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Head Bob

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Sarge: What are they saying?
Simmons: I have no idea. I can't find the volume on this monitor. And without any sound, it just looks like a bunch of helmets bobbing up and down.
Sarge: Is that how they talk? They look ridiculous!

In any work where the character's mouth will never move, such as with Puppet Shows, masked characters, mouthless animation and Machinima, in order to simulate speech, the "puppeteer" will aim up and down in time with the dialogue. This produces a bobbing motion for the character's head. If a mid-1990s 3D Video Game went to a Cut Scene, quite often it was stuck with this too (Metal Gear Solid was regarded as a technical breakthrough, but its characters didn't have eyes, let alone movable lips).

Probably the Trope Makers from Ancient times with an influence spreading to modern works are the old puppet shows. From Older Than Feudalism shadow puppets to post-Industrial Punch and Judy, the clearest and probably only way to denote who was speaking was by bobbing the head as they spoke in a different voice.

This is not just an Animation Trope. In some live-action TV, especially Sentai shows, the helmeted characters will exaggerate their head movements to suggest that they are actually speaking.

Compare Action Figure Speech, where the whole body moves; and Talking Lightbulb, which uses blinking lights instead of movement.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • This is how Batman introduces himself to Mr. Freeze in the much-despised Batman & Robin. No, seriously — he greets himself to Freeze with a head-bob and says "Hi, Freeze, I'm Batman". Some even argue this is George Clooney's signature.
  • Darth Vader in Star Wars is also a head-bobbing, arm-waving example of this trope. Many actors in heavy makeup or costume will resort to exaggerated movement reminiscent of the theater in order to get their emoting across to the audience.
  • Doctor Doom in the disastrous Roger Corman-produced The Fantastic Four movie is an extreme example of this, even going so far as to draw numbers in the air with his fingers when he says them. The apotheosis of this is a video transmission opening with "HELLO, Richards! Good to SEEEEEE you again!" Translation: "[Queen Elizabeth wave] Richards, good to [points directly at eyes] you again!" ("I mean, this guy is just a few short gestures away from inventing Latverian Sign Language.")
  • Averted in V for Vendetta. V gestures and moves around a lot while speaking, but he doesn't bob his head or do anything beyond the realms of the normal. Makes sense, since he's never in the same scene with anyone else in a mask.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Suited Power Rangers use the Head Bob and exaggerated gesturing. In early seasons, it was sometimes accompanied by the air-whipping sounds typically reserved for fight scenes. By the time of Power Rangers Time Force they were apparently designing the helmets to do this on their own when someone speaks (by using their chin to push the helmet forward slightly).
  • Though not to the titanic degree of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Toku in general (including Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, Metal Heroes, Ultra Series, etc.) does this.
  • Not uncommon in Doctor Who before advances in makeup and SFX meant humanoid monsters could regularly be shown with moving mouths when they talked.
    • The Menoptera in "The Web Planet" do have visible mouths, but do this anyway along with exaggerated arm movements. This serial draws a lot from avant-garde theatre (Pictures from the Insects' Life) and had an experimental choreographer playing one of the main characters.
    • Cybermen had held open mouths and creepy mouth-shutters to indicate speech in previous stories, but did this to unintentionally hilarious levels in "The Wheel in Space".
    • A very clear example is the Silurians in "Doctor Who and the Silurians", who nod up and down animatedly as they talk - "Warriors of the Deep" changed it to a flashing light (another fairly common Doctor Who solution) and the Silurians in the revival series have very beautiful and flexible makeup that display all of the actors' facial movements.
    • Alpha Centauri in "The Curse of Peladon", played by an actor in a body-covering papier mache suit and with no moving facial parts, bobs up and down gently and waves his forearms about when speaking.
  • In Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the puppet characters performed by Fred Rogers did not have moveable mouths, so head movements and body language indicated which one was speaking. (However, some of the puppets worked by other performers moved their mouths more naturally.)

    Puppet Shows 
  • In The Sooty Show, with Hand Puppets that have no mouths, the main character Sooty is completely mute to the audience. He only communicates by "whispering" into others' ears and this whispering is designated by him bobbing his head up and down. His best friend, Sweep, who is similarly The Unintelligible and speaks only in high pitched squeeking noises, also bobs his head to stress the rise and fall of his speech. When he gets very excited or frightened the head bobbing get turned into rapid shaking to silly effect.
  • As mentioned, Punch and Judy and their supporting cast traditionally don't have movable mouths, so a waggle of the head indicates which one is talking.

  • Ancient Greek actors wore wooden masks and conveyed emotion largely through dramatic gestures.

    Video Games 
  • The first Half-Life was one of the first games to avert this by having at least semi-realistic Mouth Flaps. Then in Half-Life 2, the aversion became even more spectacular as the technology used is actually capable of moving elements of the character's faces for realistic lip-syncing and expressions.
  • Since the leader of a given party in Guild Wars can be of any class and either gender, wearing any of the available armor sets, this is how in-game cutscenes were handled. Then they advanced to random lip flapping in later games.
  • The first three Tomb Raider games always used gratuitous head bobbing to signify characters' speech. In FMVs, the characters did not do this, but in some cases did not move their lips either, despite the fact that it was possible in this graphic engine.
  • In Ōkami, character's heads will stretch like putty every time any character talks, since people don't have mouths in the game's calligraphic art style. This is especially odd as there's no voice acting, just Banjo-Kazooie-style grunting.
  • Similar head-bobbing occurs during dialog in Neverwinter Nights. It's doubly strange because all parties will be bobbing at once (and only spoken dialog for key NPCs).
  • The original Metal Gear Solid on the first PlayStation didn't provide for mouths, so this is how characters were shown to be talking.
  • Very much in play in WWF No Mercy and WWF Wrestlemania 2000 during cutscenes where wrestlers are cutting promos with speech bubbles, as there are no facial animations.
  • Invoked in spirit by the quarians in Mass Effect, who would logically have the same issue In-Universe, as they all wear masks all the time. In order to show who's speaking, their speakers have a small light on the helmet that blinks in time with their voice.
  • Dissidia Final Fantasy, character animations involve the character moving their head around a lot when talking, then suddenly going still when they stop. The prequel Dissidia 012 made it a little better, but not much.

    Web Animation 
  • Any Machinima done in an FPS, notably those done in Halo like Red vs. Blue; note that when Sarge hangs a lampshade on it with the page quote, his own head movements are exaggerated. A bug in Halo: Combat Evolved allowed a character to appear to be looking forward when in fact he was aiming at the ground. This allowed machinima artists to make it look like the characters had lowered their weapons. In Halo 2, this bug was fixed, but the game producers included a control to lower the character's weapon anyway.
  • Gothic allows one to make your character actually move their mouth and do gestures while doing it, but it's quite complicated (typically requiring you to spawn an invisible NPC and have the character talk to them), so the lazy machinima authors just bob heads.
  • The old BIONICLE animations combined this with Noisy Robots.
  • Homestar Runner
    • Strong Bad bobs and waggles his head all over the place when reading e-mails, but in the earliest e-mails in which the viewer can actually see his lip flap (mask flap?), his head movement was much more subdued. The creators have admitted that they did this to save time, but now the effect takes about as much time as (or more than) just animating his mouth. In one main page, as seen from behind the Main Page set, we see that Strong Bad bobs his head when not facing the viewer even when he thinks he's facing the viewer, and doesn't bob his head (much) when he is facing the viewer but thinks he isn't.
    • Coach Z also moves his head around when he speaks, because he lacks a mouth. Pom-Pom and the Cheat shake their entire bodies a bit when they... um, "speak".
    • And let's not forget Homestar's odd tendency to jerk his head backwards while talking. Of course, it does fit with his character...

    Web Videos 
  • France Five, being a parody of Sentai shows, naturally has the head bobbing and exaggerated gestures while in armor.

    Western Animation 
  • While this is practically exclusive to the pilot (along with other anomalies), in the three-episode pilot of The Transformers, almost every time an Autobot or Decepticon speaks, they nod their head. Almost. Every. Time.
  • Averted in The Legend of Korra. Amon wears a mask to conceal his face and is quite theatrical, but does not move his head beyond what is normal.
  • South Park: Canadians move the entire top of their heads to show that they're talking.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Head Bob


Bobbing helmets

The Reds watch the Blues on camera, but without sound, all they can observe is the Blues' heads bobbing as they speak (a feature of the animation style). Sarge calls the sight ridiculous, his own head bobbing extra hard.

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