The commedia dell’arte was an Italian theater of improvisation, developed in the mid sixteenth century. The literal translation is “the comedy of artists.” Performing in the outdoors, they would work from a basic scenario, with none of the action or lines fixed by a script. The beginning and ending were basically understood by the actors, and what occured in between was created on the stage. In order to maintain the laughs, they had developed an arsenal of possible dialog and physical gags, called “lazzi” which the entire cast would be prepared for.
The cast of characters usually included a merchant, a doctor, a soldier, two lovers and two servants. Once an actor or actress had assumed a role, it was kept for life. They lived and breathed the parts and knew exactly what their character would do in any situation. Much of the comic action came from the two servants, who were called “zanni”, the origin of the English word zany. Usually the pair included a quick witted first zanni, and slow witted second zanni.
Here is a good intro video:
The classic commedia was an actor centric theater. The troupes traveled in search of audiences and worked hard for very little money. Eventually a man named Goldoni began setting the various stories into scripts and producing stage plays for serious money. Gone were the wild and unpredictable performances, Goldoni’s actors did as they were told.
I can see a relationship to animation here. Animators are actors, and are quite capable of producing great entertainment. Goldoni, like modern producers, was a smart businessman who capitalized on the commedia styling. I’m not saying one was better than the other, I’m just saying that the business of entertainment has been the same for centuries, and it’s good to understand the contributions of artists and impresarios alike.
When thinking of a funny animated character, sadness is probably not one of the characteristics that comes to mind first. But there is a long history of combining sadness with humor.
Sadness is a fundamental human emotion and it can be the secret ingredient to creating a truly memorable character. Characters who are sad have a couple of advantages. Often, they are up against a difficult situation, and their obvious vulnerability plays to human empathy. Sadness makes a character feel real and relatable. Sadness is a truly honest emotion. A character who is obviously sad is not putting up a fake front, so we know they are truthful to themselves, and we tend to believe in truthful characters. Sadness is an understandable emotion when it is caused by loneliness. We don’t care about people who are sad because they aren’t rich, or aren’t beautiful. Loneliness is the driver of romance, and romance is one of the great motivators of story. The sad character has room to grow. If it is a comedy, we know it will have a happy ending, and seeing how someone goes from sad to happy is a fundamental story arc.
Combining that with humorous behavior provides a powerful contrast. Sad funny characters are always awkward. Theres is the comedy of foolishness.
In feature film animation, where the story is a usually completed, the star usually finds romance. But still, beginning with a character who is admittedly sad, can be a great way to get the audience on their side.
In Pixar’s Ratatouille, when we meet the young chef wannabe, Alfredo Linguini, the very first thing we learn about him is that his mother has died. He is an awkward young man in need of a job. He is clearly worthy of our sympathy.
During that first scene Skinner, the head chef, pushes him and falls into Collette’s arms, and she literally tosses him aside. At that point, she has no attraction to him at all and becomes a firm instructor of kitchen skills. The audience know there is potential there for him to find something more.
Wall-E is a diligent robot who continues to work hard at his job, even though he is the only one left to clean up an entire planet. He is the definition of dedicated. But he is lonely, and he has been discovering items in the trash that make him wonder about the world that used to be. While watching an old musical, he sees human beings holdng hands, and wonders what it is like. Just watch these two gifs.
When the reconnaissance robot Eve arrives, Wall-E is both irresistably curious, and terribly frightened. When Eve suspects something moving in the area, she unleashes a powerful energy weapon in his direction.
You should note that in both of these examples, the love interest does NOT make things easy. It has to appear challenging, if not impossible. The experience of falling in love is one the most intense experiences in life, and it makes for great storytelling opportunities. Both Wall-E and Linguini behave like adolescent boys fumbling in their romantic endeavors. But they succeed in the end.
The relationship doesn’t have be romantic. One of the greatest animated sad characters was Dumbo, who was separated from his mother. I chose the image at the top because it shows Dumbo in some of his clown outfit. Notice the frilled collar. While performing in the circus, Dumbo has his face painted white.
The frilled collar, and white painted face are both associated with one of the archetypes of clown, the Pierrot. It is a very specific style of clown. He is the sad clown. The Pierrot evolved from the Commedia Dell’arte’s Pedrolino. While his character has been around for centuries, it still lives on in our culture.
His character in contemporary popular culture—in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat.
Perhaps some of you have seen the videos of Puddles the singing clown. He usually sings torch songs, songs of loneliness and rejection. His on stage persona is a Pierrot.
Pierrot is the pure form of this character. In the end, he doesn’t get the girl. You might think of the Simpsons character Milhous as a Pierrot. He loves Lisa Simpson, but will never be loved by her in return. Every episode he has to start over again as just himself.
While he makes us laugh, we also know that often this is how life is. In fact, while Lisa ultimately rejects Milhous, she herself has often been rejected, and is always moving forward with her own story.
You see, while we like characters who make us laugh, we can love the characters who both make us laugh and cry. It is not an easy thing to do. Here is one of my favorite funny/sad performances. This is Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga from the movie Big Man on Campus. You can see more from this movie in my other post on it HERE.
I didn’t start off writing a post about character walks, but that’s where it ends up.
Popular culture has been the breeding ground for many things that get developed into “highbrow” culture. I recently learned a bit of trivia about the Commedia del ‘Arte that I had never heard before. While driving home the Friday evening, I listened to the NPR program Fresh Air. It was a rebroadcast of Terry Gross’s interview with Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet dance. Here is the piece of the transcript that caught my attention.
GROSS: So how did dancing en pointe, dancing on your toes, start?
HOMANS: That’s one of the most interesting moments in the history of ballet because it’s really a point at which popular traditions feed into a sort of high operatic, high balletic art.
Marie Taglioni is the ballerina that we most associate with the origins of pointe work. And she was working in Vienna, and in Vienna, she was working at the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. And these sort of Commedia dell’arte or acrobatic troupes often, you know, did tricks.
And one of the tricks that they did do was to climb up on their toes and parade around. And this kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet, most notably by Taglioni, and sort of given an elevated form so that instead of just stomping around en pointe, it became an image of the ethereal or somebody who can leave the ground or fly into the air, whose point of contact with the earth is only slight. So, you know, this is a kind of elevation towards the angels and God. And so a trick becomes a kind of high aspiration.
The commedia actors had very demanding styles of movement, and walks in particular were used to express character. Here is a quote from another source:
Hens, chick, rooster, capons, ducks, peacocks, all the farmyard bipeds make us laugh, their walks absurd parodies of man’s own gait. [The actors] are not identified so much by the color and cut of their costumes as by the walk, the gesture, the manner in which each uses his ‘feathers’ to express pride, joy, anger, and sorrow, alternately swelling and drooping, preening and ruffling, as he picks his way like a strutting fowl, ever vulnerable, across the stage before the appreciative eyes of the audience.
That verbal description is inspiring since it describes walks in a way very different than what animators are accustomed to. Animation walks tend to be utilitarian, they are simply to get a character from point A to B in a manner that seems realistic for the characters body and mood, as well as the situation. A wacky walk might be so distracting from the story, and the director would nix it pretty quickly.Tex Avery would sometimes create totally fresh character walks, the likes of which we hardly ever see anymore. I’ve just watched a Jerry Lewis movie, and realized Jerry’s run was one of his signature actions that will always belong to him. A big part of Johnny Depps presentation of Jack Sparrow’s character was his effeminate swagger, something the Disney executives originally hated. That’s the way to start a character.
Here is an excellent set of youtube videos to educate you on commedia dell’arte. In this first video, she refers to the British TV show, Fawlty Towers, which helps to understand the characters.
This next video describes how the commedia traditions carry on to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. She also mentions The Lion King.
This “character shape” video is great for animators, who often need ideas for creating specific characters walks. The “rich old man” is a character in Commedia, and the instructor mentions Mr. Burns, the Simpson character.
What I like about this next video is the approach to scenes. Have the character enter with a strong emotion already in place. And have them leave changed. When teaching animation, I get students describing their character as “just standing there, then something happens.” That doesn’t grab the viewer and bring them in at all.
This next video was included in my sub-verbal characters post.
Two years ago I put these links in separate posts, but have combined them here. These are some useful articles written by Adam Gertsacov about acting in the commedia dell’arte. They are not long, and are fun reads. I think they represent an approach to acting which is more appropriate for cartoon characters. Most “Acting for Animators” lessons come from actors who are trained in modern dramatic performance. Commedia performance is much different from that. It’s much more energetic and straightforward. “Method” acting is great for serious roles, but I’m talking cartoons here.
Here is a great quote from the first article:
If you were walking by and saw two commedia actors working on a scene– you shouldn’t think it was part of the everyday street life. You’d stop and take a look, and maybe call the cops about two weirdos acting kind of crazy.
The title of this post alone should make you want to read the article. “Animate the Inanimate” It is about acting with a static mask. Most animated characters have mobile faces, but focusing on the performance without the face moving is one way to strengthen the overall effect.