Movement is so important, I put it first. The lion dancer demonstrated: even a simple design becomes “real” through convincing movement. The opposite is seldom true; good looks won’t save a lousy performance. Motion is emotion.
Few will admit to liking mimes, but face it: they are masters of physical storytelling. The Swiss Mummenschanz troupe can set up a joke without uttering a word…then deliver the punchline with not an actor or prop on stage. Like assembly language is to programming, theirs is absolute minimalism of theatre…watch how they’re able to convey emotion from the most unexpected places. Your mind completes their act.
Magicians often use misdirection — diverting your focus of attention — to achieve seemingly impossible feats. How might you apply this in, say, a robot? Maybe there’s some unavoidable weakness in one area of motion…some mechanical-ness that gives the trick away.…could a flourish of action elsewhere distract your audience and cover for this?
And animation, of course, is king of visual storytelling…
Countless books have been written on the subject, but the seminal tome is Disney Animation: the Illusion of Life by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, chronicling their work among Disney’s “Nine Old Men” throughout the medium’s formative years.
Chapter three in particular warrants our attention…not about history or technique, it describes the animators’ core principles, codifying the visual “language” that defines western animation to this day.
These principles are still entirely relevant in our computer-generated age…John Lasseter of Pixar authored a SIGGRAPH paper following them point-for-point…and many of these ideas translate beyond the screen…it’s just good theatrical advice. If you can’t justify buying the entire massive book, this most vital chapter has been distilled into many articles and videos online, even Wikipedia has an entry: Twelve Basic Principles of Animation. The full text of chapter three (including animated specimens) is available in the Disney Animated app for iPad.
Occasionally, the right action is inaction. Too much motion can be just as damning as too little. Watch squirrels run around eating acorns in the park…notice how they periodically “lock up” to focus on some sound or action. Small, inconsequential motions can add believability too. 1933 audiences insisted the T. rex in King Kong was real because it scratched itself…a special effect wouldn’t do that, it was thought.