The Arcimboldo Effect

I asked my ten year old if he had seen pictures like this:

He had. I’m sure you have too. That painting is called Vertumnus, and it was created by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He caused a bit of a stir with his portraits done in this style. I like them because they are sort of funny.

From Wikipedia:

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian pronunciation: [dʒuˈzɛppe artʃimˈbɔldo]; also spelled Arcimboldi) (1527 – July 11, 1593) was an Italian painter best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of such objects as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books – that is, he painted representations of these objects on the canvas arranged in such a way that the whole collection of objects formed a recognizable likeness of the portrait subject.

Here is a normal self portrait of his own face. I wonder if he ever gave himself the same treatment.

He didn’t just use vegetables. This one is called “The Librarian.”

The effect has inspired many other artists. Here is one by Octavio Ocampo.

The animated feature “The Tale of Desperaux” named the character “Boldo” after him:

And I love this “Alien” inspired portrait.

Ernie Kovacs – The mad genius of TV

I mentioned earlier how Chaplin took on a new technology and carried beyond what anyone had otherwise imagined.  Ernie Kovacs did the same thing in television.

When television was a new medium, local tv stations had airtime to fill.  A Philidelphia station manager found Ernie Kovacs on the local radio, and offered him some time on the TV.  He was given practically no budget and his only expectation was to be entertaining and find an audience.  The bit below may be his most famous, and it looks like it cost about $9.75 to produce.

This is also a good example of surrealism in film.   The imitation mechanical movement is quite intriguing.

Kovacs had very cartoon sensibilities. Like this:

This next video has some great narration by Kovacs, as he both explains, and makes fun of film making. He opens with this line:

There’s a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is beat it to death if it succeeds.

Today’s lesson: Butt acting with Yahoo Serious

Most student animators have been tasked with making a character lift a heavy object. Here is something similar done by an actor, the Australian comedian Yahoo Serious, in his film “Mr. Accident” from the year 2000.  He finds a hubcap embedded in a wall, and puts a lot of work into pulling it free.  The horizontal nature of the effort, and the gyrations of his butt, (nicely emphasized by some grunts) add up to fresh piece of visual comedy.

Blackout gags

Blackout gags have been a staple of physical comedy for at least a century.  Though use has fallen off in recent years, you can find them in many of your favorite cartoons.  Think of Coyote and RoadRunner.  Whenever you see the Coyote set up an elaborate trap, then it backfires and he’s turned into a spring or a pancake, the scene ends and it goes to black. That can be called a blackout gag.  The moment ends, the joke is over. In the next shot, Coyote is regenerated and ready to try again.  The previous event has no narrative influence on what happens later.  Though occasionally, you might get a “callback” to a previous gag when some element left over from before comes into play again.

Many great slapstick cartoons use this method. Tom & Jerry, Tweety & Sylvester.  Chase comedy between predator and prey work well with blackout gags. We enjoy seeing fun characters do their schtick over and over again, as long as enough variations happen to keep it interesting.  

Historical perspective from Wikipedia:

A blackout gag is a term mainly used in broad, rapid-fire, slapstick comedy to describe a manner in which a gag or joke is executed. The term is derived from burlesque and vaudeville, when the lights were quickly turned off after the punchline of a joke to accentuate it and/or allow for audience laughter. It may use a shock value to define the joke, and may not be initially noticeable to all viewers if it is a very fast joke.
This should not be confused with an iris shot, frequently used in the silent film era, where a black circle closes to end a scene.

The term “blackout gag” can also apply to fast paced TV or film comedy, such as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where there may not literally be a blackout, but a quick cut to the next gag.

Here is a blackout gag example from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy.

To do a series of blackout gags it is common to build them around a theme. That helps keep the audience from getting fatigued trying to grasp the new situation. Jerry Lewis made a feature film based on events at a fancy hotel in Florida. The Bellboy was the first film Lewis directed and it was hugely successful. It is nearly all blackout gags.  Here is a cartoon of blackout gags based on animals in prison. It uses a variety of ways to transition between gags.

DePatie Freleng made a compilation of Pink Pather gags from various short films, and called it “Pink Outs”

And here is an example from Ernie Kovacs:

When Animation Technique is Funny

I knew nothing about the feature animated film A Town Called Panic when I first saw it in a movie theater, years ago. As soon as it began I was immediately in love with their technique. If you haven’t seen it, it is stop motion animation, but limited, like super low budget television animation. The characters are replicas of childrens toy figures, but they are not articulated. They either move in place, or use replacement animation, giving a strong pose to pose effect that I very much enjoy. Here is a sample, which also introduces the story of how Cowboy and Indian need bricks to build their friend Horse a BBQ.

This technique gives the effect of a child playing with his or her toys. The method of animation, and the story as well, have a light-hearted exuberance that does not take itself seriously. Anything can happen. I was laughing from the first minute. If the technique itself is funny, you are off to a running start, and that is always a good thing.

It is amusing how they force the figures to do things. They adapt. We are accustomed to limited animation using multiple limbs to simulate fast motion. When it’s done with rigid models, it becomes fresh again. Here is cycling gif of Horse typing.

When they are not forcing the figures to adjust to the world, they will create new props that are adapted to the figures. Such as this example where the piano has the keys on the floor so Horse can more easily reach them.

It’s amazing how they don’t let the characters natural physiology stop them from making anything happen in the story. For instance, who would have a horse climbing a vertical cliff, then answer a cel phone while doing it? Watch.

I think that scene is amazing. I only used the French version because the dubs are not nearly as fun. The phone call is from a female horse he has a crush on, so it’s emotionally important to him. She’s a music teacher, and we get a shot of her other animal students practicing jazz. The scene has danger, emotion, absurdity and clumsy comedy all in one.

While this is “limited” animation, it opens up other ways of doing things that full animation would not do. For example, suppose a story called for a character to rush through breakfast. In a classic Disney animated style, I can easily imagine a scene where Goofy runs into a kitchen jumping while putting his second shoe on. Then he slides a coat on with one hand while eating toast with the other, then switching the other arm into the coat while drinking coffee with the other arm, all the while running around the kitchen table, then flying out the door. It would be beautiful. In ATCP, we get this…

I think they make many good creative choices throughout these films. Such as occasionally using full size props, such as the coffee pot and cup in the video above. They don’t overdo the use of these human sized props in the same way the don’t fill out toys everywhere. It feels like an imaginary universe that was built around the toys.

A Town Called Panic was created by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The two are Belgian, and met in art school. They created a student film using the technique, and years later it became series of four minute animated shorts on TV. That led to the 2009 feature film I used for examples here. Since then they have also produced two half-hour specials. The specials and TV shorts were recently released on blu-ray disc, which I just watched. The duo also directed the wonderful feature Ernest and Celestine, which proves they are quite capable of beautiful traditional animation.

It is really an accomplishment to create a signature style of animation. Aubier and Patar have done what Terry Gilliam did with this Monty Python animations, or PEZ with his short animated films.

Some links for further reading.

NPR review with audio.

Filmmaker Magazine

Cineuropa interview

L.A. Times

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