Character animation is a complex art form to master since it combines so many different skills. An animator needs to know body mechanics, the basic physics of motion, how to create visual appeal, be tech-savvy enough to learn Maya, and on top of all that, be able to act. They say that teaching a young animator how to create polished animation (aka clean arcs and spacing) is the easy part. The thing they’re really looking for when reviewing reels is good acting and unique, entertaining ideas. The primary skill that separates a good animator from a great animator is specificity. This is what your teacher or that recruiter is talking about when they say “be more specific!” after reviewing your reel. The ability to make specific, character-driven acting choices that feel believable comes from knowing your character inside and out. Legendary theater actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen outlines nine key questions an actor should ask themselves when developing a character in her book Respect for Acting. As an animator, answering these nine questions before you shoot reference will help solidify who your character is and inform the actions they take in your shot. Typically, an animator animating their own shot picks out pre-recorded dialogue and must come up with a situation and performance for the dialogue. Answering these questions should help narrow down what sort of situation you want to put your character in and what specific acting choices you can make for them to create a genuine performance that showcases their personality best.

1. Who Am I?

This first question covers all the basic details about who your character is: name, age, gender, physical traits, job, etc. Then you can go a little deeper and ask yourself who they are as a person: what are some things they like, what do they dislike, what do they fear, what are their goals, what are their beliefs, and what makes them unique. These questions simply serve to establish a baseline of who your character is.

2. What time is it?

You can take this literally to mean what the exact hour and minute are, or you can simply consider the season, the era, or whether it’s light or dark out. The important thing to think about is whether time has significance in how your character acts. A character would act and speak very differently in the 1500s compared to the 21st century. Likewise, someone who’s more of a night-owl may be more energetic in the evening and act more groggy in the morning.


3. Where am I?

What is the setting of your scene? Describe the country, town, building or even a specific room your scene takes place in. Consider how this specific setting makes your character feel and how this location affects how they act. Is the character cold or warm in this place? Does this place hold sentimental meaning to them, or are they just at their boring 9-5 job? The location can also play into what the character is doing while delivering the line and what props the character can interact with. The easiest way to make a shot more interesting is to simply give the character something to do. Put your character in a specific situation or place they can interact with and your acting options will automatically get more specific.

4. What surrounds me?

This fourth question continues a similar idea from the last question. It is referring to the people and things around the character. Ask yourself what is happening around the character and how your character reacts to this. If your character is making their way through a crowd of people, do they shove through others or try to squeeze past? If there is construction going on in front of them, do they plug their ears or simply ignore it? What are they doing while delivering their line and how do their surroundings affect their actions?

5. What are the circumstances?

For this question, you need to analyze your character’s past, present and future. You need to take into account past circumstances when crafting your character’s performance. For example, if your character just suffered the loss of a loved one, then they’ll probably be more solemn in your scene. They may not be hysterically breaking down like they did in the past, but they are still affected by this past experience. It is important to go into your scene with past circumstances in mind. Moreover, it’s also important to think about your character’s future and where they’re going. Continuing the previous example, your character is grieving now but if they’re working towards moving on, the character may convey bits of hopefulness in their performance. 

6. What are my relationships?

What are your character’s relationships to people, objects, places, and events? How do these relationships make your character feel and, more importantly, act? Do they think of certain people or places fondly or is there tension and resentment for that specific person or place? By considering these questions, you can begin to think about how to best incorporate subtext into your performance. For instance, someone brings your character to a cafe that triggers a lot of negative memories. Your character then says, “this place is great” with a weak smile out of pure politeness when subtextually, you know she’s really saying that she would rather not be there. Knowing your character’s relationship to other characters and specific places and things is essential to building a believable performance. It will also give you the ability to create more specificity in your character’s acting once you know what they subtextually feel in that moment. 

7. What do I want?

Consider your character’s goals and objectives. What is their immediate objective in the scene? What is their overall, long-term objective? Is this smaller, immediate goal working towards the bigger objects, or against it? Are these wants hidden or made obvious? Knowing your character’s motives will greatly affect their performance and will allow you to more genuinely explore the subtext of what your character is saying.

8. What is in my way?

In other words, what is preventing your character from getting what they want? These obstacles can be physical or mental. For example, if what your character wants is to be with this girl he loves, his obstacle could be that he lives too far away from her (physical) or he is too afraid to communicate his feelings to her (mental). When creating a situation for your character, consider obstacles that are authentic to the situation and relatable to the audience. Conflict is one of the most important pieces of any story, because it is the aspect that adds entertainment. A good story comes from establishing a situation and characters, then putting them into a situation that will showcase who they really are and in some cases, cause the character to change who they are. You need the conflict or disruption in the character’s everyday life in order for the audience to be interested in the story in the first place.

9. What do I do to get what I want?

This final question more or less is a culmination of all the previous questions you answered about your character. What actions (physical or verbal) does your character take in order to overcome the obstacle and achieve their goal. After analyzing who your character is, what they want, and what’s in their way, you can now make a very informed decision about how that character will act in your scene. You use what you know about your character, their situation, and their goals in order to make believable, specific acting decisions that will set your performance apart and bring it to the next level.

For more information about how to create top-notch acting in your animation, watch our video below where AnimSchool teacher Scott McWhinnie talks about what he considers “good” acting.


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