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.
Make the character want something.
Be a sadist to the character. Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
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.
Ahh, early Hollywood, where filmmakers were just figuring out how to do things. Where masterpieces could be spun out in any way the director saw fit. Previously I posted about how Buster Keaton would often build his stories beginning-end-middle. Now I discovered this quote from Harold Lloyd. It’s from an essay titled “The Serious Business of Being Funny”.
About using scripts. In Safety Last, probably one of our most popular films, we did the final scenes of that clock climb first. We didn’t know what we were going to have for the beginning of the film. We hadn’t made up the opening. After we found that we had, in our opinion, a very, very good thrill sequence, something that was going to be popular and bring in a few shekels, we went back and figured out what we would do for a beginning and worked on up. We tried out the same thing in The Freshman.
In The Freshman we tried to shoot the football sequence first – it’s the best sequence, naturally – and we tried to do it first just as we had done the clock climb first in Safety Last. We went out to the Rose Bowl where we did a great deal of the picture, and we worked for about a week and a half, but it didn’t come off. It didn’t come off because we didn’t know the character at that time – we didn’t understand him well enough, and we were off with the wrong kind of material. So we went back and did that story from the beginning, and the football game was shot at the last.
I can imagine conceiving a film this way. Having a flash of an image or sequence that is so powerful, you could build a story around it. For animation, that actually sounds quite acceptable. But to actually start shooting that scene with no idea what came before, that would be considered crazy these days.
Here is one more significant quote from the same essay:
Look, all the comedians of my day had to be students of comedy. You studied comedy, it just didn’t happen, believe me.
When thinking of a funny animated character, sadness is probably not one of the characteristics that comes to mind first. But there is a long history of combining sadness with humor.
Sadness is a fundamental human emotion and it can be the secret ingredient to creating a truly memorable character. Characters who are sad have a couple of advantages. Often, they are up against a difficult situation, and their obvious vulnerability plays to human empathy. Sadness makes a character feel real and relatable. Sadness is a truly honest emotion. A character who is obviously sad is not putting up a fake front, so we know they are truthful to themselves, and we tend to believe in truthful characters. Sadness is an understandable emotion when it is caused by loneliness. We don’t care about people who are sad because they aren’t rich, or aren’t beautiful. Loneliness is the driver of romance, and romance is one of the great motivators of story. The sad character has room to grow. If it is a comedy, we know it will have a happy ending, and seeing how someone goes from sad to happy is a fundamental story arc.
Combining that with humorous behavior provides a powerful contrast. Sad funny characters are always awkward. Theres is the comedy of foolishness.
In feature film animation, where the story is a usually completed, the star usually finds romance. But still, beginning with a character who is admittedly sad, can be a great way to get the audience on their side.
In Pixar’s Ratatouille, when we meet the young chef wannabe, Alfredo Linguini, the very first thing we learn about him is that his mother has died. He is an awkward young man in need of a job. He is clearly worthy of our sympathy.
During that first scene Skinner, the head chef, pushes him and falls into Collette’s arms, and she literally tosses him aside. At that point, she has no attraction to him at all and becomes a firm instructor of kitchen skills. The audience know there is potential there for him to find something more.
Wall-E is a diligent robot who continues to work hard at his job, even though he is the only one left to clean up an entire planet. He is the definition of dedicated. But he is lonely, and he has been discovering items in the trash that make him wonder about the world that used to be. While watching an old musical, he sees human beings holdng hands, and wonders what it is like. Just watch these two gifs.
When the reconnaissance robot Eve arrives, Wall-E is both irresistably curious, and terribly frightened. When Eve suspects something moving in the area, she unleashes a powerful energy weapon in his direction.
You should note that in both of these examples, the love interest does NOT make things easy. It has to appear challenging, if not impossible. The experience of falling in love is one the most intense experiences in life, and it makes for great storytelling opportunities. Both Wall-E and Linguini behave like adolescent boys fumbling in their romantic endeavors. But they succeed in the end.
The relationship doesn’t have be romantic. One of the greatest animated sad characters was Dumbo, who was separated from his mother. I chose the image at the top because it shows Dumbo in some of his clown outfit. Notice the frilled collar. While performing in the circus, Dumbo has his face painted white.
The frilled collar, and white painted face are both associated with one of the archetypes of clown, the Pierrot. It is a very specific style of clown. He is the sad clown. The Pierrot evolved from the Commedia Dell’arte’s Pedrolino. While his character has been around for centuries, it still lives on in our culture.
His character in contemporary popular culture—in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat.
Perhaps some of you have seen the videos of Puddles the singing clown. He usually sings torch songs, songs of loneliness and rejection. His on stage persona is a Pierrot.
Pierrot is the pure form of this character. In the end, he doesn’t get the girl. You might think of the Simpsons character Milhous as a Pierrot. He loves Lisa Simpson, but will never be loved by her in return. Every episode he has to start over again as just himself.
While he makes us laugh, we also know that often this is how life is. In fact, while Lisa ultimately rejects Milhous, she herself has often been rejected, and is always moving forward with her own story.
You see, while we like characters who make us laugh, we can love the characters who both make us laugh and cry. It is not an easy thing to do. Here is one of my favorite funny/sad performances. This is Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga from the movie Big Man on Campus. You can see more from this movie in my other post on it HERE.
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.
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.
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.