Wednesday, February 15, 2012

True Comedy Comes From Character

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 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 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.


 No way!

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...."
"...just so you know."

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!


djsteelo said...

Great article. When I attended college everyone was so enamored with Disney, Pixar and ILM that it seamed they had forgotten the great artist that worked at Warner Bros. and Hanna Barbara. It was that slapstick humor akin to The Three Stooges and other vaudevillian greats that sucked me in as a kid and still amuses me to this day.

jake gumbleton said...

Great article! Maximus made that film for me, such a wonderful character. Thanks for sharing!

Louise Kay said...

Oh wow. This couldn't have come at a better time- I'm working on my senior animation and have been watching/studying so many looney tunes shows trying to figure out where the laughs were coming from. Your post pretty much articulates what I've been looking for and clarifies what a teacher of mine has been suggesting to me. Thank you!

mister bil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mister bil said...

Hi Mark, all characters in Chuck Jones animation are amazing, aren't they?
wile e coyote, the tenor, daffy to name a few.
I think what makes me laugh the most is the unexpected (you know what's going to happen to the bull, but don't know how).
Talking about about great performance,in the animation Podcast the other day, clay presented a great clip compiling Cary grant great moment, he was such a talented man!on you tube.

SparkyMK3 said...

Kudos to this article! Very insightful stuff, and helpful to a fellow animator! Keep it up!

Jamil R. Lahham said...

Brilliant post, great insights, this is one of the most helpful posts I've come across in a while. Thanks.

Sarah burgess said...

Hello - I am very new to this blog, bit I am just overjoyed that you have one and that you write such interesting things! This is great - last year I brought the art of tangled, and srsly I haven't put it back on my bookshelf yet! It's a constant source of inspiration for me (for drawing my comic!) and your storyboards were some of my favourites in the book! So imagine my utter joy when I found out you had a blog, and, were doing a comic yourself! Anyway, I wanted to write because I totally agree, particularly with animation, it's the exaggerated expression which I think is the funniest thing. I prefer this humor I think to say puns or slapstick, although I think slapstick humor in cartoons is funny, if it is funny, it's usually when you think about it because of the characters reactions! I think another really awesome example of funny characters is 'Iron Giant' - or tbh anything by brad bird! I really think he as a director has the art of making funny characters down! Thing I love about his stuff is that th ehumor is essentially based on the way people react to things! Sorry to ramble - I'm so delighted to find this blog! It's so interesting and I feel like I will learn so much from this!! You are truly an amazing artist, ps. I love love love your Tarzan story boards, and your way fo drawing is just..!!! I love how free and open and spontaneous and expression-filled it is! Thanks for being such an inspiration to my own comic! :')

Jeff Z said...

My wife's comment on this scene was, "The great part about this is that neither of them know that Max is actually HER horse... y'know, since she's really the princess and all."

We've watched this film about 50 times (because our toddler boy will yell "TANG-GOOOD" at the top of his lungs until we start it up) and we love it more and more. You all did a fantastic job on it, thanks for a really entertaining movie.

James said...

You've hit the nail on the head! I've come to repeatedly think this way when looking at comedy and what makes me personally laugh and as you say, it's CHARACTER through and through. It's a bit silly when people say I prefer slapstick or I like wit/irony etc. You have a good character - one that the viewer emotionally attaches to - and you'll be sure that you can get that character to make the audience laugh AND cry (as Walt said, there should be a tear for every laugh - I think it was that way round?)

There's no point of gags for gags sake- as you say it's the reaction which communicates. I don't think anyone could laugh at a blank/faceless being walking round talking/ acting/performing slapstick stunts and find it funny Even the best robots are adapted to resemble human expression (we all know Wall-e's eyes!

And luckily this is what Disney does best, create characters and instil them with life. Andreas Deja just posted some pinocchio drawings and received praise from many saying this was a favourite film of theirs. And it's a brilliant example of a film creating characters which express the true spectrum of emotion and well, expression! (Frank or Ollie? speaks on the DVD about how he tries to put himself in the character's shoes and think how he would think)

The only problem(I guess you could say)with animation is that more than one person creates the same character. And this often leads to characters which for some reason just don't relate... because they're not coherent or realistic and hence when something comes that is supposed to make you laugh, it doesn't as much as you may have liked. Sincerity I think is the most important thing to a character/film and this comes from, as you in a previous article, personal relation/experience which allows you to relay a feeling/experience successfully if you yourself has had it.

It's an interesting period in which comedy has developed so much. I always love comedians who create a character on-stage and 'act' out the joke, rather than just say something sarcastic about some recent piece of news(Tommy Cooper/Fawlty Towers being 2 of my fav.).
I guess it's partly looking back with rose tinted glasses but people say films aren't as good as they use to be! (obviously not always the case) but I do think (i'm gonna sound like an old granny now!-)that consumerism and globalisation of everything has had a great influence on people's feelings/experiences and the sort of sincerity which existed in films through early hollywood to 60/70's is a lot rarer. Obviously everything changes!

Can't thank you enough for this truly amazing blog Mark. Really educational and allows us students who dream to work at Disney one day at least some connection for now.
Thank you,
(P.S: Sorry for rambling on, I hope I have not imposed)

T' said...

For what it's worth, Maximus is my absolute favorite character from "Tangled." I loved the way he emoted, was so full of himself and yet likeable at the same time. He made me laugh constantly. The scenes he was in were the best of the film. I totally see what you mean here and can see the parallels between him and a cartoon like "Bully for Bugs." Great work.

Netta said...

Best. Horse. Ever!!!!

Just had to say :-)

Great post,

Clifton said...

There was a subtle moment in Tangled when Rapunzel asked Mother Gothel to leave the tower and fetch her favorite dish (or fruit can't remember) for her birthday.

Mother Gothel being tired had her hand on her head and was kinda slumped down and in a daze. At this point you saw her eyes shift just slightly after hearing Rapunzel's request. Afterwards she agrees to go and off she went out of the tower.

I thought that shifting of the eyes was brilliant in showing Mother Gothel as a living breathing person.

Anonymous said...

I laughed as hard at your storyboards as I did the Bugs short. Especially love MAX9.jpg - everybody's expressions, both face and body, are just a riot.

Thanks for doing this blog! It provides all sorts of great material I (and lots of others, obviously) find fascinating and that I wouldn't otherwise have a chance to see - e.g. your storyboards.

Liimlsan said...

Maximus, for all the overshot pop and motion blur he ended up smothered in, actually was the most consistently personal character in the film AND the least distractingly self-conscious...I'd say you did your work well! ^^

The chunk of 'Bully' with the gun stuck up the bull's tail was animated by Ben Washam, the pointy pose man with a unique style of timing and a good sense of facial tic. Chuck had nothing but sheer worship for his 'personality' scenes... I can easily believe this was to be the personality high point of the cartoon.
(the sequence of the Bull flying through the air was split between Washam and Lloyd Vaughan, with Lloyd doing all the shots you posted. ^^)

It's a good contrast in the film itself, because one of the three standout sequences (the mexican hat slap), animated by Ken Harris, is all the funnier because compared to this, the personality is so hidden. And it makes the OTHERS look warmer by contrast. It's a masterpiece of storytelling composition.

Ashton said...

Wait, YOU animated Maximus!? OMG

I stumbled across your blog randomly on the internet. No idea what your credentials were.

Maximus was, honest to god, my favorite animated character of the last several years. He made that movie. Thank you!


Pancho said...

I just started following your blog and its been inspirational, educational and an eye opener. Thanks for taking the time to write it. If you ever bind it and publish it, Ill be one of the first ordering.
Thanks for the free masterclasses.

Kevin Lam said...

Oh wow, my comment won't be as lengthy as the others... but just wanted to say... AWESOME! I agree with everything and the Bugs short is hilarious!

Substance McGravitas said...

Maximus was certainly the best part of Tangled. I didn't think the film was all that great in itself, but it seemed clear to me that the animators were outrunning the creative strictures placed around them. Good work and thank you.