Funny short: This Way Up

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before now.  It’s exactly what I like. It’s a non verbal comedy packed with great gags.   This Way Up was released in 2008, and was nominated for an Academy Award.  It was created by the directing team of Smith & Foulkes at Nexus in London.  The story features a pair of undertakers retrieving a body for burial.  It’s a grave situation (pardon the pun) and that allows for humor that is both dark and slapstick. Like my Floyd the Android character, these two don’t give up until they complete the job.

Except for the poster image below, the two almost never smile.  Undertakers by nature are quite serious and respectful. The straight faces give the impression of them being a pair of Buster Keatons.  (Buster Keaton as an undertaker may have been a missed opportunity.)  The film is 9 minutes long, but moves along so efficiently it feels shorter.  The bizarre ending features a truly death defying stunt that is very Keatonesque.

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

 

Cover

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.

pixar-pasta-small

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: