Animation exercise: A bad death scene

A Wild Hare, Tex Avery, 1940

I am always looking out for fun animation exercises. Very few student animation demo reels actually make me laugh. There are too many fight scenes or parkour shots that can demonstrate skill but are rarely entertaining.

Here is a new challenge. Animate a bad actor doing a death scene. It’s all about overacting, so it’s perfect for exaggerated animation. I have collected several video examples for inspiration. All but one of these use guns as the weapon, but other methods of death could work just as well. Poisoning would have its own special contortions. Multiple arrow strikes could inspire other ideas.

We’ll start with what might be the best bad death scene. There so many things wrong with this. The crazy expressions, the bad framing, the cheap and badly timed effects. The guy gets shot several times and drags it out way too long. The final look to the camera. If you’re not entertained by this, quit now and go do something else.

I am going to focus here on live actors as inspiration, but there is, of course, one very famous example of an overacted death scene in cartoons. At about 39 seconds, note his left hand as he weakly covers his cough, then the delicate finger action, before it hits the ground with a heavy slap. From A Wild Hare (1940)

As you can see, the death scene can involve being cradled by the killer while last words are spoken. Jim Carrey followed up with this in The Mask.

This one is short and sweet. It’s funny for the one expression the guy has before falling out of frame. Extra points for the ninja star.

This SNL short gets laughs with common tropes found in murder scenes. Repetition makes it ever more ridiculous, with variations thrown in for good effect. They almost underact the moment of getting shot, like it’s more shock than pain.

Overacted death scenes appear to be quite popular in Indian film making. Here are three great examples.

The video I opened with is so popular, it is has spawned parodies. This one brings a different energy and shows how much room there is to play with this exercise.

Basil Wolverton’s Vaudeville connection

A sample of Wolverton’s work:

I recently purchased “The Wolverton Bible” through Amazon. I have always enjoyed Wolverton’s illustration. The book includes an introduction by Grant Geissman, and I found this fun fact:

Before becoming a cartoonist, Wolverton had actually started out as a young Vaudeville performer in theaters in Oregon and Washington.  “Eventually I heard or read,” recalled Wolverton, “that a two bit actor earns even less than a two bit cartoonist”

The introduction goes on to say the Wolverton was a devout Christian and took the job of illustrating the Bible very seriously.

On this excellent site, I learned this fun trivia fact about him.

Other sources of income were provided by his job as a journalist/cartoonist for the Portland News. One of his most exciting assignments was visiting the set of the film ‘The General’ and meeting Buster Keaton in person.

Wolverton’s work has a very sculpted quality about it, and it begs to be animated. I found this really well-done claymation based on his designs.

For a nice bio of Basil, with illustrations, I recommend THIS PAGE

Joe Penner – Elmer Fudd

I have been re-reading The Great Cartoon Directors by Jeff Lenberg, and in the section on Tex Avery he discusses the origins of Elmer Fudd.   Elmer’s first incarnation was as “Egghead” and he was apparently inspired by a popular comic actor named Joe Penner.   Here is a short piece of Joe Penner, that has a bonus of Betty Grable and some animation.

Playful characters

Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories.  Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.

  1. Make the character want something.
  2. Be a sadist to the character.  Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
  3. Have them overcome the obstacles.

All of that is valid advice for starting stories. However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules.” People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, are giving advice to writers, not animators. Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules. I’m thinking of characters, I will call “playful.”

For instance, consider Bugs Bunny.    Bugs doesn’t want anything.  Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing.  Elmer Fudd wants something.  He wants to kill the rabbit for food.   Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal.  The obstacles created by Bugs.   Bugs becomes the sadist.   Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist.  But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.

Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever.  Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character.   While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.

Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit.  They are bold.  They are confident.  They do not shy away from challenges.  They engage in the situation and master it with style.  From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer.  These are the characters this blog is concerned with.

What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.

The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.

The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done.  The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again.  And audiences will come back for more.

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