Animation lessons from Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin with Tramp doll

Charlie Chaplin was a one-man revolution in film comedy. His acting was substantially different from the other comedians of his time, and in this post, I am going to explain one of the ways he was different. I include a complete video to show animators some of Charlie’s best moments, and what can be learned from them.

Chaplin was trained to act for the music hall stage by Fred Karno. Karno was a detail-oriented taskmaster.  He knew how to pace a program for maximum effect. When Chaplin went to work in films for Mack Sennett, the productions there were quite different. The marching orders were for lots of big action. The actors were told to give the first take everything they had and move on to the next shot. This resulted in short films that were at times frantic. Eventually, Chaplin was able to get control of his own films, and slow things down. He started doing multiple takes, searching for just how to act out a scene. Part of Chaplin’s great skill was his ability to focus and hold the attention of the audience. Often this meant emphasizing just one part of his body. 

Others have noticed this. Actor and author Dan Kamin wrote:

The secret lies in the extraordinary articulation of his body. His movement is hypnotic to watch both because it flows so well and because it is so selective. Quite often only one part of Chaplin’s body moves at a time.

I have assembled a video with examples of how Chaplin would get laughs by this method. I break it down to his head, shoulders, hands, feet, and his butt. As you watch the video, you may notice that when Chaplin is animating his legs or shoulders or whatever, often, there is very little else going on around him. The idea is to focus the audience on him, then focus the attention further to just one part of him. Please enjoy the video, and read further for even more about Charlie.

By the way, on the topic of Chaplin’s butt, Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni said.

Charlie Chaplin used his ass better than any other actor. In all his films his ass is practically the protagonist. For a comic, the ass has incredible importance.

The essential lesson from the video is “Less can be more.”  I want animators and others to keep this in mind as an option, NOT as a rule. That’s why I’m not using the better-known phrase “less is more.”   This was the style Chaplin created for himself. He would often have his adversaries “work big” and he, by contrast, would use more skill. It was the well thought out performance that made him a star.

 There will always be plenty of room for big acting in cartoons!

Chaplin had a few signature behaviors. Everybody knows the funny walk, the mustache wiggle, and the cane twirling. But you can’t maintain an audience with only that.  He continually worked to create fresh comedy. He stayed flexible and developed a whole array of methods to do that.  When he did recreate a gag, he would always endeavor to improve it.

Chaplin hardly rehearsed at all. He would work things out with the camera rolling.  Over many many takes, he would distill his performance down to its essential idea, and try to express that idea in the most effective way. There is no better way for animators to develop their skill than to shoot reference video. And don’t just do one take! Do it as many times and as many ways as you can. experiment! Have someone help you with feedback. Recognize what is working, and isolate the important bits.

Take an ordinary action, and do it in an unusual way.  Chaplin will go through normal routines, but he will put a little extra energy or thought into it. Small things become bigger. He’s that guy you see in the restroom who washes his hands like he’s going into surgery. You can’t help but notice.  Chaplin wants you to keep watching him.

If you are doing something expressive, doing it a different way might be confusing to the audience. In those cases, you can just exaggerate it, or repeat it enough times to make it ridiculous. That’s an easy answer, and Chaplin knew to not do that too much. It would get old quickly and lose its effectiveness, so it was just one tool in his toolbox.

Play to the audience, even when your back is turned. Chaplin had one walk when facing the camera, and a different walk for when he was going away from it.

Chaplin will sometimes alter his performance in order to get fresh laughs. The video has examples of Chaplin acting drunk, and one of them is significantly different than the others.

Charlie Chaplin was a major star.  He was allowed to do the singular things to get the laughs.  Traditional acting instruction, such as method acting, will not teach this.  Stanislavski’s goal was to create performances that feel natural. Much of what Chaplin does, is unnatural. Of course, unnatural acting is not always funny.  In fact, it often isn’t funny. The skill lies in making the behavior seem normal for that character.  Once the audience believes in him or her, then it’s magic.

Charlie Chaplin by Tonio

Laurel & Hardy: How to be Stupid

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the greatest physical comedians on film. Before teaming up, they acted separately in hundreds of short films. Stan had a career in music hall working under Fred Karno along with Charlie Chaplin. Together, the two struck gold with their carefully crafted comedy of errors. They began in silent films, and when sound came along, they were one of the few acts to prosper with the new technology. They weren’t just slapstick. They could work verbal comedy, and relationship comedy with the various husband and wife scenarios they created. But mostly they are known for the trouble they got into with their half-baked thinking.

It’s important to understand that they each have a style of stupidity. Being foolish has many shades from the drooling idiot who seems to understand nothing, to the absent minded professor who is both brilliant and bumbling. When creating a stupid character, there are many directions to take. Stan Laurel’s character is primarily a simpleton. His mind doesn’t quite handle complex thought. Oliver Hardy is an aspirational fool. He wants to do things well, he can concoct plans, but he overestimates himself and his partner. Ollie is usually the motivator. In real life, Stan Laurel was the creative force in the pair, but in character it was Ollie’s job to get the ball rolling.

One of the ways Laurel and Hardy were different from other comedians was that there were fewer surprises. The audience can see the gags coming. As they are doing the stupid thing, it builds anticipation in the audience, and the gag is the payoff. Because they are stupid, Stan and Ollie do NOT see what is going to happen.

How does one start a story where your character can make themselves look stupid? In physical comedy, it’s all about getting into a difficult situation. Some of their best works were built around one simple challenge, such as deliver a piano up a huge flight of steps. While there is a lot of hard labor, they also get numerous unexpected obstacles. Of course, making them move vertically in space allows gravity (an essential component in physical comedy) to work its magic. In Berth Marks all they have to do is climb into an upper berth on a Pullman train car, change clothes, and get into bed. Squeezing 2 people into a small space allows them very close interaction. The simpler the challenge, the stupider your character looks when they struggle with it. When things get awkward, they can make it worse. In comedy, a situation can never be too awkward, it’s a just a matter of getting there in a way through a sequence of events that build on each other.

Berth Marks

Through all of their films, the most basic way they show their stupidity is they just don’t seem to learn. I would call this rule #1. With carefully arranged variations, they will make essentially the same mistake again and again. At a construction site, Stan will not learn that Ollie needs a sturdy plank to walk on. After three bricks in a row land on his head, Ollie appears to believe that must be all of them, so he doesn’t move out of the way of the fourth. They are endlessly surprised at what happens to them, while the audience knows exactly what’s coming. Watching their reactions is half the fun.

Inattention is a very useful tool in comedy. In a duo like L&H, having one of them not looking at what they are doing or where they are walking is an easy to set up a fall or blow. You know those YouTube videos of people looking at their cel phones while walking, and falling into a fountain? That’s what I’m talking about.

They were great at setting up misunderstandings. In Blockheads, Stan is at a veteran’s hospital and he finds a wheel chair to sit in for a bit. It’s arranged in such a way that to sit in it he has to fold his leg underneath himself. When Ollie shows up, he believes Stan lost his leg in the war. One thing leads to another, and Oliver ends up carrying Stan completely unaware that he has two good legs.

Blockheads

Miscommunication is a basic way for things to go wrong. Conversations between them are often tortured. Mostly it’s Stan’s slowness. He twist sentences and mangles common phrases. He’s not just dumb, he is artfully dumb in an entertaining way. Stan’s misunderstanding is clearly evident on his face. Oliver gets frustrated, and it’s all part of the comedy.

However, they are not always at odds with each other. Sometimes they work together quite well. The problem is, those are always the times when they are getting into trouble. They can, without words, jump into the same fight with someone else. Neither will ever hold the other back from doing something stupid.

One of their best known styles of comedy was the tit-for-tat routine. As mentioned above, the could get into battles of one-upmanship with rivals. In Big Business, they get into a scrape with James Finlayson, and through the course of the film, a house and a car are seriously damaged. They were very good at keeping the comedy ball rolling. They could trigger the chain reaction, and do whatever is necessary to not let it slow down. Where a normal person would endeavor to interrupt the failing process, they would throw gasoline on the fire.

If they break something, that is just the start of a series of gags when they try to fix it. One thing should lead to another in a semi-logical system of cause and effect. In Busy Bodies, after shaving off a strip of Ollie’s pants, Stan glues it back on. But that was just to introduce the glue which causes further humiliation and destruction. Ultimately, it leads to Stan using carpentry tools to shave off the glue brush bristles from Ollies face.

Busy Bodies

While other comedians like Keaton and Chaplin could be extremely clever, and come out of their stories having won more than they lost, Laurel & Hardy films nearly always ended with everything in a complete shambles. They had several prop model T cars built to end up either falling to pieces, crushed to half its size but still drivable, or literally sawed in half. In Helpmates, Stan comes over to help Ollie clean up his house before his wife gets back, and it ends up with the house burned up.

Helpmates

In my book, I discuss “redemption.” What that means is stupid characters need some redeeming qualities to make them appealing. Stan and Ollie worked together for years, and they were able to create the sense that they were committed friends. They needed each other and would stick together through thick and thin. They keep going even when things look very bad, and audiences admire that.

Know your comedy: bathos

I have to confess that I just learned the full meaning of bathos in comedy. Previously, I thought that bathos was just the term for “unintentional comedy.”  There are times when actors or directors try very hard to be serious, but mistakenly generate laughter.  That is only one form of bathos.  

Of course, nobody wants to unintentionally create laughs, so I didn’t pursue it further. Now I have a new tidbit for you to impress your friends and colleagues with.  If I get to revise my book, I’ll add this new material. Wikipedia has this description of bathos:

… a literary term, coined by Alexander Pope in his 1727 essay “Peri Bathous”, to describe amusingly failed attempts at sublimity (i.e., pathos). In particular, bathos is associated with anticlimax, an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one. This may be either accidental (through artistic ineptitude) or intentional (for comic effect).

So, in bathos you have a character whose mind in engaged in a serious endeavor. They may think very highly of themselves. Then, in an instant, they have to deal with very down to earth matters. As always, it’s best to describe such things with examples. 

In the Marvel cinematic universe, the superheroes have tremendous powers. To make them more relatable, a fair amount of the comedy comes from putting them in awkward human situations. In the beginning of  Thor: Ragnarok, Thor boldly summons Mjölnir to vanquish Surtur. But the hammer takes much longer to arrive than he expects, so Thor has to kill time at what should be the most exciting moment.  

In another superhero movie,  The Incredibles, Frozone is at home and must respond to the giant robot attacking the city. He frantically has to ask his wife “Where’s my supersuit!” and he gets into an argument with her over it. It’s action movie meets the simple realities of life. Much of The Incredibles comedy comes from the common family relationships interjected into otherwise thrilling moments.

Parodies are almost always made to poke fun at serious genres. Bathos is a useful tool for doing that. In the Mel Brooks western parody Blazing Saddles, the bad guys hire up a huge gang of villains who ride out to attack the town. The good guy slows them down by putting a fake toll booth in their path. Just when the gang is all fired up to invade, they have to send someone back to “get a shitload of dimes” to get everyone though a random tool booth in the middle of the desert.

If you are a student animator looking for an idea, maybe create an obviously dramatic situation, and then have the character get interrupted by a mundane matter. Consider how the character reacts to the drastically changing events. Does he or she get flustered? Do they get angry? To they immediately switch from their old direction and get involved in the new business? Do they create a unpredictable solution? Basically, what is the funniest response that includes them playing along with the interruption.

Here’s an example. A boxer in the corner of a ring ready to fight. A lawyer suddenly arrives with the liability form he forgot to sign before the fight. That’s using bathos to create a funny situation. Now the challenge is him signing with a pen while wearing boxing gloves. How does he do it?  



Wilkins and Wontkins

Wilkins and Wontkins were some of Jim Henson’s earliest Muppets. They were created to advertise Wilkins coffee and were hugely successful. They were in use for Wilkins, and other brands, from 1957 to 1968.  Animators can learn a few things from them.

First, it has to be said, these commercial spots are violent. Wilkins is remorseless in his efforts to get Wontkins to drink the coffee. That’s a strong personality.

But since this is cartoon violence, we know Wontkins will be back next time.

This is a basic comedy duo of a straight man and a stooge. The stooge is sometimes referred to as “he who gets slapped.”

These spots are only 8 seconds long.  That timing still works in today’s world of shortened attention spans.  Watch several of them, and the basic formula will become obvious. The scene and situation are quickly established, Wilkins makes a pitch, Wontkins responds with the wrong answer.  Then Wontkins suffers a quick and brutal response.  It makes an impression on the viewer. That violent end is a sort of visual exclamation point, creating a finale in a very short period of time.  I can imagine the audience became accustomed to these commercials and got a quick laugh while being reminded of the brand.  Television airtime is pricey, and these spots delivered a huge value for their money.

This compilation is over 14 minutes long.  That’s a lot of 8-second spots. Henson had the imagination to crank them out.

The design of Wilkins, and the Jim Henson voice, certainly reminds us of Kermit the Frog.  It needs to be said that Henson made the astute business decision to retain the ownership of the puppets.  He commonly did this, and it worked out for him in the long run. Advertising can be a money factory, and it helped Henson get his other productions funded. Here is a compilation of the puppets promoting other brands.

 

The Pilot Brothers

Pilot is a Russian animation company co-founded by Alexander Tatarsky (1950-2007) and Igor Kovalyov. They started animating with a camera they salvaged from a junkyard.  Kovalyov later worked in the U.S. at Klasky Csupo, where he co-created Aaargh!!! Real Monsters and The Rugrats Movie.

I was alerted to their very successful characters, The Pilot Brothers, by the twitter account @_ibcf_. He shared a clip of an award-winning film which, translated into English is titled The Pilot Brothers Cook Macaroni for Breakfast (1996).  After some searching, I was able to find a reasonably good digital transfer.   There are subtitled versions of it, which might clue you in a little, but they are not as enjoyable.

What cartoony fun!   There is so much to like about this film. It has many surreal touches, such as the cuckoo clock eggs that crack open into little alarm clocks that have to be chased around.  It’s has a speedy tempo, and very tight editing.  The animation is full and rendered with detail and shadows. It’s easy to see where the Klasky Csupo style came from. The music is light-hearted.  What really stood out to me is the layout.  They fill the frame with moving characters, but it doesn’t feel cramped.  You can enjoy it without understanding everything they are saying.

I have watched some Russian clowns, and this work reminded me of them. So I was not surprised when, in Wikipedia, I found this about Tatarsky:

His father Mikhail Semyonovich Tatarskiy worked in circus and wrote gags for such clowns as Oleg Popov and Yuri Nikulin who was a close family friend.

To find these shorts on YouTube, it’s most effective to use Russian (copy and paste is your friend)  Apparently, they are super popular characters. They went on to be CG animated and are currently available in downloadable games.  But, like classic American animation. the originals are the best. Enjoy some more!

 

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