The Use of Subtext in Character Animation

When an audience views a scene in an animated film, they are experiencing the emotions that a character reveals as the character negotiates its way within the shots throughout a film. When done correctly, 2D and 3D Character Animators can add detailed layers of emotions into their animation to subconsciously enhance the impact of acting within the shot on the audience. The use of subtext in character animation is an excellent tool from your animator’s tool box to do so. The definition of subtext is the content underneath the spoken dialogue. Behind the dialogue, there can be conflict, sadness, sensuality, pride, disdain, or other ideas and emotions that are pivotal to a story. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of your characters, it is what they really think and believe. Subtext essentially is an element that carries a second level of meaning, and can be set decor, color, or other elements that can be designed into an animated film to help tell a story. In this post, I want to talk more about the body language and dialogue aspect of subtext. You have no doubt seen this being used in live action and animated films before, so let’s look into how you can approach an animated scene using subtext.

Below is a clip from a website called The acting teacher Paul Barry does an excellent job describing the use of subtext.

The use of Subtext in character Animation is used whenever you need to clearly show the essence of your scene. There may be times when the dialogue isn’t giving you the range of emotion that is needed for the scene, or we need to give a visual clue to the audience about an internal monologue that is playing out inside a character’s head. Here we see an excellent example of subtext used in Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles.

 Start the clip at :31


This scene from the interview teaser trailer shows Mr. Incredible talking about how difficult it is to be a super hero. He goes on to say the line” Who wants the pressures of being super all the time”. While his dialogue says one thing, his body language says something completely different. The Animator has Mr. Incredible animate into a pose that seems to show his true inner feelings. It shows that he actually does love the pressures of being super which we learn in the film later on. Part of the beauty of Animation is the complete control you have as a character animator to mold and shape a scene to tell the story that you want.

Now let’s look at a clip from one of my favorite films It’s A Wonderful Life by Frank Capra. In this scene, we see George Bailey having a dinner conversation with his Father. George goes on to express his feelings about moving on from Bedford Falls to pursue his dreams.  The Father tells George that he wants him to go and get that education, but only after asking him if he would reconsider working for the Building and Loan family business. George’s Father can be seen staring straight ahead in a stiff body posture. We can see his hand clenched and “wringing” showing us his real feelings about George’s decision, but being a good Father, he hides his disappointment so George can move on. We learn later that George’s Father passes away and this scene sets the audience up to understand George’s sense of responsibility to his community and continue his Father’s vision.

Start the clip at 2:26


Use your character’s body language to clue the audience in that something is “off”. Here are a few tips and questions to keep in mind when it comes to subtext when approaching an animation shot or test for a demo reel:

  1. Ask yourself: Do I have a solid idea of what the overall goal is for my character for the film? What is the short term goal for the character within the shot?

George Bailey’s long term goal in the film was to move out of Bedford Falls and do amazing things in his career, and his short term goal within the scene was to get his Father’s blessing to move on. By paying attention to the body language of George who is “opened up” or facing his Dad and making eye contact while delivering his lines. As opposed to that, his Father is seen staring ahead, obviously not happy with his decision.

  1. What is the essence of the scene? As an Animator, what is the Director or Animation Supervisor looking for your character to accomplish as a story point in the shot.
  2. Is there a character arc within the shot, or within the sequence of shots that your shot fits within?
  3. What is the bare bones emotion that you are going for in the shot that is pivotal to the story?
  4. When you understand what the emotion is, then ask yourself: How does my character’s body language represent this emotion? If a character is experiencing the emotion “Longing” for example, does his eyes, face entire body, clothes, and hair push the emotion “Longing”?
  5. Do your research. What films have you seen can you recall in your mental film library that a character had experienced these emotions?
  6. Remember that you are animating the scene, so really analyze each movement and pose to make sure that there is a reason behind it.


Remember that if you are animating a test or a scene right now shut off the sound so you can’t hear the dialogue, play it back and ask yourself: Does the character’s body language express the true emotion for the scene?

“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”

-Alfred Hitchcock

I hope that you have found this post about the use of subtext in character animation useful. If there are any scenes from both live action and animated films that the use of subtext in body language is used, I would love to hear from you about it.



Here is some additional reading on the subject:

Thinking Animation: Bridging the Gap Between 2D and CG– by Angie Jones.This is an excellent book about performance in animation, and animation in general. You can check out the website with a post about subtext in animation here.

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath– by Linda Seger, the same author that had written the well known book Creating Unforgettable Characters,  both excellent books on screenwriting but are great resources for animators to get a better understanding about story.

Here is a link to a clip on youtube that does a good job talking about subtext in acting. 

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