Charlie Chaplin was a one-man revolution in film comedy. His acting was substantially different from the other comedians of his time, and in this post, I am going to explain one of the ways he was different. I include a complete video to show animators some of Charlie’s best moments, and what can be learned from them.
Chaplin was trained to act for the music hall stage by Fred Karno. Karno was a detail-oriented taskmaster. He knew how to pace a program for maximum effect. When Chaplin went to work in films for Mack Sennett, the productions there were quite different. The marching orders were for lots of big action. The actors were told to give the first take everything they had and move on to the next shot. This resulted in short films that were at times frantic. Eventually, Chaplin was able to get control of his own films, and slow things down. He started doing multiple takes, searching for just how to act out a scene. Part of Chaplin’s great skill was his ability to focus and hold the attention of the audience. Often this meant emphasizing just one part of his body.
Others have noticed this. Actor and author Dan Kamin wrote:
The secret lies in the extraordinary articulation of his body. His movement is hypnotic to watch both because it flows so well and because it is so selective. Quite often only one part of Chaplin’s body moves at a time.
I have assembled a video with examples of how Chaplin would get laughs by this method. I break it down to his head, shoulders, hands, feet, and his butt. As you watch the video, you may notice that when Chaplin is animating his legs or shoulders or whatever, often, there is very little else going on around him. The idea is to focus the audience on him, then focus the attention further to just one part of him. Please enjoy the video, and read further for even more about Charlie.
By the way, on the topic of Chaplin’s butt, Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni said.
Charlie Chaplin used his ass better than any other actor. In all his films his ass is practically the protagonist. For a comic, the ass has incredible importance.
The essential lesson from the video is “Less can be more.” I want animators and others to keep this in mind as an option, NOT as a rule. That’s why I’m not using the better-known phrase “less is more.” This was the style Chaplin created for himself. He would often have his adversaries “work big” and he, by contrast, would use more skill. It was the well thought out performance that made him a star.
There will always be plenty of room for big acting in cartoons!
Chaplin had a few signature behaviors. Everybody knows the funny walk, the mustache wiggle, and the cane twirling. But you can’t maintain an audience with only that. He continually worked to create fresh comedy. He stayed flexible and developed a whole array of methods to do that. When he did recreate a gag, he would always endeavor to improve it.
Chaplin hardly rehearsed at all. He would work things out with the camera rolling. Over many many takes, he would distill his performance down to its essential idea, and try to express that idea in the most effective way. There is no better way for animators to develop their skill than to shoot reference video. And don’t just do one take! Do it as many times and as many ways as you can. experiment! Have someone help you with feedback. Recognize what is working, and isolate the important bits.
Take an ordinary action, and do it in an unusual way. Chaplin will go through normal routines, but he will put a little extra energy or thought into it. Small things become bigger. He’s that guy you see in the restroom who washes his hands like he’s going into surgery. You can’t help but notice. Chaplin wants you to keep watching him.
If you are doing something expressive, doing it a different way might be confusing to the audience. In those cases, you can just exaggerate it, or repeat it enough times to make it ridiculous. That’s an easy answer, and Chaplin knew to not do that too much. It would get old quickly and lose its effectiveness, so it was just one tool in his toolbox.
Play to the audience, even when your back is turned. Chaplin had one walk when facing the camera, and a different walk for when he was going away from it.
Chaplin will sometimes alter his performance in order to get fresh laughs. The video has examples of Chaplin acting drunk, and one of them is significantly different than the others.
Charlie Chaplin was a major star. He was allowed to do the singular things to get the laughs. Traditional acting instruction, such as method acting, will not teach this. Stanislavski’s goal was to create performances that feel natural. Much of what Chaplin does, is unnatural. Of course, unnatural acting is not always funny. In fact, it often isn’t funny. The skill lies in making the behavior seem normal for that character. Once the audience believes in him or her, then it’s magic.