Wilkins and Wontkins

Wilkins and Wontkins were some of Jim Henson’s earliest Muppets. They were created to advertise Wilkins coffee and were hugely successful. They were in use for Wilkins, and other brands, from 1957 to 1968.  Animators can learn a few things from them.

First, it has to be said, these commercial spots are violent. Wilkins is remorseless in his efforts to get Wontkins to drink the coffee. That’s a strong personality.

But since this is cartoon violence, we know Wontkins will be back next time.

This is a basic comedy duo of a straight man and a stooge. The stooge is sometimes referred to as “he who gets slapped.”

These spots are only 8 seconds long.  That timing still works in today’s world of shortened attention spans.  Watch several of them, and the basic formula will become obvious. The scene and situation are quickly established, Wilkins makes a pitch, Wontkins responds with the wrong answer.  Then Wontkins suffers a quick and brutal response.  It makes an impression on the viewer. That violent end is a sort of visual exclamation point, creating a finale in a very short period of time.  I can imagine the audience became accustomed to these commercials and got a quick laugh while being reminded of the brand.  Television airtime is pricey, and these spots delivered a huge value for their money.

This compilation is over 14 minutes long.  That’s a lot of 8-second spots. Henson had the imagination to crank them out.

The design of Wilkins, and the Jim Henson voice, certainly reminds us of Kermit the Frog.  It needs to be said that Henson made the astute business decision to retain the ownership of the puppets.  He commonly did this, and it worked out for him in the long run. Advertising can be a money factory, and it helped Henson get his other productions funded. Here is a compilation of the puppets promoting other brands.


The Pilot Brothers

Pilot is a Russian animation company co-founded by Alexander Tatarsky (1950-2007) and Igor Kovalyov. They started animating with a camera they salvaged from a junkyard.  Kovalyov later worked in the U.S. at Klasky Csupo, where he co-created Aaargh!!! Real Monsters and The Rugrats Movie.

I was alerted to their very successful characters, The Pilot Brothers, by the twitter account @_ibcf_. He shared a clip of an award-winning film which, translated into English is titled The Pilot Brothers Cook Macaroni for Breakfast (1996).  After some searching, I was able to find a reasonably good digital transfer.   There are subtitled versions of it, which might clue you in a little, but they are not as enjoyable.

What cartoony fun!   There is so much to like about this film. It has many surreal touches, such as the cuckoo clock eggs that crack open into little alarm clocks that have to be chased around.  It’s has a speedy tempo, and very tight editing.  The animation is full and rendered with detail and shadows. It’s easy to see where the Klasky Csupo style came from. The music is light-hearted.  What really stood out to me is the layout.  They fill the frame with moving characters, but it doesn’t feel cramped.  You can enjoy it without understanding everything they are saying.

I have watched some Russian clowns, and this work reminded me of them. So I was not surprised when, in Wikipedia, I found this about Tatarsky:

His father Mikhail Semyonovich Tatarskiy worked in circus and wrote gags for such clowns as Oleg Popov and Yuri Nikulin who was a close family friend.

To find these shorts on YouTube, it’s most effective to use Russian (copy and paste is your friend)  Apparently, they are super popular characters. They went on to be CG animated and are currently available in downloadable games.  But, like classic American animation. the originals are the best. Enjoy some more!


Fashioning movement

While perusing my library for blog material, I picked up Charlie Chaplin’s One Man Show, by Dan Kamin.   For studying Chaplin’s physical performance, you can’t find a better book.  But the passage that caught my eye isn’t specifically about Charlie.  It’s about studying performance in general:

One of the difficulties of watching films from a past era is in distinguishing what is intended to be stylized playing and parody from the mannerisms and movements characteristic of “real” people of the period.  From century to century, and even from decade to decade, fashions in movement change as do fashions in clothing.

I like the word “fashion” being used here.  The word “style” doesn’t quite suggest the passing nature of what’s being discussed.  And it also brings to mind how human movement differs not only over time, but from place to place.

Humans learn to move in the same way we learn to speak.  We pick up motion the way we pick up our local accents.  It’s subconscious.  We do it to fit in, to be like others.   If a construction worker suddenly started swinging his hips like a streetwalker, his coworkers would notice.  A punk rocker moves differently from a classical pianist.  Each sub-culture will have it’s characteristic movement.

The actor Sacha Baron Cohen understands this.  His characters involve transforming every part of his appearance, voice and even his movement. Borat moves in a rigid, angular manner.

Bruno is much more loose and swishy

…while Ali G. strikes all the common hip-hop poses.

Most actors don’t do this.  Jack Black always moves like Jack Black.  Jim Carrey has varying degrees of his signature wackiness, from Ace Ventura on down to his serious roles.   If they have found success with it, they wouldn’ want to change.  Animators need to think like Cohen, and look for great styles of movement to give characters.

Happy Birthday Buster Keaton!

October 4, 1895, Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born in Piqua Kansas.  Enjoy these three videos “This is Your Life: Buster Keaton”

Straight men

I should spend a little time considering the “straight man” in comedy. Margaret Dumont was probably the greatest straight woman of all time. Typically the term applies to verbal comedians, but I’m sure physical comedy has it’s own kind. What springs to mind is the audience member brought on stage to have fun with. Also, I think of the court jester who plays off the king as his straight man.

In animation, Elmer Fudd may be the greatest straight character ever. Foghorn Leghorn played off the dog. Did that dog have a name?

Here is Groucho Marx talking about the role of the straight man with Dan Rowen.  On the TV show Laugh-In, Dan Rowan was the straight man to Dick Rowan’s dimwitted character.

One of the youtube commenters notes:
“Groucho & Chico traded being straight man to each other. Groucho played straight man to Chico quite a bit.”

If you have the patience for a 45 minute podcast, try this.


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