I've long been a fan of Homestar Runner. One of the ways this series keeps its characters distinctive is by giving them all vastly different shapes of body and face. No two characters look anything like each other when they are talking, with the exception of Homestar and Homsar (and only then because the latter is intentionally derived from the former). They also all have very distinctive voices.

Today I'd like to put an unlikely character in the spotlight--Coach Z.

Of all the members of the cast, his facial animation is the simplest: there's hardly any. His eyes move around to show what direction he is facing, but he has no mouth, nor does he even have eyelids, or any other way to express his mood on his face. To compensate for his lack of detail in these areas, he has two things: very exaggerated arm movements, and the strangest voice of the cast.

You can get a sample of most of the main cast's talking in one of my favorite toons, Fall Float Parade.

Coach Z strikes the same balance that Rocky and Bullwinkle do: they all use distinctive and expressive voices to convey moods and humor in spite of relatively flat animation. Those voices are powerful enough that the characters aren't held back by their simple drawings.

Star Wars is on everyone's mind this month, and it occurred to me this week that Star Wars pulls off the same trick, especially in the original trilogy when CGI wasn't useful for animating faces yet. Consider the nonhuman characters, like C-3PO, R2-D2, Yoda, and Jabba--and Darth Vader, who is human, but lacks the ability to use facial expression. All these characters have extremely distinctive voices and arm/body movements. A lot of other characterization elements go along with these traits:

  • As with Coach Z, their voices and motions compensate for their lack of facial expression. Yoda is an especially interesting case here, because thanks to expert puppeteering, he can show some facial expression, but not with the subtlety of a living actor. Exaggerated alien features like ears are useful for a character like Yoda, because those ears allow him to be visually expressive on a large scale in a way that makes sense. Complex eyebrow movements may be impossible for Muppet!Yoda, but ears are easier to move, and don't look out of place on him as they would on a more human-like character. Ultimately, Yoda's voice carries him. Compare his CGI form with his puppet form: those of us who saw the puppet first often find the CGI to be in an uncanny valley of looking too fluid. He never needed to have such fluid movements, because his voice brought him to life in spite of the puppet's limitations.
  • Distinctive sounds and motions set them apart from more conventionally-human characters. One would expect that creatures not shaped like humans would not move or sound like humans either. Humanoid droids, in particular, need to be a little jerky and mechanical to ensure that they are seen as robots rather than as humans in suits.
  • The farther an alien's facial structure gets from a human's, the more difficult it is to translate human facial expressions onto them, even when CGI is available. The gungans demonstrate this nicely: they all use a combination of extreme facial expression, full-body expression, and (for better or for worse) distinctive voices to render facial subtlety unnecessary.

The technology for this has not changed all that much since the prequels. We can do more complex facial capture than we used to; that's how all the Navi acting in Avatar was done. But the Navi overall shape is very close to human, and Star Wars tends to branch out a lot more than that. Gollum uses the best technology available, but also employs a distinctive voice and movement style as Star Wars characters do. I predict we'll see the same balance played out in the new trilogy: the farther from human the character is, the more distinctive its voice will be. Whether it comes out sounding truly distinctive, or just cliched...hmm...a question for after opening weekend, it will be.

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