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.

Chaplin carries a piano

Piano moving is a classic theme for physical comedy, and Charlie Chaplin has done it more than once.  Chaplin wrote and directed His Musical Career in 1914 while working at Keystone Studios. It is an excellent example for animators to study, so let me break down a fun scene for you.

Early in their studies, animators often create a scene of a character lifting a heavy weight.  It is a good way to develop an understanding of biomechanics, which will make the action seem realistic.  If you want to take it to the next level, make it entertaining. This is what we can learn from Charlie. The video below picks up where he enters the apartment with the piano on his back.  It’s important to know that the piano is a prop, so it isn’t actually heavy. This allows Chaplin to mime it in funny ways, rather than be “realistic”

Note the first shot of his entrance.  It’s set up so that the piano fills over 2/3 of the frame.  He stops to show how darn big it is. But that’s not all. Charlie has a partner, who is substantially larger, and should at least be helping.  Not only is he not helping, during this moment he is stopping to take a drink. The scene is all about making Charlie support this enormous load for as long as possible.

The old man wants to discuss where to put the piano, so he asks Charlie to wait a moment.

That leads to an argument with the daughter about where it should go.

When a decision is made, Charlie tries to lower the piano, which leads to this funny pose.

When he is finally relieved of the weight, he cannot straighten up. Another funny pose.

His partner must use his foot to push him back into a straight line.

And when he’s completely straight, he can’t just help him up, so they have another brief argument while his foot is still on his bum.

During this scene, Charlie gets no respect for all the work he is doing. But the relationship between the two piano movers is fluid. Earlier, Charlie got the best of the other guy, so there is no set rule to how things must happen between them.  It’s all about whatever is funniest for the moment.




Happy Birthday Stephen Chow

At this year’s Annecy festival, Pearl Studios announced that Stephen Chow was attached to direct an animated feature film based on the classic Monkey King story.

Chow is my favorite working movie director. He started as an actor in kids TV, then moved to features, and eventually began directing. His work is very character driven and full of slapstick and special effects. If you have never seen Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer, CJ7, or God of Cookery, you have missed out.  While many directors start out with fantastic vision, only to weaken over time, his work has steadily grown in energy and style. He was cast to play Kato in the Green Hornet remake, but left over creative differences.  If he had been in it, I would have seen the movie.  Here are some quotes.

“Right from the beginning of my work, I wanted to capture a mass audience. And I love the unusual: you never see dancing villains. For me, there`s a fine line between comedy and drama; so it`s not just played for laughs. There`s a little romance in this story, too – something for everybody.”

“I used to cry when I watched Chaplin`s films. It was from him that I learned about the role of the underdog. And because I`m also from a poor family, this kind of thing moved me and I found that it also worked for the audience because most of them are like me – ordinary guys.”

“As many people have pointed out, the scene in ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ where the Landlady was chasing after me resembled the Roadrunner, … I loved to watch cartoons and read comic books when I was small. In fact, I still watch and read a lot of them now. They give me great ideas.”

Here is the scene.

Jackie Chan: Tips for animators

John Towsen has posted a couple of great videos from Jackie Chan on how he develops his action scenes. The videos are from a hard to find DVD “My Stunts”. But it’s all available on youtube in 10 parts. It’s totally worth watching to better understand what it takes to create exciting entertainment.

The great silent comedians were all first rate stunt men. Jackie Chan was a great stunt man who became a star. Watching him work is probably very similar to the way Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd made movies. It’s great to see a filmmaker who isn’t locked into a screenplay for his work. He’s clearly thinking about the audience and how to be entertaining, on a small budget.

Here is part 1.

In part 2 Listen for the phrase “let the audience know”. He choreographs to make it clear for the audience what he’s doing.

In part 3, we see a lot of falls. There are lots of exciting shots in this part.

Part 4 has examples of on set gag development.

In Part 5 they use toy cars to develop ideas for how to have cars perform stunts as if the cars were actors. Jackie’s stunt lab is introduced in this part.

Part 6 gets into wire work. It’s interesting how they use small wire effects to build up regular stunts. By making feet fly out from under an actor, they create a much more powerful impact. I wonder if animation needs more glass breaking.

Towards the end of part 7 he displays his research room, where he collects photos and ideas for stunts in future movies.

Part 8 is all about improvisation with whatever objects he finds, as well as adding flourishes and comedy and making it “pretty”. Setting up falls to have visual impact.

Part 9 shows the work that goes into getting good takes that have a natural rhythm, precise timing and good composition.

Part 10 Jackie shows how he demonstrates character in his action. “You have to be yourself, and more creative.”

I wonder how this compares with the Animation Mentor combat seminar?

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.

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