What animators can learn from Jackass

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Since learning of Johnny Knoxville’s appreciation of Popeye and Buster Keaton as inspirations for his work on Jackass, I rented “Jackass 3”.  I laughed.  A lot.  Ryan Dunn, rest in peace.

The Jackass dudes are all stuntmen.  Stuntmen who have taken control of their product and made themselves stars.  They own it.  That in itself is a lesson to anyone in the entertainment business.  Bravo.

What else can Jackass teach us?

FEARLESSNESS.

They set up dramatic situations where danger is clearly evident.  A mule ready to kick, a charging buffalo, a jet ski on a ramp, a tree being cut down with someone clinging to the top.  We marvel at their courage.  That is what we want from our stars.  We like to see them charging in where we wouldn’t dare go.  Maybe we need more animated characters who are looking for action.

CREATIVE OBSTACLES.

Having to fight through obstacles to get to a goal is an essential part of drama.   The Jackass crew can think up the most ridiculous situations.  In  “Electric Avenue” they hang live stun guns and cattle prods from strings in a narrow space and try to run through it.  You can feel their pain. It’s not just running headlong into a tree, it’s imaginative.

PUSHING THE LIMITS.

They really are trying to be outrageous.  I’m not saying that animation needs more male nudity, vomiting or defecation, but there have been cartoons that shocked people.   Exploring limitations is certainly a way to gain notoriety.

SHOWMANSHIP.

At the end of Jackass 3, the crew stands in a room rigged with numerous explosive devices.  As the props explode the guys are filmed in high speed photography so we get clear views of their faces and reactions.  Stuff flies everywhere. Just when it seems there is nothing left to blow up, the wall caves inward with a flood of water that washes them all out.  A big ending.  That’s showmanship.

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Eight rules for comedy

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Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book titled Slapstick. It is NOT a book about comedy. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Slapstick is dedicated to Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy (better known as Laurel and Hardy), and the title of the novel is in reference to the physical and situational comedy style that duo employed. Vonnegut explains the title himself in the opening lines of the book’s prologue:
“This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it “Slapstick” because it is grotesque, situational poetry — like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago. It is about what life feels like to me.”

Kurt Vonnegut also gives us eight rules of storytelling that work great for comedy.  These are the rules, and I follow up with comments on a few of them.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Rule #3.  Every character should want something.  Sometimes in comedy, however, one character just wants be left alone to live their life, but some other character is ruining that for them.

Rule #4.  Many people in animation will tell you that everything in a story must advance the action.  That you must cut out anything that doesn’t do that.  Vonnegut provides the option of revealing character. And that is quite true for comedy.  Funny characters can be exquisitely entertaining even when they are not advancing the story.

Rule #6. Put your character into a situation where even you don’t know how they are going to get out of it.  Make it difficult for yourself.  If it takes you a while to find the answer, then it won’t be obvious to the audience.

Rule #8.  This rule is especially good for short stories/films.  The challenge is in how quickly and elegantly you can get the viewer up to speed with what is going on.  You do not want them confused at any point.

 

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

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