I don't think any of the people I work with read this stuff, which is good, because I've been talking about the same thing all week and referencing the same cartoon in every meeting, it seems.....
The point I keep making is this: that the biggest laughs always come from watching characters react, think and take action.
At least for me.
Sometimes people in animation use the word "gags" and I try not to use that word myself. It's a little generic and it implies a bunch of jokes that could happen to any character. I prefer humor that's specific to the situation and the characters. I'm not a big fan of jokes that are just strung together, and I think animation really doesn't work well for that kind of thing anyway.
So lately - I don't know why - I keep bringing up the cartoon "Bully for Bugs" as an example of what I mean.
"Bully for Bugs" is a great cartoon and, to me, it's hilarious. But it's not the action or the "gags" that I really laugh at so much. The parts that I really laugh at are the moments where the characters are thinking, processing information and formulating ideas. Nothing entertains me more than watching a character react to some event, take that information in, process it and then come up with a new idea based on the new information they have.
That might sound incredibly dry, but to me - when it's done right - that's the most entertaining thing in the world to watch. And that's really the best way to show a character and a personality on film...watch them think and react. Those are type of moments that I remember most in films and the moments that make a character truly memorable and make them feel like real, unique, flesh-and-blood characters.
I just love moments in films where you see characters react and think and their inner thoughts and workings are revealed. Animation does that much better than live action will ever be able to.
Part of the fun of setting up a really strong character in the audience's mind is that then you can also create situations that the audience sees before your character does and the audience now knows the character so well that they already know how the character will react. Then the audience has the fun comedic tension of waiting for the character to realize what they already know and the audience is already imaging how the character will react.
I look for opportunities to create moments like these in every sequence I board.
As an example of a character thinking and how entertaining that can be, here's a great scene where the Bull realizes he's swallowed a gun and it's ended up in his tail. He looks puzzled, then he looks at his horn, then to his tail, tries another test shot....and suddenly he gets what just happened. And then he looks over at Bugs, savoring this moment and anticipating getting the best of Bugs. And then you see Bugs react, as he realizes what this means for him...and on and on, with both characters constantly getting new ideas, formulating new plans and one-upping each other.
The best way to create characters and situations like this is to really see it from their point of view and really do your best to inhabit them and see the world through their eyes - no matter how outlandish or crazy the situation.
After working on "Tangled" for a while there was a point when I felt like I really knew Maximus and knew how he thought and how to draw him. I knew how he'd react in every situation. He wasn't a cartoon horse to me....to me he was a real character that I didn't see as a joke or a clown. I really understood his point of view.
When I boarded the part where Rapunzel tries to get Maximus and Flynn to shake hands and make a truce, I knew Maximus would refuse at first. To Maximus, making a deal to not pursue Flynn would go against his inner sense of justice and what's right. He's sworn to uphold the law and he doesn't take that lightly. And he may like Rapunzel, but that's not nearly enough to convince him to put aside his deeply held principles. So he refuses. In no uncertain terms.
Rapunzel's able to talk Flynn into agreeing to shake hands and she looks over to Maximus to see if he'll play along...but still he refuses.
But then she plays the card of asking him very sweetly to do it as a favor because it's her birthday...and this is a curveball Max didn't see coming and (I figured) has no experience with. He's used to operating in a world where cops and criminals use force to get their way and everything is defined in black and white. Being asked to do something in a nice way is a shade of grey that he doesn't have any experience dealing with. Plus, he (probably) has no experience dealing with women. Or gentle manipulation. But he knows enough to realize....he's stuck.
So he'll shake hands....just this once. But he's not going to pretend to like it.
"It's also my birthday...."
The end of "Bully for Bugs" actually does become essentially a bunch of "gags" that build up to the bull being blown up, but even then I find myself laughing at it because of the way the bull is reacting to what's happening to him. The look on his face as he sails through the air - helpless - as all this stuff happens around him is great. If you never got to see his face during this part it would just become a bunch of gags without any character involvement, but seeing how he feels about all this as he alternates looking down at the fuse burning beneath him and then off into space as he contemplates what this all means is very funny to me.
Again...that's just me. Maybe you think I'm crazy. But that's the truth about the way I approach boarding humor, and the way I approach boarding characters and how I try to inject them with entertaining personality.
If nothing else, I think we'll all agree: you could do a lot worse than to study Chuck Jones for ideas on how to create great characters and get a ton of entertainment out of them!