If you’ve ever attended an acting class worth it’s salt, one of the first things you’ll be criticised for is how you use your arms. Beginning actors, particularly in monologues or song performances, consistently default into “W-poses” or “pizza-delivery” poses, and their variations.
I worked on a 3D animated musical that was built on motion-capture performances, and the one thing I fought most with both the actors and dancers was their constant use of these poses. And let me tell you, it was a fight from start to finish. These poses are so hard wired into our thinking, that if an actor doesn’t have a clear plan or clear bit of business, these poses are going to start slipping in, and before you know it, they become the main poses of the scene.
If I was making a musical about an introspective pizza delivery character I would write a song called “Here’s Your Pizza, Why Me?” Every actor in the world would deliver a great performance without any effort.
Why do we like the poses so much?
They’re easy. They’ve been done millions of times by performers of all stripes. And we don’t know what else to do.
These are good, and sometimes powerful, gestures that have a proper place in our gesture vernacular in limited and specific use. But if they show up in 50% of our singing shots, then they become irritating and plunge the entire sequence into amateur hour.
These poses present an inherent danger to animation in particular. In a live performance, there are rehearsals and retakes that will weed these things out. In animation, these poses build up in slow motion, and if not caught early, they become a plague on the entire scene or sequence.
Our problem is even more complicated by the fact that these poses are often overused by storyboard artists. Storyboard artists aren’t always thinking about performances in nuanced ways that character animators do. Board artists are cranking though panels that are shuffled about by editors. Poses in boards have to be questioned. Boards can offer great posing ideas, but they can also be an animator’s worst enemy.
The advantage we enjoy as animators, over our live-action compatriots, is that we have the luxury of time to think about our performances. We can analyze thumbnails and provide subtle adjustments to poses and timing to a degree an actor cannot. The strength of the animator is total frame-by-frame control of our performance.
HOW DO WE GET AROUND THESE POSES
So, how do we rescue our performance from the tyranny of the W or pizza-delivery pose.
Next time you start posing a performance and you find yourself drawing a W or pizza-delivery pose, set them aside and ask yourself, “Do I really need to use a pose that is going to show up in twenty other shots?”
Then, think about the story point of the song, which is found in the lyric, and consider the character’s emotional moment. What are they trying to do? What are they trying to communicate? Are they wrestling with a dilemma? Are they trying to convince themselves of something that is hard to accept? Are they trying to persuade or encourage someone? If the lyric was a spoken line, would that change how you think about the posing?
If you return to the basics of character and story, I think you’ll see that the W and pizza poses are not the best choices for your performance, and you might find it easier to avoid these empty gestures.