Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Theory: Churchill And Chaplin

Churchill On Chaplin And PantomimeChurchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill may have both shared the same country of birth, but they aren’t people you would normally associate together in your mind…

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

Today I was scanning Colliers magazines that Mike Fontanelli has on loan to us, and I ran across this article authored by Winston Churchill from October of 1935. Titled "Everybody’s Language", it is both a film fan’s homage to Charlie Chaplin and a history of pantomime in Western culture. I hope you’ll take the time to read it, because it has some important things to say to animators…

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

"Twenty five years ago, when the young actor crossed the Atlantic, life in the States was more fluid than in England- more fluid perhaps than it is today. Its forms had not set. Personalities were more important than conventions. Democracy was not only a political institution, but a social fact. Class distinction mattered comparitively little when the hired hand of today was so often the employer of tomorrow, and the majority of professional men had paid for their university training with the work of their hands."

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

"Every cinemagoer is familiar with the Chaplin tramps, but I wonder how many of them have reflected how characteristically American are these homeless wanderers…"

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

"No mere clown, however brilliant, could ever have captured so completely the affections of the great public. He owes his unrivaled position as a star to the fact that he is a great actor, who can tug at our heartstrings as surely as he compels laughter… I believe that, had it not been for the coming of the talkies, we would already have seen this great star in a serious role. He is the one figure of the old silent screen to whom the triumph of the spoken word has meant neither speech nor extinction. He relies, as of old, upon a pantomime that is more expressive than talk."

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

"Pantomime, of which he is a master, is capable of expressing every emotion, of communicating the subtlest shades of meaning. A man who can act with his whole body has no need of mere words, whatever part he plays."

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

"I should like to see films without voices being made once more, but this time by producers who are alive to the potentialities of pantomime. Such pictures would be worth making, if only for this reason, that the audience for a talkie is necessarily limited by the factor of language, while the silent film can tell its story to the whole of the human race. Pantomime is the true universal tongue."

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

"It is a favorite cliche of film critics in discussing pictures to say that we cannot go back. In effect, they suggest that, because technical progress has given us sound, all films must be talkies and will continue to be so forever. Such statements reveal a radical misconception of the nature of progress and the nature of art. To explore the possibilities of the non-talking film, to make of it a new and individual art form, would not be a retrograde step, but an advance."

Churchill On Chaplin And Pantomime

Churchill was mistaken about the return of silent filmmaking. Talkies were, and still are here to stay. But "a new and individual art form" based on the ancient foundation of pantomime was just beginning to make its mark when this article was written. I’ll give you three guesses as to which art form that was!

Charlie Chaplin wasn’t the last gifted pantomimist. Many others followed him… Jackie Gleason, John Cleese, Rowen Atkinson… and these two giants from the early days of television, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Here is a brilliant bit from the mid-1950s from the The Sid Caesar Buried Treasures DVD

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca Pantomime

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca:
The Cocktail Party (1954)

(Quicktime 7 / 17 megs)

Many thanks to Mike Fontanelli for the loan of this magazine and Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans for the wonderful Chaplin images that illustrate this post.

If you want an incredible insight into the mind of a brilliant filmmaker, you will want to get the DVD of Unknown Chaplin. Using never before seen outtakes, these three programs reconstruct Chaplin’s creative process from the ground up. This is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. Check it out!

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Theory: Originality vs Ripoff- Chaplin’s Shadow

Charlie Chaplin Lighting Up

The Legendary Charlie Chaplin

Recently, controversy has erupted in the blogosphere over artists who directly copy other artists’ work (See the articles on Cartoonist Todd Goldman and The Great Ripping Friends Rip-Off View the Ripping Friends Ripoff Cartoon.) The issue of exactly where the dividing line lies between "homage" and "ripoff" is open for debate among fans, but today I want to speak to the artists out there… and in particular, aspiring animators. For you, this subject is more than just idle chatter.

Every day, an artist makes thousands of decisions. These decisions affect not just the piece he is working on at the time, but his entire creative output. It’s important to understand why you’re making the decisions you make, and to strive to work your problems out for yourself; not just apply someone else’s decisions as a substitute for your own. Truly great artists refuse to even copy themselves… Take Terry-Toons animator Jim Tyer for instance. He never approached the same situation with the same animation twice in his entire career.

There are consequences to the decisions we make as artists. Sometimes in the heat of creativity, right and wrong can become blurred by practicality and commercial demands. It’s up to you to balance those competing pressures, but as the old saying goes, "Virtue is its own reward."

It’s hard to not react with bias to current examples of imitation, but time can lend clarity. I’m going to tell you about two performers who were popular nearly a century ago. One of them you know. The other you don’t. The reason for that is in the decisions those two artists made. -Stephen Worth

Edgar Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin

Edgar Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin

CHAPLIN’S SHADOW

In 1916, Charlie Chaplin signed a contract with Mutual to produce 12 comedy shorts over a year and half’s time. He was paid the unheard of amount of $670,000 for the shorts, and was given unprecidented creative freedom. We now know that the end result of this deal was a package of slapstick shorts that represent the most influential comedy films in the entire history of cinema. But back in 1916, it was just a LOT of money being paid to a relatively untested artist.

Here is an anthology that pulled together articles from Judge magazine during this seminal period in movie history…

Film Flashes

In the pages of this anthology is this article on Chaplin’s deal with Mutual. Although the form of the prose is quite different from what we read today in entertainment magazines and blogs, the apologies for appealing to the unrefined masses, complaints about big budgets, and stories about movie-star ego trips are the same sorts of sniping we read in reviews today. What this writer didn’t know was that Chaplin was on the cusp of breaking through as the single most important filmmaker of his time.

Film Fan

Now that the stage is set, I want to introduce you to "The Shadow"…

Billy RitchieBilly RitchieBilly Ritchie worked alongside Chaplin on the English Music Hall stage, performing as the drunk in the classic sketch, "Mumming Birds", just as Chaplin did in his vaudeville days. Chaplin’s biographer, David Robinson described this sketch like this…

The setting for "Mumming Birds" represents the stage of a small music hall, with two boxes at either side. The sketch opens with fortissimo music as a girl shows an elderly gentleman and his nephew- an objectionable boy, armed with peashooter, tin trumpet, and picnic hamper- into the lower O.P. box.

The Inebriated Swell is settled into the prompt side box, and instantly embarks upon some business of a very Chaplinesque character. He peels the glove from his right hand, tips the waiting attendant, and then, forgetting that he has already removed his glove, absently attempts to peel it off again. He tries to light his cigar from the electric light beside the box. The boy holds out a match for him, and in gracefully inclining to reach it, the Swell falls out of the box.

English Music HallEnglish Music HallThe show within the show consisted of a series of abysmal acts… The acts changed over the years, but some remained invariable: a ballad singer, a male voice quartet, and the Saucy Soubrette, delighting the Swell with her rendering of "You Naughty, Naughty Man!"

The finale was always "Marconi Ali, the Terrible Turk- the Greatest Wrestler Ever to Appear Before the British Public". The Terrible Turk was a poor, puny little man weighed down by an enormous mustache, who would leap so voraciously upon a bun thrown at him by the Boy that the Stage Manager had to cry out, "Back, Ali! Back!" The Turk’s offer to fight any challenger for a purse of £100 provided the excuse for a general scrimmage to climax the act.

Ritchie came from the same basic background as Chaplin, so when Chaplin began to rise to fame, he was a natural choice to put out film comedy shorts to compete. Henry Lehrman, who was previously a director at Mack Sennett, hired Ritchie to star in a series under his "Lehrman Knock-Outs" banner. The comparisons with Chaplin were inevitable. Ritchie used the same costume that Chaplin wore… the bowler hat, bamboo cane and tattered suit that became famous as the Little Tramp costume.

Here is an interview with Ritchie made around 1916…

Billy Ritchie: Who Wore Them First?
Billy Ritchie: Who Wore Them First?

The author of this article makes it clear that Ritchie’s career has one foot planted in his own shoes, and the other in Chaplin’s. But it didn’t last… When Chaplin’s Mutual Shorts were released, they were a sensation. They blew Ritchie out of the water. Lehrman was forced to change distributors to Universal in 1917, and the quality of the films took a nose dive. Two years later, Ritchie was attacked on the set by an ostrich, and never recovered. He died from the injuries he sustained in 1921, leaving his wife without financial support.

Chaplin imitator, Billy West
Chaplin imitator, Billy West

Billy Ritchie wasn’t the only Chaplin imitator… Billy West and Charles Amador also traded on the image of the Little Tramp; and a cartoon series produced by Gaumont in Europe exploited the character as well. Chaplin sued to protect his creation, but ultimately his own success and brilliant creativity plowed his imitators under better than any legal writ.

Ironically, Chaplin never sued his old comrade, Billy Ritchie. And after Ritchie’s death, he took pity on his widow and gave her a job as his costumer. She prepared the Little Tramp costume for Chaplin’s performances, just as she had for her late husband.

The history of film is full of stories like this. Here are Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo…

Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo

…remember them? No? Well, that’s because they didn’t last either. Petrillo was quoted as saying, "I hold the record for being the world’s youngest has-been."

In time, surface similarities like the hat and cane ceased to matter. Audiences didn’t love Chaplin for his costume. It was the spark of genius in the creator that made the Little Tramp immortal. You can’t steal genius. You may gain a short term benefit from ripping off another artist to further your own career, but you’ll pay for it in the end.

The Tramp

The moral of this cautionary tale is to be true to yourself. The business has no shame. The audience won’t sue you for ripping off someone else’s idea. You need to develop a conscience for yourself. No one is going to do it for you. You owe it to your muse.

Here’s an interesting post on a similar subject at John K’s blog.

If you want an incredible insight into the mind of a brilliant filmmaker, you will want to get the DVD of Unknown Chaplin. Using never before seen outtakes, these three programs reconstruct Chaplin’s creative process from the ground up. This is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. Check it out!

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Theory: CGI Animators Should Think Like ARTISTS

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

You probably have never heard of William Lee Hankey, but he was a pioneer in the field of illustrated books at the turn of the century. Hankey was one of the first illustrators to paint to suit the newly invented four color offset printing process. He would paint loose and wet, and would press fabrics into the washes to create textures. This book, "The Deserted Village" was one of the first big successes using these techniques. It led to a boom in illustrated books during the teens and twenties, which we have documented in our posts on Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Gustaf Tenggren. (See the link to the Illustration Exhibit at the bottom of this post for examples of their work.) Hankey was an expert in printing technology. But that wasn’t all. He was first and foremost, an artist.

As I was scanning this book, something came up that I need to address. I hope you’ll bear with me as I take a little time out to rattle your cage and remind you of something very important.

LISTEN UP!

W. Lee Hankey Deserted VillageW. Lee Hankey Deserted VillageThe other day, I happened across a thread in an internet forum for CGI animators. The thread was titled, "Why aren’t animators artists?" The title made me do a double take. I was surprised to find people debating a question that to me seems patently ridiculous. I take it for granted that people realize that animation is an artform with close ties to the traditional arts of drawing, painting and sculpture. It’s always a shock to find that there are people working in the field who don’t see the link.

I started to wonder whether the readers of this blog understand the intent behind the material that we post here. We’re not just presenting "pretty pictures" to inspire in some sort of vague manner. We intend for this material to be used and applied to everyday work. We don’t get a lot of feedback from this website. Other animation blogs get hundreds of comments on each post, but we rarely get any comments at all. I don’t know why that is. But I certainly hope it isn’t because people are taking a passive attitude to the resources all of us at Animation Resources are working so hard to provide.

Normally, I let the artwork create its own context, but today, I specifically want to address CGI animators to remind them that this site is NOT strictly for 2D animators. CGI animators can learn as much from this stuff as the guys with the pencils. I’m going to pick a few examples and show you what I mean. It’s time to start thinking like an artist!

WHAT CAN AN ILLUSTRATED BOOK THAT IS OVER A CENTURY OLD TEACH SOMEONE WORKING IN COMPUTER ANIMATION?

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

In 1909, this book was a technological marvel. It used brand new printing processes to bring color and life to the text blocks that had dominated book design for centuries. It can show us how to do the same today using modern storytelling technology if we look closely. For instance…

AVOID EXCESSIVE DETAIL

Too often, artists and animators mistake detail for quality. Rendering out every leaf on every tree, every pore on every inch of skin, every single blade of grass or shock of fur may be an entertaining exercise for retentive types, but all that detail is nothing more than gilding the lilly- distracting from the main point of the design.

Notice how Hankey focuses your attention on the important parts of the composition by rendering those out, while leaving unimportant background information very loose. The choice of colors clearly defines light and shadow, and the carefully balanced values hold the background together as a frame for the subject of the image. Click on these to see them larger and you’ll be surprised to see just how loose the rendering is on the girl’s dress and the background foliage.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

COMPOSE SHOTS ON A HUMAN SCALE

Too many CGI features are set in environments that are completely out of scale to the characters. Rooms are the size of convention halls and gardens are as big as football fields. Everything is wide open, with very little variety to the depth or contrasting perspectives of the structures. Camera angles on wide shots are staged from 20 feet in the air, much higher than a real human perspective. This makes everything look like model railroad sets instead of like real environments.

The way to lay out a background is through skillful composition and a range of different sizes of forms. Look at how Hankey creates a zig-zag perspective on the first image, layers of contrasting shapes and textures on the second, and divides the last example to frame three separate simultaneous actions beautifully.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

COMPOSE GROUPS OF PEOPLE CAREFULLY

Check out these amazingly expressive tableaux by Hankey. Each one defines the personality and situation of each individual character in relation to all the other characters, while directing the eye cleverly through the image from one main focal point to the next. Notice how the characters are grouped to reflect their relationships to each other.

Just try to find a grouping like this in current animation! Characters are almost always staged obliquely, lined up like a chorus line or in perfect half circles in front of the camera- sitcom style. If you search through the films of great directors like Chaplin, Hitchcock or Welles, you’ll never find flat setups. The dynamics of group relationships are never revealed in what the characters say- it’s always in how they are arranged visually.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

CREATE MOOD THROUGH UNIQUE COMBINATIONS OF COLORS

John Kricfalusi recently discussed how important unique color harmonies are to animation in his blog, All Kinds Of Stuff. He makes the point that colors "straight out of the tube"- lime green, purple, orange, etc.- are not nearly effective as hues with non-mathematical mixes of colors… colors that don’t have names.

For instance, what color would you call the street in this first example? Pure colors are best used in small areas to create interest and direct the eye, like with the sea green door on the house in the second one. Sometimes the best color harmonies involve muted colors to create a mood, as in the third example here. The colors tell you exactly what is going on in the scene. In fact, each of the three characters is surrounded by an unique set of colors that reflects his or her attitude.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

USE THE CHANGING LIGHTING OF THE TIME OF DAY FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT

Life doesn’t always happen at high noon on a Summer day. Neither should the action of an animated film. Disney knew this. Check out "Lady and the Tramp". The dramatic scenes with the rat approaching the baby’s crib are heightened by the deep shadows of night. The "Bella Note" sequence depicts an entirely different kind of night. The climactic action at the end takes place on a stormy night. Think about how the changing light of the times of day can add impact to your scenes, just like the light depicted in these illustrations by Hankey.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

CREATE CHARACTERS BY OBSERVING LIFE

The most obvious power of animation to entertain is its ability to caricature life, yet amazingly, observation is exactly what is lacking in character design in current CGI movies. Every day, a million great personalities are all around you who have never been seen in animation- just go to your local coffee shop or shopping mall with your sketchbook. You won’t be able to get all the great characters down on paper fast enough.

So why do we get the same old stereotypical cool dude, smartass sidekick, long-suffering parents, goofy fat kid, and "independent minded pretty girl who doesn’t know how pretty she really is" in every doggone movie? I keep hearing people say that story is the most important thing in animation. Well, that’s a lie. Personality is at the core of all great animation. Don’t plug and play with iconic characters and architypes. OPEN YOUR EYES AND OBSERVE! SHOW THE AUDIENCE SOMETHING REAL!

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

POSE CHARACTERS EXPRESSIVELY

This is CGI animation’s cardinal sin. Gestures and body positions NEVER reflect a character’s unique personality. Every character scrunches their mouth to one side and looks upwards when they think- they all lower their eyebrows and narrow their eyes the exact same way when they’re angry- they all throw their hip to one side and lean their head when they’re petulant…

This is "formula acting". If we were talking about the performance of a human actor instead of a grizzly bear or raccoon, it would be called "BAD acting". Formulas don’t tell you anything about the character, yet entire movies are performed by rote. Don’t believe me? Take any of the recent CGI movies, whether they involve animals invading backyards or escaping zoos, rodents in European restaurants, superhero terrapins or prehistoric sloths- and count the number of times the characters deliver dialogue with that meaningless, stock- hands out to the side, palms up, up and down movement on every accent- sort of gesture. What the heck does that gesture mean? It’s just water treading because the animator is too lazy to think of a gesture that actually expresses something.

Now look at the last image in this group- the one with the fella sitting next to the girl. Even his feet tell you what he’s thinking! Every pose in an animated film should be that expressive. There’s no excuse for stock poses or actions.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

An animator isn’t just moving a complex polygon through space- an animator creates a performance from a succession of still poses. That’s the job of an artist and anyone doing that sort of work needs to THINK like an artist. As you browse through this the rest of the images in this post, if you just "look at the pretty pictures" without thinking about what makes them work, you might as well be off shopping or playing video games. This website is a tremendous resource, but it won’t help you if you expect it to work passively by osmosis.

Print the stuff in this blog out. Put it in binders. Analyze it. Categorize the concepts. Make notes. Talk about your ideas with your fellow artists. Apply these ideas to your work.

Here are a few more illustrations from this great book. Can you see the principles we discussed above in these images? What other ideas do they give you?

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.

IllustrationIllustration

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit spotlighting Illustration.