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

The man who died laughing

The late Tim Brooke-Taylor was a member of The Goodies were a trio of English comedians who performed on TV in the seventies and early eighties.

There is a unusual story associated with them:

From wikipedia:

On 24 March 1975 Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King’s Lynn, literally died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing whilst watching a sketch in the episode “Kung Fu Kapers” in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a black pudding-wielding Bill Oddie (master of the ancient Lancastrian martial art “Ecky-Thump”) in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of “Hoots-Toot-ochaye.” After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the settee and died from heart failure. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments so pleasant

Here is a dramatization of the event.

The BBC had pulled some previous YouTube videos of this episode. Hopefully they will leave this one up.

Wacky Races – for real.

Wacky Races was one of my favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Over the years it has inspired automobile lovers to recreate the highly caricatured cars and drivers in real life. First, enjoy this Peugeot advertisement. It gives all too brief glimpses of the famous cars. Obviously Peugeot wants you to look at their model. No doubt many of these are CG recreations of the more outlandish vehicles.

The Penelope Pitstop ending is so right.

If you are unfamiliar with the originals, here they are:

Wacky Races 01

THIS SITE has ranked the cars. THIS PAGE actually uses F-1 scoring to rank the best racers in the 17 episode series.

Starting a blog post often leads me to fun discoveries. In 2009, the Wacky Races were reproduced at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. They did a fabulous reproduction, and I so wish I could have seen them. Here are the cars:

And some of the crew.

What many people may not know is Wacky Races was inspired by the Blake Edwards live action comedy epic The Great Race. In 2016 I was fortunate enough to stumble onto two of the original cars on display at a local theater. Professor Fate was the bad guy, and below is my photo of his car which could elevate to drive through snow.

Where Homer Simpson got his “D’oh”

James Finlayson and Homer Simpson.

Where did Homer Simpson get his “D’oh!”? I have been reading Mixed Nuts by Lawrence J. Epstein. It’s about comedy teams in America. In a section on Laurel and Hardy, he has this little tidbit:

Most comedy teams had an authority figure to balance a rebellious spirit– a straight man to rein in the comic. But not Laurel and Hardy. Ollie thought he was in charge and acted as though he were a parent or older sibling, but, of course, he clearly wasn’t.

Innovating, Laurel and Hardy deployed someone outside the team to play the straightman. Jimmy Finlayson, popularly called fin, was the outsider they most often used. Finlayson inadvertently made a contribution to American culture. Because of censors, Finlayson was not allowed to swear in the movies. He wanted, however to express annoyance, and where he would ordinarily have used the word “damn,” he substituted a sound, ”D’ooooh” one famous scene in which he does this is in Way out West, when he is trying to pass off one woman for another to get a deed to a gold mine. He calls out the woman’s name, expecting the imposter to appear, but the real woman shows up. He is intensely frustrated and lets out his “D’oooohh.” Years later, Dan Castellaneta was hired to be the voice of the animated character Homer Simpson and was reading a script in which he was called upon to make an “annoyed grunt.” He asked Matt Groening, the series creator, what that meant and was told to make whatever sound he wished. Castellaneta imitated Finlayson. Groening told him to speed the sound up and “D’oh” was born.

Jackie Chan: Tips for animators

John Towsen has posted a couple of great videos from Jackie Chan on how he develops his action scenes. The videos are from a hard to find DVD “My Stunts”. But it’s all available on youtube in 10 parts. It’s totally worth watching to better understand what it takes to create exciting entertainment.

The great silent comedians were all first-rate stuntmen. Jackie Chan was a great stunt man who also became a star. Watching him work is probably very similar to the way Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd made movies. It’s great to see a filmmaker who isn’t locked into a screenplay for his work. He’s clearly thinking about the audience and how to be entertaining, on a small budget.

Here is part 1.

In part 2 Listen for the phrase “let the audience know”. He choreographs to make it clear for the audience what he’s doing.

In part 3, we see a lot of falls. There are lots of exciting shots in this part.

Part 4 has examples of on-set gag development.

In Part 5 they use toy cars to develop ideas for how to have cars perform stunts as if the cars were actors. Jackie’s stunt lab is introduced in this part.

Part 6 gets into wire work. It’s interesting how they use small wire effects to build up regular stunts. By making feet fly out from under an actor, they create a much more powerful impact. I wonder if animation needs more glass breaking.

Towards the end of part 7 he displays his research room, where he collects photos and ideas for stunts in future movies.

Part 8 is all about improvisation with whatever objects he finds, as well as adding flourishes and comedy and making it “pretty”. Setting up falls to have visual impact.

Part 9 shows the work that goes into getting good takes that have a natural rhythm, precise timing and good composition.

Part 10 Jackie shows how he demonstrates character in his action. “You have to be yourself, and more creative.”

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