Around a year ago, a very talented animator friend Shiva Kumar Adloori introduced me to a term called 'Subtext' in acting and showed me this brilliant reel by Stefan Schumacher. The reel blew my mind, especially the last shot with the old couple. You notice that the old man's actions have nothing to do with the words he is saying. So there's a subtext to his animation.
I remembered one of Ed Hooks' pointers in his book 'Acting for animators' : "Acting has almost nothing to do with words".
I combined these two and arrived at a wrong conclusion that if I ALWAYS make a character say something else and do something else (even if the action is unmotivated), it automatically means a subtext.
It may not!
It may not!
I read a great post by the amazing Brendan Body on subtext which quickly made it clear I was wrong. So I asked him in the comments section there about my query and he was really kind to promptly reply back with great insights and a humorous clip to illustrate the point. Check out the post. It really put my doubts to rest.
Simply put, subtext acting is the hidden acting underneath the actual acting being portrayed. What you show is not what you feel. Kinda like, you say something, but you mean something else. Doesn't matter if it's through words (the way you say them) or through actions.
A mother folding sheets and casually (repeat: CASUALLY) asking her son about his day at school may have a subtle or no subtext acting at all (although she's doing something unrelated to what she's saying). Because she simply doesn't mean anything else other than really asking him about his day at school. The action of folding sheets is merely a 'secondary action'. That's the difference.
However if she really did want to find something more about him by still asking a straightforward "How was school", then she would ask a little differently. She may even fold the sheets differently. And that would mean a subtext.
On the other hand, a man speaking sarcastically (while still not doing any unrelated action) could have an extreme subtext that what he means is completely different from what he says.
Whether he WANTS the other person to know that he was being sarcastic or not (in other other words, whether he wants the other person to read the subtext or not) is another matter.
As far as Ed Hooks' note is concerned, it can either be in subtext or not. I assume he essentially means you can act and get your thoughts across without saying a word (acting with your eyes etc). Now whether you do that to show a subtext or not is your choice.
And now when I again watch the last shot in Stefan Schumacher's reel, I can now read much more into the character of the old man rather than assuming "Oh Stefan made him do those actions just because it looks interesting and natural". Now I can see WHY he's doing those actions. Because he probably wants to say something that's of utmost importance to him without making it seem too obvious (so he tries to cover it up by doing some other actions). That opens up a possibility of what kind of a character he might be. Maybe he's secretly scared of his wife, maybe he doesn't care about his wife. Now there's a definite narrowing down of what his character might be.
Subtext is very important in creating a believable performance. It makes the audience believe the character is alive.
Thanks Brendan, Ed, Shiva and Stefan! You guys opened my mind! :)