I really dig watching actors play twins.  As an animator I think it’s both fascinating and valuable to take note of the ways in which an actor, playing two roles, differentiates one character from the other by establishing and adhering to two specific vocabularies of movement (a term I have used on this blog a few times before, and I’ll use it again.  You can’t stop me, you’re not my boss!).

Designing a language of motion that not only speaks to who that character is, but is also unique to that character is already something that I feel is an important element of an animator’s work.  All the more so when animating characters who look alike.

To put it in 3D animation terms, these characters have identical rigs.  Their T-poses are identical, their geometry, controls, and keyable attributes are exactly the same.  So how do you, the animator– and, more to the point, the audience– distinguish one from the other?

Sometimes it can be as simple as defining a character’s posture.  In The Double (one of my favourite films) Jesse Eisenberg defines wonderfully the doppelgangers Simon James and James Simon through posture and speaking patterns.  This alone effects the way they walk, sit, and interact with their environment.  A lot of mileage for what may seem like a minor change.

But personality differences can be a lot more subtle, and physicalizing those nuances requires a less obvious approach.  The actor Josh Pence, who played the Winklevoss twins alongside Armie Hammer on set of The Social Network, said:

“Before preproduction I watched Dead Ringers.  Jeremy Irons is amazing, and one thing that he talked about in an interview that I read was, the way that he could tell the difference between the two characters was where he put the weight on his feet.  One of the brothers would have his weight back on his heels, if he was the other he’d be a little more forward, on the balls of his feet.”

Posing and weight can make all the difference.  It can be simple, but it should be artful.  Look for those opportunities to distinguish one character from another through movement, posture, centre of gravity, and attitude.  Especially if they share a face.

I want to take a minute to talk a bit about a thing I saw.

Disney’s Big Hero 6 is coming out shortly, and the trailers, clips, and promotional footage are littered about the internet. But one piece in particular caught my attention.

Below is a short series of character studies, demonstrating how each of the Big Hero 6 characters would enter a room and sit down. A simple task performed simply enough by each, yet no two characters do it at all the same way.  As an animator, I love this. It’s a perfect example of showcasing clearly defined character personalities by building (and adhering to) specific vocabularies of movement.  And that is very much my jam.

A few months back I did some work on two shorts for Disney’s Pixie series, directed (and boarded) by the legendary Bruce Smith.  They were fun to work on, but even more fun to watch, so it’s a good thing they’re on youtube.  So plant your looking-balls on these video nuggets.

Animating can seem complicated sometimes (understatement of the year). But really, when animating a shot the only thing you need to do is hit the necessary beats. If a shot calls for a character to enter a room, wipe his feet, and dive face-first into a comically large bowl of chowder, those are the only three things you need to accomplish. Simple. Crank that thing out and go home, Game of Thrones ain’t gonna watch itself.

But great animation lies in the mindfulness of character.

Since the specific actions necessary to a shot are often already established in the storyboards, the task of the animator is to define the manner in which the action is carried out. And to do this the animator must know the character, and have a sense of how exactly this particular guy/gal/six-legged subhuman would dive into that aforementioned bowl of chowder.

So how does one merge character with action? Adverbs.

For those of you too busy drawing in notebooks during high school English (like me), adverbs are just adjectives for verbs. They describe the manner in which an action is performed.

Your character is running through a wheat field? How about ‘running gingerly through a wheat field’? Boxing a kangaroo? Try ‘Timidly boxing a kangaroo’. Smiling? ‘Smiling murderously‘.

I could go on, but you may end up wanting to punch me emphatically in the neck. (Adverbs!)

Find the adverb that works for that particular character, performing that particular action. It will help maintain the spark of character specificity while doing the more general work of hitting the story beats.

Side Note: If you want to go a little more broad with this, try assigning an adjective to each character– something that describes them in a general sense– and keep it in mind when animating them. This can work nicely when animating on a series, where characters are generally less nuanced and character arcs are non-existent due to the episodic nature of the medium.

There’s a scene in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man that I watch over and over again, mainly because I am so ferociously soothed by the dulcet tones of Fred Melamed’s voice. The scene is set in the Gopniks’ kitchen, and Sy Ableman intrudes on Larry to force on him a bottle of wine (“A bordeaux,” as Sy is keen to mention).

Now, I imagine that many would eagerly write about how impeccably staged this scene is. And they should. Because it is. But I want to speak to something different, which this scene has in spades.

As one might easily deduce, this scene has little to do with bordeaux. This scene is about establishing the uncomfortable dynamic between the characters of Sy Ableman and the protagonist Larry Gopnik. What we get from this scene is twofold: Firstly, we understand exactly what kind of person each of these characters is, and they are about as similar as chalk to cheese. Sy sees no reason not to invite himself into Larry’s home (literally and figuratively, as he is also sleeping with Larry’s wife), voicing through action both his imposing manner and a disinclination toward a mindfulness of others. Meanwhile Larry’s back is literally against a wall; he is framed exclusively in down shots, over Sy’s shoulder, making him look boxed in and small, so as to suggest his character’s impotent, futile nature (again, this film is impeccably staged). Secondly– and this is what I wanted to write about– in establishing the nature of each character the Brothers Coen display for us just how these characters interact. How they behave around and towards each other. That is to say, their dynamic.

The dynamic between any two characters is like a chemistry of tensions. Tension can range from Al Pacino intensity to Owen Wilson ease. In a scene like this the dynamic is so rich with tension and subtext that it hangs between Sy and Larry like a third, invisible character. Ghost mistletoe, if you will. And, in a way, it is the dynamic which is the central character of the scene. It can only exist between these two particular characters, which makes it like a clearly defined character unto itself. Throw in a third person and the dynamic shifts, and becomes a different character.

My point is, always keep your characters’ relationship in mind, because it is unique, and will inform their action. What’s their history? How well do they know each other? How do they feel about each other? Do they trust each other? What is their status relative to the other? It’s the dynamic between the characters that will drive the scene and, ultimately, the story.