Animated Acting: Make an entrance!

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I teach animation at the Academy of Art University, and one common mistake I see students make is this. The scene opens with a person in a relaxed standing position. Then they start “acting” with some arm gestures. It’s as though they are waiting for the director to say “action!”

I tell them the audience is gathering an impression from the very first frame, and it’s great if the character is already clearly in some state of thought or action. If you are just doing a single shot, imagine there was a scene before, and we are cutting on action to your scene.

That little tip leads me to a larger topic. That of how a character enters a scene. A great entrance will immediate capture an audiences attention. Charlie Chaplin worked at making interesting entrances. Here, the actor Rowan Atkinson explains why:

Chaplin so took over a picture, he seemed to always be center screen, or entering or exiting in some eyecatching manner. Entrances and exits are a special aspect of physical comedy, worthy of great thought, but Chaplin also did this for a different reason: editing. Sennett would often edit out any material he didn’t care for, and this angered Charlie. But Sennett had to leave in the entrances and exits. By embedding good stuff in those moments, Chaplin was assured of quality screen time.

Sennett was editing out what he didn’t care for, and audiences will do the same, essentially forgetting those moments.  So Chaplin used that knowledge to make sure his time on stage was as effective as possible.  He could make a great entrance, then slow down a little maintain the integrity of the performance.

Of course we don’t have to do great entrances to keep from being thrown on the cutting room floor.  But it is a way of not being boring.  It’s a way to get the audience immediately excited.

While comedians and animated characters can put a lot of energy into entrances normal actors also want to know why they are entering a space.  Here is a 4 minute video about entrances and exits from a writers point of view.  As a film maker, you are the director, and this is worth watching.

Now back to energetic characters trying to grab the spotlight.  In the TV series Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer made a trademark of barging into Jerry’s apartment without knocking.  Here is a montage of Kramer’s entrances.

Entrances are more than just coming in through a door.  Any time a film begins, the first scene is essentially the entrance.  One way of making this entertaining is a camera reveal of the situation.  In some of Popeye’s earliest shorts, we would first see him in close up, bobbing up and down like a sailor, with the rain pouring down.  He would be in a heroic pose:

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As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.

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The Three Stooges had some great entrances.  Here is one of my favorites from “No Census, No Feeling” which starts at :24. While it looks like stuntmen were used, they matched the action over the cut very nicely.

One group that has taken entrances very seriously are professional wrestlers. They are all showmen.  A youtube search for “entrances” will show numerous compilations of them. I was impressed with this particular fighter’s entrances, which are very theatrical.

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.

Charlie Chaplin and objects.

Here are some notes from Gerald Mast about Charlie Chaplin’s development of props as tools for comedy.

The most significant lesson that Chaplin learned at Keystone (other than the way to shoot and assemble a film) was to become the cornerstone of his technique from His Favorite Pastime (1914) to Limelight (1952).  Chaplin learned how to relate to objects and how to make objects relate to him.

Chaplin’s first film – Making a Living – is so poorly acted and so unfunny primarily because Chaplin has nothing to play off and against.  He simply stands around fuming and stomping, and fussing: like so many Sennett characters, he demonstrates abstract cliches of passions.  He has nothing concrete to manipulate.

But his seventh film, His Favorite Pastime, contains one piece of business that is a bit different.  Charlie plays a drunk again.  His “favorite pastime” is drinking, and he attempts to enter his favorite place – a saloon – to do some.  He meets the swinging saloon door.  He pushes it, and it returns to boff him in the face.  He kicks it, and it boots him back.  He puts up his dukes and starts to spar with it; it gets in all the good punches.  Charlie gives up and crawls under it.  The saloon door is the ancestor of every inanimate object that Charlie later succeeded into bringing to life; he turns a piece of wood into a living opponent.

Lesson: If you are working on a demo scene, get an object in there.  Find ways for the character to interact with it that make the object become more than just a prop, that make it seem like another character.  The character becomes the animator.

The 3 reasons Chaplin was so successful

Charlie Chaplin rose from poverty to become the first international superstar. How did he do it? Here’s how I see it.

1. Extraordinary Talent. Duh.

2. Extraordinary Hard Work. Chaplin had to work very hard because he had extraordinarily high standards.  While Mack Sennett would want most of the shots in his films done in 1 take, Charlie began asking for more tries.  When he gained control of his own production, he would spend enormous time developing his ideas with an entire crew there shooting everything.  The documentary “Unknown Chaplin” show some of these outtakes, which are quite rare.

Sometimes, he would shut down production at considerable cost, in order to rethink the entire film. No producer would allow this today.  But Chaplin’s reputation was on the line. He owned the work.

3.   Extraordinary luck.  Yes, luck.  It was luck that he happened to be seen on stage by Keystone Studio owner Mack Sennett, and was offered enough money to lure him away. The movies were a new technology, a risky venture. But when the right person finds the potential in a new technology, fantastic things can happen. While Chaplin had enormous confidence in himself, he could not have imagined what movies would do for him.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, he, like many stage actors, thought the movies would be a passing fad. He was wrong, but he was lucky.

The point is, new technologies are coming at us faster than ever. If you have talent, work really hard, and own what you do, the technology might be there waiting to take you someplace you never dreamed of.

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