Wilkins and Wontkins

Wilkins and Wontkins were some of Jim Henson’s earliest Muppets. They were created to advertise Wilkins coffee and were hugely successful. They were in use for Wilkins, and other brands, from 1957 to 1968.  Animators can learn a few things from them.

First, it has to be said, these commercial spots are violent. Wilkins is remorseless in his efforts to get Wontkins to drink the coffee. That’s a strong personality.

But since this is cartoon violence, we know Wontkins will be back next time.

This is a basic comedy duo of a straight man and a stooge. The stooge is sometimes referred to as “he who gets slapped.”

These spots are only 8 seconds long.  That timing still works in today’s world of shortened attention spans.  Watch several of them, and the basic formula will become obvious. The scene and situation are quickly established, Wilkins makes a pitch, Wontkins responds with the wrong answer.  Then Wontkins suffers a quick and brutal response.  It makes an impression on the viewer. That violent end is a sort of visual exclamation point, creating a finale in a very short period of time.  I can imagine the audience became accustomed to these commercials and got a quick laugh while being reminded of the brand.  Television airtime is pricey, and these spots delivered a huge value for their money.

This compilation is over 14 minutes long.  That’s a lot of 8-second spots. Henson had the imagination to crank them out.

The design of Wilkins, and the Jim Henson voice, certainly reminds us of Kermit the Frog.  It needs to be said that Henson made the astute business decision to retain the ownership of the puppets.  He commonly did this, and it worked out for him in the long run. Advertising can be a money factory, and it helped Henson get his other productions funded. Here is a compilation of the puppets promoting other brands.


The Pilot Brothers

Pilot is a Russian animation company co-founded by Alexander Tatarsky (1950-2007) and Igor Kovalyov. They started animating with a camera they salvaged from a junkyard.  Kovalyov later worked in the U.S. at Klasky Csupo, where he co-created Aaargh!!! Real Monsters and The Rugrats Movie.

I was alerted to their very successful characters, The Pilot Brothers, by the twitter account @_ibcf_. He shared a clip of an award-winning film which, translated into English is titled The Pilot Brothers Cook Macaroni for Breakfast (1996).  After some searching, I was able to find a reasonably good digital transfer.   There are subtitled versions of it, which might clue you in a little, but they are not as enjoyable.

What cartoony fun!   There is so much to like about this film. It has many surreal touches, such as the cuckoo clock eggs that crack open into little alarm clocks that have to be chased around.  It’s has a speedy tempo, and very tight editing.  The animation is full and rendered with detail and shadows. It’s easy to see where the Klasky Csupo style came from. The music is light-hearted.  What really stood out to me is the layout.  They fill the frame with moving characters, but it doesn’t feel cramped.  You can enjoy it without understanding everything they are saying.

I have watched some Russian clowns, and this work reminded me of them. So I was not surprised when, in Wikipedia, I found this about Tatarsky:

His father Mikhail Semyonovich Tatarskiy worked in circus and wrote gags for such clowns as Oleg Popov and Yuri Nikulin who was a close family friend.

To find these shorts on YouTube, it’s most effective to use Russian (copy and paste is your friend)  Apparently, they are super popular characters. They went on to be CG animated and are currently available in downloadable games.  But, like classic American animation. the originals are the best. Enjoy some more!


My favorite pie fight

I have seen quite a few pie fights on video, and I just found my favorite.  It is from a Little Rascals theatrical short called “Shiverin’ Shakespeare”. What makes this one different?

  • Use of slow motion.  Sometime it’s during the throw, sometime on the hit.  Just the variation in speed makes it interesting.  When the pie flies in slo mo, then hits at full speed, it seems faster.
  • Editing.  This one has a nice pace of editing.  With fun reaction shots of the kids.
  • The actors, when entering the fight, move with a slow deliberateness that is just funny.  It’s almost like the slower they move, the funnier it is.  The first man who buys a pie stops to weigh them in his hands.
  • It still has all the usual pie fight elements like the matronly woman getting hit, and the wide shot of pies flying in all directions.



Chaplin’s Animated Face

Animators can learn valuable lessons from studying Charlie Chaplin and other silent film comedians. Recently, I delved into Chaplin’s early work as he began his movie career at Keystone Studios.  His films from that early time are often overshadowed by his later work at Mutual, First National, and United Artists. But I found these short films to be more than worth the time to watch. What stood out to me were Chaplin’s facial expressions. They were quite animated. More so than later on in his career. Other actors at Keystone would strike big expressions, but it would be one thought with the face contorting around it.  Chaplin had much more complex acting in his face.

This is presentational acting.  It isn’t about “telling a story.”  It’s about the audience watching people do funny things. A funny actor can take an otherwise simple scene and turn it into a laugh.  I have assembled several examples to show how Chaplin uses his expressions to create comic effects.

In Chaplin’s very first film, Making A Living, he plays a low life character. This is before he even invented the little tramp.  I caught him making what I am going to call a “micro-expression.”  It’s a very brief change in his face.  Through the magic of the animated gif, it’s easy to isolate this moment.  Here he is interacting with an older woman who is to become his future mother in law. It’s a traditionally antagonistic relationship.  As she turns away, watch his face change, then reverse back.

He starts smiling, then drifts into a split second of disgust, then snaps back into charming in an instant. His whole head has quick little jump to accentuate the change, and he does a jolly little laugh. When speaking to the lady, he shows his polite face. She turns away, and he reveals his true thoughts.  But he does it so quickly and smoothly it looks natural.  He isn’t holding it too long. He does something similar in this next shot, but in this case, he is heading into dinner. He drops his polite face for his “I”m hungry and about the get dinner” face.

These next two shots are from A Film Johnnie. Charlie is attending a movie screening, and he is reacting to the events on screen with uninhibited emotion.  In the first one, watch what he does after he wipes his eyes.  Rather than simply carry on with the same face he changes it. You can practically hear him trying to catch his breath from being overcome with emotion.

Shortly after that, he wrings out his handkerchief and gets his pants wet and I absolutely love the face he makes before he turns away.

At the Keystone studio, actors were encouraged to strike exaggerated facial expressions.  While Chaplin would eventually develop less extreme ways to express character, he was more than capable of mugging with the best of them.  In these shots from Cruel Cruel Love, he has been tricked into believing he has consumed poison in an attempted suicide.  This is his “I’m dying from poison” face.

Following that scene, a messenger arrives and interrupts his “dying”.

It’s a simple scene of him being handed an envelope.  But look at all that he does with it. He goes through a series of thoughts…

  1. I am surrendering to my fate and looking forward to the sweet relief of death.
  2. What, someone is here? What do you want?
  3. A message? I am confused.
  4. Wait, I am still dying!
  5. Are you still here?
  6. A polite nod of acknowledgment to the messenger.

It all happens very fast. Every one of those thoughts seems natural and recognizable. It’s an amazing bit of comic acting.

In this next scene from A Gentleman of Nerve, Chaplin is acting rudely towards everyone. There isn’t much of a story here. It’s all about his character and watching what he does.  He begins this part by sneaking some soda from the lady to his left.  Characters with active minds are interesting. Watch how many different thoughts appear to go through his head.

Here is a scene from Mabel at the Wheel, where he is not playing the Tramp, but an unlikable fellow. He is a comic villain. It moves quickly, but he holds his expressions just long enough to be read. He is acting angry towards Mabel, but he is also delighting in it.  It’s not just one version of aggression, it has variations and shades.  He connects with us the audience and also fights with others around him.  A lot goes on. He’s busy where everyone else is not.

Now, a scene from Mabel’s Busy Day.  Charlie has stolen a tray of hot dogs from Mabel and is trying to sell them to a bunch of bullies at the race track.

His face has varying degrees of frustration, fear, and anger.  But he settles on none of them long.  He keeps it moving. He keeps it animated. I might say it has texture.  If he just had a single attitude the whole time, it would not be nearly as engaging for this long. A lesser actor would have been much less entertaining. This is the power of good comic acting.  Many of these things go by so quickly, an audience doesn’t individually identify them as I have, but they perceive them.

Animators sometimes praise “subtle” qualities in acting, and Chaplin himself would eventually move towards a more controlled facial performance.  But this is the face that America, and the world, fell in love with. Chaplin would continue to grow as a respected artist, but this style of performance was wildly successful. Remember, cartoons are not the place for sublety.

Chuck Jones and Steve Smith

When Chuck Jones returned to directing cartoons at Warner Brothers in the mid-1990’s he brought along his friend and collaborator, Steve Smith.  Steve took on the role of Talent Development Coordinator.  He would scout animation programs for promising artists, give classes, and consult with Chuck about the projects.  I met Steve a little while ago to talk about him Chuck.

They became colleagues when Steve invited Chuck to speak at his school. The school was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, where Steve was the dean from 1985 to 1995. Chuck would regularly visit the school and give talks to the students. He would screen his films for them and he always insisted on showing them on film, not video.  He would give students drawings of his characters.

You can see some wonderful photos of Chuck surrounded by clown students in full makeup HERE and HERE.

Steve’s professional name is TJ Tatters.

It takes more than just big shoes to fill the, er, big shoes of being Dean of the Clown College.  Steve has led a distinguished career in entertainment.  From Wikipedia

Steve Smith began his career in clowning as a graduate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Class of 1971. He then toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for six seasons before leaving the show and moving to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Goodman School of Drama and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from the institution, now usually known as The Theater School at DePaul University. At that time, he also hosted a children’s television series called Kidding Around for the local NBC affiliate, WMAQ. The program won several Emmy Awards and was a favorite among viewers for seven seasons.

Smith was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1993. He is also the recipient of several other honors including the Medal of Merit for Notable Achievement in Performing Arts from Ohio University, the Excellence in the Arts award from De Paul University, and the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art Circus Celebrity, Power Behind the Scenes.

Steve is still building the clown community as the Creative Director of the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco.  There he also teaches a course called Human Cartoon Class.


The clowns fondly remembered Chuck’s visits.  In September of 2011, they held an event to kick off the “Chuck-Centennial” a celebration of Jones’ life and work. Adam Gertsacov remembers that event in a blog post HERE. The Chuck Jones blog mentions that Chuck’s granddaughter, Valerie Kausen, attended the ceremony.  It truly was a strong relationship.

Clearly, Chuck Jones appreciated clowns, and for that, I love him even more. He understood that cartoon characters are just clowns in different costumes. This was the inspiration behind Comedy for Animators.  In 1989 I gave a talk called Comedy, Clowns, and Cartoons at a conference at UCLA.  I met Chuck at that same event, but he did not attend my talk.  I very much wish he had.

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