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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A Bit of Animal Magnetism

One of the stranger aspects of visual performance, clowning and animation is that the characters often have an “animal-like” or “non-human” quality.

This wonderful clip of the Godfrey Daniels character sums it up perfectly.

The character is roughly human, but we certainly don’t react to him as we would a “person”. He doesn’t speak and has no facial expressions – so we only get information about his mood from his physicality. There is something fascinating about it.

Harnessing this idea can be invaluable, allowing characters to be:

  • completely unique
  • very likeable
  • surprising
  • free from the usual rules of society (and even physics)

This is the territory of mask work but we also see it in clowning, puppetry and even early film, where facial expressions couldn’t be seen very clearly.

My favourite Chaplin films are where his antics are viewed from a distance. It is Chaplin’s extraordinary physicality that made him such a great silent film star. Have a look at his physicality compared to the other actors in the first few minutes of the famous factory scene:

The “non-human-ness” of his appearance allows us to view his character differently. Perhaps we don’t judge him as harshly. Maybe we don’t worry so much when he gets hurt. And we enjoy his unnatural movement which we might consider too “fake” if watching a modern film.

Some performers, like the one “inside” Godfrey Daniels, have masked their whole body, giving a new dimension to their physicality. Clowns use big shoes and baggy pants to deliberately distort the body shape. Some performers have taken this to the extreme. The creators of “Mummenschanz” are a good example. (I especially like the “tube” in clip at 48 secs:)

Some of the Mummenschanz “characters” have got hardly any recognisable features. But the movement still allows us to follow a narrative. Note in particular how they use focus (ie where they are looking) and how they change speed.

If you want to explore this oddity further, try this for fun:

  • Get together with some friends.
  • Draw some different faces on some sheets of paper (one face per sheet).
  • Poke small holes for the eyes.
  • Use an elastic band to hold one of the pieces of paper over your face.
  • Try moving around as your new character – but be careful if you can’t see that well!
  • Get your friends to ask you questions, or make suggestions about what’s happening to you.
  • Without using words or facial expressions, you will find that you have to explore a whole new vocabulary of expression.
  • Have fun!

IN A NUTSHELL

Disguising the “human-ness” of a character can have strange and exciting results.

You don’t need words to enthrall an audience.

Experiment with face masks, body masks and physicality.

(I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the psychology of non-verbal, non-facial expression. If you could recommend some reading I’d be really grateful.)

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com