I have been re-reading The Great Cartoon Directors by Jeff Lenberg, and in the section on Tex Avery he discusses the origins of Elmer Fudd. Elmer’s first incarnation was as “Egghead” and he was apparently inspired by a popular comic actor named Joe Penner. Here is a short piece of Joe Penner, that has a bonus of Betty Grable and some animation.
Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories. Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.
- Make the character want something.
- Be a sadist to the character. Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
- Have them overcome the obstacles.
All of that is valid advice for starting stories. However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules.” People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, are giving advice to writers, not animators. Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules. I’m thinking of characters, I will call “playful.”
For instance, consider Bugs Bunny. Bugs doesn’t want anything. Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing. Elmer Fudd wants something. He wants to kill the rabbit for food. Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal. The obstacles created by Bugs. Bugs becomes the sadist. Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist. But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.
Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character. While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.
Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit. They are bold. They are confident. They do not shy away from challenges. They engage in the situation and master it with style. From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer. These are the characters this blog is concerned with.
What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.
The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.
The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done. The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again. And audiences will come back for more.
This is my first ever artist spotlight. William Garratt is an independent animator and writer based in Bristol, in the UK. Some months ago I happened on to a funny bit of animation he posted on Twitter. Since following him, he has had a regular output of short, clever, funny animations. What makes them work for me is the non-verbal nature of the comedy. For some hardcore slapstick action, here is his latest release.
Initially, Fight! was created in pieces. Each gag was a small cycling gif which he posted on social media. The square aspect ratio works well for Instagram. You will notice they very briefly return to the same poses. He then assembled them together into what you see here. This seems to be a really low-pressure way to work, which would make it more fun and spontaneous. It’s not easy to steadily produce work, and he has found a method that serves him well.
Seven Sunsets was produced the same way. He created seven different cartoon takes on sunsets. When assembled together they are a good example of blackout gags, which is something I posted about recently. Sometimes he sets parameters for the work, and you can see
Tales of Death and Disappointment is an even longer compilation of
I can’t resist including this next short. It’s only 37 seconds
Often people are curious about the tools used to create work, and William says he uses Flash to animate and then composites the elements with After Effects. He has won several awards for his work too. He has much more to show you on his website, halfgiraffe.com. There are a whole bunch more funny videos and a page of his single frame cartoons. Below is one of those. You can follow William on Twitter and Instagram. Like most independent artists, he is always interested in paid work!
In making acting choices for your character, it’s valuable to consider how the character feels about themselves, and what the character chooses to project to the world. How does he or she want to be perceived by others in the story.
In the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, Oliver Hardy was the fat one. Oliver had an idiosyncratic way of moving his hands. His signature move was this fiddling with his tie.
Overall, he tended to move his arms lightly. He preferred hand poses that could be described as delicate.
It wasn’t constant, he could ball up his fists in anger, or occasionally choke Stan. He also didn’t overdo the fluttery hands to the point of being effeminate, but it is atypical for a man of his size. I bring up his size and weight because he didn’t like being “the fat one.” The actor specifically moved his hands this way because he felt it made him less appear less heavy. Now that I write this, I realize old-timey villains were often “heavies” so this was also a way to distinguish himself from them. The results are both non-threatening and sweet. He’s more likable for that acting choice.
I have a friend who is very tall, 6 foot 7 inches. He told me that tall people often slouch in an effort to be more “normal” They become uncomfortable with all the extra attention they get for something they can’t help, so they try to ameliorate the situation by changing their posture. Thinking about human nature can help inform your acting.
In animation, there is a tendency to try to make every element of a character send the same signal to the audience, to make it clear what they are all about. But that can lead to oversimplification which can also be uninteresting.
Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp was a down and out character who walked about in a shabby suit of clothes. But he usually moved with an unusual confidence and an air of sophistication. He would carefully tidy up what clothes had and strike elegant poses. His character either remembered what it was like to be a man of means, or at least hoped others would take him for one.
There is also something called “Playing against type” That means there is a sizable disconnect between a character’s appearance and their behavior. It is not uncommon in comedy. While that is similar to this topic, I find it can be taken too far. I wrote a short post about it some time ago.
So, find ways for your characters to not be stereotypical. Throw in some unexpected details that you can justify with a minor bit of psychology. It doesn’t require a complicated backstory, just a little depth.
Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers of moving pictures, and “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is his oldest surviving movie. Made in 1889, it is considered to be a comic film. Just watching a man sneeze was thought to be entertaining. At this point, films were extremely short, measured in seconds, this one lasts as long as a sneeze.
Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind, identifies this as a piece of “comic business”.
He contrasts that film with “L’Arroseur arrosee” from 1895, which I posted previously.
A gardener goes about his business of watering plants with a hose. A boy sneaks up behind him, steps on the hose, and the water ceases to flow. The gardener stares at the hose to find the source of the trouble, the boy removes his foot, and the gardener receives a faceful of water. The gardener then discovers the source of the prank, chases the boy, catches him, spanks him, and the film ends.
… The extreme simplicity of the compound makes it very easy to analyze it’s chemistry. The elements of the film are four: (1) a comic protagonist who wants to perform a task. (2) a comic antagonist interferes with that performance. (3) a comic object begins as a tool and ends as a weapon. (4) the protagonist makes a comic discovery of the problem and takes action on the basis of that discovery.
Think about it this way, if a character slips on a banana peel, it can be funny. That’s like Fred Ott’s sneeze. But if a monkey intentionally threw the banana peel, then laughed at the man who falls, and the man then man gets angry and throws the banana peel at the monkey who gets hit in the face, you have a basic story. These two films represent the very first steps toward comic stories. Mast continues:
As simple as this initial film jest was, it contained elements that could be combined and expanded into much more complex films. The protagonist: Who is he? What does he want to accomplish? What is at stake? Why? The antagonist: What is the basis of his antagonism? What does that antagonism imply? How does he go about it? The comic object: How familiar is it? What is it’s usual function? How many are there? What metamorphosis does it undergo? To what unfamiliar uses is it put? The comic discovery: How does it come about? What does it in turn produce? What would happen without it?