Today I want to share and analyze a very short but brilliant moment from the Disney movie “Basil the Great Mouse Detective” that stuck in my head ever since I saw it. When Basil insults his nemesis Ratigan by calling him a rat, the animator (I assume Glenn Keane himself?) made a perfect hilarious acting choice for the villain’s reaction. Have a look:
Throughout the whole film Ratigan is delightful to watch. Wonderful poses, brilliant elegant motions – you should definetely have a closer look at this character’s performance if you haven’t yet. What makes this little moment so golden and crazy is Rattigan’s lack of an immediate reaction. Instead the smile from his previous sentence stays frozen on his face. After a short moment he closes his pocket watch, still with the same facial expression. This is actually highly unusual. Normally at the very least our eyes move while we are listening, because our mind is highly active processing what we just heard and preparing a response.
Watch yourself while you listen to someone: You will often know what you want to say next long before it’s your turn to talk and at least this reply will usually change the expression in your face. Even more if it’s something insulting that makes you want to fight back. So usually it would be a huge mistake to just freeze a character while he is listening.
In this shot the frozen expression not only works, but is the most brilliant acting choice imaginable. The contrast between he and Basil, who just did a snappy angry lean forward, is additionally funny. The key is that although he is not moving, we can feel that something is going on inside him and that this reaction has a lot to do with his character and he situation. Basil and Ratigan have a sarcastic verbal exchange going on. Their smiles at each other say “you are pathetic.” But then Basil chooses the biggest insult possible for Ratigan (we already know that from a previous scene in which Ratigan erupts in fury). Ratigan freezes his face, not showing any anger and to keep his superior “amused” position. The smile is just so wide and static there must be something underneath it. It’s something between “I choose to ignore you” and swallowing anger. His impulsive temper is still there, just suppressed and “outsourced” into some sort of calm cruelty yet to come. The audience gets a moment of “oh oh… what comes now?” but then there is only him closing the watch. A violent reaction is held back – for now. In the previous scene after exploding he calmly gets a cat to eat one of his own minions who called him a rat. In this scene he continues with hateful amused mockery, knowing that he has an ace up his sleeve.
Notice how confident and smug his motions are when he leaves the frozen pose – these motions make the preceding moment even stronger. Why should he be furious? He has a deadly trap already set up. It’s an odd way to prove himself that he is a cultivated “mouse” and not a violent, impulsive “rat” (murder and crimes are still okay for him if he does it the refined way). You see, the non reaction fits Ratigan’s twisted, self-complacent, evil personality perfectly. Yet how many animators would have chosen it? Likely not many!
Forced smiles in general
In general a smile is probably the most often used expression to cover our real feelings. For example we sometimes smile and say “everything is okay”, when really nothing is okay – or when we are mad about our boss, we still have to smile and be nice to him. Usually in animation you would leave clear hints for the emotion hidden under the smile. Notice that a forced smile is not necessarily forced with tension. It can occur in many forms from a rather weak hint up to a tense “yeah, right, you idiot!” grimace. There are so many emotions that can be mixed with a smile besides happiness. A smile can say “I hate you”.
Non-reactions in general
As I already said, a frozen pose and a very delayed reaction is not something you should normally do. If there is no good reason why the character holds his pose he will just lose all his life and credibility (particularly in 3D animation). So normally you should always have moving holds and moving facial expressions that indicate thinking, a progress, a reaction. However sometimes it can be a hilarious, wicked choice if it’s appropriate for the moment and the character. Frozen poses can be a wonderful break in your scene’s timing.
And it doesn’t need to be as psychologically deep as in this example. Although some might find it too cliche it’s generally used for dumb characters delayed reactions because they can’t process what’s happening. I recently used a non-reaction for a sheep-mouse sidekick who gets hit by a coconut like fruit. Instead of reacting to it with a funny expression (which was okay, but nothing special) I just made it blink a second after being hit and that was much more entertaining. However the master’s example above shows that a non-reaction can even be used in a very sophisticated way to convey a rather complex emotion. Notice how the motions after the frozen pose are just as important to make the whole thing work.
Can you think of any other non-reactions in animation that have been successful? Let us know in the comments below!