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.

 

Starting from the end? Safety Last

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.

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