A note on gags from Disney Animation


I am reading the book Before Ever After, The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio, by Don Hahn and Tracey Miller-Zarneke.  The book is primarily a compilation of lecture notes collected by Don Graham.   They were from classes held at the Chouinard Art Institute, and were part of the preparations for Disney’s entry into feature film animation. Since my special interest is comedy in animation, I went through the index, and found a handful of entries on the topic of gags.  The first of these came in an interview conducted by a Dr. Morkovin, with animator Art Babbitt.

This set of notes contained a remarkable description of how to successfully put over a comic moment in a film.  First, in story building they create unusual situations.  But then the animator has the special challenge of getting the audience to engage with the character on screen.  This really is where the animator takes over from the story man, and becomes the performer.  The animator’s goal is to get the spectator to identify with the character, to imagine him or herself being in the character’s shoes.  Here is the first quote that really rang out to me.

There are two ways of doing this: one, through the mental channel – sympathy with the character or antagonism toward the menace.   That is story building.  The other is through empathy – physical sympathy with the character expressed throught thru the spectator’s body. (illustrated “empathy” by citing example of clown in circus pretending to lose his equilibrium in a very precarious position – whole audience is excited and shares the sensation with the clown of falling and recovering balance just in time… the clown plays on this physical reaction of the audience to enhance the relief and effectiveness of this stunt which he finally executes completely.

I love notes that use live physical performers as the basis for the idea.  That’s what my book is all about.

You must get into the body of your spectator. In order to do that you must make your character so living, his action so convincing, that identification is possible… For example, when Pluto was on skates, struggling with him (Pluto) in his effort to gain or regain balance…  the spectator had to identify himself with Pluto in order to follow logically all his funny, ridiculous, preposterous movement and exertion, in order to have 100% reaction.

If the animation is thoughtful and detailed you will recognize the truth in how the character acts, and you will believe in what they are going through. Taking the small actions and exaggerating them so the audience can’t misunderstand.  Timing it out so they can recognize the important poses and movements instantly.  Of course, that is what the principles of animation are all about, but this a unique description of the end goal, to get the spectator to feel what the character is feeling.



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