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 World of Commedia Dell’arte

Here is an excellent set of youtube videos to educate you on commedia dell’arte. In this first video, she refers to the British TV show, Fawlty Towers, which helps to understand the characters.

This next video describes how the commedia traditions carry on to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. She also mentions The Lion King.

This “character shape” video is great for animators, who often need ideas for creating specific characters walks. The “rich old man” is a character in Commedia, and the instructor mentions Mr. Burns, the Simpson character.

What I like about this next video is the approach to scenes. Have the character enter with a strong emotion already in place. And have them leave changed. When teaching animation, I get students describing their character as “just standing there, then something happens.” That doesn’t grab the viewer and bring them in at all.

This next video was included in my sub-verbal characters post.

Primitive comic structure

Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers of moving pictures, and “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is his oldest surviving movie. Made in 1889, it is considered to be a comic film. Just watching a man sneeze was thought to be entertaining. At this point, films were extremely short, measured in seconds, this one lasts as long as a sneeze.

Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind, identifies this as a piece of “comic business”.

He contrasts that film with “L’Arroseur arrosee” from 1895, which I posted previously.

A gardener goes about his business of watering plants with a hose. A boy sneaks up behind him, steps on the hose, and the water ceases to flow. The gardener stares at the hose to find the source of the trouble, the boy removes his foot, and the gardener receives a faceful of water. The gardener then discovers the source of the prank, chases the boy, catches him, spanks him, and the film ends.

… The extreme simplicity of the compound makes it very easy to analyze it’s chemistry. The elements of the film are four: (1) a comic protagonist who wants to perform a task. (2) a comic antagonist interferes with that performance. (3) a comic object begins as a tool and ends as a weapon. (4) the protagonist makes a comic discovery of the problem and takes action on the basis of that discovery.

Think about it this way, if a character slips on a banana peel, it can be funny. That’s like Fred Ott’s sneeze. But if a monkey intentionally threw the banana peel, then laughed at the man who falls, and the man then man gets angry and throws the banana peel at the monkey who gets hit in the face, you have a basic story. These two films represent the very first steps toward comic stories. Mast continues:

As simple as this initial film jest was, it contained elements that could be combined and expanded into much more complex films. The protagonist: Who is he? What does he want to accomplish? What is at stake? Why? The antagonist: What is the basis of his antagonism? What does that antagonism imply? How does he go about it? The comic object: How familiar is it? What is it’s usual function? How many are there? What metamorphosis does it undergo? To what unfamiliar uses is it put? The comic discovery: How does it come about? What does it in turn produce? What would happen without it?

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