When Animation Technique is Funny

I knew nothing about the feature animated film A Town Called Panic when I first saw it in a movie theater, years ago. As soon as it began I was immediately in love with their technique. If you haven’t seen it, it is stop motion animation, but limited, like super low budget television animation. The characters are replicas of childrens toy figures, but they are not articulated. They either move in place, or use replacement animation, giving a strong pose to pose effect that I very much enjoy. Here is a sample, which also introduces the story of how Cowboy and Indian need bricks to build their friend Horse a BBQ.

This technique gives the effect of a child playing with his or her toys. The method of animation, and the story as well, have a light-hearted exuberance that does not take itself seriously. Anything can happen. I was laughing from the first minute. If the technique itself is funny, you are off to a running start, and that is always a good thing.

It is amusing how they force the figures to do things. They adapt. We are accustomed to limited animation using multiple limbs to simulate fast motion. When it’s done with rigid models, it becomes fresh again. Here is cycling gif of Horse typing.

When they are not forcing the figures to adjust to the world, they will create new props that are adapted to the figures. Such as this example where the piano has the keys on the floor so Horse can more easily reach them.

It’s amazing how they don’t let the characters natural physiology stop them from making anything happen in the story. For instance, who would have a horse climbing a vertical cliff, then answer a cel phone while doing it? Watch.

I think that scene is amazing. I only used the French version because the dubs are not nearly as fun. The phone call is from a female horse he has a crush on, so it’s emotionally important to him. She’s a music teacher, and we get a shot of her other animal students practicing jazz. The scene has danger, emotion, absurdity and clumsy comedy all in one.

While this is “limited” animation, it opens up other ways of doing things that full animation would not do. For example, suppose a story called for a character to rush through breakfast. In a classic Disney animated style, I can easily imagine a scene where Goofy runs into a kitchen jumping while putting his second shoe on. Then he slides a coat on with one hand while eating toast with the other, then switching the other arm into the coat while drinking coffee with the other arm, all the while running around the kitchen table, then flying out the door. It would be beautiful. In ATCP, we get this…

I think they make many good creative choices throughout these films. Such as occasionally using full size props, such as the coffee pot and cup in the video above. They don’t overdo the use of these human sized props in the same way the don’t fill out toys everywhere. It feels like an imaginary universe that was built around the toys.

A Town Called Panic was created by St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The two are Belgian, and met in art school. They created a student film using the technique, and years later it became series of four minute animated shorts on TV. That led to the 2009 feature film I used for examples here. Since then they have also produced two half-hour specials. The specials and TV shorts were recently released on blu-ray disc, which I just watched. The duo also directed the wonderful feature Ernest and Celestine, which proves they are quite capable of beautiful traditional animation.

It is really an accomplishment to create a signature style of animation. Aubier and Patar have done what Terry Gilliam did with this Monty Python animations, or PEZ with his short animated films.

Some links for further reading.

NPR review with audio.

Filmmaker Magazine

Cineuropa interview

L.A. Times

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