Abel and Gordon: Dancing for fun

Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon

It is one of my great pleasures to discover actors who can make me laugh with hardly any words. I have recently found two new delights. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon met while attending the Jacques Lecoq school of theater and movement in Paris. For several years after that they produced small shows for the stage, and eventually starred in four feature films. I have seen two of them, The Fairy and Lost in Paris. Both of them are currently available on Amazon Prime.

The films are full of great physical comedy, but for this post I have chosen to focus on their dance scenes. It is clearly a passion of theirs, so they find a way to add a couple of dances into their stories. I keep wishing there was more dance in animation. Dance has enormous untapped potential for animation. I have written several posts on eccentric dance. While most eccentric dance is built around exceptional skill or unusual abilities, Abel and Gordon give us a lighthearted interpretation of modern and traditional dance. While they clearly know how to dance, they give the impression of a couple of kids being silly and having fun. They are a married couple, and have a chemistry that comes from years of working together.

The Fairy is a quirky fantasy where many things, both improbable and impossible, happen without question. For example, this underwater dance segment.

Animators know to give their characters strong silhouettes, and this next example has them dancing through their shadows. It has a nice theatrical feel, while taking advantage of a film special effect. This is from Rumba, a film that is harder to find.

This tango from Lost in Paris is probably their most polished work.

Another dance from Rumba.

This next dance from Lost in Paris is not done by Abel and Gordon, but by Emmanuelle Riva and Pierre Richard. I can imagine Carl and Elli from Pixar’s Up dancing this way. It’s just nice to see two old folks doing this.

The Four Kinds of Laughter


John Wright is a theater director and acting teacher whose approach to performance fits in with the purpose of this blog.  I have his book Why is That So Funny?: A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy (Softcover) and I have found some useful items to post here.  I would recommend buying his book to get the full value of what he has to offer.

The purpose of comedy is to elicit laughter from the audience.  But people laugh at things for different reasons.   Wright has named four different types of laughter:

1. The Recognized laugh.

2. The Visceral Laugh

3. The Bizarre Laugh

4. The Surprise Laugh.

Wrights description of the Recognized Laugh involves more storytelling than I want to recreate, but I believe I can paraphrase.  One of Charlie Chaplin’s most analyzed performances is in “The Pawn Shop”.   A customer enters and asks Charlie to look at his pocket watch.  The watch isn’t working, so Charlie investigates the problem.  All his movements are derived from those of a doctor performing a diagnosis.  He performs the operation with such accuracy we recognize what it is he is doing.   If he were to SAY, “I’m a watch doctor and I’m going treat the patient”, it wouldn’t be funny.  But as he begins the work we discover it in our own minds, and realize how odd, but appropriate it is.  It relies on the  performers choice of action, and quality of the acting.  Simply put, good mimicry is funny.

The Visceral Laugh may be the sort most pursued by animators.  It involves energy and impact, flight and falling.

The action in a cartoon film follows a similar pattern: a sneeze can blow a character across the room, through the window and into a tree where he could spin round and round a branch and end up staggering dizzily about the road in a disoriented dance until he’s squashed by a passing car.  Comedia is the theatrical version of a cartoon.

Wright goes on to explain how the performer must be able to convince the viewer of what he is seeing, such as slipping on a banana peel:

We’ve just got to believe in that trip.  If it looks even slightly premeditated, even slightly hesitant or set up, then nobody is going to laugh.  If we believe in the fall, then we enjoy seeing you out of control.

Wright gives the example of Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a source for “The Bizarre Laugh”  It is surreal, non-sensical, and defies logic.

The clown lives in a world of bafflement where one thing leads to another.  It’s a state of perpetual free association where we no longer have to ask the question “why?”  The bizarre laugh is the exact opposite of the recognized laugh.

Finally, The Surprise Laugh, is the most basic of all.  Wright reminds us of the Jack-in-the-box, and the infants game of peek-a-boo.

I remember watching a presentation when, at a crucial moment, we heard a violent noise at the back of the auditorium and everybody turned around to see what was going on.  When we turned back again, the scene had been changed.  We laughed because we’d been caught by a simple and effective little trick.

When Tex Avery’s wolf travels to the other end of the globe to escape Droopy, only to discover Droopy has arrived before him, we are hit with the surprise laugh.


Pitching Stories like Rik Mayall

Rik Mayall, pitching stories in Grim Tales

Pitching stories is just storytelling. It’s performance. This post will give you what I think is the best examples of a person telling a story in a way that suits animation.

I first discovered the comic actor Rik Mayall (1958-2014) from from the wild English comedy show The Young Ones. He also appeared on Black Adder, and was the star of Bottom with his longtime partner Ade Edmondson. It was his children’s television program Grim Tales that left the greatest impression on me. Most episodes included some short animations produced by independent studios, but other than that it was basically him telling a story in his high energy style. Dressed in pajamas and and robe he gives every character a disinctive voice, and he effortlessly switches between them. Sometimes he sits in his puppetted chair, but he also roams about and delivers whatever attitude is needed with is body.

One man. Telling a story. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Really, you just have to watch some, and imagine you are a television executive with him in your office pitching stories. You would not be bored. I recorded all his shows off televsion and onto VHS and kept them too long. Now we have YouTube. All the episodes are great, I have selected these based on the video quality. There doesn’t seem to be a dvd available, or I would buy it in a heartbeat.

When Mr. Mayall passed away, I posted this animated video “Don’t Fear Death.” It’s also worth checking out.

Comedy Notebooks

Many great artists have kept notebooks. Comedians are no different. While comedy often seems to be a magical talent, professionals will put in work to develop a better understanding of their art. They record their obervations and jot down ideas for future use. (It should go without saying, but you should be writing down all your original ideas.) What all comedians definitely study is other comedians. This post will tell you about some very famous people who spent their time watching, and taking notes, about other acts.

Animators love to watch animation, right? You learn a lot by exposing yourself to as much as you can. When you start on a job, there is an assumption that you know more than just the 12 principles of animation. Artists who have a huge vault of ideas to draw upon can offer a lot to a production, and will be appreciated. When you are developing work, you can often get ideas across by referring to something that has been done before. “Reference” is more than just movie clips you use when animating.

I recently finished reading Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition, by Andrew Davis. Below is a quote I want to share. It’s about how to absorb the work by observation. In the times before movies, there was only live theater. Burlesque comedy was an oral tradition. Sketches and routines were seldom written down. Actors weren’t handed a script and told to go home and memorize it. Performances were fluid, and improvisation was expected. Actors learned by stading off stage, or in the audience, and watching.

Not only did a young comic learn the joke, he absorbed the pace and the rythym of a line, and the inflection and emphasis to give key words or syllables. By watching others perform a particular scene, a burlesque comic could learn, for example, how certain facial expressions or body movement helped communicate the meaning of the joke.

The few notes and scripts that survived are invaluable. When someone in the past records the details of events, it can become an historic document. So writing things down is good!

When you go to an art class, you are paying the teacher to tell you things. It’s advisable to write down what he or she tells you. What if you also write down what YOU observe when you are watching a cartoon? Just the idea that you are looking for something to note will help you pay special attention, and you will have something to refer to in the future.

Benny Hill was a hugely successful television comedian, and he was a note taker. In Funny Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill, Benny’s old stage partner Reg Varney remembers…

We’d meet in the mornings to pick up the mail, then while I went back to bed, he’d go off to the pictures taking his little notebook with him. He went every single afternoon, and when I came to the theater in the evenings he’d give me an ear bashing about what film he’d seen. I used to say to him ‘But did you get it all down?’ and he’d say ‘You bet!” He had bits of paper everywhere!”

Reg Varney went back to bed, and now almost nobody remembers his name. Benny studied and took notes. Benny was looking for material he could potentially fit into his own act. Honestly, he was pilfering jokes. But that helped him to understand how jokes worked. He also had a big collection of American joke books to draw upon. He would sometimes stay up late into the night listening to American comedians coming through faintly on the radio, looking for good material that hadn’t yet made it to England.

Animator and film director Frank Tashlin also kept notebooks. The image at the top is his drawing. Years ago I found this quote, by Tex Avery, and included it in my book. If this doesn’t inspire you to study comedy, quit reading this blog.

Frank Tashlin was working for Schlensinger then, too. We called him Tish-Tash. He had a cartoon strip and he fooled around. He would see cartoons and he would go to the old slapstick movies with a little flashlight and a little black notebook, and he would write down every Charlie Chaplin and every Laurel and Hardy gag he saw. We used to kid him about his little black book, because he was always looking in it for a joke. Well, the laugh was on us. He went much further in this gag business than we ever did.

If you start taking notes, I would love to hear your observations. You could also learn what I have observed and learned over the years by picking up my book. Click the link below!

Comedy for Animators on Amazon

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
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