Book review, FUNNY!: Twenty-Five Years of Laughter from the Pixar Story Room

 

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While most of the animation world is clamoring for Andreas Deja’s new book, The Nine Old Men, I have been waiting to get my copy of FUNNY!: Twenty-Five Years of Laughter from the Pixar Story Room.  This hardcover book is a nice collection of gags drawn by Pixar story artists for all of their feature films up through and including The Good Dinosaur.   A few of the drawings are the original concepts that made it into the films, but most are not.  Huge numbers of ideas are generated in the making of feature animated films, and the vast majority of them are tossed to make room for those that work the best.  Still, many of the rejects are quite funny as well, and I find them all very interesting.  I particularly liked this unused gag by Matthew Luhn from Monsters Inc.  It is a slightly twisted reminder of a famous scene from Lady and the Tramp.

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There is quite a range in the quality of the drawings. Some are pleasantly rendered, and others are crude doodles.  What matters is whether it gets the idea across.   One of the real insights in the book are the drawings that include content outside what is typically acceptable in a Disney-Pixar film. Meaning, not everything is “G” rated.  Such ideas show they will push their boundaries.  Imposing too much self censoring is not conducive to creative thinking.

The book doesn’t name an individual author, since the bulk of it is a collection of drawings created by numerous artists.  It has a foreword by John Lasseter, and an introduction by Jason Katz, who is one of the Pixar story artists who has been with the company since the first Toy Story.  It has a few paragraphs explaining some of their working process.  For my purposes, I would love to have had much more of that.  Here is one quote from Teddy Newton I found informative:

The secret to a great story gag has less to do with it’s novelty and more to do with the truth it possesses.  The me, the funniest moments in The Incredibles are not the outrageous bits of spectacle, but the banal moments we recognize from our own lives.

Ultimately, the book is more entertaining than educational.  It is not a large coffee table book, and I went through in about an hour.  If you are a big Pixar fan, or an aspiring story artist, I would say it is worth the reasonable price.

 

The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing

The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing

Playful characters

Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories.  Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.

  1. Make the character want something.
  2. Be a sadist to the character.  Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
  3. Have them overcome the obstacles.

All of that is valid advice for starting stories.  However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules”.   People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Mckee, who wrote the book “Story”, are giving advice to writers, not animators.  Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules.   I’m thinking of characters I will call “Playful.”

For instance, consider Bugs Bunny.    Bugs doesn’t want anything.  Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing.  Elmer Fudd wants something.  He wants to kill the rabbit for food.   Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal.  The obstacles created by Bugs.   Bugs becomes the sadist.   Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist.  But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.

Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever.  Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character.   While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.

Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit.  They are bold.  They are confident.  They do not shy away from challenges.  They engage in the situation and master it with style.  From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer.  These are the characters this blog is concerned with.

What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.

The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.

The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done.  The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again.  And audiences will come back for more.

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.

 

The Eight Comic Plots

This has easily been the most popular post on this blog.  The eight comic plots are those Gerald Mast chose to include in his book.  I have a chapter in my book about story and, of course, I recommend that as further reading. Click the link to the right to see the book on Amazon.

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Here is a little more from The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast. He describes 8 basic structures of comic stories for movies.  Here are brief quotes from the book with some animated examples I could think of.

1.” The first is the familiar plot of New Comedy – the young lovers finally wed despite the obstacles ( Either within themselves or external ) to their union”

Gnomeo and Juliet, of course.  The Little Mermaid.

2. Parody, “The film’s structure can be an intentional parody or burlesque of some other film or genre of film.”

An example of this in animation is Allegro Non Tropo, which is a parody of Fantasia.

3 “Reductio ad absurdum is a third kind of comic plot. A simple human mistake or social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos, and the social question to absurdity..

…The Laurel and Hardy two reelers are the perfect example of the reductio ad absurdum as pure fun – a single mistake in the opening minutes lead inexorably to the final chaos.”

Reductio ad absurdum seems like a great way to build a cartoon.

4. “This structure might be described as an investigation of the workings of a particular society, comparing the responses of one social group to those of another. . . Such plots are usually multileveled, containing two, three, or even more parallel lines of action. The most obvious examples of such plots are Shakespeare’s comedies, in which love (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) deceptive appearences (Much Ado About Nothing), or the interrelation of human conduct and social environments ( As You Like It ) is examined from several social and human perspectives.”

“Robots” sort of fits the description.  Rich robots threatening the poor robots.  But it’s certainly not as multilayered as Shakespeare.

5. “The fifth comic-film structure is familiar in narrative fiction, but very uncommon on the stage. It is unified by the central figure of the film’s action. The film follows him around examining his responses and reactions to the various situations. . . The most outstanding film picaro is, of course, Chaplin. Significantly, he begins to use the picaresque structure as he begins to mature with the Essanay films of 1915. . . The other major film picaro is Jacques Tati.”

Another word for a picaro is a rogue, which seems like a good character for animation.  Pepe LePew is the first one who comes to mind.  With Pepe, it’s all about his responses to the female.  I can’t say I would call Jacques Tati a rogue, but his reactions to the world are critical.

6.  “The next comic plot is one that would seem to have no analogue in any other fictional form.  The structure might best be described with a musical term – “riffing”  But it could easily be called “goofing,” or “miscellaneous bits,” or “improvised and anomalous gaggery.”  This was the structure of most of Chaplin’s Keystones,  simply because it was one of the two major Sennett structures (parody was the other).

Some of Tex Avery’s later films were very much this way.  “TV of Tomorrow” and “Farm of Tomorrow” were sequences of gags based on a theme.

7. “The central character either chooses to perform or is forced to accept a difficult task. .   Comic versions of this plot include The General, The Navigator, (indeed most of Keaton),  The Kid Brother, The Mollycoddle, The Lavender Hill Mob.”

Many animated features could be described this way.  Kung Fu Panda, Flushed Away, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

8.   “… the final plot form of comic films – the story of the central figure who eventually discovers an error he has been comitting in the course of his life… In films, the plot serves comically in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Freshman, Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero.

I would say “Cars” is this kind of story.  Lightning McQueen discovers the error of his self aggrandizement.

 

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