Character and Context

Animated characters need worlds to live in, and probably enjoy the widest variety of settings found on film. But these places can be more than simple “environment”. Creating animated worlds is not just art direction, it begins in the concept stage for the project. Earlier I posted about manual labor vs. Office work. The idea was to consider the visual potential of what context your characters were working in. Do they sit and stare at a screen, like animators do? Or are they moving and building things? Some stories are all about dramatic interaction between characters, but others are heavily influenced by where it begins.

I can identify three basic kinds of worlds for animated characters to live in. Some might overlap or fall in between these. I would be very happy to get feedback on these, or suggestions for something I haven’t considered.

1. The first could be called generic. Generic is a place that is the simple environment. It could be a city, a village, a forest. While that may sound dull, do not think such a context is automatically weak. For instance, the Simpsons live in the city of Springfield. Springfield is a parody of average America. The beauty of Springfield is it can be adapted to practically any story the writers want to tell. It’s flexible, and that is one reason for the longevity of the series. South Park is also a random place, but their stories are mostly concerned with current events and parody of modern culture. Most superhero stories take place in generic worlds.  And, the generic environment is the home of fairy tales and myths. Such stories are so grounded in human nature, they can easily be adjusted to any location, and society, at any time in history.

2. The second context I am calling the “enhancing” environment. These places tend to be more fantastic or extreme. The design is crafted to enhance the story. It is the most common kind found in animated films.  Blue Sky’s Robots comes to mind.  The art directors created altered versions of reality. It could also be natural environments, but the environments play a significant part the story, so it’s more than generic. I am thinking of A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. I would put the Road Runner and Coyote in this category. In each episode, the desert landscape is customized to suit the action.

3. The third type of context is the one I find most interesting. It is a world that IS a character. The world is not just designed for the story to happen in, but is an influential element in how the story starts and develops. An easy example would be Wall-E. The condition of the earth is the reason for the little robots entire existence. Another good one is Rango. The situation in the town of Dirt pulls the character of Rango into their story. The screenplay for Rango borrows from the live action feature “Chinatown”, which is a classic example of a tightly plotted drama. The Usavich Rabbits begin their series in a Soviet prison, where they live contained in their cels. The guards are literally one with the cel door. Rather than the characters feeling layered on top of a background like a cel animated film, these characters feel integrated with the world, and possibly in contention with the world itself.

But context goes further than place. The next layer to consider is the society. The word “milieu” can be used to describe a place, or the social setting of a story. In the way a physical environment can be designed especially for a story, so can the inhabitants.

In many early silent comedies, all of society is caricatured. Nearly everyone, except the star and maybe his or her love interest, is in a bad mood. There are controlling fathers, jealous husbands, neighborhood thugs, bullying waiters, baton wielding policeman, angry bosses, scolding wives, disapproving churchmen, dangerous animals, and misbehaving children. They are quite dramatic, and create a world tension for the comedian to work in. If everyone were nice, it would be quite boring. It helped if the characters were already primed for a fight. These films were short and had to get the action quickly.
Physical comedians have always stood on the fringes of society, where they can mock the status quo. Charlie Chaplin grew up poor in class conscious England, and his comedy is all about class. It often takes place in poor neighborhoods or with him entering places of wealth. The Marx Brothers also invaded high society, and brought chaos to their careful order.

The Little Rascals were poor, and mostly on their own.  Adult society had little intervention.   They used castaway objects to create worlds to play in. Their junkyard playgrounds and hand built vehicles were a large part of their fun.

Jacques Tati movies are often commentaries about the modernization of France, and how charming old Paris was being replaced by a cold modern metropolis. Many of his gags are designed around architecture, transportation, homes and workplaces.

Many of Buster Keaton’s films were built around giant props. Props so large, he could live inside them. The Navigator took place on an empty ocean liner. Steamboat Bill Jr. Was built around a steam powered river boat. The General was the name of a locomotive. Buster liked large collections of things that move. In Go West he worked a herd of cows. In Seven Chances it was a mob of hundreds of women dressed in wedding gowns. In the short film Cops he catches a bomb tossed by an anarchist, while he is in the middle of a parade of policemen.

Some comedians and teams had an interesting ability to plunk down in whatever situation the writers wanted them to be in. The Three Stooges, for instance, could be tramp outcasts, married with decent homes, working class shlubs, or prison inmates. Ren and Stimpy could be cast in any situation John K found useful. They could be living on the street like an actual dog and cat, or be sharing a house like a couple. And how many comedians have suddenly found themselves “in the army?” The military services are situations with their own rules that the stars have to create comedy with.

The Star Trek TV shows, while being in space, were really about the unusual civilizations the Federation astronauts encountered. Pixar’s Cars is an example of a generic space, and generic, possibly cliche, characters becoming fun when totally recast as vehicles. Stand by for “Planes” following the same formula.

I would love to get comments on these ideas, so I can continue to develop them.

Artists

It is wonderful to watch someone who is great at their job. Even if it is a really mundane job.

A few blocks from ILM there is a humble sandwich shop, “Marina Subs”. This isn’t Subway, where the teenager reads the directions on how to assemble your sandwich, while carrying on a conversation with the assistant manager who has probably worked there a whole month already. At Marina Subs, the owner makes all the sandwiches, and there is always a line. He does it with the precision and grace of a sushi chef. (he is Asian, by the way.) I’m amazed at how quickly he can thinly slice avacados. He’s been doing it for years and years. His work surface is a long cutting board that is worn down into shallow dips. He says he’ll have to replace it soon, as the other side has already been worn out, and he’s flipped it. Today I noticed that even his act of wrapping the sandwich had a practiced timing in the rolling of the paper, the pulling and placing of the tape and putting it in the bag. It isn’t a flourish, it’s just precise and quick. I swear it improves the taste of the sandwich.

I thought it might make a good animation exercise, to animate a character who has done something 100,000 times, and has distilled it down to a science, then raised it to an art. It reminded me of a great Buster Keaton clip.

First they set up the soda jerk who’s really good. Then Buster tries to match it and fails comically. The two shot of them working side by side with Buster watching and trying to compete really creates contrast. I can imagine Buster and the crew working all this business out. What a job, it must have been so much fun back then.

Beginning, End, Middle

It is an often repeated mantra in animation that story is king.  I have read the book Story by Robert McKee, and if I were to write a feature screenplay I would probably refer to it often.   But it’s hard to imagine Chuck Jones or Nick Park using it for a funny animated short.  That’s because we don’t really want comedy to follow the rules.

If you are a student looking to create a short, funny film, here is a valuable clue on how to proceed. In some of Buster Keaton’s interviews, he describes his method of developing the stories for his movies. First of all, they didn’t start with a script.

“Well, we didn’t need a script. I knew in my mind what we were going to do, because with our way of working, there was always the unexpected happening. Well, anytime something unexpected happened and we liked it, we were liable to spend days shooting in and around that.”

Of course, everything really started with a character. In this case, Buster is bringing his personal character and style, and everything will be built around that. He and his gag men would work on devising a start, a scenario, a situation for him to be in. Generally it would be some sort of challenge, for Buster his manhood was often in question.  But the process from there is important to understand.

“…The main thing with laying out a story is, it’s easy to get a start, the finish is always the tough thing. So the minute somebody had an idea – we said what is it going to lead to? We don’t go to the middle of the story; we jump right to the finish. So the finish – this would be the natural finish- says now does that give us any opportunity for gags? Make it exciting, fast action sometimes, and a couple of outstanding gags.”

I have to point out that Buster’s method is exactly the same as that done in the Commedia Dell’arte.  The Dell’arte players would begin with a scenario, and have an agreed upon ending.  But all the action in the middle was created on the fly.

You see, in a comedy, there is an implied promise of a happy ending.  That is the “natural finish” Buster refers to.   The boy will get the girl, the fortune will be restored, the bad guy will be put out.  But the journey there needs to be full of surprises and uncertainty.  It’s all the business in the middle where the work happens.

 

Buster Keaton – One Week

I have been re-reading Robert Knopf’s excellent book, The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. It may be the best book on Buster’s film making style. He considers three different approaches, or “lenses”, to looking at Buster’s films. One is through classical Hollywood story telling, the second is considering Buster’s vaudeville experience, an the third is through the surrealist perspective.

I ran across the Keaton short “One Week” on youtube and recalled that Knopf used this film as an example of work influenced by vaudeville. A vaudeville show was a series of individual acts, and each act worked to create a rising curve of energy until finally presenting a “topper” that would leave the audience thrilled. The theater manager then tried to arrange the acts in a series so that each successive act increased in quality, culminating in the biggest and best act, creating a “topper” for the evening.

The story takes place over one week, seven days. That is the length of time Buster takes to build a pre-fab house he and his bride recieved as a wedding gift. A jealous friend has changed the numbers on the boxes to confuse them, so the house they build is comically misshapen. Each day in the film is the equivalent of an act in a vaudeville show. The scale of the gags grow with each day, until the final day when… well you can watch it now, in just 2 parts:


Rango walks like Buster Keaton

It is obvious Rango pays tribute to seemingly every western film ever made, and I just realized one in particular. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers, but I reference a couple of early scenes.

Buster Keaton made “Go West” in 1925. He plays a down on his luck easterner who hops a freight train and heads west to find his fortune.  On the train he falls into a barrel, which rolls out the door and smashes into pieces on the ground. Which is similar to Rango and his terrarium falling into the desert. Shortly after that, he wanders onto a cattle ranch, and we get this scene here:

When Rango enters the town of Dirt he doesn’t want to attract attention, so he imitates three of the walks he sees there.

Buster doesn’t just see a peculiar walk and instantly replicate it perfectly.  Charlie Chaplin would probably do that.  With Buster there are lots of little things happening.

  1. He stops and spends a moment watching the cowboy walk.
  2. He looks down at his legs, and gets the initial pose.  This is build up.
  3. Then he fully enters the walk, which is funnier for the discrete steps in getting there.
  4. As he reaches the foreman he wobbles and falls.
  5. He gets back up, but closer to his normal state, then he pops back down into the cowboy walk.

It’s more than just a funny walk, Buster emphasizes the unsteadiness of his feet and his imitation, which makes it more endearing.

I wonder if Buster inspired this scene in Rango.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: