Rip-off?

I remember watching an old Roscoe Arbuckle film “The Rough House” when I noticed this scene:

At first I thought he was was mocking the dinner roll dance done by Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” If you watch it that way, it’s kind of funny. But then I realized “The Gold Rush” was made after Arbuckle was no longer making movies. Arbuckle had done this bit first. For comparison sake, here is the Chaplin performance.

Clearly, Chaplin’s version better. It is also more of a centerpiece, while Arbuckle’s is a bit of a throwaway. But it goes to show, even the famous Chaplin was not above appropriating material. Making dinner rolls dance may have been a common gag for all I know. The point is, he took the idea and added enough to it to make it his own. He built it up into something special. That’s a good thing. It’s not a rip off. That’s how art grows. Keep your eyes open for small ideas that you can build on.

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.

How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

Here is some more of what I learned from Rob King’s book on Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio “The Fun Factory”.

The earliest Keystone comedians brought their characters with them from vaudeville. These were the ethnic caricatures that were popular in their day.

In contrast with the “classical” body of white America, the vaudeville stage elaborated an iconography of ethnic grotesquery. Characteristic elements of costume and makeup drew attention to the orifices and bodily extensions, from the stage Jews exaggerated nose and protruding ears to the red whiskers and ruddy countenances of the Irish performers.

These characters were sometimes created and often enjoyed by the same people that were being lampooned. But over time, as immigrants assimilated into society, they did not want to be differentiated, and no longer found them funny. Middle and upper class audiences often found such performances distasteful and vulgar.  Around this time Chaplin began his climb into the stratosphere of fame.

Such phenomenal popularity could only have emerged at the intersection of several crosscurrents in the development of film comedy during the mid-1910’s, chief among them was the vocal disfavor into which the ethnic character had fallen by this time

While other comedians still pursued their stereotypical types, Chaplin concocted a character who had no recognizable nationality, but was a distinct representation of a social class: A Tramp.

-the tramp was a particularly visible figure with America of the period 1870 – 1920, when, in the wake of the upheavals wrought by the economic crisis of 1873 and the depression of 1893, as many as a fifth of American workers spent some time as transients. Tramping thus formed part of the common work experience of industrial America. But it was also a familiar theme of turn-of-century popular culture, where the tramp was a stock character of newspaper strips, dime novels, vaudeville and early film comedy.

David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of  has pointed out that circus clowns created comic tramp characters long before Chaplin, and were primarily responsible for it’s success in other forms of popular culture.

It wasn’t just the appearance of the character either. Chaplin moved away from the excessive energy in the acting, and the quick pacing of the shots in favor of a slower more thoughtful presentation.   Most comedians were still trying to push everything faster, with quicker cuts, and Chaplin was taking more and more time in each shot.

Rather than grounding his comedy solely in the expressive possibilities of frenetic action, Chaplin uniquely exploited the intervals between the action that introduced an affective dimension to the performance.

Where “comic” situations invited the spectator to laugh at the clown’s transgression, humor complicates that reaction by opening up a margin for identification. It is precisely that complexity that Chaplin’s lumenproletariat persona provokes inviting a spectatorship that oscillates between the poles of empathy and ridicule.

Chaplin didn’t completely reject the rough and tumble comedy, he was still great at that. But he gave the character some room to be more human. This was the turning point where physical comedy became palatable to higher class audiences, and soon everyone was going to see Charlie Chaplin.

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