Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Theory: Cartooning’s Cousin- Puppetry

Punch and Judy puppets

For the past few months, I’ve been researching the roots of cartooning, tracing the history back long before Gertie the Dinosaur and the Yellow Kid appeared on the scene. I’ve discovered some wonderful things which will be appearing here in the blog soon. But one of the most exciting things I’ve discovered in cartooning’s “family tree” is the existence of “kissing cousins”… related art forms that developed along with cartooning in roughly the same time and place. Chief among these related arts is puppetry, and in particular, the tradition of Punch and Judy.

We all know Punch and Judy, but few of us today have actually seen a show performed. But the tradition isn’t dead. It’s being carried on by a small group of dedicated puppeteers around the world. They continue to perform in pretty much the same manner as it’s been performed for the past three centuries.

Cartooning and Punch and Judy share a common ancestor, George Cruikshank

Punch and Judy puppets

Cruikshank was a British cartoonist who illustrated one of the earliest documented Punch and Judy scripts in 1828, The Comical Tragedy or Tragic Comedy of Punch and Judy. Based on the performance by Piccini, the puppeteer who created a sensation with the puppet play in Britain in the early 1820s, this same basic story outline has continued to form the plot of just about every Punch and Judy show to this day.

The traditional show is usually performed by a “Professor”, the puppeteer inside the booth, and a “Bottler”, an assistant outside the booth who corrals the audience, introduces the puppets and plays musical accents and sound effects on a drum or guitar. The audience is encouraged to participate, calling out to the characters on the stage to warn them of danger or clue them into what’s going on behind their back.

Punch and Judy puppets

The cast of characters has been passed down from Professor to Professor over the generations, with some falling away and some being added as time went by and tastes changed. This beautiful set of puppets was created for me by artist/puppeteer Christopher van der Craats in Melbourne, Australia.

Punch and Judy puppets

In the early days, a live trained dog named Toby sat on the edge of the stage and helped with the show. Later, the live dog was replaced by a puppet, and eventually faded out of common use. But some Professors still occasionally use the Toby character in their act to this day.

Punch and Judy puppets

The show begins with the audience calling out to wake Mr. Punch, a carefree “trickster” character with a buzzy voice created by means of a “swazzle” a kazoo like device hidden in the Professor’s mouth…

Punch and Judy puppets

Next, Punch’s wife Judy is introduced. She is a bossy personality who orders Mr. Punch around. She instructs Mr. Punch to mind the baby while she goes to the kitchen to make sausages…

Punch and Judy puppets

Punch begins to play with the baby, teaching him to walk. But the action turns rough and the baby starts crying. Punch begins to frantically fling the baby about trying to silence it, eventually tossing it out the window. Judy finds out and a fight breaks out between her and Punch. Judy is beaten to death by Punch’s slapstick.

Punch and Judy puppets

Judy comes back as a ghost to frighten Mr. Punch, who is terrified and cowers in fear, unable to speak.

Punch and Judy puppets

The Doctor arrives to treat the stricken Mr. Punch, but he is nothing but a quack. He asks where it hurts, then hits Mr. Punch to give him pain to help forget his fear. Punch quickly dispatches the Doctor with his slapstick.

Punch and Judy puppets

As the bodies of the puppets Mr. Punch has killed pile up on the edge of the stage, Punch’s friend Joey the Clown shows up and enters into a game with Punch trying to confuse him as he counts the bodies. In some older versions, Joey helps Mr. Punch turn the bodies into sausages! Punch gets frustrated with Joey’s friendly taunting and hits him over the head with his slapstick. Joey plays dead.

Punch and Judy puppets

Next, the law arrives… in the early days this character was represented by “The Beadle”. There weren’t civil governments at that time, so criminal disturbances were policed by the church. The Beadle was the officer of the church who acted as a policeman.

Punch and Judy puppets

Later on, the character was replaced by the traditional British “Constable”, with his trademark lines, “‘Ello! ‘Ello! ‘Ello! What’s all this then?” The bumbling constable investigates the murders and Punch promptly makes him a victim as well. The body count rises by one more.

Punch and Judy puppets

Jack Ketch, the hangman, whose name commemorates a real executioner from the early 19th century, arrives to punish Mr. Punch for being “very naughty”. Punch pretends not to know how to put his head through the noose, so the hangman demonstrates for him… Zip! The hangman is hung in his own noose, and Mr. Punch dances in triumph.

Punch and Judy puppets

Mr. Punch next faces off with a Crocodile, who eats his sausages and slapstick, effectively disarming him. The Croc bites Mr. Punch on the nose.

Punch and Judy puppets

The Devil himself arrives to escort Mr. Punch down to hell to pay for his misdeeds. But Punch outwits the Devil and he and Joey return to the stage to wave goodbye to the audience.

Punch and Judy puppets

Other characters include Hector the Hobby Horse, Punch’s neighbor Mr. Scaramouch (who gets his head knocked off), Pretty Polly the Chambermaid, and the Servant/Blind Begger.

As you can see, the basic plot is pretty threadbare, and Professors regularly elaborate on some sections and cut other ones. The fun isn’t in the story, it’s how it’s performed. Each Professor has his own way of putting across the continuity of action. Like cartoons, Punch and Judy has come under attack by censors who claim that the superficial level of violence depicted isn’t appropriate for children. This criticism goes all the way back to the origin of the show. Here is a great quote from a great writer on this topic…

In my opinion street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realties of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.

It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about without any pain or suffering. -Charles Dickens

Punch and Judy puppets

That same defense could be applied to cartoon violence like Tom and Jerry and the Coyote and Roadrunner. That isn’t the only thing Punch and Judy have in common with animation. I asked a professional Punch and Judy Professor for advice for aspiring puppeteers to keep in mind when performing. He suggested the following…

Each movement should be clear and precise. Don’t move the puppet at random.

The movement should have a sense of weight.

If someone bumps the puppet, it must react.

Stop and hold a pose occasionally for dramatic effect.

Use the old rule of three. Repeat a gag twice to set up an expectation, then do something different and surprising on the third time.

Punch and Judy puppets

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that animation and puppetry are very closely related. At its most basic level, Punch and Judy is about a trickster outwitting authority figures out to get him. How different is that from Bugs Bunny popping out of his hole to find Elmer Fudd holding a shotgun up to his nose?

As you look at the following clip, analyze the action the way you would analyze an animated film. Look for rhythmic timing, strong expressive poses, clear silhouettes, well staged action and contrasts in pacing and mood. You’ll be amazed at how many parallels with animation you can find in puppetry.

Pulcinella by Salvatore Gatto

I don’t know about you, but that clip above made my jaw hit the floor. Punch and Judy is pure, raw entertainment, stripped of all of the superfluous details we tend to heap upon it when we create animation. With Punch and Judy, the story isn’t important. It’s the same story that has been told for three hundred years. The design isn’t important. It’s the same design too. Snappy dialogue isn’t necessary. The puppets were speaking Italian in that clip and I bet you didn’t even notice. Fancy backgrounds, snappy jokes, flying camera moves, rapid fire cutting… none of that matters at all.

What does matter? Personality, rhythm, movement, fun situations, contrasts, and surprises. Punch and Judy is the distilled essence of entertainment. The same show could be performed for young or old, Eskimos or Aborigines and the delight and laughter would be the same. This form of entertainment goes straight to the core of what entertainment is. It probably goes even deeper than that- to the universal idea of what it is to be human.

Punch and Judy puppets

Arguably, animation’s history can be viewed as a progression of complexity. We have added layer after layer of overlapping action and tons of inbetweens to make lots of fluid and smooth movement. We place the characters over elaborate backgrounds inspired by Monument Valley or epic scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. We spend millions of dollars on crews of Harvard educated writers coming up with reams of script pages. We assemble massive computing horsepower to simulate convincing water splashes and other kinds of particle effects. And we polish and refine timing over and over in passes until the characters move just like reality- and every character ends up moving the same.

…and none of that has anything to do with why people love to watch animated cartoons.

With the Pulcinella routine above, one man was able to take a lump of wood and some rags and bring them to life as a vivid character that moves, sounds and acts in a direct, grippingly expressive way. Not only that. He did it in real time with no retakes! We can learn a lot from puppetry. Instead of focusing on the surface details of entertainment, we should focus on the raw core of fun that lays at the heart of any great performance.

The following is a Punch and Judy show by Professor Whatsit (Christopher van der Craats)…

LINKS

I hope you find these posts useful. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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

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.