I used to hear the whole “the acting has to come from a real place”. Took me a while to understand really what this meant and how to think of it in terms of my own work. Much of what we do is an interpretation of a situation. There have been some scenes I’ve been assigned where I get to them right away, and try to figure out what comes natural. But then there have been other scenes where I dig in further and I try to find in my memory and my life experiences something I can pull from and see if I can bring out feelings to apply to it. I think it’s in those where you get unexpected material to work from. The real place not the acting place.

When I’m acting, I’m acting. It’s simple. I can’t fool anyone. I’m pretending to do something I’ve never experienced and sometimes it just feels fake. However, when I can find pieces of my life experience to put on my work, it does a giant difference. All of a sudden, there is a degree of connectivity that makes people relate to what they are watching. We want audiences to relate to our work. It’s harder for an audience to relate to something that feels acted out than something that feels real. Therefore, that’s why we encourage people to avoid cliches, and things like that (as difficult as that is sometimes).

I recently stumbled upon what I consider one of the strongest scenes I’ve seen in a film. It’s from the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence. I studied this film’s documentary last year since I was going to be working with 10 year olds and I knew nothing about working with kids in general (the making of has a great section on what challenges the Director faced with these kids). This was big help for me. For the purposes of this post, I chose the initial conflict moment in the film. I use the word moment as opposed to acting moment. Because to me this moment in the movie felt real in many levels. I also included the making of documentary of that section. The fact that we have kids playing such difficult roles made it even more memorable to me. So watch the scene first. It really is something else:

The scene feels real, because the kids were feeling those emotions of pain in that situation. One of the kids does say on the making of (which I post a link to afterwards): “I felt like she was really my mother”. It really is strong in many ways. For once the contrast of having two of the kids in pure shock in the car not saying anything, taking it all in versus the mother and the older sister screaming and crying, make for a very powerful real moment. I know I repeat myself but contrast is a very powerful tool in any animator/filmmaker’s toolbox. I’d recommend reading the book Visual Story by bruce block, to understand how contrast and affinity visually affect films constantly. From the performances, to the composition, to the focal lengths….all the way to sound design and scoring I’d like to add. So getting back to this scene and the contrast between the reactions of the younger sisters and the older one, really made the state of shock of the little girls stand out. In animation, in many cases less is more. I’m more drawn to the little girl’s facial expression where her eyes are wide open confused that to the older girl crying. Sometimes in our lives we go through a moment or situation were we are on shock…don’t know how to react or what to do. As an audience, that choice feels heavier and more interesting to me than the screaming. And the two younger kids really bring me into that state of shock and confusion.

Much of this feels improvised. Some really great choices like the older sister trying to shut the car door with her bare feet. Going back to how this applies to us animators, I think the use of props around in a scene give us additional choices. So make use of the props around in a scene, even if it’s a technical challenge, at the end of the day, we remember the choices in the scene…not how difficult it was technically.

Now watch the making of this particular scene here:

Rabbit Proof Fence Documentary – Forced Removal Scene

What makes this scene real is how immerse the kids put themselves in their roles. Even to the point of making their Kids acting teacher cry (woman watching the camera monitor). You often hear that for some actors, certain roles take a toll in them. It’s very exhausting. I think there is something along those lines that we go through. In some cases I’ve locked myself in the acting room at work for almost an hour, trying to figure out all the possibilities the shot has to offer. And even after I feel like I’m still not done. So watch both the scene and the making of, as there is some wonderful stuff to learn from. I’d recommend studying this scene from a performance choices (all the way from when they are sitting down) to a staging/cinematic point of view, and what elements did the Director include to make this scene much more dramatic like for example making the car part of the element of intimidation.

Enjoy it.