Friday, January 18, 2008

Tale 2 Kitties - Clampett Film Pacing Structure

I got these model sheets from Kevin Langley's great blog. Thanks Kevin!

Tale Of Two Kitties Is a Practice Cartoon
A Tale Of Two Kitties is a good cartoon to study for directorial techniques and tools of storytelling and control.

It's not as wild and fluid as Clampett's later breakout films. Those are harder to analyze because by then he was so confident in his skills that he shoved them behind his conscious mind and acted on pure instinct, creative inspiration and impulse.

The Stock Looney Tunes Formula
This cartoon is what people today would consider a standard Warner Bros. cartoon plot. It's a chase cartoon, cat and mouse, bird and cat. A lot of people think that's pretty much all Warner Bros. made, but in reality, Clampett made very few of those. His black and white cartoons cover lots of different types of plots and scenarios that are not at all stock 40s chase cartoons. By the 40s, WB cartoons were heading towards formula stories, and Clampett contributed to the stock heckler - chase scenario, and then got bored with it, even though it was hugely successful for the studio.

Everybody made those types of cartoons, and the Warners' animators added the twist of having the character being chased be a heckler. Bugs, Daffy and now Tweety, who is a twist on heckler characters. He's completely helpless physically and doesn't go out of his way to bother the characters who chase him, but can't resist the fun when it offers itself. Cute with a devilish streak.

But none of that is my point.

One of the things that makes Clampett's cartoons feel so different than everyone else's is his sense and control of the film's pacing. His film and pacing structure is the skeleton of the entertainment. The story structure is less important to the experience.

Free Will Or Destiny? - 2 Approaches To Storytelling
A stickler for story structure might want the cats to catch the bird at the end of the cartoon or do something to deserve defeat, I don't know. To Clampett, the attempt, the eagerness and belief of the characters' motivations and the adventure along the way is more important.

This approach values the characters more than an abstract theory of storytelling. A Chuck Jones cartoon feels like the characters are at the mercy of an all powerful controller who pushes them from situation to situation and decides beforehand who is the winner and loser. This is the preordained fate style of direction. No matter how the characters struggle to assert their personalities and motivations, they are doomed to their creator's plans. As if he had a story structure first and then crammed some hapless characters into a prefabricated cage.

Clampett's is the free will approach. He gives the characters personalities and motivations and then uses his skills to take the audience on a tour through an intimate moment in their lives.

The characters aren't puppets controlled by their creator. They act upon their own inner wills and cause whatever mayhem that ensues. The story writes itself out of the characters. The outcome is less predictable, like in reality.

Director Needs both Talent and Tools:
A director is the person who tells the story and creates the experience. He tells you what's important, what to look at and what to feel. This takes a certain type talent and personality, but talent and vision is not enough. He has to learn the skills of storytelling for animation. The animators of the 30s and 40s were a lucky bunch, because they got to do this from the ground floor up. They learned their skills one at a time by practicing them and working with more experienced people. The more cartoons they made, the better they got. The gifted storytellers or directors came out of this logical system and exciting atmosphere of creativity and exploration.

What Tools, Moe?

A good director has many creative tools at his command.





Crew - your most important creative tool

You are only as good as your crew, but on the other hand, a good director can get a lot more out of his crew. He can get them to do things they didn't know they were capable of.

When you first work with new artists, no matter how talented, you have to get used to them, and they to you. You have to find out their strengths and they have to find out your creative limits.

Ever wonder why all-star basketball teams are usually not as successful as established teams that might have only one or 2 stars? It's because they have worked together as a team for awhile under a good coach. They know how to play off each other.

Before Clampett took over Avery's unit, he had a great rhythm going with the younger crew, because they had worked together for years. Now on Tale Of Two Kitties he has inherited the all-star crew and has to figure out how to use them. His first few cartoons have simple stories and you can see Clampett experimenting with techniques and his artists to find out what they will be capable of together.

It's important to keep crews together for a while to see what they can do. In today's shorts programs, it seems they are structured to satisfy the impatience and lack of confidence of executives. They throw together crew after crew, hoping by sheer chance to discover a magical new character and child genius who will pay for the next 10 years of the studio with the accidental discovery of another Sponge Bob.

That way, no one ever gains any experience and the whole system is a crap shoot. It's a system with no control at the top. Toss money at the wind and see if any of it blows back.

Clampett's Pacing Structure

Clampett has the same fundamental storytelling tools that all the directors had. He used them to present crazier, more imaginative ideas than most, but on top of that he excelled in pacing. Pacing is a wider view of timing. It's made up of timing, staging and cutting (and other things). It's how you weave them altogether. He builds them into waves of an accelerating forward momentum.

He uses film structure more than he does story structure. Film and particularly cartoons, have a different goal than words on a page.

Clampett's film pacing seems to have a basic structure.

Lure the audience in with a song or teasing opening.
Establish the characters and their needs.
Explore the needs to get the audience to understand the story and twists and turns to come.
Weave in lots of surprises and twists.
Build up the speed and intensity to a musical climax.
Get out fast and leave the audience gasping.

In Tale Of Two Kitties, he has sub sequences that each use this type of pacing structure. Each sequence is a heightened version of the previous pacing.

Here's a masterful sequence made out of basic Looney Tunes slapstick jokes. The jokes themselves are pretty standard cartoon fare, but the way the scenes build is where the magic happens.
1 Setup Gag with dialogue, acting, simple staging
Here's the setup of the sequence to come. He sets up the characters' feelings and the story with dialogue and physical acting.
The music in the beginning is fill music-no particular melody and the animation is not following it-like post scoring to the action. The acting is typical conservative Bob McKimson. Good, but not trying to draw too much attention to itself-just clearly telling the story.
He also sets up a gag for later. Having Catstello eating an apple serves to add interest to the scene and draw attention to his sadness, but it also prepares you for a later gag.

The staging is very simple, left to right like Hanna Barbera. This is all-purpose cartoon staging, chosen purely on a functional level, for clarity.

2 Catstello Flies upStill simple staging.
Listen to the track. The music starts building to make us start to feel excitement and lead us into the next scene.

3 Tweety Eats Worm"California Here I Come". Clampett likes using actual tunes to time his animation to, rather than animating first and then having the composer force music to fit the action after the fact.
This sounds like an 8 frame beat-fast swinging music...then it slows down just before Tweety grabs the apple to give the grab action a big accent
This is a great way to set up Tweety...with a gag. Tweety doesn't even care that a cat is after him. He just wants a worm.

the action all goes to the music, very light and happy
I like how the scene is not merely a story function. This quick seemingly throwaway gag also serves to give us a glimpse of Tweety's personality.
Look how much this specific expression tells us! He's not just happy. He's evil and he is foreshadowing more mischief to come and inviting us to watch it. Teasing us and keeping us interested.

4 Catstello Realizes he is airborneCartoon animals are always slow to realize they are 1,ooo ft up (as Tiny Tunes loved to inform us).
The reactions are perfectly timed to the structure of the song.

This means that Clampett was working directly with Stalling to plan the timing to the cartoon. It was not post-composed.
These drawings are really solid, yet conservative and symmetric. They do the trick though.

The timing slows a bit to prepare us for the next story point- the falling cat.

05 falling, hit roof, flattenThis is a very strange angle that the cat falls from. It's a trick of perspective.

It looks like we are looking straight up until the roof pans in.

Look at the huge impact!

He completely flattens out before snapping back into a really solid fat little form.

Then he stretches in the opposite direction, a double impact.
slides off slow....

another trick of perspective, as now we are looking down on the barn.
This scene had to planned well with the layout artist, and then with the animator (McKimson) to make it work so well.
You can really feel the tension on this wire.

Everything has slowed down for a bit and it gives us a strange unsettling feeling of foreboding.

6 PiggiesThis scene depends on really solid drawing and great animation timing.
Light happy music as in skips the demon fetus...
I like how uninterested Tweety is as he plays havoc with another creature's tenuous life.
This McKimson animation is incredible. It has such a feeling of reality. You can really feel all the tension in that rope.

The timing and drawing of Tweety prying these heavy tense fingers off the rope makes the gag funny and truly precarious at the same time.
You couldn't get this feeling using today's flat simplistic drawings and formula timing tricks. This is customized to the action and gag.

Even the vibration after the cat falls is incredibly timed and spaced. Extremely expert.

Clampett loved to give his characters specific and human expressions. This expression is particularly pointed to by the contrast of the baby talk happening before it.

7 more fallingCrazy straight ahead flailing...

8 Up Angle toss ropeNow back to musical timing on an 8 frame beat.
I love this angle! Clampett chose his angle shots carefully. He used them to punctuate certain moments in his continuity. Most of the shots so far have been simple, left-right or straight on angles-like Hanna Barbera. That is the easiest kind of staging to use to tell a story clearly.
Some folks think that using clear staging is cheating, precisely because it is too easy. You see lots of Saturday Morning cartoon storyboards calling for a new difficult and awkward angle in every scene so that the execs will think they are getting their money's worth. Really all they are getting is harder work for the animators and a loss of clarity in the continuity.
Angles are good for when only a certain angle will make the story point, or when it adds emphasis to a sequence of shots. Here, Clampett could have used a left right shot of Tweety tossing a rope over the edge of the roof and that would have told the story clearly. Instead he chose to give us some precarious tension. This angle shows us how high up the roof is and makes it seem as if Tweety is throwing us the rope. That makes us feel empathy for the cat who is falling because it puts us in his position.
This made it harder for the animator to draw, but he has the skill to pull it off and it adds weirdness and tension to what's happening to the story. It gives it a dimension of reality, even though what's happening is completely ridiculous.

9 more fallingThe music and frantic animation is picking up the pace of the sequence.

A short reprieve in the tension to prepare us for the next gag.

The music quiets down a bit to create a pause in order to emphasize the next story point

10 Throbbinng AnvilThis scene kills me. The way this anvil is animated is inspired. It's not just an anvil sliding down the roof. The anvil is part of the music. It pulsates to the driving music, but does it in a way to suggest real weight and resistance. It builds up weight to the music and pacing of the scene.

It's only 4 16x beats

11 more climbYou can feel exactly when the anvil slips off the roof (even though it actually hasn't yet)
because his hand over hand climbing speeds up at the end of the scene
First he pulls to the beat of the anvil throbbing on the roof, then double speed

12 Anvil 2
More genius animation of a throbbing and slippery anvil

It slows down at the edge of the roof just before it

...wriggles off...
This could have been animated completely normal or "straight" and would have clearly told the gag, but would not have had the thrilling tension and cartoony reality and urgency that this animation gave it

the animation is combined with the building tension in the brilliant music

This is no accident of elements. It's Clampett coordinating the work of supermen.

Now the pace turns to superspeed for the climax


15 Climax
Clampett anticipates the crash to come by first showing the shadow of the cat, then the cat and then the anvil

Of course just having the anvil hit is not enough for Clampett. He has to top it

after this is the wind down of the sequence, which has it's own weird gags and punctuation itself.
and a completely different pace.