Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories. Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.
Make the character want something.
Be a sadist to the character. Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
Have them overcome the obstacles.
All of that is valid advice for starting stories. However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules.” People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, are giving advice to writers, not animators. Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules. I’m thinking of characters, I will call “playful.”
For instance, consider Bugs Bunny. Bugs doesn’t want anything. Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing. Elmer Fudd wants something. He wants to kill the rabbit for food. Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal. The obstacles created by Bugs. Bugs becomes the sadist. Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist. But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.
Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character. While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.
Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit. They are bold. They are confident. They do not shy away from challenges. They engage in the situation and master it with style. From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer. These are the characters this blog is concerned with.
What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.
The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.
The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done. The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again. And audiences will come back for more.
When Chuck Jones returned to directing cartoons at Warner Brothers in the mid-1990’s he brought along his friend and collaborator, Steve Smith. Steve took on the role of Talent Development Coordinator. He would scout animation programs for promising artists, give classes, and consult with Chuck about the projects. I met Steve a little while ago to talk about him Chuck.
They became colleagues when Steve invited Chuck to speak at his school. The school was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, where Steve was the dean from 1985 to 1995. Chuck would regularly visit the school and give talks to the students. He would screen his films for them and he always insisted on showing them on film, not video. He would give students drawings of his characters.
You can see some wonderful photos of Chuck surrounded by clown students in full makeup HERE and HERE.
Steve’s professional name is TJ Tatters.
It takes more than just big shoes to fill the, er, big shoes of being Dean of the Clown College. Steve has led a distinguished career in entertainment. From Wikipedia
Steve Smith began his career in clowning as a graduate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Class of 1971. He then toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for six seasons before leaving the show and moving to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Goodman School of Drama and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from the institution, now usually known as The Theater School at DePaul University. At that time, he also hosted a children’s television series called Kidding Around for the local NBC affiliate, WMAQ. The program won several Emmy Awards and was a favorite among viewers for seven seasons.
Smith was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1993. He is also the recipient of several other honors including the Medal of Merit for Notable Achievement in Performing Arts from Ohio University, the Excellence in the Arts award from De Paul University, and the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art Circus Celebrity, Power Behind the Scenes.
Steve is still building the clown community as the Creative Director of the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco. There he also teaches a course called Human Cartoon Class.
The clowns fondly remembered Chuck’s visits. In September of 2011, they held an event to kick off the “Chuck-Centennial” a celebration of Jones’ life and work. Adam Gertsacov remembers that event in a blog post HERE. The Chuck Jones blog mentions that Chuck’s granddaughter, Valerie Kausen, attended the ceremony. It truly was a strong relationship.
Clearly, Chuck Jones appreciated clowns, and for that, I love him even more. He understood that cartoon characters are just clowns in different costumes. This was the inspiration behind Comedy for Animators. In 1989 I gave a talk called Comedy, Clowns, and Cartoons at a conference at UCLA. I met Chuck at that same event, but he did not attend my talk. I very much wish he had.
This is The Red Bastard, and he is generally found at Fringe festivals in the UK and North America. Eric Davis describes his character as a “dangerous, seductive, comedy monster.”
Here is a good sample of his show, and you should note how he explicitly says he needs to do something interesting every 10 seconds. That’s great advice for creating an engaging character. When you enter a stage looking like he does, you had better keep the energy up. The audience is probably afraid to look away.
The Red Bastard is a great example of bouffon. From wikipedia:
Bouffon (eng. originally from french: “farceur”, “comique”, jester”) is a modern french theater term that was re-coined in the early 1960s by Jacques Lecoq at his L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris to describe a specific style of performance work that has a main focus in the art of mockery.
Vaudevillian and author Trav S.D. has this to say about the Red Bastard:
I would describe Red Bastard as a devilish improvisational clown, who resembles a cross between Lewis Carroll’s pedantic Red Queen and one of the Fruit o’ the Loom guys. To be accurate, the Bastard is not a clown but a Bouffon, a sort of anti-clown whose job may or may not be to amuse, but also to provoke and unsettle.
I have another post that will tell you more about bouffon. READ IT HERE!
Here is an interview with him about his show.
And if you can’t get enough, here is a video teaser for one of his shows.
When thinking of a funny animated character, sadness is probably not one of the characteristics that comes to mind first. But there is a long history of combining sadness with humor.
Sadness is a fundamental human emotion and it can be the secret ingredient to creating a truly memorable character. Characters who are sad have a couple of advantages. Often, they are up against a difficult situation, and their obvious vulnerability plays to human empathy. Sadness makes a character feel real and relatable. Sadness is a truly honest emotion. A character who is obviously sad is not putting up a fake front, so we know they are truthful to themselves, and we tend to believe in truthful characters. Sadness is an understandable emotion when it is caused by loneliness. We don’t care about people who are sad because they aren’t rich, or aren’t beautiful. Loneliness is the driver of romance, and romance is one of the great motivators of story. The sad character has room to grow. If it is a comedy, we know it will have a happy ending, and seeing how someone goes from sad to happy is a fundamental story arc.
Combining that with humorous behavior provides a powerful contrast. Sad funny characters are always awkward. Theres is the comedy of foolishness.
In feature film animation, where the story is a usually completed, the star usually finds romance. But still, beginning with a character who is admittedly sad, can be a great way to get the audience on their side.
In Pixar’s Ratatouille, when we meet the young chef wannabe, Alfredo Linguini, the very first thing we learn about him is that his mother has died. He is an awkward young man in need of a job. He is clearly worthy of our sympathy.
During that first scene Skinner, the head chef, pushes him and falls into Collette’s arms, and she literally tosses him aside. At that point, she has no attraction to him at all and becomes a firm instructor of kitchen skills. The audience know there is potential there for him to find something more.
Wall-E is a diligent robot who continues to work hard at his job, even though he is the only one left to clean up an entire planet. He is the definition of dedicated. But he is lonely, and he has been discovering items in the trash that make him wonder about the world that used to be. While watching an old musical, he sees human beings holdng hands, and wonders what it is like. Just watch these two gifs.
When the reconnaissance robot Eve arrives, Wall-E is both irresistably curious, and terribly frightened. When Eve suspects something moving in the area, she unleashes a powerful energy weapon in his direction.
You should note that in both of these examples, the love interest does NOT make things easy. It has to appear challenging, if not impossible. The experience of falling in love is one the most intense experiences in life, and it makes for great storytelling opportunities. Both Wall-E and Linguini behave like adolescent boys fumbling in their romantic endeavors. But they succeed in the end.
The relationship doesn’t have be romantic. One of the greatest animated sad characters was Dumbo, who was separated from his mother. I chose the image at the top because it shows Dumbo in some of his clown outfit. Notice the frilled collar. While performing in the circus, Dumbo has his face painted white.
The frilled collar, and white painted face are both associated with one of the archetypes of clown, the Pierrot. It is a very specific style of clown. He is the sad clown. The Pierrot evolved from the Commedia Dell’arte’s Pedrolino. While his character has been around for centuries, it still lives on in our culture.
His character in contemporary popular culture—in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat.
Perhaps some of you have seen the videos of Puddles the singing clown. He usually sings torch songs, songs of loneliness and rejection. His on stage persona is a Pierrot.
Pierrot is the pure form of this character. In the end, he doesn’t get the girl. You might think of the Simpsons character Milhous as a Pierrot. He loves Lisa Simpson, but will never be loved by her in return. Every episode he has to start over again as just himself.
While he makes us laugh, we also know that often this is how life is. In fact, while Lisa ultimately rejects Milhous, she herself has often been rejected, and is always moving forward with her own story.
You see, while we like characters who make us laugh, we can love the characters who both make us laugh and cry. It is not an easy thing to do. Here is one of my favorite funny/sad performances. This is Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga from the movie Big Man on Campus. You can see more from this movie in my other post on it HERE.
Here is a great example of cartoony human acting. These two are from the clown act Aga Boom, here performing in Cirque du Soleil’s “O”. The person in the yellow robe is particularly fun to watch. I now think this person is a woman. Her poses are very strong, nice crisp motion. Her big shoes give in a strong grounding the way Mickey Mouse’s do. The Iceberg looks like it came out of a Chilly Willy cartoon. There is no story, but they are silly, profane, frightened, imaginative and romantic in a limited space and limited time. Their character is greater than their situation.