Animated Acting: Playing the Trickster

If you are looking to create a fun animated character with a strong visual acting style, consider the trickster.

I recently re-watched the 2013 Chinese film, Journey To The West.  It’s directed by Stephen Chow, who is my favorite working film maker.  The story involves a young demon hunter, and one of the demons he sets out to find is the classic character from Chinese folklore, the Monkey King.  The Monkey King is a trickster, and the actor portraying him here gives an excellent example of how a trickster acts.  Tricksters are not necessarily good or evil, but are almost always self serving.  The trickster is false.  The trickster has no reliable character to play, he acts in whatever way he thinks will serve his purposes.  The character falls outside the bounds of what is commonly seen in modern cinema. They are ancient characters, and will always have the potential to be entertaining.

In this movie, the Monkey King has been caught and imprisoned in a cave by Buddha.  His goal is to escape. When the young demon hunter enters, the Monkey King first sets out to win his confidence.  I really like his movement in this first clip.  His excessively graceful posing and gestures are a classical way of demonstrating good character.  His goal is to get the young man to take away the seal that prevents him from leaving. (BTW, the dubbed voice is awful, try to watch movement and not think about that.)

 

The young man is too simple and kind to fall for the trick.  He is not suspicious at all, he just doesn’t do what’s expected.  When the first trick fails, the Monkey King then tries to intimidate him with tall tales. His demeanor turns serious and threatening.

 

Again, the trick fails. The young man isn’t easily frightened, which is why has no reluctance to be a demon hunter.  After that scene, the Monkey King tries to escape, but the magic holding him in causes him to be painfully whipped by the clinging vines.  As he is down, he turns to acting pathetic, to win sympathy.

 

The pretty girl that just showed up has a strong romantic interest in the young man.  The Monkey King now has someone else to try to trick into helping.  So he resorts acting like a flirting man in a disco trying to win over the pretty girl.  Again, his physical acting is very strong.

 

The next clip is a spoiler, in case you are interested in how this section of the movie turns out.

Finally, the Monkey King simply mentions that he hasn’t seen the full moon in centuries.  The young man chooses to do a good deed for him.  At that point, we see the Monkey Kings true character.

 

I am not the first person to point out that one of animations greatest characters, Bug Bunny, is a trickster.  All the trickster needs someone to trick. Where the Monkey King had the young demon hunter, Bugs Bunny  had Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, or some other dupe.  To be in control, Bugs has been known to act like he is dead or dying:

He has pretended to be someone he’s not.

Sometimes he’s dressed in drag.

He will be pathetic if it might help.

He has even resorted to begging.

The trickster is a fun character who has over acting built into his or her style.  You don’t have to hold back.  The antagonist can also have interesting reactions, as seen above.  We need more tricksters.  How deep is your bag of tricks?

 

Are these creatures appealing?

Above are three character designs for you to consider.  On the left is Mary, the titular character from a new ABC Television series Imaginary Mary.  (Cartoon Brew posted an article about it)  In the center is “Oh” from Dreamworks movie Home.  On the right is a character from the 2015 film Monster Hunt, I do not know it’s name.  One of them is imaginary, one is an alien, and one is a monster, so all of them are non-human.  Clearly, they are all following an identical design aesthetic.  Short rounded bodies, big, wide set eyes, and only one has a nose, which is tiny. Obviously, they want to make creatures that are strange, but also non-threatening.  They look soft and friendly.  We have to assume the target audience is young children.

I think these characters take “appeal” too far.  It gets so built into the design, that the characters have no range to act.  To me they are insipid, and  appear incapable of doing anything important.  We like babies and kittens, but only to look at and play with.  I don’t imagine they are going to take me on an exciting journey in a story.

I saw Monster Hunt once, and thought the live action parts were much more engaging than the animation.  The “cute” monsters felt like they didn’t belong in the same universe.  My following comments are mostly about Home and what I can see from the preview for Imaginary Mary.

Innocence can be a great comedic tool, but very few film makers know how to make a story with it.   What happened is the writers and directors made them too talky.  They like to write jokes, and when the put their “witty” dialog into these creatures, it simply doesn’t match with how they look.  Those designs are what some writers think is appeal.  For a good example of how an innocent character can have range, look at Spot from The Good Dinosaur.  Spot can be cute, but he can also be convincingly sad, and downright ferocious.

Spot doesn’t talk.

Yet, it is possible to have a character that has great visual appeal, and witty dialog.  You just have to go to the other end of the spectrum, and give up all innocence.

 

Hat comedy: Buster Keaton

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In the history of physical comedy, there is special place for the use of hats.  Hats are a very convenient costume prop to work with, as they are so available and easily located. During the heyday of silent films, it was common for people, both men and women, to put a much higher value on wearing a hat than we do today.   Hats were an expensive part of the outfit, and having a fashionable hat meant you were a respectable member of society. Because of that value and symbolism, the hat became a target for comedians.  When an character’s hat was lost or damaged, the audience knew he would take it seriously. Wearing the hat wrong, or wearing the wrong hat, can simply make the actor look funny.  To demonstrate their skill, comedians could also perform simple tricks by manipulating their hats in entertaining ways.

Hats are underused in animation.  Character designers, as well as animators, may not understand the value of the hat.  In what might be the first in a series of posts about hats, I’ll begin with Buster Keaton.  Keaton’s signature look included what was known as a “pork-pie hat.”  He would sometimes throw in a short gag using his hat.  Below are a handful of examples.  Notice how Keaton almost never looks at the hat.  These are quick gags, and he doesn’t make a big deal over the “business” of it unless it’s part of a larger sequence built around the hat, or hats, as you’ll see later on.

In this scene, a bullet knocks off his hat. Where another comedian might pick up the hat, put his finger through the bullet hole, and pull a funny face, Buster hardly lets it effect him.

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Here is the same gag, but in a more mundane situation.

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He didn’t always catch his hat.  In The Navigator he lost several hats to gusts of wind.  It became a running gag.

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In comic strips, when a character is surprised, he can have a big reaction that includes his hat popping off his head.  This is known as a “hat take.”   Here, Keaton uses a gimmick to simulate that.  Since he limited his facial expression so much, it did provide a bigger effect.

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It was unusual for Keaton to use wacky effects like that.  He sometimes snuck in surreal effects, such as this moment where arrives at work, slaps his cane again the wall and somehow makes it stick. Then he simply hangs his hat on the handle.

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Most of the time, he preferred to display his skill, as in this simple gag.

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Keaton didn’t always wear a pork pie hat.  If the time period of the story called for it, he could go with a different fashion.  In Our Hospitality, set before the US Civil War, he wore a very large top hat.  So large, it caused problems in the little carriage he was riding in. He has just met a pretty girl, and doesn’t want to look foolish.  The hat isn’t cooperating.

When he gives up and goes to the pork-pie hat, it’s a nod to the audience that he can’t escape being Buster Keaton.  In Steamboat Bill Jr. the hat makes a brief appearance in an entire scene is built around Buster trying on all kinds of hats.  He is a stylish young man, and his father is a serious old steamboat captain.  They haven’t seen each other for years, and this scene serves the purpose of illustrating how they relate to each other.  They each have very different opinions about the function of a hat.  This is also an example of the “Keaton circle.”  He goes through a whole bunch of motion, and eventually winds up back where he started.

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