“I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”
To really understand this quote you need a bit of history. As a child Chaplin was very, very poor, and had no real formal education. All he had was a bit of theatrical experience gained from his parents. His father was a drunk who abandoned them, and his mother lost her mind. The only chance Chaplin had to make a living was going into theater. Or he could dig ditches.
Later on, when he accepted the contract from Mack Sennett to work in movies, he believed it would be a temporary job. The money was good, and he thought he would take the money and go back to the theater. That’s what the quote refers to.
Still, I think artists should keep this quote alive in their thinking. You can be motivated by money, and bring something special to what you do.
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:
As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.
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.
“Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited.”
At first it took me by surprise, but I think he is really speaking of verbal comedy. That is the realm of the insult comic, the stand up comedian, and the celebrity roast. Mean spirited comedy involves taking someone on in a challenging way, walking a very fine edge to still keep it funny. We find that a little more thrilling. If a stand up comedian takes down a heckler with a fierce retort, it’s a victory we can all enjoy.
Physical comedians tend to be more playful. They want to keep the game going, not destroy the competition. The Three Stooges are violent, but not really mean. They are clearly faking the emotions.
Part of my goal with this blog is to separate the methods of physical comedy from verbal comedy, and I would be glad to have input from anyone on how the two are distinguished from one another.
The first clown was a “clod”, a clodhopper, a witless oaf who in time learned cunning… but who at first was pitiful and in a sense miraculous, for the derangement of his mind was a visitation from God. His antics, like those of the Fool in the Morris Dance, had a lunatic logic of their own that could not be shared by a more rational – allegedly more rational – people, who were awestruck by the uncomfortable thought that perhaps the pitiful clod was the only one in step with life.”