Conversation: Acting & Computers

On March 1, 2011 at 10:14 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become split into the Prologue and the fourth story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making.” The story surrounded my experience observing a friend act the role of Blanche in a play called A Street Car Named Desire. While much has changed since then, I wanted to share with you an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance. Click here for the previous installment, which also includes the introduction of the interdisciplinary participants of the conversation.


david: I think of it this way: great actors are not really actors, they are “be-ers.” They don’t play the role, they manifest the person encoded in the role, almost to the brink of no return. It’s very dangerous territory and quite a few of them have wound up in mental institutions.

Role-playing implies expectations on reality. What’s great about great acting? The notion that our expectations are up-ended. If all the actor does is establish believability, they haven’t really succeeded, because at some point, they’ve got to go over the edge, else it would be a very boring presentation.

slim: Yes, your critique on believability not being the goal is significant. I am curious if that at all relates back to programming. We write code and expect it to produce the same results every time we run it. Not only that, but we also want others who read the code or install it on their computer to believe this to be true as well.

But the reality is that the circumstance in which the program runs changes. For example, the hardware running the code may have different capacity for memory, the memory may be filled in different ways, the hard drive has a different capacity, the power supply has different capacity, the processor, there may be other software running at the same time. The reality is much messier.

Yet programming language designers just keep abstracting all that physical reality away. Trying so hard to make it believable that the virtual machine is the real machine (e.g., Java).

david: In my opinion, nothing has done more to destroy computer science education in this country than Java.

I’d like to point out further, that what lies at the center of actors and musicians, generally, and great artists more broadly, is an ability to be present without expectations of the future or nostalgia for the past. What’s weird — and this gets into the metaphysics of quality à la Pirsig — is that, in my opinion, you can feel this presence, but there is no metric for it. That’s what makes us human.

The Eastern concept of duality rears its ugly head in this story on several occasions, and I would suggest that you might as well label it, and dive into it a little, though it’s a book unto itself. This concept resonates through a lot of what you are saying, meaning that it is another perspective on empathy. The perspective you are presenting is inherently dual, as opposed to moving toward a concept of singularity. Again, metaphysical.

slim: I hesitate to frame this as the Eastern duality. Maybe it’s a choice of words or my misinterpretation of what you mean, but I think of it as circularity as opposed to duality. Imagine a constant movement along
a continuous domain. When you stop along the path and look from any given vantage point you consider what you see to be the other —something outside of yourself. But as you move along that path, as you try to empathize, you eventually feel as if you are that other.

This is what actors do, but all they might have is a piece of script — which is just a bunch of words and some simple directions. So we have to figure out what the script actually means, from our own experiences. We have to first translate it, then interpret it. The same goes for playing from sheet music or learning how to dance. We can’t learn how to dance just by watching how the choreographer’s limbs move. We also have to find out where the invisible force is acting inside the body of the choreographer.

A friend of mine did a beautiful performance piece that speaks to this idea of meaning vs. form. She first filmed herself drawing a circle. Then she projected the film on a surface, and filmed herself again, but this time tracing her movement in the film. She would repeat this over and over, each time tracing the movements of the previous recording of herself tracing the previous recording. Each time, the shape of the circle gets more and more distorted. Eventually what gets drawn doesn’t resemble a circle at all.

In essence, the “why” of the movement gets lost, and all is left is the superficial. To have been able to draw a circle, you have had to understood why the first drawing was manifested the way it was. And once you have that understanding, you might not even draw a circle, but paint one instead. That is the kind of understanding that can only result from having tried to empathize.

jeff: Practically speaking, though, I think there are limits to empathy. For some things, you really either need a sliver of experience or some non-obvious knowledge that helps you imagine the other perspective.

slim: I think so, too. What experiences did you have in mind?

jeff: Like parenting. If you have a dog, you probably have developed a different level of patience than someone who has never tried to train a pet — or anything for that matter. Someone who has never been in a serious accident, catastrophe, combat, or other very dangerous situation probably has no idea what it means for “time to slow down” or “it happened so fast.”

A similar problem arises when people talk about spiritual or religious experiences. Some people may regard spirituality as “we are all connected somehow” or “there is some higher order in the universe.” My concept of this is “all things are connected (sort of)” but there’s nothing mystical about it because we already know we live in the same universe, but to feel it and really empathize with it and think about everything that is happening all the time, is a different concept.

When dealing with Christianity, I have always been puzzled by the idea of “God speaks to us all.” Is that what is actually happening in experience or is that metaphorically true — as in God is the universe? To even get a grasp on that, I’ve found it never makes any sense to consider Christianity from my perspective but as a box unto itself. And I may also have to consider that it is impossible for me to understand simply because I am me and not having those experiences. Perhaps God only speaks to Christians ,  which would make a ton of sense. And then there is the complication that faith is belief in precisely what does not make sense.

slim: I think a significant part of what you’re talking about has to do with language. Depending on what words you use to describe your experience, it could conjure up different experiences in different people, and unless people are willing to establish a shared language in the context of the conversation, more often than not people are not having
a meaningful conversation.

So when you say you don’t have the experience to know what Christian phrases mean, there’s also a chance that you do have the experience but you don’t use the same words used by the Christians to refer to it, which causes miscommunication, and misunderstanding.

jeff: Maybe. Although, I recently finished an excellent audio-book, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. He argued that the form of the media affects how we conceptualize the world so deeply that we are often not aware of how it changes us or how we are different from people in times past. Can we understand what it might be like to live in a society with no print? Or pre-television America, where people would pay money to hear authors read their books from lecturns and people would debate in a language that resembled printed prose rather than the plain-speak we use today.

Similarly, Facebook and Twitter afford relatively short updates and lend themselves to trivialities because it’s become so easy and considered non-imposing to spit out snarky one-liners to friends without considering their context (because it is unavailable). And on a blog, when someone is writing a really long reply, they can’t tell whether they’ve jumped too many topics and have lost their readers completely, because the others won’t see the post until after it’s been posted. So perhaps the rise of writing in society due to the Internet can lend itself to an egotistical style of communication, by the very nature of what the medium is.

slim: Well, I don’t find writing to be a particularly egotistical style of communication, but that of course depends on what you mean by “egotistical” and what you mean by “writing.”

I think it’s the space — I don’t just mean physical or even virtual space, I mean the feeling of space or the relationship between and among participants of interaction — in which the writing is presented can make a writing  egotistical or not egotistical.

Do you really think the nature of the medium affords a egotistical style of communication? The reason I ask is because I’ve had in-depth, thought-provoking discussions about a variety of topics that stem from just a status update on Facebook. So I’m not yet convinced that the nature of the medium somehow absolutely dictates an egotistical style of communication.

Or maybe what you mean is that it isn’t designed with the goal of facilitating a non-egotistical style of communication, and so it’s likely that many people default to something that takes less effort, which is the “egotistical style”? Am I understanding you?

an-lon: A quick note about Internet communities. The type of negative behavior Jeff described — picking fights and baiting and snark — reminds me a lot of people in their cars on the freeway. It’s as if you’re in a bubble and the usual rules don’t apply. I don’t doubt that some of the asshole drivers out there would be perfectly civil to each other in real life, where feedback is instantaneous and actions don’t go without consequences. Such is the power of anonymity.

That said, the Internet doesn’t have to be that way. In a different thread, I described how one very early Internet community evolved from the fan site of an author who was way ahead of her time :  Torey Hayden.1 One thing she had to police in her bulletin boards was language.  People were absolutely not allowed to write like Internet chimps.

The reason was that it was an international board, and she insisted that native-English speakers use proper grammar, punctuation, and capitalization in order to make it easier for the non-native English speakers to understand. Obviously, the non-native English speakers were just asked to do their best. The point wasn’t to punish people for poor English grammar per se, it was to punish lazy and avoidable misuse of the English language.

I really think the language rule made a huge difference not just in what people said, but in how they thought. It reminded them that they were holding a conversation, and that there were people on the other end who might carry with them a vastly different set of cultural assumptions and values.

The other notable feature of the message board was that it was predominantly female in an era when that was still fairly rare. The result was an extremely active and close-knit community that debated and joked about everything under the sun.

People did use avatars and screen names, and were anonymous in that sense, but in general, there wasn’t the kind of mindless hit-and-run you see in, say, the comments section of a New York Times article about politics. I only ever lurked, but for regulars it was a level of addictiveness decades before Facebook. Rather sadly, that’s where the author recently migrated her site.

Her message board had been a significant time commitment for her maintain, as it was pretty much the force of her personality and the ground rules she established that kept the board civilized. Eventually, she decided that the technology that had been cutting-edge when she created the board was hitting obsolescence, and that Facebook was an easier way to interact with her fans and keep the same conversations going.

I think what I’m saying is that there’s a bit of a founder effect2 to Internet communities. If the pioneers are assholes, everyone thinks they have a right to be an asshole. If there’s a precedent for civility, newcomers can learn to be civil too.

And there’s also no inherent reason for Facebook to be as shallow as it often is. The only reason I’m even here is that when Slim started posting substantive status updates to Facebook, I started writing substantive replies.

slim: Jeff, I think you’re saying that when left to our default vices, the way in which Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites have been designed can direct us toward a certain kind of communication. Some of the reasons why include the fact that it makes the content seem context-free, which leads to misunderstandings, people making assumptions, passing judgments, or being downright malicious for the fun of it, as opposed to contemplating the meaning behind the content or asking a questions in order to further understand and empathize. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding.

jeff: All I’m saying is that the medium does affect how we think. Comparing writing to speech, reflection and revision makes it easier to achieve coherence. I refer to writing as most people encounter it, through online arguments in basically public forums where people don’t know each other. A person needs to make some assumptions about the person they are trying to convince — or more likely, put down. You also can’t confirm your assumptions as you can in person. Most people who argue online don’t follow the argumentative Principle of Charity.3 It’s much harder to be careful and empathic instead of being abusive. Being abusive can also be fun.

And by written communication, I was also referring to short updates like Twitter and Facebook. Those are almost inherently egotistical, not necessarily bad or harmful, but in the sense that the communication has to start with a motive within. Things appear context-free and then you get inappropriate snarkiness.

an-lon: To get back to your story in the acting class, though, isn’t this the human condition in a nutshell? When listening, I seek to be transparent. When projecting, I seek to be saturated. But the “I” remains.

slim: I resonate with those pairings. It directly maps to the pairing I have in mind, which is humility and courage. Can you say more? I would love to hear what you have to say about them.

an-lon: Well, exasperatingly, this was always a visual image first, words second, and an analytical dissection, last. The poem below4 is what planted the image in my head.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say—“This is not dead,”—
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says—“This is enow
Unto itself—’Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”

I am not a religious person, and perhaps not spiritual so much as simply omnivorous, but I had an odd sense from the minute Anson introduced himself that the theologian’s viewpoint was important. Perhaps because there are concepts here that can be expressed no other way, except in the language of the sacred and divine? Certainly, the theme of humility comes into play with this poem.

Anyway, the words “replete with very thou” have been part of my internal monologue since forever — whenever I realize I’m getting in my own way of understanding someone else’s viewpoint.

As for being saturated in order to project, exaggeration is the lifeblood of animation. The illusion of life is precisely that — an illusion. Whether the action in question is a walk cycle or a line of dialogue, you can’t just copy what happens in real life. You have to find the essence of what it is, amplify that, and filter out the rest.

Same with drawing caricatures. It’s not enough to simply give a guy a big nose, you really have find the essence of someone’s facial features and amp that up.

The image in my head was going into Photoshop and cranking up the color saturation of an image, but the metaphor it represents is the exaggeration that is one of the pillars of character animation.

slim: I’m intrigued by what you said about exaggeration and animation.

Is there a degree of exaggeration that is appropriate? In other words, could it be over-done? Where is this need for “amplification” coming from and where is it going? Is the kind of exaggeration you’re talking about related to generating interest in the eye of the viewer? Or is it functional (i.e., if you don’t exaggerate it doesn’t look real)? Or all of the above? Is this really about saturation or contrast?

I know nothing about animation to have any insight into this.

an-lon: Exaggeration is one of the 12 Principles of Animation,5 as developed by Disney during their golden age. If you’re curious, I’d highly recommend a look at the first chapter of The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. This is pretty much the Bible for anyone studying animation today, but it’s gorgeously illustrated and extremely readable for a general audience as well.

Here’s the intro paragraph to the “Exaggeration” section:

There was some confusion among the animators when Walt first asked for more realism and then criticized the result because it was not exaggerated enough. In Walt’s mind, there was probably no difference. 

He believed in going to the heart of anything and developing the essence of what he found. If a character was to be sad, make him sadder; bright, make him brighter; worried, more worried; wild, make him wilder. 

Some of the artists had felt that “exaggeration” meant a more distorted drawing, or an action so violent it was disturbing. They found they had missed the point. When Walt asked for realism, he wanted a caricature of realism.

In answer to your specific question of “can it be overdone?” It’s surprisingly difficult to overdo the exaggeration within a drawing, if it’s going in the right direction. If the exaggeration is just going in a random direction, it looks gross and distorted almost immediately, but if it’s going towards rather than away from the heart of the action, you can get away with a really surprising amount of distortion before it falls apart.

A lot of times, we’re given the advice to “push” the pose till it breaks and then back off, rather than inching incrementally toward that imaginary breaking point.

And “is it functional (i.e., if you don’t exaggerate it doesn’t look real)?” Yes, absolutely. Rotoscoping (tracing) live action reference frame by frame almost always comes out looking strangely dead. It takes a human eye to amplify the important parts and tone down the unimportant parts, even when the goal is to be completely unobtrusive about it.

Exaggeration is in pretty much every frame of any animated movie, 2D or 3D. The 12 principles are all so fundamental, they’re in every shot. Sometimes it’s subtle, as it has to be with the handsome prince or the beautiful princess, and sometimes it’s wildly exaggerated, as with the crazy animal sidekicks, but it really is the lifeblood of animation.

When I was first talking about saturation and contrast, it was just at the level of metaphor. What I’m talking about now, you can see in the roughest of pencil tests without any color.


1 Torey is the author of three novels, eight non-fiction books about her experiences working with troubled children and two children’s books. In a writing career that has spanned more than three decades, her books have been worldwide best-sellers, translated into more than 35 languages and appearing as films, stage productions, an opera, and even Kabuki theatre. (Hayden, “The Official Torey Hayden Website”)

“The Official Toery Hayden Website,” Tory Hayden, accessed January 19, 2013,

2 In genetics, the Founder Principle is a principle whereby a daughter population or migrant population may differ in genetic composition from its parent population because the founders of the daughter population were not a representative sample of the parent population. For example, if only blue-eyed inhabitants of a town whose residents included brown-eyed people decided to found a new town, their descendants would all be blue-eyed. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Founder Principle,” accessed December 29, 2012,

3 The Principle of Charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive from before subjecting the view to evaluation. While suspending our own beliefs, we seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas. We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful. Emphasis is placed on seeking to understand rather than on seeking contradictions or difficulties. We seek to understand the ideas in their most persuasive form and actively attempt to resolve contradictions. If more than one view is presented, we choose the one that appears the most cogent. (Oriental Philosophy, “The Principle of Charity”)

“The Principle of Charity,” accessed January 19, 2013,

4 The poem is called “Indwelling” by T. E. Brown. (Brown, “Indwelling”)

“Indwelling,” accessed December 28, 2012,

5 12 Basic Principles of Animation / Squash and stretch/ Anticipation/ Staging/ Straight ahead action and pose to pose/ Follow through and overlapping action/ Slow in and slow out/ Arcs/ Secondary action/ Timing/ Exaggeration/ Solid drawing/ Appeal (Thomas, 1981, 47–69)

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