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

Colvig cover

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.


Zootopia’s Flash the Sloth


Anyone who enjoys animated movies must have seen Flash the Sloth.  He was given a lot of time in one of the trailers for Disney’s Zootopia.  When I watched the full movie, I fully expected the audience to laugh at Flash, even though they had already seen him at least once or twice.  Not only did they laugh, but I laughed again myself.  He is a very successful character.

The first layer of the joke is that Flash works at the Department of Motor Vehicles.  There is no bureaucracy more familiar to Americans than the DMV, which is infamous for having its customers wait in long lines that hardly seem to move. Having the office be staffed by sloths is simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple.

Flash is a character built for contrast.  For his joke to work, the situation around him has to have an opposing energy.  There has to be something moving fast.  When the Fox, Nick Wilde, brings the rabbit police officer, Judy Hopps, into the DMV, she is in a great hurry.  So having to deal with Flash’s slowness is agonizing for her.  Contrast between characters is one of the essential tools of comedy. You might, for instance, have a character who is established as a germaphobe, and he he has to deal with someone who has a obvious cold.  One is instantly at odds with the other, and the comedy can get moving quickly.

Flash is appealing because he is focused.  He finishes his sentence regardless of how long it takes.  The single minded character is admirable, because they seem assured and confident that they are doing what needs to be done.  He appears calm, centered, and meditative.  They are simple for the audience to understand, and can be built to fit the comedy.   Nick is able to distract Flash with a joke, but it’s less a distraction than an extension of the gag by making things go even slower.

Flash also works the comedy of miscommunication in a unique way.   Classic comedy double acts would sometimes have one person verbally confusing another person.  Hopefully you are familiar with Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s on first?” routine.  The exchange between Hopps and Flash is entirely spoken in medium close up shots.  These are just two characters talking.  But we can’t deny that Flash’s sloth nature is physical trait that influences his communication.  His words are not funny, but they are delivered in a way that is funny, especially given the situation.

Book Review: Keeping Quiet: Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound.


What a pleasure it has been to read Julian Dutton’s recent book Keeping Quiet:Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound.  It truly feels like it was written by a fan of the art, not an academic or historian.  In addition to being an occasional creator, I am an insatiable consumer, and dedicated student, of physical comedy of all kinds.  I can tell the author loves the art of non-verbal comedy just as much as I do. In his introduction, he includes a tip of the hat to animation as a medium that had never turned it’s back on visual comedy. Mr. Dutton not only knows his history, he is an award winning screenwriter and actor.  I very much enjoyed his 6 episode show Pompidou, created with actor Matt Lucas, which is available in the US on Netflix.  Keeping Quiet is available through Amazon in the US HERE. And in the UK HERE.

There have been many many books written about the great comedies of the silent film era.  And there have been a few books written about specific comedians from after that time, such Jacques Tati and Ernie Kovacs.  But this is the only book I am aware of that provides a good general coverage of filmed physical comedy since the coming of sound.  It is about the art and how it adapted and differentiated itself from the other talkies.

The book has two areas of focus.  First, those comedians who achieved international fame, such as Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Lewis, and Peter Sellers.  And second, English comedians who are familiar to Mr. Dutton and many of his readers.  While visual comedy had it’s golden age in the United States during the silent film era, the English have shown a much greater respect for the art in the many years since the introduction of sound.  Witness, for example, the wordless animated programs such as Shaun the Sheep, and Mr. Bean: The Animated Series.  I am fortunate to be familiar with some of the artists he refers to, such as Norman Wisdom and Eric Sykes.  And for those I hadn’t seen, I am now provided with a descriptive list for future viewing.  I was, however, hoping to learn a little bit about one of my favorite English comedians, Will Hay.  Hay’s film Where’s that Fire? includes scenes that rival Laurel and Hardy.

As I am always on the lookout for potential quotes that animators might appreciate, here is the first one I want to share:

“The essential schtick of Laurel and Hardy was slapstick and pantomime, to be sure, but slapstick and pantomime with character.  Their routines and jokes are not imposed from without, but emanate from the personalities themselves.”

Mr Dutton also includes a quote about Laurel and Hardy milking a routine.  That is an idea I did not put into my book, and may include in a potential revision.  Live actors can improvise and build on their comedy.  A scene can be extended significantly if the actors are inspired, even to the point of creating entire films around a simple idea.  Laurel and Hardy’s gags have been described as “open-ended,” meaning they can get on a roll, and keep building it.  Where live actors can sometimes go overboard, and overmilk a routine, animators are often not allowed to extend them much at all.  Modern studios generally restrict gags in favor of plot.  But great character comedy should be free to take a break from the plot and go for the laughs.

One thing I have been thinking about lately is the presence of onlookers, or bystanders, in comedy.  Offhand, I can’t think of an animated shot that included someone not engaged in the story who reacts to what is going on.  There probably are some, but not many.  I am hopeful that Zootopia might include this idea.  In live film, it’s considerably more common.  In referring to Eric Sykes, Dutton writes this:

“Another Tati-esque element employed by Sykes is his use of the placid observer.  Tati would often place an onlooker on the edge or at the back of the frame: not only to highlight the comedy but also to punch home and magnify its truthfulness – look, the gag is actually happening in the real world and hasn’t merely been made up for the cinema or television viewer.”

Mr. Dutton and I agree on how to understand visual comedy through its history.  That is what both of our books are about.  So I will finish with this quote from his book:

“If there is one theme in this book it is that all the great visual comics belong, as it were, to the same family, so similarities of style and trope are inevitable.”

And that is a good thing.  Audiences like fresh ideas and surprises, of course, but in comedy they also like familiarity.  Striking the balance is one of the challenges.  If I were to make a list of recommended books about comedy for animators to read, Keeping Quiet would certainly be high on the list.

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