In the days of silent film comedy, directors and actors could choose from a broad array of scenarios involving manual labor. Piano moving, window washing, assembly lines, skyscraper construction, prisoners breaking rocks, masons building brick walls, laying railroad tracks, blacksmithing, boiler rooms and ice delivery. Every situation could create multiple possibilities for comedy involving comical body motion. A street scene could involve hoisting a safe to third floor window, or an elevator that rises through the sidewalk. Vehicles were not slick and comfortable. They were rattle trap open top cars, overstocked beer trucks, and the occasional motorcycle and sidecar. There were fire trucks with fireman dangling off the back and sides who arrived at the scene and got involved in handling unruly fire hoses. Inventors had messy workshops with actual tools to build mechanical wonders.
Animators back in the early days also drew from the same well of material. They took the action into that fabulous world of indestructible characters who could struggle with heavy objects, get crushed, and bounce right back.
A century ago, it was a different world.
I recently watched the umpteenth short animated film that featured a frustrated man in a tie at a desk in a cubicle. I don’t want to pick on it, so I won’t name the short. It was a good film, but not a great one. Office workers are ALWAYS portrayed as miserable wretches. Here is a tip: having your main character be a miserable wretch is not very appealing.
I’m guessing the young animation artists are expressing their disdain for what they perceive as the only alternative to their free and creative life. That’s not true of course, there are many awesome careers that don’t involve art or offices. Maybe they aren’t trying to be funny, and just are attempting social commentary. It’s not unlike the many short animated films that feature ranks of drab workers marching in time, until one suddenly breaks free and becomes all colorful and flies away to, well, somewhere else. Young people spend so much time interacting with keyboards and touch screens, they don’t seem to know much else. Manual labor has dropped out of public sight to such a degree that those kinds of jobs have become almost invisible to much of society.
This not to say that the office worker situation has no place in animation. It just has to be used to good effect.
Oh, and by the way, to those who think office work sucks, most animation is done sitting at a desk in front of a keyboard. You won’t have to wear at tie, but often there are cubicles. There are bosses and deadlines. And if the compositors insist, the lights will be low and they’ll complain if you get too noisy.
Please think outside the cubicle, and take a lesson from Nick Park and Aardman animation. They haven’t lost touch with that world. Wallace and Gromit wash windows and hunt rabbits (humanely, of course). Shaun the Sheep lives on a farm, with tractors and sheep shearing. These are worlds of substance and texture, bricks and mud. And they are very appealing.