Sunday, May 31, 2009

Commedia Dell'Arte
(more esoteric theory to keep me from
actually accomplishing anything)


I was amazed when I started delving into the world of Commedia. (I know, commedia is just Italian for comedy, but Ill be using it as an abbreviation for the full term, which is a bit long to type out over and over. Sue me.... )

The thing that really blows my mind about it is just how many of today's familiar characters have filtered down from it. Harlequins painted by Picasso, Cezanne, and many other artists, extended all the way to the Joker's sidekick Harley Quinn. Oh, and the Joker himself looks an awful lot like a Zanni mask with that long nose and long pointed chin.... rather similar to Paul Berry's Sandman puppet. Lots of examples throughout history, from Cyrano to (I suspect) Don Quixote and possibly even Quasimodo (his renaissance garb coupled with his acrobatic capering suggest Commedia to me). I'm sure there are countless others.


As a theatrical form, Commedia was very physical -- involving mime, clowning, acrobatics, and improvisation in addition to voice acting and often singing, or grammelot -- invented gobbledygook -- gibberish language made to sound like some language or dialect and including occasional words... it was designed to get the meaning across even though most of it was nonsense. There's more to grammelot than just made up gibberish... you can find a great description of it in Dario Fo's Nobel prize winning book Tricks of the Trade (along with excellent descriptions of techniques for various mime techniques and other physical acting methods).


Mister Punch is the direct descendant of Pulcinella (meaning Little Chicken), who walked like a chicken and beat everybody with his slapstick. Many commedia characters are modeled after animals... birds, monkeys, etc. Commedia is the theatre of TYPES.... characters aren't individuals with psychological depth but the masks and characteristic walks represent types -- The Old Skinflint (Pantalone), The Clown (Harlequin, or earlier Arlecchino), The Cowardly Braggart (Il Capitano, or The Captain), The Self-Important Windbag (Il Dottore - The Doctor) and others.


It was all set up within the framework of classes.... basically most of the characters were servants on different levels of the hierarchy.. with Pantalone and Il Dottore being the homeowners and their sons and daughters being The Lovers (who wore no masks and were completely self-absorbed, in love with the idea of being in love, but so narcissistic that they hardly noticed each other). These Lovers feature frequently in some of the films derived from Commedia... in particular the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Chaplin, Keaton, and other silent clowns are direct descendants as well.


The Zanni are the lowest class... always at everyone else's mercy, but the most mischievous and clownish of the bunch. Zanni is a generic term (not sure exactly what it means) which eventually translated into Zany. As many of the characters did, they would often stand and walk in first or fourth position (ballet terms), lending them an exaggerated grace.

Here are some great YouTube vids on the subject of Commedia Dell'Arte:

Commedia Dell'Arte playlist on YouTube Some are good, some not so much. I offer the entire playlist, feel free to skip around it. Below are some individual clips I find excellent.

The Masks of Arnold Sandhaus
Commedia Dell'arte at Brennan High School
Commedia dell'Arte
Workshop de Commedia Dell' Arte com Antonio Fava (part 1)
Workshop de Commedia Dell' Arte com Antonio Fava (part 2) This girl does the best Zanni I've ever seen!!! This is the way Commedia characters are supposed to be.... acrobatic, walking with balletic grace and poise, speaking in unnatural voices... incredible!!!

And the books I've got (browse suggestions for many others):

Commedia Dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook by John Rudlin
The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre by Jaques Lecoq
The Mime Book by Claude Kipnis
The Art of Pantomime by Charles Aubert (available for free online download)
The Tricks of the Trade by Dario Fo
Mask Characterization: An Acting Process by Libby Appel
All highly recommended, especially when taken as a group... they feed into each other perfectly.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

more practice

Just messing around, trying to get some different expression into some moves.

One thing I notice now that I've been animating fairly regularly -- and this applies to any kind of art I've ever done. There's a certain Art Making Mode that I sometimes go into... a super-patient mode where I'm completely unaware of the passage of time or of anything beyond what I"m doing. And when I go into this mode during animation, that's when I get really good results. I was in that mode when I did the Skull Love clip (well, the last 2 thirds of it anyway) and when I did the One Good Yank mime thing. But I was a bit impatient when I did the shrug tests.

You can see the difference. Watch Skull Love... notice at first things are pretty rough, but it smoothes out as I go.

I think it's alright that my sketches are a bit rough.... I was improvising, just messing around and making stuff up as I went... in some cases I really didn't even know what the next frame would be till I touched the puppet. I think the shrug tests were a step beyond what I've done before in terms of difficulty because I was aiming for expression, as opposed to simply putting the puppet through the motions smoothly. The 2 shrugs are very different (and yes, as Prosser mentioned on my YouTube page, it IS difficult to shrug without collarbones!). I don't like the weird head shake on the second one... it didn't work the way I wanted it to. And everything after that is weird too... doesn't match the aggressiveness of the beginning of the shrug. But I thought I'd go ahead and post these attempts anyway. Hopefully in the future I'll do some more successful ones. But there's no failure in practice -- the whole point is just to keep myself animating and trying things that are beyond my comfort zone.

There are a couple of false starts included, and at the end of the clip I tried an idea for how to get Hoppy across the room really fast. He needs to move like a jackrabbit on speed, but with those short little legs I need to find some alternative way to get him there.... if I actually animate the legs using ease-ins and ease-outs for every step he can't go fast enough!!

Not quite there yet, but it's a start. I'll try a few different ideas as I progress.

Friday, May 15, 2009

One Good Yank -- new clip posted (now with titles added)

This is my entry to the May challenge at StopMotionMagic (the successor to StopMoShorts). The only criteria Marc and John specified was "puppet struggles". I like it... nice and open-ended -- not too specific. Well, I was already doing exercises with Skulkin, and was preparing to try some mime stuff, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Incidentally, the contest is running till May 30th at midnight, so there's still time to get an entry in. You can use existing puppets and sets, bare armatures, anything you want. You can even enter films you've already finished. They're pretty easy over there.

This shot took me (believe it or not) 3 nights to complete... but I only worked on it for about an hour or so each night. You can easily see where I cut off between sessions by the way the background light creeps down the wall suddenly. That's the Solux Framing Art light of course.... a very frustrating little device that rather tantalizingly features a nifty little adjustable set of shutters to shape the beam easily - otherwise it would be no problem to just put it away and not use it. It didn't occur to me until I was almost finished, but I should have folded a piece of paper a few times and jammed it into the swivel joint to tighten it.

My secret weapon is Claude Kipnis' The Mime Book, which I highly recommend to all animators. Who better than mimes to teach us about movement and how to express using only the body? The main thing I concentrated on for this exercise was flexibility of the spine and beginning his movements from the torso. Kipnis says a movement that is originated from an emotion in the character will begin from the center of his torso and undulate out to the extremities. So I did this for all of Skulky's movements, ignoring it only when he's yanked off his feet by his invisible adversary, when the movement begins from the extremities (hands) and everything else follows rather reluctantly.

I was also very conscious of something from Lecoq's Le Corps Poetique (The Moving Body); "Action has no drama in it... all the drama is in the reaction". It seems to be true.... things get a lot more interesting when he starts to interact with the invisible rope and whatever is at the other end of it! It implies things you can't see... makes you wonder (mystery). And it's also conflict.

This being a single continuous shot, it's the smallest cell of drama that exists... a single cell that can accrete with others to form organs (scenes) and finally a complete organism. But a cell like this one is nearly complete in itself... it contains a complete microdrama with beginning, middle and end, so in that sense it's actually a single-celled organism... I'm trying very hard to resist the temptation to dub it a Dramamoeba. Ok, no, as well as the term fits, it just sounds stupid!!

In retrospect I wish he had found the rope lying on the floor... tripped on it and then felt it and picked it up. That would make a lot more sense than just grabbing it out of the air as if he knew it was there. I also wanted to put some more 'business' in... he could have shifted his grip on the rope, hefted it over his shoulder and turned around to pull it harder, et... but it was getting really annoying because I was whipping his torso around so much and every frame I had to go in and try to put his hands back precisely where they were before.

A couple more reasons that I feel this line of approach (mime, Lecoq etc) is perfect for me.... Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin studied mime (or if they never formally studied it, they were certainly two of its foremost practitioners!). Lecoq has his students begin their training with the Awakening exercise... pretending to come to life for the first time in this world and begin to explore it in silence. This not only reminds me of Quest, but also of just about every Harryhausen creature ever put on film!!! And in my reading on Mime, I keep running across references to the idea of the Primal -- the characters and worlds conjured by the actors should seem fresh and new, as if only just created... as if we're witnessing the birth of the world and of the creatures in it. This is very similar to my last point -- but it's important to me because it articulates something I've tried to say in the past about the films I want to make... I want to conjure this primal world.... I want the films to take place in primordial settings... no social situations, no commercial products or prefab architecture... I'm talking ancient ruins, the forest primeval, dank caverns and dark, rotting ships! (And incidentally, this also reminds me of Harryhausen.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Balancing Lecoq and the Lauensteins
(now including the Quest connection!)

Take a look at the brief description below...

"...theory developed by [French mime and movement teacher] Jacques Lecoq that actors must recognize the dynamics of the stage. One of the Lecoq exercises asks the actors to imagine a platform. When one person steps on stage, the person opposite must compensate as if the platform might tip. The actors need to understand keeping the stage in balance."

Which came from this web page about a contemporary stage production of Sartre's No Exit.

Does it remind you (my regular readers in particular) of anything? That' right... it sounds like the Lauenstein's film Balance - one of my favorite animated films, and I know a favorite of a lot of people. I've long pondered what makes the film so universally loved, and while very simple in some respects, it's got a lot going for it. The symbolic nature of the balancing platform and the small society who live on it for one thing.... makes you think about group dynamics in both the micro and macro scales. Families, friends, war, politics, etc. But another factor making it compelling is simply the delight of watching the physics in action.

In my reading of Lecoq, I ran across his description of the above mentioned exercise for placing actors in a Greek style chorus. (I grabbed the rather sparse description from that website because it was the only decent reference I could find online, and I didn't feel like laboriously typing out the whole thing from the book myself). So.... a startling similarity between lecoq's concept and the Lauenstein's film.... could it be a coincidence, or is it possible the German brothers had encountered the Lecoq technique somewhere? I know the Lauensteins and Thomas Stellmach (famous for the stopmotion short Quest) were taught by Professor Paul Driessen - well-known and highly respected cartoon animator from.... somewhere in Eastern Europe (sorry, too lazy to look it up right now!). Could he have maybe recommended studying Lecoq's techniques of physical Theatre to his students?

I'm not suggesting they "ripped the idea off" or anything so crass.... the reason I was so struck by this is that it makes me feel like I'm on the right track. Balance being one of my favorites, and now seeing the Lecoq connection, it reinforces the feeling that I'm definitely embarked on the right course of study. But fear not... my animation exercises continue... I'll be posting more soon -- just wanted to break for a moment to post this real quick.

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There may also be a connection between another Lecoq exercise and Thomas Stellmach's film Quest (which I've always felt was somehow connected to Balance). The exercise... it's the first of Lecoq's Neutral Mask exercises, designed to make actors express entirely though their bodies, no voice and no face --- the actor, wearing the mask, awakens and begins to explore the space around him (the studio). The idea is to explore and interact with every object there... climb onto the tables and ladders, etc.

This connection obviously isn't as clear cut as the above (Balance), but it's pretty darn close. Close enough, taken in conjunction with what I wrote above, to make me strongly suspect Professor Dreissen DID encourage his students to study Lecoq's methods, or even recommended these particular exercises as great ideas for stopmotion films (a thought I agree with).

Monday, May 04, 2009

Skulkin take 2

I'm getting some practice in... learning to get my animation more under control, so a puppet's movements start to look coordinated and graceful, rather than disjointed and spasmodic. As I begin to get this kind of control I can start to make the movements become dramatic - the next step.

I had a good long conversation with Jay Wojnarowski - AKA 1BigLebowski on YouTube, who is a theatrical actor / director and has received training at Dell' Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake California. Maybe you wouldn't know it from seeing what he's posted on YouTube so far, but this guy really knows his stuff!! And, if you've looked at any of his behind-the scenes videos, you know he likes to talk, so I got a good detailed overview from him about physical theatre and commedia dell'arte, which is very closely related to stopmotion - at least the kind of stopmotion I'm interested in. It's the type of training clowns get, and mimes, and silent film comedians.

So I ordered a few books and I'm studying the physical training techniques developed by Jaques Lecoq, who pretty much single-handedly developed these methods (according to his book anyway) - or I should say re-discovered the techniques used in ancient Commedia and Greek Tragic theatre and further developed them.

Jay stresses the importance of the actor in the process.... having been thoroughly trained in physical theater an actor knows how to bring his character to life, and doesn't need permission from a director or writer... he's the main driving force behind the creation of the character and of the drama onstage.

So I'm now changing my focus from researching drama and story to actual performance. Don't misunderstand.... of course it's important to study drama and story, but unless you can express something through actual performance, it's a moot point. Until you're capable as an actor/animator of creating dramatic moments through your puppets, you can't really tell a story with them. So I'm beginning there.

Lecoq puts a lot of emphasis on mask work... training actors by putting masks on them. It frees an actor up... strips away the face and the social persona and puts emphasis on motions of the entire body. I think this is very similar to animating a puppet in a silent performance. So I plan to try some of the exercises he discusses. More to come...