Monday, September 14, 2009

Body Language

This past weekend I saw the film "In the Heat of the Night", starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. I had never seen it before and it's a wonderful film on many levels. I was particularly struck by the performances of the lead actors, and how much they convey with body language alone. The dialog is very understated, leaving a lot of room for the characters to communicate their thoughts and emotions physically. Watch this scene on YouTube, particularly from 0:20 through 1:03. Here the sheriff, played by Steiger, is trying to convince visiting detective, Poitier, to stay and help solve a murder. I wont spoil the rest of the movie for you, but suffice to say these characters don't like each other much, which adds a lot of tension to the scene.

Let's start with Rod Steiger's performance. In the first two shots, he's basically just holding a pose. Within that pose he's doing tiny head accents and moving in closer, but the rest is all in the face. I love how he's cocking his head to one side and getting in Poitier's face. This performance is wonderfully simple.

Throughout this film Poitier is the paragon of restraint, both in his words and in his movement. Here he's dead still, except for his eyes, but you can read so many emotions into it. I don't know if you could get away with this level of subtlety on an animated character; I suppose it would depend on how stylized the character is.

Finally, there's the wide shot. Steiger walks away, confident in his argument, and then stops and turns to allow us to focus completely on Poitier with him. Poitier pauses, as if he's still waiting for the train, then you see his resolve crumble, as he grudgingly realizes that he must stay. His stilted, boyish walk and the way he picks up the suitcase are so specific and entertaining to watch. Neither character will admit out-loud that they need each other, and their bodies communicate both resistance and acceptance. So juicy!

Scenes with this much depth, subtext and subtlety are rare in animated films, and I hope to see much more of them in the future. So often the writers feel like they have to have the characters say everything they are feeling; it's wonderful when the director can trust the animators to be actors and let them communicate non-verbally.


  1. hey Victor, another terrific post as usual. I think your analysis of this clip from Heat of the Night is spot on. I was hoping to ask you a question on this.. I remember your AM lectures on your workflow, and how you film video reference. I tend to film reference, but then I end up finding myself following the reference almost exactly. But I remember your piece in those two videos, and how you "extracted" that performance, and I think that's lacking in my process. I gotta hound AM to make those two videos accessible because I dont think I had the right questions in my head when I watched it, if that makes any sense. :) Thanks again for your posts!


  2. Yep, this film is a classic and one of my all-time favorites. It's nice to see a scene broken down with animation in mind but the performances of the two leads are really masterpieces of subtlety and interaction. Thanks for this nifty analysis!

  3. clockwerkz,
    I think it helps if you draw thumbnails from your video reference, then put the reference away so you're not tempted to follow it too slavishly. You can always come back to it later once you're tying down and polishing, if you need help figuring the timing or mechanics of something. Also keep in mind that you need to stylize your performance based on the style of your model; if you're animating a character that looks like a realistic human, then sticking close to your video reference is a good thing. If you're animating a very cartoony character, then the video should be more of an initial inspiration.

  4. wow that was a great performance one led with the facial expressions the other with body emotion, i love how steiger chews his gum , its has a lot of attitude arrogance and disgust
    but in turn Poitier show the same emotion but with hardly any movement you can feel the disgust in he lack of expression as if stiegers words means nothing, hope the film is coming along hopefully see you next term

  5. I love how you seem to always keep your eyes open for great acting, and then take the time to share what you see. I often stumble across small scenes by completely unknown character actors, that I just have to rewind 7-8 times. Acting is a great skill to master, but sometimes the best bits comes from something completely unrehearsed. It's the tiny subtleties that can't be taught, that makes stuff real.