I love all kinds of physical comedy. My personal dream is to produce a TV show where I travel around the world and feature funny performances based on local culture. I just added Japan to the list when I learned about shokkiri or comedic sumo wrestling.
Sumo is a centuries-old sport with deep traditions. It follows strictly defined rituals and has many rules. The more seriously someone takes themselves, the more attractive they are for being made fun of. Sumo is no different. Shokkiri was created over a century ago as a way to demonstrate sumo techniques and to show all the illegal moves. It has since evolved into a comic art form. Breaking the rules is of course one of the oldest comedy techniques. A shokkiri performance is created by lower-ranking wrestlers. It isn’t performed at official tournaments but at exhibitions and retirement ceremonies.
If you are ever tasked with creating a comedic sumo wrestling event, here is your reference. First, I am amazed that a sumo wrestling can do a “pancake” position, as shown in the poster frame of this first movie.
Many student animators want to create a sample of cartoony animation. I see quite a few, and some are more successful than others. The purpose of Comedy for Animators is to bring the art and history of physical comedy into animation education. Recently, I have been reading David Carlyon’s book, The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes.
After serving in the army, and graduating from law school, Carlyon entered Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Clown College in Florida. Carlyon and one of his partners created an act and tried it out on fellow students. The other students enjoyed it and laughed. With that encouragement, they decided to present it in class. The teacher for that class was the world-famous clown Lou Jacobs. Here is the author’s quote on how it went:
“When we finished, he said ‘Spaghetti.’ That was Lou’s ultimate criticism. ‘Spaghetti’ meant mugging and flailing, like spaghetti all over a plate.”
That’s a circus clown telling his students they are over-acting. The greatest clowns didn’t jump around like fools all the time. They developed acts over time with careful planning and timing.
Modern character rigs can stretch like never before, and animators want to push them as far as they can. I’ll be the first to admit that rubbery is funny, but it has to be used with some restraint. Let’s take a look at some peak cartoony CG animation, and see what we can learn. Here is Genndy Tartakovski’s test film for a yet-to-be made Popeye feature.
There are a couple of moments where Olive Oil devolves into what could best be described as, well, spaghetti.
However, these actions occur for just a few frames in between two much more stable poses. They are transitional effects as a part of a performance. I have seen live clowns who will go through high energy motion in between poses. If they had the ability to distort their body like this, they would.
There are a few shots where the camera follows Olive around the deck while she tries to crawl away from the gang of pirates. While her arms and legs are very fluid, her body maintains a basic shape.
Here is an animated gif of Olive running. Despite her extreme poses, and a crazy camera move to follow her, note how easy it is to track her face.
It will be way more effective if your animation appears to have been designed with some kind of thought process. Studios want people who can think, not just reproduce what has already been done.
Here are some DOs and DON’Ts for cartoony animation.
DO consider how your audience will perceive the “set up” for the scene. What is driving the cartoony behavior? Does the situation really warrant a character freaking out? If not, then the unmotivated over acting could be considered spaghetti. Or, consider a cartoony style for something other than panic.
DON’T recreate the same huge “takes,” like those in a Preston Blair How to Animate book. Those have been done for decades in cartoons and student demo reels. When they get used over and over again, it diminishes their value. Come up with a fresh idea.
DO create contrast. Energy with stillness. Flexibility with stability. It will help your audience follow what is happening.
DON’T be satisfied with a bunch of compliments on social media. Carlyon and his partner got good reactions from fellow students, but the teacher brought the experienced eye. Always look for criticisms that will help you grow.
DO try to have some sort of resolution. Look at the final frame, and know that is the feeling you will leave the audience with.
While Buster Keaton is remembered for his spectacular physical skill, he augmented his films with some equally remarkable camera effects. He often told the story of when he first started doing short films with Roscoe Arbuckle, he disassembled and reassemble a motion picture camera to understand how it worked.
While watching THE THREE AGES, one of Buster Keaton’s earliest feature films, something odd caught my eye. In the scene, Buster has sat down in a restaurant and randomly pointed to something in the menu without looking. The waiter returns with a giant crab on a plate, and sets it down in front of Buster. Buster is startled, and this is how he reacts:
Buster goes from sitting still, to rocketing straight up. He must have used some method to cut out the preparatory anticipation for the jump. If you look at the empty chair you can see a tiny jump, and the waiters hand changes position. I have found five examples of a sudden change in speed in Keaton films, and made these gifs to consider how it may been achieved.
Some readers may be unfamiliar with the technique of under cranking. Silent film era cameras were powered by a hand crank. By turning the crank slower, the resulting film would project with that high speed look so common to silent film comedy. But I think Buster went a step further to achieve the cartoony speed he wanted. We are so used to worn out prints with unstable frames and jumpy motion, we may not recognize that the film maker intentionally did something that would cause it.
This one, from THE BATTLING BUTLER, is obviously a camera trick. The boxer throws his uppercut and freezes, while the acrobat prepares his flip.
The boxer’s very sudden stop makes me think this was achieved by cutting out the unwanted frames through editing, (post-production)
This one from SHERLOCK JUNIOR is also clearly an effect. It is possible that this was achieved with severe under cranking of the camera.
Here is a very subtle one from GO WEST. Buster’s jump through the window almost appears normal. But look at the coyote in the lower right side. He shoots out of frame, and the cow also has a sudden jump to the right. I would guess they removed a couple of frames for this one.
I like this last one, from STEAMBOAT BILL JR. To give the punch more acceleration, I think he cut out two frames. You will note the entire image has a tiny clockwise jump in it, suggesting the film edit wasn’t joined perfectly straight.
The film jumps, then returns and lines back up. That means there is an edit, one frame out of alignment, then another edit going back to where it was. So he cut out at least two frames that were not sequential, replacing one in between. This what animators do when they remove “in between” frames to speed up an action. I admire Keaton’s effort to produce the most effective action he could.
I am a big fan of the Minuscule series from France, and their second feature, Minuscule 2: Mandibles from Far Away is now one of my favorite animated movies. It was a major challenge to simply find a copy of this film, which was released in France in January 2019. Normally I can find videos like this on eBay. I was lucky to find a Czech version of the DVD for sale on Amazon. Like all visual comedy, it doesn’t matter what nation it comes from. For some reason, this movie is even less known in America than their first feature from 2013, Valley of the Lost Ants. I wrote about that film previously. To introduce the new film, here is the official trailer, though I think the voice over here does an injustice to final product.
If it isn’t obvious, Minuscule is about the lives of insects. They are computer animated bugs, mostly set into live action footage. Like all their work, it is completely dialog free. It is pure visual storytelling and it makes me laugh. It is directed by Thomas Szabo and Hélène Giraud. The below quote from Wikipedia apparently comes from one of their promotional videos.
The creators also cite the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1950s as a model for the series, aimed at both young and old alike, and the series is often described as “a cross between a Tex Avery cartoon and a National Geographic documentary !”
Minuscule 2 is about a Ladybug father (okay, I’m guessing it’s the father, but feel free to identify with whoever you want) rescuing his child who has been accidentally shipped to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. From a bug’s perspective, everything looks big, but for this second film, they expanded the world, with impressive results. This scene makes it believable that a ladybug could catch up to jetliner taking off. It also one of the many demonstrations of determination and love this bug has.
Once on the island, the ladybug dad calls out for assistance through the local ants’ ability to transmit messages extremely long distances. The message reaches his ant friend in Europe. Ant goes to Spider’s house to ask for help. I am impressed with how such a simple idea, going to someone’s house, is built up here. The setting, the music, and the animation all work together to make it both scary, grand, and fun.
In this film, there are nods to Finding Nemo, Up, Pinocchio, and FernGully. In addition to the dolls house, Spider has a toy sailing ship, which he can fly with balloons. Here they are on the perilous journey to Guadeloupe. These are spectacular scenes.
This is a family adventure story with a fair number of perilous situations. They really tried to lighten them up as much as possible. Here, a huge bug-eating spider is played like a puppy dog.
I have a great appreciation for children’s entertainment where the creators really make them to the highest standards. Minuscule is exactly what I like. I really wish these shows and movies were available on a U.S. streaming service, and more people could enjoy them.
Here is a behind the scenes – “making of” video from Dailymotion.
They also have a YouTube Channel with many, if not all, of the productions they made for European television. The shorts are wonderfully funny, and I must recommend spending some time enjoying and learning from them.
Charle Chaplin said “Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
There are many things to say about long shots in comedy, but I am going to focus on a certain kind of shot that isn’t used much anymore. The extreme wide shot. I’m talking so wide the actor looks relatively tiny. In most films, wide shots are used for establishing an environment, or maybe a transition, but here they are used to let a gag play out as in as wide a composition as is possible.
The best source for these types of shots is old Fliescher Popeye cartoons. Does this shot from A Dream Walking need to be this wide? No, of course not. But how wonderful it is this way! There is so much to look at. It’s like some fully functional toy.
Physical comedy plays out best with as few cuts as possible. A long shot like this is great because you can take it all in.
In this example from Hold the Wire, we get a nice symetrical composition which highlights the distance they have to traverse on the wire, and how high they are from the ground. Cutting to different angles would have much less charm.
They follow up shortly with this next shot. The big circular motion contrasted with the rigid vertical poles. I want to point out what a marvelous job on the animation of the wire as Popeye falls and swings.
In Twisker Pitcher, Bluto comes to bat with the bases loaded. This is easily the most efficient way to show how fast he runs the bases.
In Two Alarm Fire, the big burning building is featured in many shots.
For some reason, it’s funny when someone gets hit by something thrown from a distance. There is some history to this kind of shot. First one from Popeye.
Here’s an example from Will Ferrell’s Elf.
At the very end of Swiss Miss, a Laurel and Hardy feature, a gorilla flings a crutch at the boys as they run down the road. It’s likely that the crutch was an animated effect.
There is something circus like in some of these shots, like they could be performed under a big top.
In fact, circus was the theme in Pluto’s The Wonder Dog. There is something simple and fun about staging like this. This first shot could be shown differently, with an extreme up or down angle on the ladder, but this angle is actually the viewpoint of another dog.
It is almost like looking at a diorama. The actor looks miniature, and cute.
A lot has been written about Buster Keaton’s use of wide shots. He had a philosphy about playing out a gag with no cuts so the audience could appreciate the skills involved. Shooting wide was often the way to do it.
Shots like these are seldom seen these days. Except in movies by one director. Wes Anderson, who also works in animation.