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Matt Lucas to Make Silent Sitcom

First there was The Artist, then Ant and Dec say they’re going to make a slapstick film, and now TV legend Matt Lucas is in on the game!

Visual comedy is certainly de rigeur! Quite a change from the generally held opinion of just a few years ago that visual comedy was the lowest form of comedy!

The Artist was a wonderful film – but more an homage than a attempt at contemporary visual comedy. The forthcoming Ant and Dec film should be interesting but I have no idea how they’ll play it.

But the Lucas project, working title, “Pompidou”, is likely to be exceptional. Lucas will do an amazing job – he is disciplined, funny, quirky, and original.

More info as it comes in…

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Great News – Things Aren’t Perfect!

Nowadays lots of things work properly. They are reliable, last a long time and you can always get an identical replacement.

It’s becoming a real problem.

For comedy, I like props that are quirky, unbalanced, mis-shapen – stuff that doesn’t work properly!

I used to get quite stressed out about it. That is until a few months ago, when I was working in a school –  a brand new, bang up to date contemporary “new build” school.

I needed to get into costume quickly, so after asking if I would like a tea or coffee,  a teacher proudly showed me to a deluxe toilet where I could change. You needed a code to get in (for safety reasons) – so he typed it in – and in I went.

It really was a lovely room. Gleaming surfaces, modern design, energy saving equipment, everything…

Suddenly I realised I had left my waistcoat in the theatre. I popped back to get it. As I got there, the school secretary appeared with two mugs of tea for myself and my double act partner. She told me that we couldn’t leave the drinks unattended (for safety reasons). My partner had disappeared, so I had to take the drinks back to the deluxe toilet / dressing room – only to find myself locked out and not knowing the entry code.

Hot teas in hand, I took a difficult and messy journey through unpredictably opening automatic doors to find someone who gave me the toilet code. I returned to the toilet after another difficult and even more messy journey. With no hands free to type in the code, I had to type it in with my nose. The handle was at head height (for safety) so I had to turn it with my mouth, trying not to loose any teeth, or spill any more hot tea on my now slightly burnt hands.

After some awkward trial and error, viewed with disdain by passing 5 year olds, I managed to get back in – and on entering the efficiently designed (tiny) room, I set off the automatic (hyper-sensitive) hand dryer. The brand new (faulty) dryer nozzle had slipped and was facing upwards – and shocked at the sudden blast of hot air in my face, I staggered backwards towards the sink, setting off the automatic (hyper-sensitive) tap. Startled by the noise of the luxury (over-powered) water jet, I turned to be blasted with water, ricocheting off the attractively curved (particle-accelerating) sink.

With wet trousers and a show due to start in minutes I started panicking.

I tried to put down the cups of hot tea, but the sparkling clean (incredibly slippery) surfaces were all of such a delicately curved (completely impractical) design that the mugs kept slipping off. Placing the mugs on the immaculate (skiddy) floor, I went to get some toilet tissue to dry myself. The environmentally friendly (pointlessly small) tissues were dispensed one at a time, each time with a grand (embarrassingly loud) “thumpf”.

I decided to try the hand dryer again. Unable to turn the nozzle to face downwards, my only hope of drying my trousers was to take them off or stand on my hands. Anyone experienced in working in schools knows that you should never take your trousers off. So I clambered onto the toilet seat and sink and attempted to dry my trousers whilst astride the dryer. The very high technical specification meant that it would only work if you constantly waved something (exactly 20 centimetres) underneath it, so I  spent a difficult few minutes balancing on the various porcelain surfaces, while waving my hand between my legs.

Suffice to say that my faith in the rubbishness of things was restored.

I am confident that while man endeavours to make things perfect, he will always make things worse – which will always make our jobs easier, which will always make us laugh.

So as you venture into the immaculate risk free future, fear not. The universe will always provide chaos to mock our attempts at order.

In tribute, here is one of my favourite depictions of the disasters of the future, Jacques Tati’s extraordinary “Playtime”.

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My First Trip to NYC!

Hi Everyone,

I’ve just booked tickets to see Bill Irwin and David Shiner in their new show.

I’m pretty thrilled as I’ll get to see two clown legends AND I get to visit New York (and USA) for the first time.

Does anyone have any recommendations for a great trip?

Chris

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Slapstick Festival 2013 – Peter Lord and Nick Park in Conversation

A packed cinema in the Bristol Watershed was a perfect setting for this very modest evening with the two giants of British animation.

Peter Lord lead most of the evening in authoritative style, with regular contributions from the charmingly self-effacing Nick Park.

There was no intention of a lecture-style through-line to the evening, but throughout the entire 80 minutes, the connections and contrasts between animation and live slapstick were clearly drawn. It was fascinating to hear how many parallels their early experience of making slapstick animation had with my own first attempts at making live slapstick.

Peter Lord made an early observation that “sustained visual comedy” was now usually only found in the world animation. (I felt strangely awkward knowing that I had just made a series of non-animated visual comedies. Am I completely out of touch?!)

Interestingly, Peter Lord also noted that his first big commercial success (Morph) emerged from ideas developed while making animation for Vision On – a programme for deaf children. He pointed out that almost everyone at Aardman starts by working with Morph.

A clip was shown which I hadn’t seen since the age of 9  – and the memories of watching TV while eating meatballs and chips came flooding back!

They also said that the other reason why they avoided dialogue in early work was simply due to the expense and complication. Especially the arduous task of lip-syncing.

In an salute to the validity of “borrowing”, three clips were shown using the famous “missing mirror” gag – Max Linder, The Marx Brothers and Morph – all using the same idea.

The conversation then turned to live visual performers. (I started getting ants in my pants.)

We watched a clip of Norman Wisdom. Nick Park pointed out how performers like Wisdom had come from a music hall and variety background which didn’t exist any more. (Desperately… trying… not… to… shout… out!)

Peter Lord agreed that there was no equivalent training ground for live visual performers these days – so there were no more Norman Wisdoms to perform in these type of productions. (How I stayed in my seat at that point will always be a mystery! Three thousand shows in the bag and I couldn’t say a word!)

They noted the narrative use of “loser” characters for slapstick – and how visual comedy narratives often had a loser “fall on his feet” due to his foolishness.

Lord praised Park’s decision to keep his animation subtle. (Park revealed a playfulness by feigning modesty in response.) Of particular note was the villainous penguin Feather McGraw in The Wrong Trousers. Park called it his “ethos of anti-animation”! He noted that some may have been tempted to get laughs from the penguin doing a funny waddle. But the simple, still, “milk-bottle-like” physicality of the penguin was much more effective.

Park stated that economy is the animator’s friend. As a live performance teacher, this was fascinating. For a performer, faffing is the actor’s false friend. Student actors often feel comfortable when doing something that “fills time”, delaying the moment of action. But the animator (and audience – and director!) does not want that delay. He or she does not want to animate even one frame more than necessary! So gargantuan was the task of animating Wallace and Gromit, that Peter Sallis did not see the final cut until seven years after he recorded the voice over!

In complete contrast, we were shown the opening scene of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “The Cat Came Back” – each showing great flamboyance and lack of subtlety! I’m not sure what the learning objective was at that point, but they were still good fun – especially Dick William’s wild, dimension-bending Roger Rabbit sequence involving classic comic violence. Park insightfully pointed out that the violence was acceptable because the cartoon character was never really hurt.

And to finish, they noted that the animator’s scripts were pictures, not words – so visual comedy was a natural result of the preparation process. This is an area of great interest to me. I would love to know more about the preparatory process of film, television and theatre. In particular British film and TV, which I feel is too text-focussed. Film is traditionally prepared for with storyboards – and the natural outcome of this is good attention to visual detail – and regular, obligatory montages! Sadly, there wasn’t enough time to develop that topic.

The evening wrapped up with a final clip – a beautifully constructed idea with a simple locked-off shot. I will refer this clip to students as it is an exceptional example of re-incorpration. There are just a few characters that come and go, but always re-introduced surprisingly. And the central problem created by the environment is superb.

So, somehow I managed to restrain myself for 80 minutes! But I couldn’t help popping up to see Peter Lord afterwards to give him a copy of The Silly Seasons. Unfortunately, my star-struck nerves kicked in – and rather than talking about the modern equivalents of the variety circuit, I ended up gabbling nonsense about ten years schlepping around the country and something to do with a locked-off camera! Oh well!

Thanks to Chris Daniels and the team at the amazing Slapstick Festival for a great fun evening with two of the most successful visual comedy makers in the world. And thanks to Peter Lord and Nick Park for continuing to support the festival.

If you get a chance to head down to Bristol this weekend, I highly recommend it! All the details are here: www.slapstick.org.uk

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How to Write a Comedy Scene

Here are some simple things that you can do to make a great comedy scene.

There are no absolute rules – but here are some ideas and examples to get you started.

Characters

Try and make your characters as exact as possible. Give them an “attitude” – which is a bit like an emotion, or an outlook on the world. eg. excited, sad, suspicious. Good “attitude” words often end in “-ful”. Such as playful, careful, bashful. (But not things words like spoonful or cupful!)

In the incredibly successful sitcom Friends, the characters are superbly drawn. For example, Ross Geller is gloomy, dispondent and pessimistic. He often walks into the room and says “Hi-ii” in a gloomy way.

The clearer the character’s attitude, the better. Attitudes are emotional words – so “shy”, “tense” and “enthusiastic” are good. Words that aren’t so helpful are judgemental words like stupid, clumsy or wrong as they are not about the character’s feelings. Also, descriptive words like heavy, tall or well-dressed don’t give any information about the character’s feelings, so they aren’t as useful either.

Plan

Each character must be trying to do something in a scene. So if your character is entering a room, give them a definite reason – eg. looking for his lost keys, coming in to get changed, hiding from someone outside. You could get the “plan” from his or her attitude. So a shy man could be coming in to escape from a noisy party in the next room. Or an angry mother could come in looking for their naughty teenage son.

Problem

Something happens that hinders the character’s plans. The problem might arise from the characters conflicting “plans”. eg one might be trying to put clothes away, while the other might be taking clothes out to try on.

In the following scene, we see Chandler planning to eat a cheesecake. Rachel causes the problem by pointing out to him that it is immoral to eat it.

Reaction

Comedy scenes really get going when the characters start reacting.

When they react, their attitudes change. And they try to do something to solve the problem.

These reactions and attempts to solve the problem will result in further reactions and further attempts to solve the problem. And this is the core of your comic scene.

Using the clothes example again:

Betty is excited about going out. (Attitude)

She wants to wear exactly the right clothes. (Plan)

Betty’s mum, Mrs Crocker, is cross because of the mess. (Attitude)

Mrs Crocker tidies up the clothes. (Plan and Problem!)

Betty gets cross. (Reaction)

Betty grabs the dress from Mrs Croker. (Trying to solve problem)

The dress gets ripped.

Betty starts crying. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker starts laughing. (Reaction)

Betty gets cross at Mrs Crocker’s reaction. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker teases Betty for getting angry. (Reaction)

etc…

Re-incorporation

To keep the audience interested, the writer must keep everything within the bounds of credibility.

But to really excite an audience, the writer should try to re-incorporate as many ideas as possible. In other words, keep using objects, phrases or ideas that have been mentioned or noticed earlier.

In the Betty and Mrs Crocker scene, it would be great to re-incorporate the ripped dress. There’s other things to re-visit too – where is Betty going this evening (to meet her estranged father?) Why is Mrs Crocker so stressed out about keeping the place tidy (a lover coming round while Betty’s out?) So many options! So much fun!

In this Chaplin boxing sketch, he re-incorporates the bell, the hugging and the hiding behind the referee to great effect. Watch from about 1 min 15 secs into the clip.

Rhythm

It is worth noting as well, that in the Chaplin boxing scene there is a crackling rhythm. The bouncing movement of the boxers and referee gives the entire scene life.

So, give it a go! With just a little bit of practice, you will come up with wonderful, satisfying comic scenes.

To see some of my attempts at one-man scenes, visit http://www.thesillyseasons.com

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How to Make a Film on Your Own (or How to Keep a Beard Too Long)

A few years ago, I decided I was going to make a film.

Being fairly optimistic, I turned up with just a camera and costume – and a beard that I wasn’t terribly keen on.

I had my shooting list for the first day which covered three scenes of about 2 minutes each. Easily done thought I. The whole hour of film should be ready in a matter of weeks and the beard could come off.

When I actually finished, it was two and a half years later – and I had learnt some valuable lessons. I have listed the main ones below.

MY 14 FILM MAKING COMMANDMENTS

1. All I had was a camera and myself, and for a first go, it was enough.

2. A good location is essential. It is the foundations of your film. If your location is good, it will help everything. If it doesn’t quite fit your script, it will undermine everything.

3. Leaving the house to go and film yourself is one of the hardest things I have known – and it never got easier. Accept this! The sense of accomplishment at the end of the shoot was always exhilarating.

4. Rehearse the shoot properly – including filming a walk through somewhere easy like your back garden. I could have saved myself days of re-shoots and re-edits by doing this.

5. Keep writing and filming – you will get a feel for it.

6. Simple technical rule: Each shot of the same scene should be at least at a 30 degree angle from the others. Google this as I can’t explain it very well!

7. Simple technical rule: Don’t cross the line. Google this as I can’t explain it very well!

8. Apply the photographic rule of putting the subject of the shot one third into the frame. Google this as I can’t explain it very well!

9. When it comes to editing, trim as much as you can.

10. When it comes to the “final cut” be happy to cut out scenes that took a lot of money and time to film!

11. Google as much information as you can, but don’t worry about it too much.

12. Use a costume that can be easily replaced for continuity.

13. Be brave and get other other people to feedback throughout the entire process.

14. Finish it!

THINGS I’D DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME:

1. Concentrate more on narrative.

2. Have a clearer idea of the target audience.

3. Use more characters.

4. Don’t start filming with a beard that you don’t really want.

In summary, all I can say is, do it!

And keep doing it until you are done.

Because when you are done, you will have done something amazing.

IN A NUTSHELL

You’re going to need the basic kit:

labelled filming stuff

Then, you’ll need the specific props:

FILMING EQUIPMENT props and

And very importantly, you’ll need a location:

FILMING EQUIPMENT location and

And when you’ve got a first draft, you’ll need some friendly critics:

friendly critics long

GOOD LUCK!

(If you want to have a look at my efforts, visit http://www.thesillyseasons.com and watch the trailer.)

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Performer Analysis: Chaplin (or A Kick Up My Backside!)

I had been feeling rather pleased with myself.

I had worked out that I’d performed thousands of live shows to over half a million people; I felt that I had a developed a high level of understanding of the process of clowning and visual comedy; and I had just finished making four short slapstick films, which I thought were “not too shabby” for a first attempt.

Then I watched a Chaplin short called “Behind the Screen”.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so special any more!

Well, it turns out that in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell is right – there is a difference between capable and extraordinary!

I had come across the title reading Bryony Dixon’s essay on slapstick, “The Good Thieves”. I was delighted when I found the whole film on youtube.

Delighted… and distraught.

It turned out, my self-conceived “expertise” was nothing more than a knowledge of the absolute basics of a craft which Chaplin had taken to extraordinary heights.

Unlike my youthful introduction to Laurel and Hardy, I had never seen a Chaplin until about five years ago. Prior to that, I had the impression that Chaplin films were at best interesting curios of a bygone era and at worst saccharine and dated. But I was completely wrong.

In “Behind the Screen”, Chaplin displays an extraordinary level of physical ability, performance skill and, above all, visual creativity.

Most striking to a fledgling film maker like myself is Chaplin’s variety of visual jokes and varied visual construction:

  • the angles at which he manoeuvres (and his great use of depth)
  • his general movement – walking, behing lifted up
  • the creation of images eg the human hedgehog made from chairs stacked on his back
  • the close up character work (eg his onions reactions)
  • the chaos – the huge pillar, the trap door

And then , on top of all this, is my favourite feature of Chaplin films: the consistency of  “other worldliness”. The Chaplin character stands out above his contemporaries because it embodies an animal, non- human character. This allows him to behave in odd ways without having to adhere to naturalism – which, for other slapstick performers, can hinder their antics. This idea is played out in modern cartoons – invariably animated characters are non-human, allowing the creators to play around with ideas that are not restricted by human reality. Chaplin’s tramp, although “humanoid” is more like a cartoon. And our emotional reaction to this sort of protagonist is subtly different. (See my blog “Animal Magnestism”) Traditional circus clowns represent a similar detachment from “natural humanness”. And the lack of verbal language is justified by this choice.

Even when his peers moved on from the cartoon-ish behaviour of early slapstick towards more naturalistic characters, Chaplin made the decision to remain animal-like – and his impish innocence, strange costume and make up remain valid choices beyond the end of the limitations of early film technology.

Perhaps this is why, above all else, Chaplin’s films hold up under contemporary scrutiny: they are in world of their own.

Have a look at some of my own slapstick attempts here! 

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

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