Some history of character walks

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.

The World of Commedia Dell’arte

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.

Acting Tips from the Commedia Dell ‘Arte.

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.

Commedia Acting Tip: The Ghost of Chekhov.

Checkhov of course was a playwright, and his characters are deep and complex. Cartoons are not.

Adam uses the term “appetite” instead of “motivation.”  I think the word appetite is way better for describing what drives a character.   It’s more visceral, more from the gut.

Commedia Acting Tip: It’s All About the Appetite.

I can recall watching animators shoot reference video, and doing the same thing over and over with each take. Before shooting reference, read this article:

Commedia Acting Tip: Try It Italian Style.

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.

Commedia Acting Tip: Animate the Inanimate..

And here is a nice video with some commedia acting lessons.

Commedia dell’arte and animation

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.

Commedia and the Actor

If you are interested in knowing more about Commedia Dell ‘Arte, here is an excellent article, courtesy of John Towsen.

Commedia and the Actor

%d bloggers like this: