Animated Acting: Gene Wilders Willy Wonka

Today is Gene Wilder’s 80th birthday, and I felt compelled to post something about him. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of my favorite movies. Roald Dahl stories always seem to work for me.

The character who appears to be good but turns out bad is common. It is also common for a good character to be simply misunderstood. In Wreck it Ralph, King Candy is the former, and Ralph is the later. But Wilder’s Wonka is a good character who intentionally misleads. He is extremely controlling, and this is one way he controls his interactions. He doesn’t want to be vulnerable. Wonka’s sudden explosion of anger at the end of the movie is a turn in the character arc that is just plain shocking. Of course he reveals his true thoughts at the end of the same scene. It is not in the original book, and is a brilliant moment added by the film makers. For a kids movie, Wonka’s outburst is really strong and I am impressed in how he didn’t hold back. This remixed video highlights Wilder’s animated acting. Happy Birthday Gene Wilder.

Here is an interview with Wilder. At about 10:35 they begin discussing Willy Wonka.

Animated Acting: Make an entrance!

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I teach animation at the Academy of Art University, and one common mistake I see students make is this. The scene opens with a person in a relaxed standing position. Then they start “acting” with some arm gestures. It’s as though they are waiting for the director to say “action!”

I tell them the audience is gathering an impression from the very first frame, and it’s great if the character is already clearly in some state of thought or action. If you are just doing a single shot, imagine there was a scene before, and we are cutting on action to your scene.

That little tip leads me to a larger topic. That of how a character enters a scene. A great entrance will immediate capture an audiences attention. Charlie Chaplin worked at making interesting entrances. Here, the actor Rowan Atkinson explains why:

Chaplin so took over a picture, he seemed to always be center screen, or entering or exiting in some eyecatching manner. Entrances and exits are a special aspect of physical comedy, worthy of great thought, but Chaplin also did this for a different reason: editing. Sennett would often edit out any material he didn’t care for, and this angered Charlie. But Sennett had to leave in the entrances and exits. By embedding good stuff in those moments, Chaplin was assured of quality screen time.

Sennett was editing out what he didn’t care for, and audiences will do the same, essentially forgetting those moments.  So Chaplin used that knowledge to make sure his time on stage was as effective as possible.  He could make a great entrance, then slow down a little maintain the integrity of the performance.

Of course we don’t have to do great entrances to keep from being thrown on the cutting room floor.  But it is a way of not being boring.  It’s a way to get the audience immediately excited.

While comedians and animated characters can put a lot of energy into entrances normal actors also want to know why they are entering a space.  Here is a 4 minute video about entrances and exits from a writers point of view.  As a film maker, you are the director, and this is worth watching.

Now back to energetic characters trying to grab the spotlight.  In the TV series Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer made a trademark of barging into Jerry’s apartment without knocking.  Here is a montage of Kramer’s entrances.

Entrances are more than just coming in through a door.  Any time a film begins, the first scene is essentially the entrance.  One way of making this entertaining is a camera reveal of the situation.  In some of Popeye’s earliest shorts, we would first see him in close up, bobbing up and down like a sailor, with the rain pouring down.  He would be in a heroic pose:

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As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.

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The Three Stooges had some great entrances.  Here is one of my favorites from “No Census, No Feeling” which starts at :24. While it looks like stuntmen were used, they matched the action over the cut very nicely.

One group that has taken entrances very seriously are professional wrestlers. They are all showmen.  A youtube search for “entrances” will show numerous compilations of them. I was impressed with this particular fighter’s entrances, which are very theatrical.

Animated Characters as Actors

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The title of this post might make it sound like this is another “animators are actors with pencils” speech, but it’s about casting characters into roles other than who they were to begin with.

Recently I was reading an essay by Peter Kramer on Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith. Part of his approach was through the idea of “Comedian Comedy”. This is any show where the comedian’s personal style is more important than the character he is playing. Mr. Kramer paraphrases Frank Krutnik:

Comedian comedy is characterized precisely by a fundamental mismatch between the identity of the performer…and the role he assumes within the fiction.

Actors like Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, and Jack Black bring their own distinct personalities to every comic part they play. Audiences come to see the actor do his special thing, rather than understand the nature of the character he’s cast to play. It is a special place in performance. Krutnik writes:

The comedian is marked within the text as having a privileged status compared to the other characters/actors: he is less fictionally integrated and has a relatively disruptive function in relation to the fictional world.

While this is rare in animation, it does happen. I am thinking of Mickey Mouse in a few of his classic shorts, like Gulliver Mickey or The Brave Little Tailor. He played Bob Cratchit in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, along with Scrooge McDuck an the rest of the Disney gang.  Mickey’s casting as Bob Cratchit seems a natural direction for him, rather than a mismatch.  A more disruptive example would be Daffy Duck playing Robin Hood.  He’s clearly not heroic figure to begin with, but that’s part of parody.  Cartoon characters are great for parody of classic work. At this point, Star Wars is a classic work, and hats of to Seth MacFarlane for putting his Family Guy cast into it.  Please comment if you can recall any other examples.

To be able to do move beyond their origins, characters cannot be too extreme, too specialized. A toy spaceman, a talking car, a one eyed monster, or a superhero are made to fit into unique contexts. It’s easier to create a “Teenage mutant ninja turtle” than a “funny mouse.”

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