Commedia dell’arte and animation

The commedia dell’arte was an Italian theater of improvisation, developed in the mid sixteenth century. The literal translation is “the comedy of artists.” Performing in the outdoors, they would work from a basic scenario, with none of the action or lines fixed by a script. The beginning and ending were basically understood by the actors, and what occured in between was created on the stage. In order to maintain the laughs, they had developed an arsenal of possible dialog and physical gags, called “lazzi” which the entire cast would be prepared for.

The cast of characters usually included a merchant, a doctor, a soldier, two lovers and two servants. Once an actor or actress had assumed a role, it was kept for life. They lived and breathed the parts and knew exactly what their character would do in any situation. Much of the comic action came from the two servants, who were called “zanni”, the origin of the English word zany. Usually the pair included a quick witted first zanni, and slow witted second zanni.

Here is a good intro video:

The classic commedia was an actor centric theater. The troupes traveled in search of audiences and worked hard for very little money. Eventually a man named Goldoni began setting the various stories into scripts and producing stage plays for serious money. Gone were the wild and unpredictable performances, Goldoni’s actors did as they were told.

I can see a relationship to animation here. Animators are actors, and are quite capable of producing great entertainment. Goldoni, like modern producers, was a smart businessman who capitalized on the commedia styling. I’m not saying one was better than the other, I’m just saying that the business of entertainment has been the same for centuries, and it’s good to understand the contributions of artists and impresarios alike.

Make fun of something

Some time ago, I went to the Makers Faire and I attended a talk by Adam Savage, of Mythbusters. He was wearing his Indiana Jones hat, and he told a story about the man who made it. The man, Marc Kitter, was obsessed with the hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He researched it endlessly, learning that it was different from the hat in the next two films. He wanted one exactly like it, so he learned millinery, and made it himself. This lead to a business of making hats. He became so good, the producers of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came to him for new hats for the movie. Artists begin by copying.

As a boy, long before I went into animation, my early ambition was to be an artist for Marvel Comics. Of course, I began by copying the characters I liked, and I even sent some of the drawings to the artists at Marvel, with fan letters. And I got responses! They were really nice.

I think all comic artists start off emulating their heroes. Some become accomplished artists and still create new works based on the characters they love. Fan art is huge now. I recently read an online article on how the producers of the TV series Adventure Time used fan art ideas to produce an entire episode.

There are definitely some legal issues involved with creating, and distributing, fan art. This article from THE FINE PRINT is a good look at the copy right considerations. The author, Jomo S. Thompson, also discusses the place for parody:

Due to the U.S. love affair with free speech, Parody enjoys great protection. Well executed parody will steal just the right elements from the target to make the identity clear, then let the roast begin. Even if the “core” elements are copied and the economic value of the original is harmed, a parody is still protected.

An interesting point was made by a commenter on that blog:

fan art is also looked on as a “training ground” for new talent.

Entire TV shows are built around parody. “Robot Chicken” and the “Mad” series on Cartoon Network are just two examples. So, if you are interested in creating comedic animation, perhaps professionally, and don’t have any ideas of your own you are happy with, then parody might be a good way to go. Here is a very good goof on The Avengers from independent animator Junaid Chudrigar.

Of course,

Fun Factories

I am currently reading The Fun Factory by Rob King. For my purposes it’s the most useful book I have found on the topic of Mack Sennett and his Keystone Studio. It’s not about the personalities who worked there, but about how their style of comedy and how it was influenced by changes in American society.  I will probably pull several blog posts from the book.

I like studio history, and from reading this book, it’s obvious things don’t change all that much. Sennett’s financial backers brought in Thomas Ince to organize the studio;

Ince’s involvement is crucial to the present analysis. In inviting his supervision, Kessel and Bauman were placing Keystone within the sphere of influence of a filmmaker who was taking pioneering steps in the efficient organization of film production. Ince was at the forefront of the spread of production line practices that had begun to take hold in the film industry, the model for which was the departmentalized system of “scientific management” first proposed by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s experiments in industrial efficiency.”

But this wasn’t the sort of thing the Keystone publicity mentioned.

..the studio occasionally released “behind the scenes” films depicting the Edendale lot as a space of comic disorder and chaos.

They also tried to present actors as being no different than their on screen characters. It was part of the illusion of being a wacky freewheeling place to work.   But Sennett and Ince kept tight control over production. Sennett had a tower office built on the corner of the lot, where he could keep an eye on everything and everyone.  He had spent some time working in a boiler factory.

The paradox here is that, throughout their careers, Sennett and their filmmakers consistently repudiated their alliegance to this system, prefering to proclaim their carnivalesque defiance of the industrial virtues of efficiency and work discipline.

It’s not so different with animation studios.  Hey, we’re making cartoons here! It’s gotta be FUN! Seriously, there is often a lot of money at stake, and artists are notoriously disorganized, so it’s understandable that controls have to be in place.  I have been fortunate to work mostly at studios where the atmosphere is comfortable, but not all of them are like that. Some of them are miserable places.  And many of those have flashy websites with recruiting pages that make it look like paradise.   It’s all marketing.

Chaplin and money

This is my favorite quote from Charlie Chaplin.

“I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”

To really understand this quote you need a bit of history. As a child Chaplin was very, very poor, and had no real formal education. All he had was a bit of theatrical experience gained from his parents. His father was a drunk who abandoned them, and his mother lost her mind. The only chance Chaplin had to make a living was going into theater. Or he could dig ditches.

Later on, when he accepted the contract from Mack Sennett to work in movies, he believed it would be a temporary job. The money was good, and he thought he would take the money and go back to the theater. That’s what the quote refers to.

Still, I think artists should keep this quote alive in their thinking. You can be motivated by money, and bring something special to what you do.

Animated Acting: Make an entrance!


I teach animation at the Academy of Art University, and one common mistake I see students make is this. The scene opens with a person in a relaxed standing position. Then they start “acting” with some arm gestures. It’s as though they are waiting for the director to say “action!”

I tell them the audience is gathering an impression from the very first frame, and it’s great if the character is already clearly in some state of thought or action. If you are just doing a single shot, imagine there was a scene before, and we are cutting on action to your scene.

That little tip leads me to a larger topic. That of how a character enters a scene. A great entrance will immediate capture an audiences attention. Charlie Chaplin worked at making interesting entrances. Here, the actor Rowan Atkinson explains why:

Chaplin so took over a picture, he seemed to always be center screen, or entering or exiting in some eyecatching manner. Entrances and exits are a special aspect of physical comedy, worthy of great thought, but Chaplin also did this for a different reason: editing. Sennett would often edit out any material he didn’t care for, and this angered Charlie. But Sennett had to leave in the entrances and exits. By embedding good stuff in those moments, Chaplin was assured of quality screen time.

Sennett was editing out what he didn’t care for, and audiences will do the same, essentially forgetting those moments.  So Chaplin used that knowledge to make sure his time on stage was as effective as possible.  He could make a great entrance, then slow down a little maintain the integrity of the performance.

Of course we don’t have to do great entrances to keep from being thrown on the cutting room floor.  But it is a way of not being boring.  It’s a way to get the audience immediately excited.

While comedians and animated characters can put a lot of energy into entrances normal actors also want to know why they are entering a space.  Here is a 4 minute video about entrances and exits from a writers point of view.  As a film maker, you are the director, and this is worth watching.

Now back to energetic characters trying to grab the spotlight.  In the TV series Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer made a trademark of barging into Jerry’s apartment without knocking.  Here is a montage of Kramer’s entrances.

Entrances are more than just coming in through a door.  Any time a film begins, the first scene is essentially the entrance.  One way of making this entertaining is a camera reveal of the situation.  In some of Popeye’s earliest shorts, we would first see him in close up, bobbing up and down like a sailor, with the rain pouring down.  He would be in a heroic pose:


As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.


The Three Stooges had some great entrances.  Here is one of my favorites from “No Census, No Feeling” which starts at :24. While it looks like stuntmen were used, they matched the action over the cut very nicely.

One group that has taken entrances very seriously are professional wrestlers. They are all showmen.  A youtube search for “entrances” will show numerous compilations of them. I was impressed with this particular fighter’s entrances, which are very theatrical.

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