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Good animation is based on good storytelling, conveying thoughts, feelings, and emotions by showing rather than telling. One of the principle ways of defining character in animation is “the walk”.

It’s All About the Walk

In animation, “the walk” of a character is everything. That’s because a simple walk isn’t … well … simple. Visually, it is one of the most defining parts of a character. A walk reveals personality and telegraphs mood. You can tell how someone feels by the way they carry themselves, move their arms, and by the quickness or slowness of their step.

Ichabod Crane, in Walt Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Walking With Emotion

In short, a walk conveys character and emotion without saying a word, for example:

  • Depressed, discouraged: Head down, shoulders slumped, hands in pockets, slow steps, dragging their feet
  • Happy, elated: Head high, shoulders back, arms swinging, bouncy steps
  • Angry, determined: Leaning forward, chin jutting out, brisk pace
  • In love: Ambling stroll, relaxed, distracted gaze, blissful smile

An extensive resource for conveying emotion through action is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Keep a copy by your side while you are writing and revising. You won’t regret it!

Walk in Your Character’s Shoes … Literally

A great way to internalize a character’s mood is to imitate their walk. The old saying “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” is too true. Which is why mimicking character movements is a common practice for animators. They physically act out scenes as their character, to study action and emotion.

Savvy writers do this too. Stacy Stokes,  took an improv class to study character first-hand. You can read about her experience in Walking Game (Things I Learned in Improv Class, Volume 4: Getting Into Character).

Tips From a Pro

Ollie Johnston, one of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men“, shared the following insights for enhancing character through motion:

  • Show ideas or thoughts, with the attitudes and actions.
  • Let the body attitude echo the facial expression.
  • Show what your character is thinking.
  • The thought and circumstances behind the action are what make the action interesting.  Here’s an example: A man walks up to a mailbox, drops in his letter and walks away. … OR … A man desperately in love with a girl far away rushes to the mailbox, then carefully drops the letter, into which he has poured his heart out, into the mailbox with a sigh.

For more tips on showing emotion through movement, visit the Frank and Ollie web site.

Contrasting Characters and Their Walks

Theory is all well and good, but I’m one of those people who need examples in order to learn. The following two clips show the walks of two opposite-poles characters, Ichabod Crane and Pinocchio. See how much of their characters you can discern just from studying how they walk.

  • Ichabod Crane in Walt Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”…  Ichabod has a walk like no other. It’s one of the most distinctive walks in Disney animation, thanks to legendary animator Frank Thomas. I’d apologize for the “White and Nerdy” song this is set to, if it weren’t so fitting for the character!

  • Then there’s Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio”… You couldn’t find a more different character from ol’ Ichabod, and it’s immediately apparent from Pinocchio’s walk. There’s no music, but something “Short and Bouncy” would have been fun.

What do you notice most about the way someone walks?