Lately I have seen a few movie trailers that include a scene where something awkward happens, and quickly moves to the next shot of an observing character saying “Awkward” in slightly sing song voice. “Rio” and “Hoodwinked Too” come to mind. It’s been done enough. I hope to never hear it again.
Real awkwardness, or perhaps I should say embarrassment resulting from an awkward situation, is heavily reliant on great acting. It’s more than just setting up an awkward situation. It generally requires a bit of time, several extra beats of silence, for the embarrassed character to show those subtle responses to being watched. Lengthy moments of silence with little going on is very rare in animation. Partly because of expense, but mostly because of pressure to keep things moving.
For an example of how awkwardness/embarrassment should look, here is youtube video posted by my friend John Towsen. He put it on his Physical Comedy Blog The awkward moment arrives just after Rowan Atkinson enters the stage. Beyond that, there is wealth of great physical comedy here.
I found this great audio interview with Rowan Atkinson, where he explains the difference in his two most successful characters, Mr. Bean and Blackadder. He also describes the genesis of Mr. Bean, which includes his inspiration by Jacques Tati. This serves me well in partially explaining what this blog is about.
Blackadder is comedy created by writers. Mr. Bean is comedy created by a performer. Animation is performance. If you want to write jokes, become a writer. This blog is dedicated to performers.
An additional interview where he discussed Bean and Blackadder has embedding disabled, but is available on youtube here:
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:
As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.
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.
Here are two of my favorite Mr. Bean clips. One takes place in a library, and the other in a school exam. I think the reason they work so well is because of the situation. Both the library and the exam are places where quiet is expected, so Mr. Bean’s physical style seems natural. The silence is normal and allows the audience to focus on the visuals and not be distracted by other sounds. Places that have quiet imposed by rule have a certain tension, a certain formality. Odd behavior is funnier when in happening in formal situations. That’s why the Marx Brothers were usually juxtaposed with high society.
Several years ago I read about an English television special from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean). It was his Guide to Visual Comedy. I eventually found a company that produced NTSC VHS tapes of British imports, and I got a copy. It is a fun and informative introduction to some basic techniques of physical comedy. He shows clips and acts out examples of what he is talking about.
As of this post update, here is an available video on YouTube of the complete program. Below are the parts I originally included.