I didn’t start off writing a post about character walks, but that’s where it ends up.
Popular culture has been the breeding ground for many things that get developed into “highbrow” culture. I recently learned a bit of trivia about the Commedia del ‘Arte that I had never heard before. While driving home the Friday evening, I listened to the NPR program Fresh Air. It was a rebroadcast of Terry Gross’s interview with Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet dance. Here is the piece of the transcript that caught my attention.
GROSS: So how did dancing en pointe, dancing on your toes, start?
HOMANS: That’s one of the most interesting moments in the history of ballet because it’s really a point at which popular traditions feed into a sort of high operatic, high balletic art.
Marie Taglioni is the ballerina that we most associate with the origins of pointe work. And she was working in Vienna, and in Vienna, she was working at the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. And these sort of Commedia dell’arte or acrobatic troupes often, you know, did tricks.
And one of the tricks that they did do was to climb up on their toes and parade around. And this kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet, most notably by Taglioni, and sort of given an elevated form so that instead of just stomping around en pointe, it became an image of the ethereal or somebody who can leave the ground or fly into the air, whose point of contact with the earth is only slight. So, you know, this is a kind of elevation towards the angels and God. And so a trick becomes a kind of high aspiration.
The commedia actors had very demanding styles of movement, and walks in particular were used to express character. Here is a quote from another source:
Hens, chick, rooster, capons, ducks, peacocks, all the farmyard bipeds make us laugh, their walks absurd parodies of man’s own gait. [The actors] are not identified so much by the color and cut of their costumes as by the walk, the gesture, the manner in which each uses his ‘feathers’ to express pride, joy, anger, and sorrow, alternately swelling and drooping, preening and ruffling, as he picks his way like a strutting fowl, ever vulnerable, across the stage before the appreciative eyes of the audience.
That verbal description is inspiring since it describes walks in a way very different than what animators are accustomed to. Animation walks tend to be utilitarian, they are simply to get a character from point A to B in a manner that seems realistic for the characters body and mood, as well as the situation. A wacky walk might be so distracting from the story, and the director would nix it pretty quickly.Tex Avery would sometimes create totally fresh character walks, the likes of which we hardly ever see anymore. I’ve just watched a Jerry Lewis movie, and realized Jerry’s run was one of his signature actions that will always belong to him. A big part of Johnny Depps presentation of Jack Sparrow’s character was his effeminate swagger, something the Disney executives originally hated. That’s the way to start a character.