A lesson on acting from Oliver Hardy

In making acting choices for your character, it’s valuable to consider how the character feels about themselves, and what the character chooses to project to the world. How does he or she want to be perceived by others in the story.

In the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, Oliver Hardy was the fat one.  Oliver had an idiosyncratic way of moving his hands.  His signature move was this fiddling with his tie.

Overall, he tended to move his arms lightly.  He preferred hand poses that could be described as delicate.

It wasn’t constant, he could ball up his fists in anger, or occasionally choke Stan.  He also didn’t overdo the fluttery hands to the point of being effeminate, but it is atypical for a man of his size.  I bring up his size and weight because he didn’t like being “the fat one.”  The actor specifically moved his hands this way because he felt it made him less appear less heavy.  Now that I write this, I realize old-timey villains were often “heavies” so this was also a way to distinguish himself from them. The results are both non-threatening and sweet.  He’s more likable for that acting choice.

I have a friend who is very tall, 6 foot 7 inches.  He told me that tall people often slouch in an effort to be more “normal”  They become uncomfortable with all the extra attention they get for something they can’t help, so they try to ameliorate the situation by changing their posture.  Thinking about human nature can help inform your acting.

In animation, there is a tendency to try to make every element of a character send the same signal to the audience, to make it clear what they are all about.  But that can lead to oversimplification which can also be uninteresting.

Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp was a down and out character who walked about in a shabby suit of clothes.  But he usually moved with an unusual confidence and an air of sophistication.  He would carefully tidy up what clothes had and strike elegant poses.  His character either remembered what it was like to be a man of means, or at least hoped others would take him for one.

There is also something called “Playing against type”  That means there is a sizable disconnect between a character’s appearance and their behavior.  It is not uncommon in comedy.  While that is similar to this topic, I find it can be taken too far.  I wrote a short post about it some time ago.

So, find ways for your characters to not be stereotypical. Throw in some unexpected details that you can justify with a minor bit of psychology.  It doesn’t require a complicated backstory, just a little depth.


Primitive comic structure

Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers of moving pictures, and “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is his oldest surviving movie. Made in 1889, it is considered to be a comic film. Just watching a man sneeze was thought to be entertaining. At this point, films were extremely short, measured in seconds, this one lasts as long as a sneeze.

Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind, identifies this as a piece of “comic business”.

He contrasts that film with “L’Arroseur arrosee” from 1895, which I posted previously.

A gardener goes about his business of watering plants with a hose. A boy sneaks up behind him, steps on the hose, and the water ceases to flow. The gardener stares at the hose to find the source of the trouble, the boy removes his foot, and the gardener receives a faceful of water. The gardener then discovers the source of the prank, chases the boy, catches him, spanks him, and the film ends.

… The extreme simplicity of the compound makes it very easy to analyze it’s chemistry. The elements of the film are four: (1) a comic protagonist who wants to perform a task. (2) a comic antagonist interferes with that performance. (3) a comic object begins as a tool and ends as a weapon. (4) the protagonist makes a comic discovery of the problem and takes action on the basis of that discovery.

Think about it this way, if a character slips on a banana peel, it can be funny. That’s like Fred Ott’s sneeze. But if a monkey intentionally threw the banana peel, then laughed at the man who falls, and the man then man gets angry and throws the banana peel at the monkey who gets hit in the face, you have a basic story. These two films represent the very first steps toward comic stories. Mast continues:

As simple as this initial film jest was, it contained elements that could be combined and expanded into much more complex films. The protagonist: Who is he? What does he want to accomplish? What is at stake? Why? The antagonist: What is the basis of his antagonism? What does that antagonism imply? How does he go about it? The comic object: How familiar is it? What is it’s usual function? How many are there? What metamorphosis does it undergo? To what unfamiliar uses is it put? The comic discovery: How does it come about? What does it in turn produce? What would happen without it?

The Arcimboldo Effect

I asked my ten year old if he had seen pictures like this:

He had. I’m sure you have too. That painting is called Vertumnus, and it was created by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He caused a bit of a stir with his portraits done in this style. I like them because they are sort of funny.

From Wikipedia:

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian pronunciation: [dʒuˈzɛppe artʃimˈbɔldo]; also spelled Arcimboldi) (1527 – July 11, 1593) was an Italian painter best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of such objects as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books – that is, he painted representations of these objects on the canvas arranged in such a way that the whole collection of objects formed a recognizable likeness of the portrait subject.

Here is a normal self portrait of his own face. I wonder if he ever gave himself the same treatment.

He didn’t just use vegetables. This one is called “The Librarian.”

The effect has inspired many other artists. Here is one by Octavio Ocampo.

The animated feature “The Tale of Desperaux” named the character “Boldo” after him:

And I love this “Alien” inspired portrait.

Ernie Kovacs – The mad genius of TV

I mentioned earlier how Chaplin took on a new technology and carried beyond what anyone had otherwise imagined.  Ernie Kovacs did the same thing in television.

When television was a new medium, local tv stations had airtime to fill.  A Philidelphia station manager found Ernie Kovacs on the local radio, and offered him some time on the TV.  He was given practically no budget and his only expectation was to be entertaining and find an audience.  The bit below may be his most famous, and it looks like it cost about $9.75 to produce.

This is also a good example of surrealism in film.   The imitation mechanical movement is quite intriguing.

Kovacs had very cartoon sensibilities. Like this:

This next video has some great narration by Kovacs, as he both explains, and makes fun of film making. He opens with this line:

There’s a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is beat it to death if it succeeds.

Today’s lesson: Butt acting with Yahoo Serious

Most student animators have been tasked with making a character lift a heavy object. Here is something similar done by an actor, the Australian comedian Yahoo Serious, in his film “Mr. Accident” from the year 2000.  He finds a hubcap embedded in a wall, and puts a lot of work into pulling it free.  The horizontal nature of the effort, and the gyrations of his butt, (nicely emphasized by some grunts) add up to fresh piece of visual comedy.

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