Prometheus and Bob

Prometheus and Bob was a short segment on the Nickelodeon animated series KaBlam!, which ran from 1996-2000. It was created by Cote Zellers, and produced at Luna Vox Studios. It’s hard to believe there are students in college who were born after the show ended. But because of that, I hope I can introduce some people to what I think was the best part of KaBlam!, and explain what made it so successful.

These stop motion animated scenes were very short. Each segment began with this narrated introduction.

Nine hundred thousand years ago, an alien videotaped his attempts to educate a caveman. The Prometheus and Bob tapes.

Boom! With just two sentences, the audience knows what’s going on. After that, there is an episode title, such as “Glue” or “boxing” which will further focus the audience, and prepare them for what’s going to happen. It is super efficient at pulling you in.

There is almost no dialog, as the alien is trying to communicate non verbally. It’s all physical comedy. As Prometheus is trying to teach Bob very basic things, it’s simplicity is extremely easy to relate to, which is crucial in creating broad comedy. Here is “Tape #1”

The name Prometheus, for those who don’t know, came from the Greek myths. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to people. It’s a grand name. Bob, on the other hand, is quite a humble name. Even within the title, they have already set up a contrast between these two characters. And that is the first lesson.

In comic duos, there is often a “smart” character paired with a “dumb” character. The gap in intelligence between these two is probably the largest ever. An advanced alien would have a nearly god-like intelligence, and a caveman would be about as dumb as a human can be. But there is even more to it than that.

In European circus, there is a classic pairing of two clowns. The White Face and the Auguste. The White Face is a high-status character. He wears magnificent clothes, has a great command of language, and has an air of sophistication about him. The Auguste is like a bum. He is shabbily dressed and has bad manners. The White Face is the boss to the Auguste. But it isn’t easy to get his way. The Auguste has ways of fouling up everything. Prometheus and Bob have exactly this same relationship. Prometheus, like the White Face, believes himself to be superior. Bob is a natural fool, and can’t get things right. Prometheus NEVER succeeds in teaching Bob anything.

That alone could create some good comedy. But Zellers wisely threw in a third character, Monkey, to create a trio. He is the wild card, made to do whatever he needs to do. That expands the comic possibilities substantially. Monkey is actually smarter than Bob and is a sort of trickster.

Occasionally they introduced new characters, like this robot.

While the animation is crude, the videotape concept is brilliant. It allows for a stagey setup, and the turning on and off of the camera is a natural way to edit everything. That and the camera being knocked down. The clever Monkey is also given the job of turning off the camera when Prometheus is incapacitated. Most of the episodes are available on YouTube HERE IS A LINK TO SEE THEM.They are remarkably consistent in quality, and the more of them I watch, the more I laugh.

Apparently there was an attempt to develop a live action feature film, but it didn’t go anywhere. Maybe now?

Great French Animation – Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants.

minuscule-01

There is a new Minuscule movie soon to be released in France, so I am reposting this article I did on the first one.

I love it when an engaging story is told with no words.  If you are in animation, and interested in visual storytelling, I highly recommend seeing the award winning French film Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants.  I had seen a few of the shorts made for television, but was not aware of the feature until running across the DVD while shopping online.  It must have received little publicity in the United States.  Released in France in 2014, the movie was written and directed by Thomas Szabo, and Hélène Giraud.

The story concerns a ladybug, and a band of black ants who discover a massive treasure in the form of a tin filled with sugar cubes.  While hauling it back to their anthill, they run into some red ants who play the part of bandits trying to steal it.  That is the beginning of an exciting chase, and and it all leads to a climactic scene that worked on the scale of the Lord of the Rings movies.

getImage

For the most part the insects play their roles with the seriousness of a nature film.  The ladybug has a sad backstory and some of the bugs engage in hobbies, but otherwise, it’s mostly about survival.  Which goes to show that life and death situations can still be funny. There are a variety of other creatures with small parts that fill out the environment as being a world busy with drama and comedy.

Lizard

The cinematography is quite impressive.  The movie uses live action backgrounds, into which the cartoony insects are placed.  I loved how they had fun playing with scale, and how the size of something was used to get a laugh, either by making it seem really big, or really small.

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The American trailer for the film is ruined by a lame voiceover, so I’m not going to post that.

HERE is a link to the Minuscule page on YouTube, where you can see all of the TV episodes, and more.  They are not quite as high quality as the feature.  I’ll post this one that uses the age-old gag of something sticky that’s hard to get loose from:

Droopy Dog inspiration

Animators should understand the power of a character’s voice. When I taught animation, it was always fun to work with students choosing audio clips for lip sync assignments. There is so much possibility for inspiration. The voice IS the personality.

Back in the golden age of cartoons, animators had exposure to many great voices on the radio, and that’s where many character actors got their start. Here is one I decided to follow up on. Droopy Dog was inspired by a voice on a popular radio show. In an interview, Droopys creator, Tex Avery, said this to Joe Adamson:

Adamson: How was Droopy created?

AVERY: We built it on a voice. FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY, the old radio show, had a funny little mush-mouth fellow, so we said “Hell, let’s put a dog to it.” It was the voice we thought so much of. It was a steal; there ain’t no doubt about it.

ADAMSON: Was it the same kind of character?

AVERY: No, on radio he was a human. He was a little meek guy, and it was Bill Thompson who did the voice. He couldn’t give us exactly the same voice for the show, for legal reasons, but he came close.

Tex Avery: King of Cartoons 193

Thanks to the internet, I was easily able to find a sample of Bill Thompson’s voice for the character, named Wallace Wimpole. It’s fun to hear a recognizable cartoon voice in a different context.

Here is a publicity photo of Thompson as Wimpole.

Animation lessons from Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin with Tramp doll

Charlie Chaplin was a one-man revolution in film comedy. His acting was substantially different from the other comedians of his time, and in this post, I am going to explain one of the ways he was different. I include a complete video to show animators some of Charlie’s best moments, and what can be learned from them.

Chaplin was trained to act for the music hall stage by Fred Karno. Karno was a detail-oriented taskmaster.  He knew how to pace a program for maximum effect. When Chaplin went to work in films for Mack Sennett, the productions there were quite different. The marching orders were for lots of big action. The actors were told to give the first take everything they had and move on to the next shot. This resulted in short films that were at times frantic. Eventually, Chaplin was able to get control of his own films, and slow things down. He started doing multiple takes, searching for just how to act out a scene. Part of Chaplin’s great skill was his ability to focus and hold the attention of the audience. Often this meant emphasizing just one part of his body. 

Others have noticed this. Actor and author Dan Kamin wrote:

The secret lies in the extraordinary articulation of his body. His movement is hypnotic to watch both because it flows so well and because it is so selective. Quite often only one part of Chaplin’s body moves at a time.

I have assembled a video with examples of how Chaplin would get laughs by this method. I break it down to his head, shoulders, hands, feet, and his butt. As you watch the video, you may notice that when Chaplin is animating his legs or shoulders or whatever, often, there is very little else going on around him. The idea is to focus the audience on him, then focus the attention further to just one part of him. Please enjoy the video, and read further for even more about Charlie.

By the way, on the topic of Chaplin’s butt, Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni said.

Charlie Chaplin used his ass better than any other actor. In all his films his ass is practically the protagonist. For a comic, the ass has incredible importance.

The essential lesson from the video is “Less can be more.”  I want animators and others to keep this in mind as an option, NOT as a rule. That’s why I’m not using the better-known phrase “less is more.”   This was the style Chaplin created for himself. He would often have his adversaries “work big” and he, by contrast, would use more skill. It was the well thought out performance that made him a star.

 There will always be plenty of room for big acting in cartoons!

Chaplin had a few signature behaviors. Everybody knows the funny walk, the mustache wiggle, and the cane twirling. But you can’t maintain an audience with only that.  He continually worked to create fresh comedy. He stayed flexible and developed a whole array of methods to do that.  When he did recreate a gag, he would always endeavor to improve it.

Chaplin hardly rehearsed at all. He would work things out with the camera rolling.  Over many many takes, he would distill his performance down to its essential idea, and try to express that idea in the most effective way. There is no better way for animators to develop their skill than to shoot reference video. And don’t just do one take! Do it as many times and as many ways as you can. experiment! Have someone help you with feedback. Recognize what is working, and isolate the important bits.

Take an ordinary action, and do it in an unusual way.  Chaplin will go through normal routines, but he will put a little extra energy or thought into it. Small things become bigger. He’s that guy you see in the restroom who washes his hands like he’s going into surgery. You can’t help but notice.  Chaplin wants you to keep watching him.

If you are doing something expressive, doing it a different way might be confusing to the audience. In those cases, you can just exaggerate it, or repeat it enough times to make it ridiculous. That’s an easy answer, and Chaplin knew to not do that too much. It would get old quickly and lose its effectiveness, so it was just one tool in his toolbox.

Play to the audience, even when your back is turned. Chaplin had one walk when facing the camera, and a different walk for when he was going away from it.

Chaplin will sometimes alter his performance in order to get fresh laughs. The video has examples of Chaplin acting drunk, and one of them is significantly different than the others.

Charlie Chaplin was a major star.  He was allowed to do the singular things to get the laughs.  Traditional acting instruction, such as method acting, will not teach this.  Stanislavski’s goal was to create performances that feel natural. Much of what Chaplin does, is unnatural. Of course, unnatural acting is not always funny.  In fact, it often isn’t funny. The skill lies in making the behavior seem normal for that character.  Once the audience believes in him or her, then it’s magic.

Charlie Chaplin by Tonio

Laurel & Hardy: How to be Stupid

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the greatest physical comedians on film. Before teaming up, they acted separately in hundreds of short films. Stan had a career in music hall working under Fred Karno along with Charlie Chaplin. Together, the two struck gold with their carefully crafted comedy of errors. They began in silent films, and when sound came along, they were one of the few acts to prosper with the new technology. They weren’t just slapstick. They could work verbal comedy, and relationship comedy with the various husband and wife scenarios they created. But mostly they are known for the trouble they got into with their half-baked thinking.

It’s important to understand that they each have a style of stupidity. Being foolish has many shades from the drooling idiot who seems to understand nothing, to the absent minded professor who is both brilliant and bumbling. When creating a stupid character, there are many directions to take. Stan Laurel’s character is primarily a simpleton. His mind doesn’t quite handle complex thought. Oliver Hardy is an aspirational fool. He wants to do things well, he can concoct plans, but he overestimates himself and his partner. Ollie is usually the motivator. In real life, Stan Laurel was the creative force in the pair, but in character it was Ollie’s job to get the ball rolling.

One of the ways Laurel and Hardy were different from other comedians was that there were fewer surprises. The audience can see the gags coming. As they are doing the stupid thing, it builds anticipation in the audience, and the gag is the payoff. Because they are stupid, Stan and Ollie do NOT see what is going to happen.

How does one start a story where your character can make themselves look stupid? In physical comedy, it’s all about getting into a difficult situation. Some of their best works were built around one simple challenge, such as deliver a piano up a huge flight of steps. While there is a lot of hard labor, they also get numerous unexpected obstacles. Of course, making them move vertically in space allows gravity (an essential component in physical comedy) to work its magic. In Berth Marks all they have to do is climb into an upper berth on a Pullman train car, change clothes, and get into bed. Squeezing 2 people into a small space allows them very close interaction. The simpler the challenge, the stupider your character looks when they struggle with it. When things get awkward, they can make it worse. In comedy, a situation can never be too awkward, it’s a just a matter of getting there in a way through a sequence of events that build on each other.

Berth Marks

Through all of their films, the most basic way they show their stupidity is they just don’t seem to learn. I would call this rule #1. With carefully arranged variations, they will make essentially the same mistake again and again. At a construction site, Stan will not learn that Ollie needs a sturdy plank to walk on. After three bricks in a row land on his head, Ollie appears to believe that must be all of them, so he doesn’t move out of the way of the fourth. They are endlessly surprised at what happens to them, while the audience knows exactly what’s coming. Watching their reactions is half the fun.

Inattention is a very useful tool in comedy. In a duo like L&H, having one of them not looking at what they are doing or where they are walking is an easy to set up a fall or blow. You know those YouTube videos of people looking at their cel phones while walking, and falling into a fountain? That’s what I’m talking about.

They were great at setting up misunderstandings. In Blockheads, Stan is at a veteran’s hospital and he finds a wheel chair to sit in for a bit. It’s arranged in such a way that to sit in it he has to fold his leg underneath himself. When Ollie shows up, he believes Stan lost his leg in the war. One thing leads to another, and Oliver ends up carrying Stan completely unaware that he has two good legs.

Blockheads

Miscommunication is a basic way for things to go wrong. Conversations between them are often tortured. Mostly it’s Stan’s slowness. He twist sentences and mangles common phrases. He’s not just dumb, he is artfully dumb in an entertaining way. Stan’s misunderstanding is clearly evident on his face. Oliver gets frustrated, and it’s all part of the comedy.

However, they are not always at odds with each other. Sometimes they work together quite well. The problem is, those are always the times when they are getting into trouble. They can, without words, jump into the same fight with someone else. Neither will ever hold the other back from doing something stupid.

One of their best known styles of comedy was the tit-for-tat routine. As mentioned above, the could get into battles of one-upmanship with rivals. In Big Business, they get into a scrape with James Finlayson, and through the course of the film, a house and a car are seriously damaged. They were very good at keeping the comedy ball rolling. They could trigger the chain reaction, and do whatever is necessary to not let it slow down. Where a normal person would endeavor to interrupt the failing process, they would throw gasoline on the fire.

If they break something, that is just the start of a series of gags when they try to fix it. One thing should lead to another in a semi-logical system of cause and effect. In Busy Bodies, after shaving off a strip of Ollie’s pants, Stan glues it back on. But that was just to introduce the glue which causes further humiliation and destruction. Ultimately, it leads to Stan using carpentry tools to shave off the glue brush bristles from Ollies face.

Busy Bodies

While other comedians like Keaton and Chaplin could be extremely clever, and come out of their stories having won more than they lost, Laurel & Hardy films nearly always ended with everything in a complete shambles. They had several prop model T cars built to end up either falling to pieces, crushed to half its size but still drivable, or literally sawed in half. In Helpmates, Stan comes over to help Ollie clean up his house before his wife gets back, and it ends up with the house burned up.

Helpmates

In my book, I discuss “redemption.” What that means is stupid characters need some redeeming qualities to make them appealing. Stan and Ollie worked together for years, and they were able to create the sense that they were committed friends. They needed each other and would stick together through thick and thin. They keep going even when things look very bad, and audiences admire that.

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