Saturday, 25 February 2012

Psychological Gesture

Is confusing.

I've been reading/watching bits and pieces of the internet, looking through books and researching the man that coined the term 'Psychological Gesture' and it's still pretty difficult to understand.
However, I'm going to give it a shot.

It was Michael Chekhov that first coined the term 'psychological gesture. He was a Russian-American actor, author, director and theatre practitioner. He wrote a book called On The Technique of Acting in which he describes his acting techniques. PG seems to be one way of helping the actor (or actress) explore their character and act mannerisms and such with accordance. His techniques have been used by actors/actress' such as Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood and his work has influenced actors Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp and Anthony Hopkins.

Ed Hooks' book Acting for Animators explains that "Gestures do not always have to be illustrations of the spoken word. A gesture can express an inner emotional state that might even be in contrast to what the character is saying. A psychological gesture like this can be a powerful tool."
A human's sense of sight is much more sensitive (and therefore powerful) than its sense of hearing, so it is important to consider what to show the audience more than what you tell them.
Ed Hooks also says that "new animators too often create over-gesticulation because they are trying to put a gesture with every single word. This puts dialogue on a pedestal that it really does not deserve". I am completely guilty of this and I understand why my tutor thought it would be good for me to research. And I agree, I do need to use less big gestures and I think I need to really consider the subtle and psychological gestures that a character can show to enhance his performance rather than using big gestures to illustrate what he's saying. Basically I need to think about what the character is thinking and they're really feeling on the inside.

"One important question is whether the PG is ever visible to the audience. Chekhov's writings often suggest that it should be invisible, although this appears to some extent to depend on the style of performance undertaken, and Chekhov uses the term to refer to 'visible (actual) gestures as well as to invisible (potential) gestures'." ~ 'Michael Chekhov', Franc Chamberlain.

So a psychological gesture can really be anything a character does that reflects his/her wants, thoughts and feelings. It includes body language.  Ed Hooks says "Have you ever noticed  someone  who wrings their hands a lot while talking? That's a psychological gesture. A bully who punches someone in the chest with his finger? That's a psychological gesture." He mentions that Gollum from 'Lord of the Rings' is constantly making psychological gestures and that this may be because Andy Serkis (the actor that played him) is classically trained.

Here are some videos I found on Youtube that talk about Andy Serkis and his performances as Gollum:

Gollum has a lot of idiosyncrasies (peculiar behaviour of a character, could be called odd habits or quirks) and speaks with illeism (refers to himself in the third person). Schizophrenic is not quite the right description of his mental state as schizophrenic people do not have split personalities, that is Multiple Personality Disorder (or DID - Dissociative Identity Disorder). Andy Serkis describes Gollum as two personalities, Smeagol who is happy, trusting and whimsical and Gollum who is the hard survivor and makes Smeagol feel small and weak. They conflict with each other with Gollum usually winning because they need to survive and Smeagol doesn't have the strength in him to lead. Though (from what I know of, I'm not a doctor and what I say may not be 100% - Disclaimer!) it's still not quite Multiple Personality Disorder, Andy has used these influences to portray Gollum's mental distress and inner conflict through adopting some mannerisms that schizophrenic and DID people sometimes display.
In the particular scene they talk about in the videos, Gollum is arguing with himself. Or rather Smeagol is arguing with Gollum. They differentiate the personalities not only by the performance but by the camera angle too. One side is Smeagol and the other is Gollum. The character literally swings between personalities using his head which could be considered a psychological gesture as its not only showing the audience who is talking but that the character is disturbed and believing he is seeing and talking to another. The performance is enhanced by the two personalities' performances. Smeagol's mannerism are lighter and positive. His facial expressions range between really happy, upset or distressed but always gentle and his pupils are generally more dilated making him appear 'cuter'. Gollum is cruel, sharp and harsh, his pupils are noticeably smaller which gives him a fierce and piercing stare that frightens Smeagol. He usually holds himself up above the level Smeagol usually holds himself to maintain dominance until Smeagol gains confidence and therefore control.

Ed Hooks also mentioned Wybie from Coraline having a lot of psychological gestures, mostly a mix of self doubt and uncertainty:

Psychological gestures can also be verbal. Ed Hooks describes an exercise to demonstrate this:

"Consider the word 'broken' in the sentence 'My heart is broken.' If you had to non-verbally express the feeling behind that word, what would you do?... I'm talking about how the word 'broken' feels. With your hands down by your side - no gesture at all - say that line out loud: 'My heart is broken.'... Now, with no words, pretend you are forcefully breaking a stick with your hands. Can you feel the underlying impulse? do not break the stick simply because I told you to. Break it on your own, perhaps starting with the impulse that springs from the pain of a personal loss. Break it out of exasperation or frustration... Now, once again say the line aloud, breaking the stick simultaneously. Get the stick to break at the precise moment you say the word 'broken'. Notice how much stronger the line sounds, how much more powerful it feels? Now, try speaking the line aloud while breaking the stick internally. You can do anything with your hands except break the stick. The line will be stronger than it was the first time you said it aloud. Amazing, huh?"

Yes I tried this exercise myself and believe I see (or hear!) the difference. I may steal this exercise for my presentation on this subject as it might be more interesting and easier to understand.

So in conclusion, psychological gestures are effectively mannerisms of a character. They can be anything that reflects the inner thoughts and feelings of a character from a physical gesture, like covering your mouth with your hand, to subtle gestures such as someone's eyes briefly flicking away and returning to someone they've just lied to, to a verbal gesture like the one just described above. They can strengthen what a character is saying or conflict with it.

Phew! Long post is long!

Books Used:
Acting Characters: Simple Steps... Paul Elsam
Acting Characters: Essential Steps... Paul Elsam
Michael Chekhov... Frank Chamberlain

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