Thursday, June 21, 2007

Kitty Kornered 2, Clampett's Magic

In this seemingly simple throwaway scene a huge quantity of skills, disciplines and planning are working together to make these crazy jokes clear and funny.

These are highly sophisticated thinkers and artists who made this stuff fly so brilliantly.

It's the kind of humor that couldn't be written and couldn't even be drawn by people who didn't already have a ton of knowledge and experience. And talent.
Design and Function:
The background is tilted, but not "wonky"

Everything is tilted in the same direction. It's done partly to look good, but the tilt is also designed to help the action.
Great Cutting:
This cut is really abrupt. It's a different angle of the door, more severe in its perspective than the last.

The extreme angle and scale makes the urgency of the little cat's need to escape even more dramatic.

All these creative decisions are not arbitrary. Yeah they look good as individual images, but they are also designed to make the sequence more dramatic and important.
Scale: The huge door and the immense space between the kitten and the doorknob help make the kitten look even smaller and cuter.

All that space also gives the cat more room to stretch his arm up and yank down the keyhole.

If it was less space, yet the same amount of frames for the action, the animation would appear slower and less urgent.
Cutness and Appeal: This cat is a caricature of cuteness. Girls, do you like him? Do you want to play with him and squeeze him?
The kitten anticipates the action by moving away from it. That creates even more space for his reach.

Anticipation to yank hole:
The kitten's body slides up a bit on his rubber arm as if the tension in the stretch is pulling him up.

This creates more tension for him to yank the hole down.
and what a yank! So slippery
The drawings "slow out" creating a feeling of resistance by the hole at first, and then it lets go and slides down to accept the kitty willingly.

Beauty in every frame:

Half the decisions in every frame are functional: to tell the story, make the actions read, separate one action from the next, set up an action or a joke, etc.

The other half of the decisions are to make each of those functional drawings look great and fun and cartoony.

This is the greatest kind of design for me. Design that is functional and beautiful at the same time.

On top of those 2 elements of design, add cartooniness and wackiness and you get perfect cartoon animation.
Motion Design:
Run back the animation and watch how slippery that hole animation is as he yanks it down. It looks great in its motion, as well as in individual drawings.

This is a concept that UPA eliminated from cartoons. Motion design. The animation in UPA cartoons is mostly perfunctory and they are even proud of it.

Look how beautiful and rude that drawing is!


Original animation ideas:
Look at the funny way this cat flaps his feet-another great throwaway gag that adds color and personality to the sequence.

All the Classic Animation Principles:

Clampett uses all the strong principles of animation - as did most animators in the 1940s.
Many other cartoons of the time were content to just have smooth motion, squash and stretch, construction and the rest and they used these tools to basically get the characters from here to there without jerky motions and to tell the story or put over the gags. That was enough.

Animation Principles Are Your Creative Tools

Clampett used the principles as not only tools, but as brush tips to paint art with. His antics are funny, his inbetweens are funny, his lines of action are designs themselves.

Every tool was a potential artistic element.

Clear Gag Setup Using Timing and Staging:

The cat pauses right in front of the keyhole for just a few frames-just long enough to make you think he's gonna jump right through it, but not long enough for you to figure out that there's another joke coming.

Great Cut and Accent:

right in the middle of the action Clampett changes the background to the more extreme angle of the door.

This gives the crash way more impact than if he had done the logical thing and used the same background.

Wrinkles and Lumps: Clampett knows the vocabulary of cartooning: teeth, tongues, veins, wrinkles and lumps.

All this thought, planning, skill and work just for a throwaway gag

Clampett is a man who loves ideas and originality and excitement. He stuffs his cartoons with as many ideas and great drawings, jokes, acting and anything he can, all with the strict purpose of wowing us.

Some people think we need a "higher purpose" than making people feel good:

"Emotional value". For who, robots? Not in a million years did I ever expect someone to describe UPA cartoons as "emotional".

Unlike some entertainers, Clampett doesn't need an excuse or justification to entertain. He is a natural born ham. A highly gifted ham. A ham of the most original, unique quality and most extravagant proportions.

When this rare type of person is put on our earth for too few decades, we should be truly thankful and supportive of his ability to show off his genius and make us laugh and excite us.

The last thing we should do is to write rules for him and restrict his natural gifts, even after the fact. We should not hold him to the arbitrary limiting standards and restrictions of less adventurous folk. Yet so many do. This is the world's greatest mystery to me.

Nothing in Clampett cartoons is just a plot device to get you from this idea to the next. He doesn't hold a clever expression forever to make sure you notice how clever he is. He doesn't leave a striking design on the screen forever with nothing happening in the frame. Every frame of film is potential entertainment and a canvas to slap entertainment on.

He's there to impress and wow the audience. He is totally confident in his charisma as an entertainer and doesn't need to hold your hand and make you stare at each individual idea to cherish it.

I've met a few cartoon critics and historians who admit under their breaths to me that they like Clampett's cartoons more than any of the other great directors but aren't sure why and even feel guilty about it! Maybe it's because they don't have a vocabulary to describe truly creative ideas. Artistic instances cannot easily be described in words. Describe a color on a Frazetta painting. You can't. You can only look and say "Wow!"

Since most people who write about classic cartoons aren't animators, cartoonists or even artists, they try to write about them in terms that relate to other, more familiar mediums-like live action, plot, acting, etc. These are all terms that people are familiar with even though they don't have clear and distinct meanings.

I've even seen some cartoonists paraphrase limiting cartoon philosophies and legends spread by non-cartoonists who write about cartoons. That's quite extraordinary too. If it's in a book, it must be true! Never mind watching the films to see for yourself!

Terms like "plot structure" "depth of character" denote something serious, something important and something you can respectfully write about, even if you yourself are not an actor or director or anyone who can physically do anything obviously amazing or recognize it when it actually happens.

They like to write about mundane things like the message of the cartoon, or the plot structure. Here look:

"In contrast to the work of his contemporary, colleague, and sometimes “adversary”, Chuck Jones, Clampett was often less successful in integrating the “classical” requirements of narrative and style into his work."

What the heck are "the classical requirements of narrative style"? He doesn't bother to define it. Just take his word for it that Clampett somehow is missing something important. The Jones cartoons that people usually use to qualify his whole style when they tout him as refined and superior really are only about 5 or 6 cartoons out of hundreds. Does the Roadrunner or Pepe Le Pew have these classical requirements?

I know tons of novels and short stories that don't that are none the less considered "classics". Jones is great, but for artistic reasons, not reasons of plot structure or "narrative".

That mystifying statement came from someone who actually likes Clampett's work but can't bring himself to just come out and say it. He has to qualify it by comparing it to some mundane vague concepts that have nothing to do with superhuman entertainment skill and ability.

Some abilities and talents are just plain amazing and entertaining in of themselves. Everything in life does not have to have a mathematical plot structure and be judged by it.

When my friends and I go to lunch and we start sketching on napkins, everyone comes running over to see the drawings and to ask us for them-without even knowing who we are. A professional cartoon drawing is an obviously amazing thing and not very many people on the planet can do them. And normal people are suitably impressed. Just as they would be by somebody who can sing on key.

I've never yet seen people in public run up to a cartoon writer and ask them to write something funny for them. "Excuse me sir, could you write a funny description of my kids?"

So it's always been strange to me, that so few cartoon historians-folks who obviously love old cartoons, can't just come out and write about the obvious joys of the cartoons-the entertaining parts. Entertainment and phenomenal performance ability is too low brow to write about I guess.

Many animation critics need to find some kind of justification for cartoon entertainment before they can write something positive about a cartoon.

Just being awe-inspiring isn't enough.

Having made many cartoons, I know all the elements that go into them and am even more impressed by how many ways there are to entertain. I have an actual experience of what makes something work and sometimes what doesn't. I've tried things and then witnessed the result with audiences. Things I thought were rotten sometimes became very popular and the other way around.

That's why I like so many different styles and why I can find useful things in all kinds of art, entertainment and cartoons that may go unnoticed by folks who usually write about cartoons.

I find many useful and fun things in Terrytoons, Van Beuren and even in UPA or Disney once in a while... If I hunt hard enough.

Obviously Tex Avery and Chuck Jones have much more consistently successful cartoons than some others so you don't have to hunt very far to find great stuff in their films.

In Clampett's cartoons I don't have to hunt at all. They are packed solid with great drawings, animation, music, ideas, stories and more. I can watch the same cartoon fifty times and still find stuff I missed before.

This one scene that took me two posts to show you is packed with skill and craft and entertainment. It doesn't further the plot any more than just having them run out the door would have. Should Clampett have thrown out the scene?

Clampett is not a stingy entertainer. Ideas that might seem big for other cartoons or studios are thrown away all the time in Clampett's cartoons.

What a powerful personality he must have had to resist the Disney wave of influence that swept over the whole cartoon business in the 1930s. Everyone else was suppressing their natural tendencies to draw cartoon magic in favor of cutesy pie, sentimental Republican blandness - just because that was Walt's taste. Clampett stuck to his instincts and carried on the imaginative ways of the early cartoons but he took advantage of the great skills that were being developed in the 30s and then added his own great sense of personality, character and weirdness.

The development of cartoons.

1) There are comic strips and still cartoons. That was a great invention.

2) Animated cartoons added to that invention by making cartoon drawings move. That process opened up whole new ways to draw and tell stories that could not have been done in still cartoons. 2 dimensions became 3 dimensions.

Just one example-it forced animators to draw mouths in the shapes that mouths make in order to speak. Still cartoons hardly ever even open their mouths to speak, let alone form specific vowel shapes.

3) Then there is the Clampett cartoon. This caricature of cartoons did to animated cartoons what animation did to still cartoons. Clampett's vision and unafraid personality brought cartoons into another dimension of ultra reality. The 4th dimension.

Why we have abandoned all these limitless opportunities for invention that Clampett opened the door to?

We don't have to imitate his style to be inspired to be creative and fun all the time.

Appendix: from Amid's swell book, Cartoon ModernCartoon Modern is a great book that I highly recommend, and I wish someone would make a similar book praising the values of cartoony cartoons some day.

By the way, that hop cycle they are talking about was done in an early Clampett cartoon. A bunch of baby ducks are following their mother to water and they have fully animated double bounce walk cycles but every 4th step, one of them hops in the air.

The difference between this animation 10 years earlier and the Gerald McBoingBoing animation is that in the Clampett cartoon, it's funny. But that's low brow so not worthy of serious discussion!