The Secret Handshake

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Here is a great idea for an animation exercise.  The secret handshake.  Secret handshakes show two characters physically interacting in fun ways.  They can involve way more than the hands, and style is hugely important.  Generally, these greetings are believed to have started with men’s fraternities such as the Freemasons or the Shriners.  These private fraternities were lampooned in films from Laurel and Hardy, as well animated shows such as the Flintstones.

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Still it is very relevant, and currently alive in “bro” culture. These days, you are most likely to see them at sporting events. This first example is from a team where each player has a special handshake for the captain, who must know them all.  Note how it can include dance moves.

One advantage to this exercise is the fact that the audience will probably understand what is going on instantly, so even a short clip will make sense.  The action can involve the whole body, or small finger movements.  I really like the timing in this shake.

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This next video is a series of simple shakes, but each one has a name.  The handshake is then a form of mime that represents the name.

In secret societies that are closed to the outside world, knowing the handshake is a way to prove you are who you say you are.  One of these societies is the college fraternity.  This live skit is built around an extended handshake that goes way beyond the hands to all sorts of silly behaviors.

Then there is this very nice animated example from Disney’s Big Hero 6.

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I had this post in a draft form for several months, and I decided to finish it when I discovered this short film by Jackson Read and Susie Webb, students at Ringling School of Art + Design.  They started with the basic idea and took advantage of animation by having them do things way beyond what normal humans can do.

Some notes about Angry Birds

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For this blog, I review movies with an emphasis on the characters and comedy.

The main character of Angry Birds is named Red, and he is voiced by actor Jason Sudeikis. He is presented as a bird with a short temper who is sentenced in court to go to anger management class.  For me, he wasn’t so much as angry, as understandably disgruntled.   He simply reacts to things that would make most anyone angry.  As the film develops, there are events when you would expect him to loose his mind with anger, and he doesn’t.  He looks sad.  The film makers put way too much thought into the psychology of Red.  By showing all his complicated feelings up front, it reduces his entertainment value.

What you want is “funny angry.”

I would much rather see a character who doesn’t care what the others think, a character who accepts his own anger.  In my book, I use the term “comic sociopath.”  That is someone who doesn’t try to fit in to make people happy.  When we laugh with them, we secretly admire their freedom from the rules. The most obvious comparison is the character of Anger from Inside Out.  First up, the casting of Lewis Black for Anger was pure genius. Black’s acting persona has anger built into it, and I am sure he inspired the writers and directors during production.

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Since Black was so recently used, he was out of the question.  I might have suggested Adam Sandler, who could bring his Happy Gilmore angry dude voice with him.  But if it were me, I would have wanted John Goodman, who was so great as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski.  


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Jason Sudeikis typically plays mild characters, so he was not a good choice.  I wish animated film makers didn’t take any celebrity voice who agrees.

In my opinion, if the word “angry” is in the title, the angry behavior should be raised to an art form.  The expression of anger should be unique.  If I bring up the Three Stooges, you should instantly have an image of how Moe expresses his irritation.  Just think about Yosemite Sam, or Daffy Duck when he’s in a competition with Bugs Bunny.  And for angry animated characters, let’s not forget this bird.

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That’s funny anger.

Overall, I found the pace of the movie tiring.  Also, this movie is talky.  Really talky.  It was constant verbosity. They seemed to want to squeeze in every possible joke.  Even during the big action sequences, they would have to stop for comments.  Combined with sound effects and music people all competing to put in as much as possible, it was all very loud.   However, during the “peeing in the pool” segment, there was actually a quiet moment where the reaction shots were not huge and over the top, and I actually laughed a little.  Physical comedy often succeeds when played out in silence.

How to buy and watch Tex Avery on DVD

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This week, Cartoon Brew mocked Warner Bros. for a press release about an old animated Tarzan video being made available on DVD.  They suggested nobody cares about Tarzan, and what they should be releasing is the complete Tex Avery collection.  I couldn’t agree more.  Warner Bros. should release the great 5 disc collection in the United States.

However, you don’t have to wait.

The DVD’s are easily available from Europe.  I used Amazon.co.uk  to order mine using my regular Amazon account.  With shipping, it cost me about $40. Some sellers won’t ship to the US, but others will, so check carefully.  You can also get them on Ebay, but they will cost a lot more.

Here’s an important point.  The European DVDs are encoded for region 2, meaning they won’t play on North American DVD players.  That’s okay, though, because there are two solutions for that.  You can spend a small amount of money on a “region free” DVD player, just search Amazon for that.  Samsung makes one that currently sells for about $35.  Or, there is a free option for use on computers with DVD drives.  VLC is a video playing software available for Mac and Windows. Animation studios often use VLC because it plays just about anything.  It is highly reliable.

Mac computers will allow you to change regions, but only a limited number of times.  It is the Apple DVD playing software that has the region controls, so you use VLC instead.  I changed my preferences so that when I load a DVD, it doesn’t automatically open the DVD player.  I open VLC, choose the disc, and play.  It works like a charm!

And on this same subject, I highly recommend this sweet item which is also not available in North America.  A 21 disc collection of Laurel and Hardy films, about $50 before shipping.

L&Hbox

Eating: The elements of comedy for animators

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I am happy to present my latest video.  Eating is all about the subject of food in comedy.  Great comedy is about common things that all people understand, and food is the most common subject of all.  It has been explored by comedians for centuries, if not millennia.  This video is filled with examples of how comedians have used the various elements of food, such as cooking, table manners and simply being hungry to create laughs.

One topic I didn’t include in the video is the idea of “signature” food.  That is, characters who have specific foods associated with them, such as:

Popeye – spinach

Wimpy – hamburgers

Wallace – cheese

Cookie Monster – cookies

With a lot more research, I could see a part two video that would include “food out of control”  The Three Stooges and Little Rascals, for instance, have had created crazy food in the kitchen.  I fondly recall a scene from The Beverly Hillbillies where Ellie May cooked up some popovers that literally breathed as though they were alive.  I avoided pie fights, as they are well known and practically a topic to themselves.

I would very much appreciate any feedback and suggestions about this topic!  Please comment.

Book review: Pinto Colvig, It’s a Crazy Business.

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If I could spend time with anyone from the world of animation, living or dead, it would be Pinto Colvig. His autobiography, It’s a Crazy Business: The Goofy Life of a Disney Legend, might well be my favorite animation history book ever.  Colvig embodied everything this blog is about.  He lived the life of an entertainer.  In addition to being a Disney story artist, and the voice of Goofy, some of his resume is listed below.

  • A “gagologist” for the great silent comedy producer Mack Sennett.
  • Musician and sound effects man for cartoons and movies.
  • A newspaper cartoonist.
  • Vaudeville performer.
  • Circus bandmaster, clown and barker.
  • Stooge for a professional magician.
  • Clerk in dynamite and acid factory.
  • Railroad construction worker.
  • Assistant flunky to a telephone cable splicer.
  • Sody squirt.
  • Hobo.

He also animated visual effects for silent movies.  I have long been curious about the uncredited artists who did that work. And for anyone struggling to learn software, you should read his description of “chalk plate cartooning” which involves creating engravings using molten metal.  This is real old school.

What sets this autobiography apart from other animation books is Colvig’s writing style.  Have you ever seen a vintage “behind the scenes” film of a animation studio, where the actors are all hamming it up for the camera?  He writes like that.  He is in character.  He is lighthearted guy telling stories of a goofy business.  It is a hundred time more fun and inspiring than the typical dry history books.  The volume is a mere 140 pages, and is not organized chronologically.  He may have written it based how things happened to come to him.

One chapter describes several other gagmen he knew over the years.  Each is presented as a “type” of story man, and each is quite an individual character just like Pinto. They each came to Disney with wide and varied life stories.  Even though this book was written about 70 years ago, the following passage still sounds relevant.

Nowadays, since the animated cartoon has won it’s struggles up through the years and has developed from supper-hour fillers to boxoffice features, I find the newer crop of gagmen are of a more serious and “academic” nature.  Most of them who, upon graduating from high school, college and art school are taken by the cartoon studios and placed in what is known as the “de-lousing” department.  Here, for many months, they must serve an apprenticeship in the many branches of the business – particularly in animation. During this time they are tutored by art directors, psychologists, and action analysis instructors, and are given the opportunity to submit gags and stories (few of which are chosen).  For this, wages are small and promises are big – many are trained, but comparatively few make the grade

Most of the “old-time” gagologists with whom I have worked seem to have taken the bumps along “life’s highway” before arriving.

There is a lesson there. Don’t just live and breath animation.  Do lots of things. Get away from the computer.  Join a drama club, learn an instrument, dance, build something.  Travel, explore and meet lots of people.  And if you have to struggle along the way, you’re building character!

If you think that working in animation is all fun and games, reading the chapter about Walt Disney and the production of Snow White will take some of the shine off.  Colvig experienced a tremendous amount of stress, and it took a great toll on him.  When he gets to the  final chapters, the seriousness makes him that much more believable.

For a brief look at Pinto Colvig, here is a good video to watch.

 

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