Thursday, December 27, 2007

Clampett Structure - Clever and Entertaining Setups Tale Of Two Kitties

Clampett and Film/Story Structure
Clampett has a reputation of being wild and anarchic (thanks mostly to Chuck Jones telling everyone that) but in reality, his films are extremely well structured and tightly controlled.

All storytellers have to find ways to balance storytelling devices with entertainment. You have to tell your audience what your story is about at some point and this requires a setup. Setups can be boring or expositional as the writer or director explains to the audience through words what they are supposed to expect from the story.

Exposition to Setup the Story
Tex Avery usually spends a minute or 2 having a character explain what the story is about before the actual entertainment starts, "Whatever you do, don't make a noise, not one little sound!" and then we know that there will be a succession of gags around someone trying not to make a noise.

Entertaining Setups

Clampett's setups are very clever..."clever" is a word you usually associate with Chuck Jones, but Clampett's clever is different. Jones wants you to notice that what he just did is clever and he will point to the clever bit in some way (a character will glance at the audience and pause, to let you know to appreciate it)

Clampett doesn't care if you know what he did was clever. Cleverness is just one of many storytelling tools he uses to entertain you with. He's so confident in his power to entertain that he just throws tons of ideas at the screen and doesn't worry if you miss some or just feel them.

This cartoon is a masterpiece of entertainment, acting, story and film structure, crazy ideas and cartooniness. And cleverness.

It's structure is multi-leveled.

This post covers the setups. Clampett has to setup the story and character relationships but doesn't want to rely merely on exposition. He does it in 20 seconds, and you don't even see the characters for most of that time.

The very first thing we hear is "Hey Babbit!" but we don't see the character. The audience already knows this will be an animated incarnation of Abbot and Costello, but Clampett teases us by not showing them. Instead he shows a fence and we hear the violence happening behind it as we see loose boards slamming and garbage flying up in the air as Babbitt smacks Catstello around.

(BTW, a modern audience doesn't know who Abbot and Costello are and this cartoon structure still works. )

This is a really clever and indirect way to establish the characters and it builds suspense and curiosity in the audience. We are hooked right away and can't wait to see what's coming."

Set Up Audience Curiosity and Characters
"Hey Babbit! Cut it out! I don't wanna do it!
By the way, this layout of the fence is great. It has a flowing S curve that gives the pan a much more dynamic motion than if the fence was just horizontal and vertical lines.

Setup Story Plot and More About Characters
In the first tight acting scene of the characters we can really see their relationship. Catstello is wimpy and Babbit domineering. It's funny lively acting while they quickly make the story point that they are hungry and Babbit wants Catstello to catch a bird for them.
"You wanna eat, don't you?"
"Well go up and get the bird!"
This funny shot shows how hard it's gonna be for Catstello to get the bird.

Clampett makes us think at first that Catstello is an animal lover and doesn't want to hurt anyone, when in reality he's just scared.
"But I donn't wanna hoit nobody Babbbit..."
"What's the matter fraidy cat, this is only a tiny little bird!"
"You mean only a teensy weensy itsy bitsy tiny defenseless bird?"

This is all Bob McKimson animation. Full animation that deserves the work that went into it. No tricks. No squishy stretchy snapping away from and into poses. It's all done to let you enjoy the characters as characters, not as animated cliches.

Catstello Finds Courage
As soon as Catstello thinks the bird is too tiny to put up a fight, he gets courage. This could have been done with one quick pose and expression, but Clampett gets McKimson to milk the new found bravery with 3 different stages of fun personality animation.

"Let me at 'im!"
"Gangway, I'll moidelize him!"

He turns into a Gorilla in the middle of the bravery scene and hops around. This is a pure Clampett type of idea. Just for fun, but it makes the point.

"Let me at 'im!"

Then he goes into a boxer bit...
Many of the top animation directors have been assigned certain skills and signatures that define them. Because Jones' style and cleverness is so obvious, he gets the title of being the clever stylish guy.

Friz gets the title of musical guy, because his timing is so mechanically to the beat and it's hard to find any more tangible cartoon skill that everyone else isn't much better at - he gets music and timing by default. Tex is the wild crazy guy.

Clampett is all of the above and much more. A lot of his creative tools are behind the scenes working to make the entertainment experience stronger and richer, so they don't get written about by critics much. Because you have to actually get into deeper analysis of his films to see how they work, they are harder to write about. Especially if you don't make cartoons yourself and aren't aware of all the problems you have to solve firsthand.

Compare these acting scenes to later cartoons and see if you don't think 40s character acting in cartoons is more fun that the walking talking and held poses of 50s cartoons.

Much more of Tale Of Two Kitties to come.