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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Performer Analysis: George Carl

There are better quality clips of George Carl on youtube, but this is my favourite.

The audience is right behind him which gives a great fluency and sharpness to his schtick.

George Carl is probably best known to modern audiences for his role in the film “Funny Bones” as an old variety entertainer who never speaks.

Carl is a fascinating performer to study as he is a direct link from the authentic vaudeville circuit, having begun performing in 1932. His act looks and feels old fashioned, but it’s still great fun for a modern audience. He enjoyed great success late in his career appearing on The Johnny Carson Show – and there is plenty of youtube footage of him on European television.

The greatest thing about Carl is his dexterity – high speed control of hat tricks and getting caught up in wire, mic stand and button holes. His skill is superb, and for most audiences this is enough.

But he also has a wonderful persona – a tiny man with a wizened face – who has a likeability similar to Norman Wisdom and his voice-less performance gives him a Chaplineqsue animal-like quality which is very attractive.

There is a slight problem for modern viewers of Carl’s act. In his pursuit of pace and as a result of having done the same act so many times, he slightly fudges the sense of his routine. There are occasions when he manipulates props in ways that don’t make sense to his character’s situation. He doesn’t always acknowledge events or take time to react to events within the chaos.

I have a feeling that this was not always the case, and that he has lost definition over hundreds of performances. Having said that, the chaos is so sublime that it is enough to make a great act. Having seen some other footage of Carl as a great acrobat, I imagine that he concentrated more on the execution of the skills than on strict adherence to the rules of naturalism.

For me, though, the core of Carl’s success is his persona – his small stature, cheeky face and vulnerability are just wonderful and you can see the years of artistry in his every movement.

IN A NUTSHELL

Use a likeable persona

Enjoy full control of your props

You don’t need any vocal sound to knock out a modern audience

 

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

 

Why Do Visual Comics Use Weird Voices?!

Shut up. Shut UP. SHADDUP SHADDUP. SHUUUUUT UUUUUUUP!

That’s the standard reaction I get when I do my (terrible) Jerry Lewis impression.

It’s not just my Jerry Lewis. It’s my Norman Wisdom, my Peewee Herman and my Jo Pasquale.

I have always wondered why  so many comics use these high pitched (some might say annoying) voices But after a few years of live shows, I found myself doing it. This wasn’t a planned decision. It just happened.

One reason is that high pitched sound can be sharp and surprising – perfect for comedy. But from my own experience, I am convinced that the unusual character voices of Wisdom and Lewis emerged for more practical reasons.

BIG STUFF

Large arenas like circuses or big theatres can get noisy and chaotic. In these arenas, routines can get lost beneath the audience reaction. Sharp, punchy noise is good punctuation for a routine.

And it’s not just about noise. More importantly, it can be due to the audience “falling about”. In my experience, very large audiences can take a while to “get back on board” after big jokes – they are catching their breath, they are wiping their eyes, they are telling their kids to get off the floor.

By using a variety of tactics – including high pitched noise – a performer can re-establish order. Jerry Lewis is a big proponent of saying “Hey!” to an audience. Norman Wisdom laughs hysterically – or uses a baby-like “waaah”. Both used to regain focus.

IS IT JUST ME?

Why then, are strange voices so particular to comics?

Firstly, there is rarely as much audience rowdiness during other styles of performance as there is in the wild chaos of a clown show.

Secondly, higher pitched voices indicate low status, so that is appropriate for clown characters.

Thirdly, a high pitched voice upstages a low pitched voice in the same way that the clown’s physical antics can upstage a straight man’s stillness.

Finally, it’s so weird, other types of performers would avoid it!

JUDGEMENT

Unfortunately, vocal noise is often used in place of good physical technique. There is no reason why most performers shouldn’t be able to maintain sharpness and rhythm through the accurate movement of their body.

My feeling is that once established in a live setting, using high pitched noise can become habitual. In Lewis and Wisdom’s careers, it was probably never questioned as to whether this type of voice was suitable for film. They had had hugely successful live stage careers with these voices. In fact, because they were very mimickable, it made those characters more memorable – even if, for some, they were annoying.

In film, we don’t have to worry about audience control. One of my greatest revelations about film comedy was the first time I watched a Chaplin film as part of a large audience. Because we knew no one would speak, we realised we didn’t have to listen. We could make as much noise as we liked. We all guffawed, gasped and shout out loudly – happily knowing that we wouldn’t miss a thing. What an experience! What a release!

Overall, I would recommend avoiding the weird voice – and let your body do the work. (If you want to look into this more, have a look at some mask work. Try www.trestle.org.uk)

The main points again:

Sharp punchy noise can punctuate a routine

Sharp noise can help “reset” an audience after a big joke.

Noise is NO SUBSTITUTE for good physical technique.

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