Animation lessons from Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin with Tramp doll

Charlie Chaplin was a one-man revolution in film comedy. His acting was substantially different from the other comedians of his time, and in this post, I am going to explain one of the ways he was different. I include a complete video to show animators some of Charlie’s best moments, and what can be learned from them.

Chaplin was trained to act for the music hall stage by Fred Karno. Karno was a detail-oriented taskmaster.  He knew how to pace a program for maximum effect. When Chaplin went to work in films for Mack Sennett, the productions there were quite different. The marching orders were for lots of big action. The actors were told to give the first take everything they had and move on to the next shot. This resulted in short films that were at times frantic. Eventually, Chaplin was able to get control of his own films, and slow things down. He started doing multiple takes, searching for just how to act out a scene. Part of Chaplin’s great skill was his ability to focus and hold the attention of the audience. Often this meant emphasizing just one part of his body. 

Others have noticed this. Actor and author Dan Kamin wrote:

The secret lies in the extraordinary articulation of his body. His movement is hypnotic to watch both because it flows so well and because it is so selective. Quite often only one part of Chaplin’s body moves at a time.

I have assembled a video with examples of how Chaplin would get laughs by this method. I break it down to his head, shoulders, hands, feet, and his butt. As you watch the video, you may notice that when Chaplin is animating his legs or shoulders or whatever, often, there is very little else going on around him. The idea is to focus the audience on him, then focus the attention further to just one part of him. Please enjoy the video, and read further for even more about Charlie.

By the way, on the topic of Chaplin’s butt, Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni said.

Charlie Chaplin used his ass better than any other actor. In all his films his ass is practically the protagonist. For a comic, the ass has incredible importance.

The essential lesson from the video is “Less can be more.”  I want animators and others to keep this in mind as an option, NOT as a rule. That’s why I’m not using the better-known phrase “less is more.”   This was the style Chaplin created for himself. He would often have his adversaries “work big” and he, by contrast, would use more skill. It was the well thought out performance that made him a star.

 There will always be plenty of room for big acting in cartoons!

Chaplin had a few signature behaviors. Everybody knows the funny walk, the mustache wiggle, and the cane twirling. But you can’t maintain an audience with only that.  He continually worked to create fresh comedy. He stayed flexible and developed a whole array of methods to do that.  When he did recreate a gag, he would always endeavor to improve it.

Chaplin hardly rehearsed at all. He would work things out with the camera rolling.  Over many many takes, he would distill his performance down to its essential idea, and try to express that idea in the most effective way. There is no better way for animators to develop their skill than to shoot reference video. And don’t just do one take! Do it as many times and as many ways as you can. experiment! Have someone help you with feedback. Recognize what is working, and isolate the important bits.

Take an ordinary action, and do it in an unusual way.  Chaplin will go through normal routines, but he will put a little extra energy or thought into it. Small things become bigger. He’s that guy you see in the restroom who washes his hands like he’s going into surgery. You can’t help but notice.  Chaplin wants you to keep watching him.

If you are doing something expressive, doing it a different way might be confusing to the audience. In those cases, you can just exaggerate it, or repeat it enough times to make it ridiculous. That’s an easy answer, and Chaplin knew to not do that too much. It would get old quickly and lose its effectiveness, so it was just one tool in his toolbox.

Play to the audience, even when your back is turned. Chaplin had one walk when facing the camera, and a different walk for when he was going away from it.

Chaplin will sometimes alter his performance in order to get fresh laughs. The video has examples of Chaplin acting drunk, and one of them is significantly different than the others.

Charlie Chaplin was a major star.  He was allowed to do the singular things to get the laughs.  Traditional acting instruction, such as method acting, will not teach this.  Stanislavski’s goal was to create performances that feel natural. Much of what Chaplin does, is unnatural. Of course, unnatural acting is not always funny.  In fact, it often isn’t funny. The skill lies in making the behavior seem normal for that character.  Once the audience believes in him or her, then it’s magic.

Charlie Chaplin by Tonio

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.

Animated Acting: The Drunk Character

“A man’s true character comes out when he’s drunk.”

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin found his first fame playing a drunk. An intoxicated individual has lost his inhibitions and is, therefore, more interesting to watch. Like smoking, In Pixar’s Ratatouille, there is a very entertaining scene of Linguini rambling on with slurred speech after imbibing a bottle of wine. Bender from Futurama seems to be pretty much the same drunk as he is normally.

Back in the day, drunkenness was far more accepted in entertainers. Remember Timothy Mouse and Dumbo in Pink Elephants on Parade? Looney Tunes would sometimes have its characters get drunk. Hiccups seem to have been the common behavior.  The drunk stork delivering the wrong baby was a great way to set up a comedic situation. There was quite a bit of drinking in Tom & Jerry. This example shows Tom staggering around with some very precarious steps with no apparent trouble.

Creating a convincing alcoholic performance is difficult for actors, and probably even harder for animators. Looking for reference on youtube almost exclusively leads to people who are falling down drunk, and while it’s funny in some ways, a character in that condition is virtually useless in telling a story. So you need to see professionals who do entertaining imitations. Of course, I should start with Chaplin in his virtuoso solo performance in One A.M.

One of Chaplin’s lessons was that the lush doesn’t want people to know he (or she) is drunk. He continually tries to act sober and maintain his dignity. Here are some other tips for creating drunk characters:

  • Relax the character, keep him loose.
  • Play with balance. The character should not look stable. He should be exerting obvious effort to remain upright. Steps are short and wobbly.
  • Struggle with simple things. Like balance, they should have to put extra work into things that would normally be easy.
  • Break boundaries. Drunks are less inhibited and will move into places and spaces they wouldn’t when sober.  They are often overly friendly.
  • Slow him down. See the video of John Lasseter below.

Here are two good instructional videos on general drunken acting from actor DW Brown. But I would recommend visiting THIS BLOG POST For his text version.

Brown also describes four different kinds of drunks. If you are animating a drunk character, be sure to understand which kind he is.

  1. The Aloof Drunk. A person like this is so busy trying to appear sober they can’t really interact with others.
  2. The Happy Drunk. Someone who has lost all inhibitions, and wants to share his good feelings with everybody.
  3. The Angry Drunk is belligerent and ready for a fight. This kind of drunk could motivate some great comedy by picking fights with the wrong person.
  4. The Maudlin Drunk.  Sometimes people indulge the sadness in their lives when they get drunk.

And finally, here is an interesting lesson in this sort of behavior.  This is “Drunk John Lasseter”  He’s not really drunk. It’s just the video is slowed down, but it has the remarkable effect of making him appear to be. The inebriated brain runs slower.  Drunken characters should do everything a bit slower than a normal person would.

 

Animated Acting: Emotion Changes

At the Academy of Art, one of the assignments I gave was to show a character going through emotion changes. It is a simple way to get students to work at producing a couple of good poses and expressions. I have already encouraged them to try to avoid cliche acting, and make things feel motivated.

Generally, the students try to set up a situation that makes sense for the change to happen. And I found a great example which got me thinking about creating funny situations and timing. It is from the minions of Despicable Me fame.

If you watch this Banana mini-movie, you’ll notice that nearly every shot involves a minion having some rapid change of thought. In some cases it’s emotion, in many cases it’s the sudden hunger for the banana, in others it’s simply recognizing something important has happened. From the first one agonizing over whether to eat his lunch banana to the guy at the power switch ( at about 2:00) who seems to go through a half dozen different reactions to what’s happening around him.  These are characters who go through extremes. It’s dramatic comedy!

Many students do fine animation with a human figure going through some fair acting. It would be great to see something with a cartoon energy.

Animated Acting: Lose Control

stooges 5

Suppose you are given a choice of animating one of two scenes.

The first is a serious conversation between two people.

The other is a character who is enraged and clashes physically with everything around him.

If you chose the latter, then this post is for you.  You probably would love to animate Popeye gulping spinach and going ballistic.

Consider this scene from Charlie Chaplin’s great feature “The Kid”.  Charlie has taken care of a boy he found abandoned as a baby.  The authorities have come to take the child to the orphanage.  Charlie is having none of it.

Wow.  It’s an extremely dramatic moment, isn’t it?  Charlie manages to be both violent, and throw in some of his trademark silly movements.  As with any performance the challenge is to maintain what is specific about your character.  In comedy there may be no better way to create a performance that is both funny and dramatic.  The contrast within the scene makes the violence more surprising and the comedy even funnier.

In planning a performance I tell my students to answer 3 questions.

1. What is the character doing?  In this instance, getting extremely angry and perhaps fighting.

2. Why is the character doing it?  This comes from the story.  It’s the motivation.

3. How is the character doing it?  Here’s where the acting starts.  What makes this version of rage specific to this actor/character.

This next scene from the Three Stooges features one of Curly’s great freak outs.  Something sets him off, in this case it’s a mouse, and the only way to subdue him is with the smell of cheese.  It’s a way for him to lose his mind and overcome the more powerful bad guys.  Throughout the scene, he remains Curly through and through.

If you haven’t seen “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,”  it may be Hollywood’s greatest all star feature.  It features lots of great actors in stressful situations who have to deliver matching performances.  Here is Jonathan Winters going nuts:

While considering animated characters who do this, not so many sprang to mind.  Popeye, of course, conquered Bluto/Brutus with his spinach powered outburst.  And each time it was a fresh twist on the same idea.  Here is Roger Rabbit having a drink.

And few characters get angrier than Ren Hoek.

Think about other characters, animated or not, who lose control, and please leave a comment to help me build up the collection.

 

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