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

Chaplin carries a piano

Piano moving is a classic theme for physical comedy, and Charlie Chaplin has done it more than once.  Chaplin wrote and directed His Musical Career in 1914 while working at Keystone Studios. It is an excellent example for animators to study, so let me break down a fun scene for you.

Early in their studies, animators often create a scene of a character lifting a heavy weight.  It is a good way to develop an understanding of biomechanics, which will make the action seem realistic.  If you want to take it to the next level, make it entertaining. This is what we can learn from Charlie. The video below picks up where he enters the apartment with the piano on his back.  It’s important to know that the piano is a prop, so it isn’t actually heavy. This allows Chaplin to mime it in funny ways, rather than be “realistic”

Note the first shot of his entrance.  It’s set up so that the piano fills over 2/3 of the frame.  He stops to show how darn big it is. But that’s not all. Charlie has a partner, who is substantially larger, and should at least be helping.  Not only is he not helping, during this moment he is stopping to take a drink. The scene is all about making Charlie support this enormous load for as long as possible.

The old man wants to discuss where to put the piano, so he asks Charlie to wait a moment.

That leads to an argument with the daughter about where it should go.

When a decision is made, Charlie tries to lower the piano, which leads to this funny pose.

When he is finally relieved of the weight, he cannot straighten up. Another funny pose.

His partner must use his foot to push him back into a straight line.

And when he’s completely straight, he can’t just help him up, so they have another brief argument while his foot is still on his bum.

During this scene, Charlie gets no respect for all the work he is doing. But the relationship between the two piano movers is fluid. Earlier, Charlie got the best of the other guy, so there is no set rule to how things must happen between them.  It’s all about whatever is funniest for the moment.

 

 

 

Jackie Chan Master of Silent Comedy

I am thrilled that Jackie Chan gets so much appreciation from film fans and makers of YouTube video essays. His work is being studied and there are many lessons for animators to soak up. Here is a recent video that makes a case for Chan as the fourth great silent comedian. It features some excellent examples from Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Chan studied their work and applied it to his own.

I have other posts about him on the topics of TIPS FOR ACTION COMEDY, HOW TO DO ACTION COMEDY, and the ten video extravaganza JACKIE CHAN’S TIPS FOR ANIMATORS. All these are worth watching more than once.

How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

Here is some more of what I learned from Rob King’s book on Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio “The Fun Factory”.

The earliest Keystone comedians brought their characters with them from vaudeville. These were the ethnic caricatures that were popular in their day.

In contrast with the “classical” body of white America, the vaudeville stage elaborated an iconography of ethnic grotesquery. Characteristic elements of costume and makeup drew attention to the orifices and bodily extensions, from the stage Jews exaggerated nose and protruding ears to the red whiskers and ruddy countenances of the Irish performers.

These characters were sometimes created and often enjoyed by the same people that were being lampooned. But over time, as immigrants assimilated into society, they did not want to be differentiated, and no longer found them funny. Middle and upper class audiences often found such performances distasteful and vulgar.  Around this time Chaplin began his climb into the stratosphere of fame.

Such phenomenal popularity could only have emerged at the intersection of several crosscurrents in the development of film comedy during the mid-1910’s, chief among them was the vocal disfavor into which the ethnic character had fallen by this time

While other comedians still pursued their stereotypical types, Chaplin concocted a character who had no recognizable nationality, but was a distinct representation of a social class: A Tramp.

-the tramp was a particularly visible figure with America of the period 1870 – 1920, when, in the wake of the upheavals wrought by the economic crisis of 1873 and the depression of 1893, as many as a fifth of American workers spent some time as transients. Tramping thus formed part of the common work experience of industrial America. But it was also a familiar theme of turn-of-century popular culture, where the tramp was a stock character of newspaper strips, dime novels, vaudeville and early film comedy.

David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of  has pointed out that circus clowns created comic tramp characters long before Chaplin, and were primarily responsible for it’s success in other forms of popular culture.

It wasn’t just the appearance of the character either. Chaplin moved away from the excessive energy in the acting, and the quick pacing of the shots in favor of a slower more thoughtful presentation.   Most comedians were still trying to push everything faster, with quicker cuts, and Chaplin was taking more and more time in each shot.

Rather than grounding his comedy solely in the expressive possibilities of frenetic action, Chaplin uniquely exploited the intervals between the action that introduced an affective dimension to the performance.

Where “comic” situations invited the spectator to laugh at the clown’s transgression, humor complicates that reaction by opening up a margin for identification. It is precisely that complexity that Chaplin’s lumenproletariat persona provokes inviting a spectatorship that oscillates between the poles of empathy and ridicule.

Chaplin didn’t completely reject the rough and tumble comedy, he was still great at that. But he gave the character some room to be more human. This was the turning point where physical comedy became palatable to higher class audiences, and soon everyone was going to see Charlie Chaplin.

Animated Charlie Chaplin shorts

Recreating Charlie Chaplin is a tough order, but these animated shorts are fairly engaging. They obviously did some research. Apparently produced in Luxembourg.






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