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

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.)