and no antagonist in the movie other than the girl’s struggle with her own demons. The resolution is delivered in a five-minute, third act voice-over narrative.

Anime, at its Studio Ghibli best, does not spoon-feed an audience. There is a lot of stillness in it, the kind of moments that Hayao Miyazaki refers to as “ma,” and the audience does some of the work, filling in the mental and emotional blanks. We empathize with emotion and, if an animated character does not move at all for a couple of seconds, we endow that character with emotional content while simultaneously empathizing.

Aesthetically, therefore, the theatrical negotiation between actor and audience in an anime movie is fascinating because both parties have to do their part in order for it to work. In the case of When Marnie Was There, the audience must do a lot of heavy lifting.

Selected Scenes

6:15 – 11:40 Concerned about her asthma, Anna’s guardian aunt sends her to stay for a while with relatives at the seashore. There is very little structured acting during this five-minute section. Anna is passively going along with what the adults are organizing.

25:00 – 29:30 This sequence evokes sympathy rather than empathy. Anna wants to be alone. Instead, to please her hosts, she goes to a local Festival and winds up insulting a neighborhood girl. Then she runs away, alone, weeping. ACTING NOTE: “Empathy” literally means “feeling into;” “sympathy” literally means “feeling for.” An animator’s job is to create in the audience a sense of empathy for the character. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, the actor should “hold the mirror up to nature.” In other words, the actor or, in this case, the animator, should try to show the audience members a mirror of themselves. We feel sorry for Anna, but it is difficult to relate to what is going on in her mind.

38:00 – 40:10 Put your focus on the Marnie character in this sequence, as the girls rowboat across the bay. Note how other-worldly Marnie seems. Ask yourself why you have that impression. Her clothing is out of date and out of place, for one thing. She is wearing a flowing, pristine frock while Anna is dressed as a tomboy. Second, note that Marnie’s eyes are rather blank. She stares. And she doesn’t blink in the right places. Blinking, as I explained earlier for Boy and the World, is correlated to thoughts. Marnie is disturbingly out of sync with herself and with our subliminal sense of what a “normal” thought process should be. The filmmaker has gone to a lot of trouble to blur the boundaries between reality and Anna’s dream life, a distinction that is no doubt intended to be poetic. The actual effect, however, is sort of disorienting.

48:55 – 50:43 Anna and Marnie dance in the yard, under the moonlight. Again, note that Marnie seems more like an inflatable doll than a real person.

A new family moves into the Marsh Mansion. The daughter in the new family discovers Marnie’s diary. Anna reads a couple of entries, one of which describes the front-yard dance she and Anna shared. The narrative is playing around with time, causing confusion. From Anna’s perspective, the front-yard dance was in a dream. However, in Marnie’s diary, it is reality. The problem in terms of acting is that nobody is really doing anything. Mainly, they are reacting to one mysterious, unexplainable event after another.

1:07:10 – 1:09:00 Anna tells Marnie that her foster parents are receiving a government subsidy to pay for her care. “They don’t really care about me. They’re just getting paid to take care of me.” This information would be more effective if somehow enunciated through character action rather than character talk.

1:24:35 – 1:25:30 Anna has had a traumatic experience in the abandoned silo. She and Marnie separated for good afterward. Now, in this sequence, watch Anna out on the porch. When she turns around, facing the camera, note that she appears more grown up. Her internal rhythm has changed, her voice register is slightly lower. She has advanced from “girl” to “woman.” Miyazaki did this same kind of thing with Chihiro in Spirited Away. As she developed more self-confidence, Miyazaki literally gave her a larger head. It was imperceptible unless you were looking for it, but it was very clever.

1:26:00 – 1:31:09 “It was a very long time ago….” During this five-minute section, all of the various relationships we have been watching in the movie are explained in a voice-over narration. This is an extraordinarily weak way of telling and concluding a cinematic story. First rule of filmmaking: “Show. Don’t tell.”

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  • sjur

    Thanks for explaining why Marnie was such a weak film. Beautiful visually, but hollow inside.

    I hope Anomalisa wins this year!

  • andrew osmond

    Re the end of Marnie, Hooks says: “During this five-minute section, all of the various relationships we have been watching in the movie are explained in a voice-over narration. This is an extraordinarily weak way of telling and concluding a cinematic story.”

    I’ve looked at the section again and it seems fine to me. It’s not ‘explaining’ any of the relationships (and certainly not the film’s central one); rather, it’s filling us in on one’s character’s past. And there’s plenty of decent on-screen acting in the flashbacks in this sequence, IMO. If Hooks is suggesting that extended voice-overs are anathema to good screen storytelling, there are loads of live-action counter-examples, ranging from The Apartment to Trainspotting (the opening sequences in each).

    • Chris

      Yes, but at the end of the story, and audience wants to see the resolution acted out, not explained. Imagine the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark if it had all been explained. Indy: “Well, I watched the Nazis open the ark, and a bunch of spirits came out and melted some of the Nazis, and then I took it back to Washington and now it’s in a warehouse”. At the end of a story, we definitely want to be shown and not told.

  • Elsi Pote

    Mr. Hooks does it again. However we all know how the audiences and academy members are being manipulated into choosing poorly made films that only want to make a quick buck.

    • Tim Tran

      none of these films are “poorly made films that only want to make a quick buck”….

  • ea

    I’m just glad an R-rated animated film finally made the cut after so many snubs (Jimmy Neutron over Waking Life? Bolt over Waltz With Bashir? C’mon). This is possibly the most diverse year for that category ever. Let’s see how they present a movie with sex and swearing alongside Pixar and claymation sheep.

  • Renard N. Bansale

    I think Mr. Hooks really undersold Shaun The Sheep in this Acting analysis. I’ve regarded Shaun (my favorite animated film of 2015) as a modern-day Buster Keaton masterpiece. The acting isn’t what matters most in these films, but the comedic setups and payoffs. Bitzer’s hospital episode explains how we find him in the pound later in the film. It also plays on the “luscious bone” gag that was established earlier in the film.