How to make a slapstick movie: From an Aardman animator

Bram Ttwheam is an animator and visual effects supervisor for Aardman Animation, and he produces idents for The Bristol Silents Slapstick Festival which is held annually in Bristol, England. It is a festival I would love to attend. The festival has a blog where I found this fun short film he created to show his process.

Here is last years ident:

Funny short: This Way Up

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before now.  It’s exactly what I like. It’s a non verbal comedy packed with great gags.   This Way Up was released in 2008, and was nominated for an Academy Award.  It was created by the directing team of Smith & Foulkes at Nexus in London.  The story features a pair of undertakers retrieving a body for burial.  It’s a grave situation (pardon the pun) and that allows for humor that is both dark and slapstick. Like my Floyd the Android character, these two don’t give up until they complete the job.

Except for the poster image below, the two almost never smile.  Undertakers by nature are quite serious and respectful. The straight faces give the impression of them being a pair of Buster Keatons.  (Buster Keaton as an undertaker may have been a missed opportunity.)  The film is 9 minutes long, but moves along so efficiently it feels shorter.  The bizarre ending features a truly death defying stunt that is very Keatonesque.

Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius

Recently, it was announced that Cinesite would start making feature animated films based on Harold Lloyd’s silent film character.  The whole purpose of this blog and my book is to teach animators about the art of physical comedy as practiced by the masters.  Harold Lloyd was not as naturally talented as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, but he made up for that by hard work.  He once said:

All the comedians of my day, had to be students of comedy. You studied comedy. It just didn’t happen, believe me.

To enlighten young animators about Harold Lloyd, here are YouTube videos for the entire PBS American Masters program about Harold.








Animated Acting: Playing the Trickster

If you are looking to create a fun animated character with a strong visual acting style, consider the trickster.

I recently re-watched the 2013 Chinese film, Journey To The West.  It’s directed by Stephen Chow, who is my favorite working film maker.  The story involves a young demon hunter, and one of the demons he sets out to find is the classic character from Chinese folklore, the Monkey King.  The Monkey King is a trickster, and the actor portraying him here gives an excellent example of how a trickster acts.  Tricksters are not necessarily good or evil, but are almost always self serving.  The trickster is false.  The trickster has no reliable character to play, he acts in whatever way he thinks will serve his purposes.  The character falls outside the bounds of what is commonly seen in modern cinema. They are ancient characters, and will always have the potential to be entertaining.

In this movie, the Monkey King has been caught and imprisoned in a cave by Buddha.  His goal is to escape. When the young demon hunter enters, the Monkey King first sets out to win his confidence.  I really like his movement in this first clip.  His excessively graceful posing and gestures are a classical way of demonstrating good character.  His goal is to get the young man to take away the seal that prevents him from leaving. (BTW, the dubbed voice is awful, try to watch movement and not think about that.)

 

The young man is too simple and kind to fall for the trick.  He is not suspicious at all, he just doesn’t do what’s expected.  When the first trick fails, the Monkey King then tries to intimidate him with tall tales. His demeanor turns serious and threatening.

 

Again, the trick fails. The young man isn’t easily frightened, which is why has no reluctance to be a demon hunter.  After that scene, the Monkey King tries to escape, but the magic holding him in causes him to be painfully whipped by the clinging vines.  As he is down, he turns to acting pathetic, to win sympathy.

 

The pretty girl that just showed up has a strong romantic interest in the young man.  The Monkey King now has someone else to try to trick into helping.  So he resorts acting like a flirting man in a disco trying to win over the pretty girl.  Again, his physical acting is very strong.

 

The next clip is a spoiler, in case you are interested in how this section of the movie turns out.

Finally, the Monkey King simply mentions that he hasn’t seen the full moon in centuries.  The young man chooses to do a good deed for him.  At that point, we see the Monkey Kings true character.

 

I am not the first person to point out that one of animations greatest characters, Bug Bunny, is a trickster.  All the trickster needs someone to trick. Where the Monkey King had the young demon hunter, Bugs Bunny  had Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, or some other dupe.  To be in control, Bugs has been known to act like he is dead or dying:

He has pretended to be someone he’s not.

Sometimes he’s dressed in drag.

He will be pathetic if it might help.

He has even resorted to begging.

The trickster is a fun character who has over acting built into his or her style.  You don’t have to hold back.  The antagonist can also have interesting reactions, as seen above.  We need more tricksters.  How deep is your bag of tricks?

 

The Great Dictator


I have a confession.

Until this week I had not seen Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”.

Fortunately for me, there is a new release from Criterion, and it includes some wonderful extras that make the dvd or blue ray totally worth viewing. First I watched the film with the commentary track from Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, which is one of the very best commentaries I have ever heard.  Dan Kamin wrote the excellent book, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show.

The story concerns the fictitious land of Tomania, clearly representing Germany. Chaplin plays both Henkel (the dictator who looks like Hitler) and the nameless “Jewish Barber”. The challenge for Charlie was to portray the fascists as both dangerous and laughable. The slapstick was carefully measured in with realistic violence to keep things in perspective. When Henkel (Hitler) tumbles down some stairs, Chaplin plays it realistically. He wanted Henkel to look like a normal person falling, and not a gifted comic.

Disc two includes a documentary from Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft.  “The Tramp and the Dictator” tracks the parallel lives of the two men, who were born just 4 days apart in the same year. They show clips of color film shot by Chaplin’s half brother Sydney during production. The movie is black and white, but when intercut with the color footage, it has a startling effect. When Chaplin began production on the film, he met with criticism from many in the movie industry who felt we shouldn’t antagonize Hitler.  Chaplin appears to have been a fearless man, and my respect for him has only grown.

The second disc includes some visual essays, and a deleted scene. The set comes with a 28 page booklet that features Al Hirschfeld’s original press book illustrations for the movie.

Of course the Nazi government never allowed The Great Dictator to be shown to the people. But did Hitler see it? The records show that Hitler had ordered it for viewing, not once but twice.

Everyone should know this speech.  I am sorry to say it feels more necessary than ever.   Please watch.

 

%d bloggers like this: