Why Not Use Words?

tati4

There is something really odd about a character that doesn’t talk.

Silence holds a unique tension. Stillness is the same. They create a wonderful expectancy.

Think of being in any situation with a group of people, one of whom never speaks. What would you think of that person?

I not against talking. I’m definitely not against sound. (In the double act that I work in, my partner talks for the entire show and we pay a huge amount of attention to creating rhythm from the natural sound of our movement, our props and our environment.)

I don’t want to make characters that are silent for the sake of being different. For me silence is not an “experimental” choice.

On the contrary, we spend most of our days in silence. Much of our interaction is non-verbal. A huge amount of our observation of other people is of their movement. We’ve all sat in a cafe window people watching!

So we don’t need to make fraudulent “mime” scenes. We can just make scenes where talking naturally is absent. Most obviously, when people are on their own and when people are watched from afar. Or you could set a scene on a deafening oil rig. Or even where two hostages have their mouths taped. (These last two are less interesting to me as they will inevitably involve attempts at talking through mime.)

I enjoy the fun of interpretating or “working out the puzzle” of non-verbal scenes. And equally I love the creative puzzle of making clear inferences without resorting to pointing or unrealistic mime!

As noted in a previous blog, I love the freedom given to the audience to be vocal – not worrying about interrupting the performer or other audience members.

And, finally, but most importantly for me, there is the mysterious anonymity given to a character who we cannot hear. In watching something without the extra information given by the voice, we infer our own ideas about their personality and psychology. Once a character speaks, it is as though the mask slips, and we are presented with something different – something more obvious and less animalistic. Maybe less unpredictable. (I always feel like Chaplin has a great wild animal quality.)

Is there perhaps something more  universal about the non-verbal? Do we avoid projecting our preconceptions about people with certain accents and vocal qualities? Does it allow us to relate more deeply to the character as a result?

To conjure a simple example, imagine watching people on the road from up on a bridge. You see someone waiting, then someone arrives to stand next to him. Another person stands on the other side of the first. The last two exchange glances.

If I was watching that from afar I would be captivated, and a little anxious. And it is that feeling of interpreting what you are watching and not hearing that I find so thrilling.

But this doesn’t mean that everything is about a mysterious narrative. So long as the viewer believes that what they are watching is realistic – or at least consistent – you can explore an extraordinary world of subtle and outlandish behaviour.

Jacques Tati is probably the greatest exponent of this style of film-making. His use of “anonymous” behaviour is fascinating. He often uses a character that is a “watcher of the action”. In Jour de Fete there is an artist and an old lady. In Les Vacances de M. Hulot many of the characters watch each other. And it interesting to read that in French art, there is a well known character called “le flâneur” – someone who spends his time drifting around people watching.

There is a great example of Tati’s vision from 30 seconds:

The exclusion of words has a long tradition, particularly in France where the use of words was banned in theatre unless specifically licenced. This resulted in the French traditions of mime and pantomime. such as the manifesto of French physical performer Étienne Decroux in which he suggested that words be banned from theatre completely for a few years so that actors could learn to use their bodies effectively.

My exclusion of words is not about artistic  resistance training! It is about accessing an unusual experience of interpreting what you are watching and a freedom to vocalise as an audience.

Am I being too fussy?! Or do you get a unique experience from watching non-verbal comedy?

Please let me know what you think!

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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

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.)

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

The New Slapstick Film NOW AVAILABLE!

Things have been manic getting the first New Slapstick films through post-production.

We are so pleased with the results. And here’s a sneak peek…

You can download each episode for just £1.99

Or, if you’re in the UK,you can get the luxuriously packaged DVD! (A perfect stocking filler!)

While the proper website is being created, here are the links for downloading:

EPISODE 1: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/KX9uMb

EPISODE 2: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/OGMWN7

EPISODE 3: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/jqOIgv

EPISODE 4 (Christmas): http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/T9FGep

I hope you enjoy them! Please let me know what you think.

 

Thanks for all your support over the year.

Chris

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

How to Get a Laugh

Here’s is a really simple way to get a laugh in almost any scenario… on stage, film or animation.

I am going to call this technique a “transition”.

So how does it work? There are 3 simple stages.

Part 1: Be Emotional!

Reacting to something with a clear emotion will really help a gag work.

Watch how Friends actors Courtney Cox and Matthew Perry get big laughs from their intense panic.

For TV, Cox and Perry clearly emphasise the emotion with their faces.

For stage work, use your whole body to physicalise the emotion.

eg.   being embarrassed could mean looking at the floor with your feet turned inwards

being terrified might mean hopping from foot to foot very fast

be revolted might mean trying not to wretch!

Part 2: The Transition or “Change of Emotion”

“Transition” is the term I use for a physical and emotional change.

It works by having a completely different emotion before your emotional reaction at the laugh point.

The trick is to anticipate the emotion you’re going to use for your reaction – and then setting yourself up for a really strong change by having a very different emotion before the reaction.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t!

About 10 secs into this clip, David Schwimmer does a wonderful change from resigned to angry :

Using the examples above…

you could be confident before you become embarrassed when you drop something

you might be enchanted before you become terrified when you see a cuddly toy

you could be excited before you become revolted when you look inside a box

For stage work you should again have a completely different physicality before your physical reaction at the laugh point. The more different your body shape before the reaction, the easier it is for the audience to see the change. Emotions with different speeds are perfect (eg enchanted is slow, terrified is fast).

Look at the wonderful Cirque du Soleil actor in yellow physicalise his transitions perfectly. (Thanks To Jonathan Lyons at comedyforanimators.com for this link.)

So, to conclude, using the examples above again…

– You start slow and confident, with hands on hips, chin up, chest out.

You drop something.

You suddenly become embarrassed and look at the floor, with your feet turned in.

– You start enchanted, floating around dreamily.

You see a cuddly toy.

You suddenly become terrified hopping from foot to foot very fast.

– You start excited, quickly rubbing you hands together, grinning wildly.

You look inside a box.

You suddenly freeze in revulsion and slowly try to hold back a wretch.

Part 3: Sharpness

The sharper and more defined the transition, the better the gag.

Overall

The key to nailing a transition is clear, strong emotion, contrast, and sharpness.
That’s it! Try it and have fun!
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