Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bob Clampett: Cartoon Characters Dressed Up As Animals

Metamorphosis is one of the oldest animation techniques. When character animation evolved, however, metamorphosis fell out of fashion and was basically limited to shape-shifting characters and two-dimensional objects. Yet some filmmakers still liked to use it now and then for gags. It is no surprise that such gags were popular with Bob Clampett considering his highly fluid character designs.

In THE SOUR PUSS (1940) both Porky and his cat morph briefly into a fish and a chicken respectively just to get across which animal they are "talking" about.

Just focus on Porky for a moment: He is clearly a cartoon character like Goofy. He might have the head and tail of a pig, but dresses and behaves like a simplified human of baby proportions.

The cat however is closer in style to Pluto, the pet dog, than to Goofy, the human character with a stylized dogface. So when Porky becomes a fish it looks a lot stranger than when the cat behaves like a chicken, with only minor changes in appearance.

While Porky looks like a human baby with a few pig features attached, Daffy Duck simply looks like a skinny boy/man stuck within a duck suit. We don't think for one second of his arms and hands as wings. And even when Mr.&Mrs. Daffy Duck (as they are called in THE WISE QUACKS, 1939) live in a barn among other farm animals, Daffy is not for one minute behaving like a duck.

It's interesting that in Clampett's films ducks - in contrast to chicken in the same films - in general look like humans in duck suits as can be seen in WHAT PRICE PORKY (1938):

Realism vs. Cartoon
In early Looney Tunes, four-legged animals often walked and moved as if they had human anatomy. In fact, most of the time it looked as if two set of human legs moved in cadence. It is one thing to depict a camel as an ambler - they are actually able to amble on purpose - but when it comes to dogs, it looks like the animators simply weren't experienced enough to convincingly draw four-legged animal locomotion and made the best of it.

However, even with these limitations Clampett emphasized the difference between "realistic" animal behavior and "cartoony" human behavior. Within split seconds these animals can change their anatomy and appearance towards humans with freaky heads. Remarkably, it is only then that we accept them as true characters and not just animal sidekicks. It seems that they can only express their personality in quasi-human form with a voice and distinctly human hands instead of paws or hooves.

In most of these films, such a change is the reaction to a narrative event. In PORKY IN EGYPT (1938) the camel is infected with desert madness by a malevolently violent sun.

An ambling camel starts to move like a long-necked man with strong hands.
Apart from the head and the hunches, the camel morphs into a madman.
The whole episode ends in the reversal of the two characters' relationship: now the camel is leading (actively carrying) Pork and not the other way round.

In THE FILM FAN (1939) the snobbish dog ambles past a lifelike poster of a forest...
...and suddenly turns into a human in a dogsuit walking on two legs with hands instead of paws.
In some of Clampett's more labored spot-gag-cartoons like PREHISTORIC PORKY (1940) the recurring joke is that dangerous looking animals turn out to be sweet or silly creatures. The surprise wears off after probably the first example but at least Clampett is varying the type of cartoony behavior. As is often the case with Clampett, the visualization is much more interesting than the gag itself.
From evil monster with scary teeth to typical Clampett smile with just one "silly-character" tooth.
From ill-disposed scavengers to barbershop quartet (decades before THE JUNGLE BOOK vultures).

Wartime work horses in MEET JOHN DOUGHBOY (1941).
After inheriting Avery's A-list animators, Clampett was finally able to augment the contrast by showing off some really realistic animation. The first half of FARM FROLICS (1941) is practically built around these gags that really serve no narrative purpose.

Disguises Revealed
No matter whether they walk or dance on two or four legs: The protagonist and his love interest in THE HEP CAT (1942) adopt human behavior from head to toe - especially toe:
The creepiest element: a female cat with incorporated high heels.
But cats have long before changed from walking on four to standing on two legs: In PORKY'S POOR FISH (1940) the protagonist behaves very cat-like while chasing a mouse. Faced with a prey that cannot escape, he not only moves like a human being...
...but also rolls up his sleeves and thus reveals the nature of this "animal suit". Since we are seeing an animal hunting its lunch, the paw has not changed into a hand with fingers. (However much we can read into this, I simply believe that this shows that there was no deeper thought behind many of these changes in degree of realism: the filmmakers simply did what appealed to them at the moment. This should not distract us from the fact that recurring gags and patterns are present in Clampett's body of work.)
The same gag has been used earlier on in PREHISTORIC PORKY in connection with the inevitable anachronism joke - which may have already been corny even back then.
A few moments later, another escalation of the same "animal suit" gag is provided when the furious sabre tooth panther (or ti-ti-tiger, as Porky would say) is lifting its garment while prancing through a puddle of mad like a little girl:

In PORKY'S POOCH (1941) an Irish dog is again walking on four and standing on two legs but also has to tighten his belt:

When some of the animal disguises are destroyed by a story event, the human bodies underneat may look unexpectedly skinny as in PREHISTORIC PORKY...
...or completely different as can be seen in these screenshots from THE BASHFUL BUZZARD (1945) where Beaky accidentally rips the sheep's clothing off a rather racy blonde.

Excessive Examples
The crazy face: In one of those zeitgeisty running gags any character could adopt the looks of comedian Lew Lehr uttering ".... is the cwaziest people" in his trademark accent.


The human version: Even realistically caricatured Hollywood stars like Lauren Bacall (BACALL TO ARMS, 1946, [UPDATE: actually picked up by Art Davis after Clampett left the studio]) can unexpectedly morph into cartoon versions of themselves when perform broader actions.

The reversal: There is a rather funny gag in CRAZY CRUISE (1942), a cartoon Clampett took over from Avery. The camera pans along a queue of realistically drawn jungle animals to reveal their very human behavior of drinking from a marble water post.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Laputa - Castle in the Sky: Animating Weight

Ever since GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (Winsor McCay, 1914) tried to pick up a rock and drank so much water that the lakeshore gave in under her feet (as seen on the left) animators have tried to express weight with drawings. While the work of American giants like Vladimir Tytla or Milt Kahl has been analyzed over and over, the work of Japanese feature animators still seems to be ignored or dismissed as less impressive - at least in the West.

However, Studio Ghibli animators - and they are in no way the only ones - master disparate challenges such as weight, size relations and metamorphosis within a style of realistic movements so effortlessly that we tend to overlook their amazing skills and take them for granted.

Since flying, floating and thus overcoming gravitation is such an integral part of Miyazaki's films, indicating the weight of characters is of paramount importance to the success of those fantasy worlds. In yet another scene from LAPUTA - CASTLE IN THE SKY I am looking at the transition from weightlessness to gravity:

The balancing of weight starts with Pazu almost toppling over on the "spring board". While Sheeta is floating down on 1s, Pazu's violent action is animated on 2s and 3s. The following set of screenshots contains every drawing of Pazu's balancing action. The timing can be seen in the clip above.
Although such violent action on 2s and 3s appears jerky to today's CG-spoiled audiences, the shifting of Pazu's weight is clearly visible in every pose. It seems the film makers rather saved the extra inbetweens in favor of real character animation. After all, he could have simply come to a halt without the little balancing action.

The selected screenshots below are taken from my favorite part of the scene. They illustrate the subtlety of Studio Ghibli's character animation (it's essential to click on the images to see them more clearly).

Pazu is so stunned that it only occurs to him at the last minute that he should put down the kettle first. And when he does he briefly looks at it and then while putting it down he already looks at Sheeta again:

As you can see in the following GIF, Pazu is moving upwards (white lines indicate space between waistlines) about as slowly as Sheeta is floating down.

But when they finally touch there is a cut to a medium close up so that we are able to see that Sheeta is still floating and not leaning on Pazu's arms with her weight:

But as soon as the power of her crystal is vanishing (indicated by a dramatic change in lighting), her heaviness seems to increase...

...to the point of shifting her weight completely on Pazu's arms at which moment we get a cut on action back to a wider shot that reminds us (and Pazu) of the tenuous situation.

In the next GIF, I have omitted many inbetweens to uncover the hierarchy of movements of different body parts that indicate Pazu's struggle with Sheeta's full weight (is she even heavier because the crystal is dragging her down?).
Overlap while going down: (1) arms first, then head (2) in a rather fast move down, as the lagging cap indicates (3-4).
Lifting weight: Head goes first (6-7), lifting movement alternates between force in shoulders and head (8-11) with legs pushing slightly inward and down. Once the weight is carried by the muscles of Pazu's straight back (12), he is able to stretch his legs (13).

We feel Sheeta's unnatural heaviness because Pazu is not even able to lift his feet. He merely shuffles them along the planks:

The slight rebound (gray line) of these spring board like planks adds to the feeling of weight:

And although Sheeta appears to be as heavy and lifeless as a bag of cement, Pazu is putting her down very slowly and gently:

After such an exhaustive task, he doesn't even seem to have the strength to stand up again. So after looking at Sheeta, he remains in a ducked position to regain his breath.

Clearly, at first glance, all of this looks very realistic, "normal" even. And since there is very little in the vein of exaggerated squash and stretch, we are inclined to overlook the true mastery behind it. In fact, it works so well that we do not admire the animator's feat but simply look at a struggling character. With all those subtle action like putting down the bucket it feels so natural and well observed. Nevertheless, this scene showcases all the tools an animator can rely on to express weight and gravity without sacrificing realism.

As a contrasting illustration of a (deliberately) weightless landing, here is a scene from HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE which (accidentally?) depicts the flying wizard with a blue crystal around his neck:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bob Clampett: Horton Hatches The Egg - 5 Years of Colorful Animation Expressions

Five years ago to this day, I have written my first blog post. In the meantime I have gathered 425 followers and 300'000 site views. Looking back I realize that 2008 was also my most productive year as far as substantial content goes. Since my very first movie review on Colorful Animation Expressions was about Blue Sky's HORTON HEARS A WHO (2008), what would be better suited to commemorate the occasion than a post about Clampett's HORTON HATCHES THE EGG (1942)?

To my knowledge HORTON HATCHES THE EGG (the first Horton story written in 1940) is the first animated adaptation of a book by Ted Geisel with whom Clampett worked together the following year on some of the SNAFU shorts.

On the surface Clampett's HORTON is the visually most faithful Dr. Seuss adaptation - practically "faithful one hundred percent". The ten minute short (with only a few lines of dialogue added) takes roughly the same time as reading the book from cover to cover.

However, HORTON HATCHES THE EGG also serves as a perfect introduction to a whole variety of Bob Clampett characteristics some of which I will elaborate on in future posts. Rather than breaking it up into three shorter parts I have decided to publish this overview in one single entry that can be linked to more easily.

Clampett's promotion to color cartoons triggered mainly production-related progress. He wasn't really able to handle color as a means of expression in ways comparable to what Chuck Jones did with Maurice Noble and Philipp DeGuard. But HORTON has always stood out to me as one of the very few Clampett cartoons with good color design most of which were made right after he inherited Avery's color unit including background painter Johnny Johnsen. Johnsen however was soon replaced by Michael Sasanoff who allegedly painted these uncredited HORTON backgrounds.

As a prime example of pink - green color relations I will soon examine these backgrounds in more detail. For now, just look at how different amounts of garish and warm yellow are used to balance the pink - green complementary contrast:

With a few notable exceptions the only instance of Clampett using color as a storytelling device is when faces turn green due to sickness or anger or white/pale due to shyness or fear:

Some of the fixed camera setups are composed with the frame edges in mind. We do not just happen to see an excerpt of a larger environment. In fact, sometimes it looks as if this world only exists within this particular frame. These compositions that were - largely inspired by the confined space of a theater - still popular in 1940s live-action films often resemble the compositions of semi-modern paintings.

In the frame above the background is arranged to encircle Horton's huge back (with a circle of its own). Even the clouds are painted following this circular pattern. If this were a pan, the clouds couldn't possible be composed that way because if you extended them they would point vertically into the ground.

The same principle can be seen in some of Ferdinand Hodler's landscape paintings where the clouds often frame a mountain or a lake rather unnaturally:

More often however, the foreground is used as a framing device. It also invokes depth within the picture by contrast of size and lightness.

Darkened silhouettes as framing devices and "quasi over shoulder shots" are a device Clampett seemed to be fond of during this transitional phase. In the image on the right the animals soon leave the frame and we are left with the strongest of all "foreground-along-frame-edges" compositions of the film.

Clampett Characters
While most of the animals are based on Dr. Seuss' original designs, now and then there is a character who seems to have fallen out of an earlier Clampett cartoon. Most obviously miscast is the big-eared mouse from FARM FROLICS (1941) that kept "heeeearing things".
The large ears make no sense in HORTON (left) but belong to a paranoid mouse in FARM FROLICS.

The three hunters on the other hand are already part of the original book but their design is pure Looney Tunes. As always, one of them is extremely tiny and they all have widely different facial features. In addition, they are sneaking with the same exaggerated butt motion as Clampett's hounds in pursuit of Bugs Bunny:

Animal Suit
In many Clampett cartoons - and Looney Tunes in general - the anthropomorphized animals look like humans wearing an animal suit. This is certainly the case with Daffy and it is also quite obvious in these drawings of Mayzie, the lazy bird:

Hollywood pop references
Obviously not in the book are the allusions to some of the era's most well-known stars. Mayzie is going through her Katherine Hepburn impersonation routine twice...
"reh'ly I won't!" - "reh'ly I will!"

...while Clampett's popular suicide gag is performed by a Peter Lorre fish:

Against Disney's mantra to not use visual "twins", symmetrical arm motions are a very distinctive trait of Clampett's cartoon acting. This can be seen in both Bob McKimson's and Rod Sribner's widely different animation.

In medium close-ups, Clampett's animators favored forced perspective to indicate depth and proximity to the fictitious camera:

The characters' awareness of performing for an audience is often highlighted by explicitly addressing the audience and thus breaking the fourth wall:

Specific Expressions
Clampett seemed to favor exaggerated facial proportions. He like to have vertically elongated eyes and horizontally expanding mouths and cheeks. Even faced with well-rounded Dr. Seuss designs he managed to sneak in his relished broad smiles and large teeth on any kind of animal:

Especially in sadly or angrily distorted faces we see a lot of form-defining details like wrinkles and overlapping flesh:

The next to last scene of the film contains a good example of the acting style that defined Clampett's string of groundbreaking masterpieces from a TALE OF TWO KITTIES (1942) to THE GREAT PIGGY BANK ROBBERY (made in 1945 but released in 1946). As the incredibly well constructed and wrinkly Mayzie close-up suggests, this is probably Rod Scribner's work. Just look at the free-flowing proportions and the many specific expressions conveyed by sophisticated distortions of her beak!

Distinctive Locomotion: Silly Walks
Within Clampett's universe, Horton fits into the tradition of silly characters ranging from wacky ducks to shy buzzards who are often characterized by distinctive walks. Horton is introduced bouncing happily to a popular nonsense song. Not only is the animation suggesting a very light elephant (his huge body is not dragging him to the ground), Horton's hind legs are also skipping half as fast as his forelegs. Although there is no sign of exaggerated distortion like in Mayzie's acting scene above, Horton feels rather rubbery and silly just by the way his looser parts overlap:

Distinctive Locomotion: Specific Flight CyclesWhile one could get away with having the cone eating Mayzie simply move one wing instead of two, the animator infused this scene with personality and entertainment by having her struggle with the unnatural motion. It takes 36 different drawings to complete the cycle. Some of the later flapping animation is even exposed on ones.
Tubes With Tongues
When Horton refuses to budge even when the whole frame is flooded, his trunk is assuming the mouth's lip sync completely with overlong tongue. While intuitively this makes sense with an elephant, in a Clampett cartoon any kind of tube - especially guns - can be animated with the flexibility of a human mouth. This odd phenomenon is definitely worth a closer look!

For today, that's all, folks!