Playful characters

Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories.  Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.

  1. Make the character want something.
  2. Be a sadist to the character.  Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
  3. Have them overcome the obstacles.

All of that is valid advice for starting stories. However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules.” People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, are giving advice to writers, not animators. Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules. I’m thinking of characters, I will call “playful.”

For instance, consider Bugs Bunny.    Bugs doesn’t want anything.  Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing.  Elmer Fudd wants something.  He wants to kill the rabbit for food.   Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal.  The obstacles created by Bugs.   Bugs becomes the sadist.   Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist.  But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.

Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever.  Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character.   While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.

Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit.  They are bold.  They are confident.  They do not shy away from challenges.  They engage in the situation and master it with style.  From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer.  These are the characters this blog is concerned with.

What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.

The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.

The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done.  The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again.  And audiences will come back for more.

In Praise of Funny Voices

For many years my focus has been on visual and physical comedy, like that found in old silent movies.  But recently I learned a good lesson about the value of voice in a character.

One evening I went to the Circus Center in San Francisco, to watch a performance of students in their Clown Conservatory.   It is interesting to watch novice comedians, because it is such a contrast to professionals.  The pros have done their acts perhaps thousands of times.  They have everything down, and proceed with a natural ease.  The students are clearly working hard.  In that regard, none of the students stood out.  But one of them did snag my attention.  It was because of her voice.  Her voice was a little funny.  I hardly recall what she said, but the unusual quality along with her delivery and timing helped to separate her from the group.

Here is a little piece of trivia I tell my students who are choosing a clip of dialog to animate to:  the word “personality” comes from “persona”.  The root words are “per” which means through and “sona”  which means sound.  Personality comes through the sound of the character.

For animators involved in dialog exercises, like 10/11 second club stuff, I would recommend putting some serious thought into the voices, perhaps even more than what is being said.  Many dialog exercises use clips from movies, featuring regular actors with regular voices.  It would be worth finding some voices with real character.  We all have to admit that Mel Blanc was a major contributor to the success of Looney Tunes.


Wild Lines: The Art of Voice Acting by CarlStallingEnthusiast

Aga Boom

These are the people seen in my post CARTOONY HUMANS.

From AGABOOM.COM

Rooted in the unique European theatrical style and universal language of clowning, Aga-Boom cuts through the barriers of language and culture with the art of slapstick, the humor of physical comedy and the delighted excitement of childhood.
Aga-Boom is an interactive mayhem that carries audiences to the other side of the funhouse mirror, with outrageous zaniness and unrestrained laughter. This 75-minute explosion of pure family fun, for children and adults alike is high energy, and nothing you have ever seen before.

This is a nice sampler of some of their other work.

Tomato Clown

Payaso Tomate = Tomato Clown

This fellow, I believe his name is Victor Avalos, has a great clown act. He’s fast and loud and makes an impression. He appears to be improvising, but probably isn’t, which is a great skill, and something virtually never felt in animation. He is playful. Having the audience there makes a huge difference. Chaplin had the ability to make a movie audience feel like he knew they were there.

The important thing is the audience loves it. If the audience laughs, there is something to be learned from it. It gets a bit dark while he is in the audience, but it’s not that long.


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