Retiming for Comedy

Timing is a big part of both animation, and comedy. Here is a trick to help develop the timing of your animated scenes.

When I worked in the commercial department of Industrial Light & Magic we worked in 30 frames per second. When reviewing dailies, the supervisor would occasionally ask to see a take played back faster, say 36 fps.  It often resulted in motion that had the energy the supervisor or director was looking for.  It was then easy for the animator to go back into the scene, select the keys, and scale the timing to match the exact percentage the supervisor had already seen and approved. Changing the speed of your playback is a super quick way to test out new timing.

It occurs to me now that the same retiming method could be used with reference footage. If you have recorded yourself acting out a scene, try changing the playback speed to get different results before you start to animate.

But let’s take it just a little further. Maybe you have to animate a scene that it is very complicated or even a little risky to act out. What if you acted out the scene at a speed that made it easy for you to carry out all the details in the motion, then you speed it up to get the velocity you want? Or if your character has to fall, you can do it at a speed that allows you to play it safe.

I’ll confess, I didn’t invent this idea. It’s been around for about a century.

Ben Model is one of the top musical accompanists for silent films. He is intimately familiar with silent film timing, and the technique of “undercranking”. For those who don’t know, early movie cameras were hand cranked by skilled camera men. Movie projectors, on the other hand, were mechanically timed to be as consistent as possible. The speed of cranking could be manipulated to change the effect of the motion when projected. By cranking the camera more slowly, undercranking, the resulting playback gave us the sped up quality we are familiar with in silent comedy.  It’s like applying a time warp to an animation curve but done live on the set.

It is generally thought that they used the sped-up image simply to make the action funnier. Indeed, it does do that, but apparently they found another advantage of running the film faster. It allowed them to act slower. Creating physical comedy requires great skill, and the chance to act slower allows for greater precision in the performance.

Mr. Model has taken some clips of silent comedy and slowed them down to approximate how it was acted in real-time. It reveals interesting things. Not only does speeding up the motion make it funnier it allowed the actors to move more carefully. They could fine tune the details, and when played at full speed, it makes them look almost superhuman. First, a short video featuring Harold Lloyd to show you how it worked, then a longer more detailed example from Charlie Chaplin.

Mr. Model has several more of these undercranking studies on his YOUTUBE CHANNEL. Here is his SILENT FILM MUSIC website where you can purchase rare silent films on dvd and blu ray. During this pandemic stay at home time, I recommend his Sunday Silent Comedy Viewing Party on Youtube.

To finish up, here is an example of how the Monty Python crew used undercranking in their fish slapping dance. At real time, getting hit with a big fish looks noticably more painful, and less funny.

Comedy for Animators on Amazon

Leave a Reply