Theory: Objectively Breaking Down Reference

Captain January

In yesterday’s post on music, I told you about our Assistant Archivist, JoJo Baptista and his epiphany regarding the difference between the quality of popular culture today compared to popular culture of the past. That post was written nearly two years ago, and now JoJo is in his final year at Woodbury University working on his senior film project. In his film, JoJo will be animating a rhythmic walk for a child character. He asked me if I had any suggestions for reference to study. I immediately thought of Shirley Temple.

In the comments to yesterday’s post, a few people misunderstood what I was referring to when I said that music, movies, dance, illustration and writing were all better in the first half of the 20th century than they are today. I wasn’t talking about "personal taste". Today’s post will prove that without a doubt. I’m going to give you a peek at the discussions that went on at the Archive today regarding this film… Captain January.

Captain January

When Shirley Temple made this film in 1936, she was in the first grade. If you take a moment to view the clip below, I think you’ll agree that even at that young age, she was already a talented and skilled performer. She acts, sings, and especially dances on a level that rivals or surpasses the skills of most current pop divas, even ones with a couple of decades of experience under their belts. If you tried to think of a current seven year old who compares to her, you would have to think pretty hard.

Captain January
That said, I have to admit that I don’t personally care for Shirley Temple movies. They follow a rigid formula- a lonely curmudgeon adopts an adorable orphan who melts his heart. The moppet and the old fart are separated, which creates oceans of tears, only to be joyfully reunited at the end… Although they are cute, her films really have very little to say about anything real. Perhaps some people might enjoy them as an escape, but they aren’t to my taste.

Captain January

There is another aspect to these films that makes me uncomfortable. Graham Greene, writing in the magazine Night and Day wrote of Shirley Temple, "Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." I don’t think I need to add anything to that quote.

Captain January

Maybe I’m a crusty old curmudgeon myself, but these films just don’t do it for me… Have I made it clear that I don’t care for this particular movie yet? All right.

JoJo and I sat down with this DVD today to analyze Temple’s performance to see if there are characteristics that he can use in his film. We chose a clip where Shirley dances and sings "At The Codfish Ball" with Buddy Ebsen. Here is a video clip of the sequence…

Captain January

"At The Codfish Ball" from Captain January
Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen (Fox/1936)
(Quicktime 7 / 32.5 megs)

Here is the storyboard of the scene cuts for your reference…

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Watch the video a couple of times and refer to the scenes as you read our notes below…

OBSERVATIONS

STAGING: Ebsen and Temple are surrounded in the sequence by incidental characters. Temple begins her song in a close up that isolates her from the group. As the sequence progresses, the incidental characters recede into the background, placing the focus on the dance routine. The crowd is dressed in dark colors, while Temple wears white, making her stand out. Ebsen wears a dark shirt with light pants, directing the attention to his legs, which makes sense since he is dancing. One scene at 4:02 uses Ebson’s legs to frame Temple as they dance on the wooden cask.

CUTTING: The four minute sequence is broken into 11 cuts, many of which are quite long. Temple is able to sustain long takes with high energy and accuracy in her performance. The sequence is bookended by an entrance and exit through a doorway. The first half of the sequence moves from left to right. After a 180 degree jump cut at 2:16 (which works perfectly in this context) the action moves from right to left. The cuts are dictated by the staging of the dance routine, never to cut around errors in performance. Only one scene at 4:02 seems to have been performed out of continuity and inserted. The reason for this is to allow Temple to push her performance over the top for the big finish.

ACTING: Temple’s ability to put across the lyrics to the song through her movements and expressions is remarkable. The scene that begins at 0:19 is packed with contrasting expressions reflecting her attitude clearly. Her gestures are always specific to the meaning of the lyrics ("from the herring to the whale") and her facial expressions never seem to be "pose to pose". If you still frame through them, they evolve through dozens of different attitudes in the space of a few short seconds.

Temple’s pantomime is clear and expressive. At 2:33, she throws the lead to Ebsen, studies his dance steps skeptically, does a small take of disgust and petulantly cheats by scraping her foot on the shingled wall behind her. She is always aware of the camera, and keeps her face in view, even when she is walking away from the camera (2:08) or being whisked around and around (3:41). Temple’s hair is a perfect of example of "secondary action" and her dancing exhibits other principles like "follow through" and "overlapping action" as well.

There are a couple of portions of the routine where Temple’s guard falls for a few frames, or we can see her preparing for a difficult move. At 2:08 she misses her lipsync as she navigates dancing down stairs. At 3:17, she scowls and looks down to Ebsen’s feet to coordinate with him as he scoops her up and trots her up the gangplank. At 3:36, she takes a beat to recover and gain her footing after a few spins. But on the next main beat, she is right back in the groove again with a glowing smile. She never falters more than an instant. Most audiences would never even notice it.

DANCING: The rhythm and synchronization between Temple and Ebsen is amazing. At 0:42, Temple struts back and forth setting her heel down on the main beat, and her toes on the back beat. She performs several different types of dance steps, including a cakewalk, a shuffle, a can-can and a truck.

Right before the scene cut at 1:29, Ebsen hitches his pants up in the background, anticipating his entrance. Even though the two dance in perfect sync, their steps are subtly different. At 1:43, Ebsen dances only below the knee. Since Temple’s legs were so much shorter than his, he had to govern his movement precisely to maintain a consistent distance between them.

Ebsen’s gestures throughout the routine are very original and funny, particularly in spots like "to the bottom of the sea" where they flash their fingers and mimic a dive (1:42) and as they exit the scene at 4:12, where his arms flail like rubber. Ebsen is probably one of the most remarkable and under-appreciated dancers of his time. Today, most people think of him as Jed Clampett, and don’t even realize the spectacular talent he posessed.

SUMMATION

JoJo found a lot to think about and study in this film. It exhibits a level of skill and craftsmanship that today’s movies just can’t touch. Do I say that because of my personal taste? No. I don’t even like this movie. I say that because I took the time to define the criteria I judge films by and sat down and analyzed what I was looking at.

If you read my previous post about music and thought I was just talking about what I like, go back and look again at those example videos I posted. Study them the way JoJo and I studied this Shirley Temple sequence. See if you can figure out why I chose those particular clips, and try to think of current performances that compare to them.

There are two ways to look at a movie or cartoon… one can look at it as a member of the audience… or as a filmmaker. One of the sacrifices one makes when one chooses a career as an artist is to lose the ability to passively "experience" art. Once your mindset shifts to the analytical way a filmmaker thinks about his medium, you can never go back to the innocence of just sitting in the dark and "experiencing" a film the way ordinary people do.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Bad artists always admire each other’s work. They call it being large-minded and free from prejudice. But a truly great artist cannot conceive of life being shown, or beauty fashioned, under any conditions other than those he has selected."

The moral to this story is… The worst thing you can do is to tell old fashioned, hackneyed stories using the reduced skill levels and slack techniques of today. It’s much better to use the powerful techniques of the past to recapture a classic level of skill, and use that skill to tell honest stories that are relevant to modern audiences.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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

7 Responses to “Theory: Objectively Breaking Down Reference”

  1. Excellent analysis of this sequence . So much can be learned by careful study of (but not slavishly copying by rotoscoping or “mo-cap”) live-action film of skilled performers.

    And you really put your finger on what has always made me feel a little queasy about most of the Temple feature films . I can admire the craft and skill of Shirley Temple (and the always strong supporting cast like Buddy Ebsen , or Edward Everett Horton, Bill Robinson, etc.) , but the movies definitely aren’t my cup of tea. By any standard Temple was a phenomenal performer (especially at that young age) , so I don’t hold the formulaic stories against her , but I’d rather watch those movies in small snippets like the “At the Codfish Ball” sequence you analyzed.

    Shirley Temple is now 82 years old.

  2. Peter Bangs says:

    Another superb article Stephen. I’m just reading Bambi Vs Godzilla by the estimabel Mr Mamet which makes siilar points. Your dissection of this dance sequence is spot on. Even at 7 years old Temple was a consumate craftsman and love her or loathe her much can be learnt from watching her.

    This too struck an enormous chord “One of the sacrifices one makes when one chooses a career as an artist is to lose the ability to passively “experience” art. Once your mindset shifts to the analytical way a filmmaker thinks about his medium, you can never go back to the innocence of just sitting in the dark and “experiencing” a film the way ordinary people do.” You can’t go home again and be just a viewer, even the worst films, especially the worst films, have you studying adn dismantling them as you watch. Pity more the wife, husband or partner of artists. They end up with long explanations of why a film they enjoyed was actually hackneyed rubbish far to often.

  3. David and Peter

    Thank you very much for your comments. I really appreciate knowing that you follow the archive blog so closely and think about the treasures that it’s my honor to post here. You really raised my spirits.

    Steve

  4. Mckay Boxberger says:

    This is a lot to take in, but man is that gospel truth!

  5. shakil says:

    You are foolish. Art/entertainment is subjective not objective. to beleive it could possibly be objective is stupid.

    • Jason says:

      wow. Did you even read the article? He wasn’t talking about personal taste, he was talking about technical skill. Although, I suppose you could argue that professional specs have changed over the years as styles have come and gone in demand (just look at some of the older Silver Age artists at Marvel who were fired during the 90s for being “too old fashioned.”)

      So yeah, you have to change with the times, but you can take a look at someone like Grim Natwick’s career. He was a damn fine artist who was able to switch up his style and change with the times because he was a good artist – because he held a mastery over his abilities.

      There are principles that GOOD artists still abide by: Composition, color theory, perspective, and construction. So, yes, you can OBJECTIVELY judge art, just as you would OBJECTIVELY judge a dog at a dog show.

      Once the criteria is set, and the bar is placed, you can use that as your guide to say whether someone is good with COLOR or good at drawing IN PERSPECTIVE, or if someone is really bad at Composition. Yes, CRITERIA itself may be subjective and subject to personal taste, but within the criteria all things may become objective.

    • J.K. Riki says:

      “Art is subjective” is something bad artists say to justify bad art. Whether you LIKE a piece of art is subjective. But the level of craftsmanship, it’s composition, clarity, and structure, these are objective things that can be looked at without opinions getting in the way (for as much as we humans can ever do such a thing).

      It is possible to have very bad art that you happen to love, and likewise very good art that you hate (as is the case here with the author and this film). I did not enjoy Wall-E, for example, but I would not make claims that it was poorly made. Did it have issues? Sure, but overall the quality was terrific. I just didn’t happen to enjoy it (which is where subjectivity comes in).

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