Short film: KNOB


I am happy to share this short film from my friend Hans Tsai.  KNOB is a story about a germaphobe, Nigel, being stuck in the filthy restroom of the company that he is about to have a job interview. Nigel needs to escape the restroom in order to make it to his interview on time.  Oddly enough, I met Hans when I interviewed him for a job.  Based on a short clip from this film, he got the job. That’s a tip for you students.

Part of the success of this film is that people can relate to the experience of public bathrooms.  Comedy needs to be relatable.  I am also impressed with the high production quality.

KNOB is a 3D animated short film, worked on by many talented student artists from the StudioX Program at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. The team has spent almost 2 years on this project. It is written and directed by Hans Tsai, co-directed by Yi Lee and YaYu Chen, and produced by Lindsay Elgin.

Bollywood action comedy

I know almost nothing about Bollywood.  But I love these gifs and videos of what appear to be “super cops.”  I am presenting them here as inspiration.  Thanks to extensive CG effects, they can do things we might have seen in cartoons back in the day.  But it’s not the CG.  It’s the imagination to think up the idea.

For example, if you brought a horse to a car chase, and suddenly find a tractor trailer in your way, here is one way around it.

Of course, you just slide your horse under the truck.

There are plenty of gun fights, and directors have to continuously create new ways to surprise the audience.  How about a self shooting boomerang gun…

Of course, once that’s been done, the next has to do it better.

While self shooting boomerang guns are impressive, if you really want to show the bad guys what a man you are, do this…


I’m not sure that was from Bollywood.  If you recognize it, PLEASE let me know, as I would like to track down more like it.

EDIT: Reader Vilhelm has informed me that video is from a Swedish film titled “Kopps”  I will leave it here anyway as it’s too funny to remove.

Some of these guys don’t even need guns.


We are getting into Popeye territory here.


It’s popular for students to animate a character doing parkour or martial arts.  How about combining them…

kickjumpCome on kids, use your imagination!  If an animation demo reel had something as fearless as that, it would grab their attention.

If the villain is about to run off a cliff pulling your girlfriend with him, you might save her by throwing your gurkha knife with deft precision.


All of these policeman are super cool under pressure.  This guy can step out of a spinning car, shoot the villains car, and yank him out of it as it flies over his head.


But nobody is cooler than this next guy.  Audiences love style, and this cop has more style than anyone.

I am aware of the independent film Kung Fury, which is wall to wall CG effects of this type.  But I have to say it didn’t work for me.  These examples are sequences within traditional narratives with characters you can engage with.  Like Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow movies, these action sequences serve the story.

What animators can learn from Jackass


Since learning of Johnny Knoxville’s appreciation of Popeye and Buster Keaton as inspirations for his work on Jackass, I rented “Jackass 3”.  I laughed.  A lot.  Ryan Dunn, rest in peace.

The Jackass dudes are all stuntmen.  Stuntmen who have taken control of their product and made themselves stars.  They own it.  That in itself is a lesson to anyone in the entertainment business.  Bravo.

What else can Jackass teach us?


They set up dramatic situations where danger is clearly evident.  A mule ready to kick, a charging buffalo, a jet ski on a ramp, a tree being cut down with someone clinging to the top.  We marvel at their courage.  That is what we want from our stars.  We like to see them charging in where we wouldn’t dare go.  Maybe we need more animated characters who are looking for action.


Having to fight through obstacles to get to a goal is an essential part of drama.   The Jackass crew can think up the most ridiculous situations.  In  “Electric Avenue” they hang live stun guns and cattle prods from strings in a narrow space and try to run through it.  You can feel their pain. It’s not just running headlong into a tree, it’s imaginative.


They really are trying to be outrageous.  I’m not saying that animation needs more male nudity, vomiting or defecation, but there have been cartoons that shocked people.   Exploring limitations is certainly a way to gain notoriety.


At the end of Jackass 3, the crew stands in a room rigged with numerous explosive devices.  As the props explode the guys are filmed in high speed photography so we get clear views of their faces and reactions.  Stuff flies everywhere. Just when it seems there is nothing left to blow up, the wall caves inward with a flood of water that washes them all out.  A big ending.  That’s showmanship.


Eight rules for comedy


Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book titled Slapstick. It is NOT a book about comedy. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Slapstick is dedicated to Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy (better known as Laurel and Hardy), and the title of the novel is in reference to the physical and situational comedy style that duo employed. Vonnegut explains the title himself in the opening lines of the book’s prologue:
“This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it “Slapstick” because it is grotesque, situational poetry — like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago. It is about what life feels like to me.”

Kurt Vonnegut also gives us eight rules of storytelling that work great for comedy.  These are the rules, and I follow up with comments on a few of them.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Rule #3.  Every character should want something.  Sometimes in comedy, however, one character just wants be left alone to live their life, but some other character is ruining that for them.

Rule #4.  Many people in animation will tell you that everything in a story must advance the action.  That you must cut out anything that doesn’t do that.  Vonnegut provides the option of revealing character. And that is quite true for comedy.  Funny characters can be exquisitely entertaining even when they are not advancing the story.

Rule #6. Put your character into a situation where even you don’t know how they are going to get out of it.  Make it difficult for yourself.  If it takes you a while to find the answer, then it won’t be obvious to the audience.

Rule #8.  This rule is especially good for short stories/films.  The challenge is in how quickly and elegantly you can get the viewer up to speed with what is going on.  You do not want them confused at any point.


The Secret Handshake


Here is a great idea for an animation exercise.  The secret handshake.  Secret handshakes show two characters physically interacting in fun ways.  They can involve way more than the hands, and style is hugely important.  Generally, these greetings are believed to have started with men’s fraternities such as the Freemasons or the Shriners.  These private fraternities were lampooned in films from Laurel and Hardy, as well animated shows such as the Flintstones.


Still it is very relevant, and currently alive in “bro” culture. These days, you are most likely to see them at sporting events. This first example is from a team where each player has a special handshake for the captain, who must know them all.  Note how it can include dance moves.

One advantage to this exercise is the fact that the audience will probably understand what is going on instantly, so even a short clip will make sense.  The action can involve the whole body, or small finger movements.  I really like the timing in this shake.


This next video is a series of simple shakes, but each one has a name.  The handshake is then a form of mime that represents the name.

In secret societies that are closed to the outside world, knowing the handshake is a way to prove you are who you say you are.  One of these societies is the college fraternity.  This live skit is built around an extended handshake that goes way beyond the hands to all sorts of silly behaviors.

Then there is this very nice animated example from Disney’s Big Hero 6.


I had this post in a draft form for several months, and I decided to finish it when I discovered this short film by Jackson Read and Susie Webb, students at Ringling School of Art + Design.  They started with the basic idea and took advantage of animation by having them do things way beyond what normal humans can do.

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