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Well, uh, hmm...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cartoon Rhythm

After the last post, I started thinking about how voice actors must perform appropriate to the characters as they appear on screen. Then I remembered something from John Kricfalusi's blog about animating to a beat. Here's the quote verbatim:

"All classic cartoons were timed to musical rhythms or tempos. That's why they automatically feel good when you watch them. Most modern animation is timed straight ahead and actions fall haphazardly with no definite or structural relationship to each other. They feel jerky and not as fun as old cartoons.

"A real cartoon is like music. It should feel good, no matter what the content or subject matter is about. It should make you bounce to it.

"Genndy Tartakovsky times his cartoons to tempos and so do I. We are among the last holdouts to this tradition."

That got me thinking about the voice over aspect. Today, voice artists record the dialogue, and then animators fit the visuals overtop. This is unlike the cartoons of the thirties (and almost all Japanese cartoons with the exception of Katsuhiro Otomo's work) where the animation is done first and the voice artists record their dialogue overtop. This meant the animators had almost total freedom regarding the rhythm and flow of the animation because they'd never have to fudge around the vocal tracks. Now, if the voice artist has an idea for how a line must be delivered and that idea is completely different from the rhythm that the animation director had in mind, there's a conflict. If an animation director wants to keep an authentic 1930's "bounce" to his cartoon, he'll have to give very specific directions to the voice actor or accept the performance he gets and animate around it.

I like the idea of the voice talent and the animators working closely because the end product is more complete. Since the characters in cartoons are not actors with mind and voice combined, rather a combination of the ideas of the voice actor and the animator, it only makes sense that the two have similar ideas for the performance of the character. This is especially important if an animator wants to retain the traditional animation "bounce" without making it into a parody.

What do I mean by bounce? Well, as Kricfalusi said, "A real cartoon is like music. It should feel good, no matter what the content or subject matter is about. It should make you bounce to it." The characters bounced to the rhythm of the music. To see what he's talking about, watch Bimbo's Initiation, one of the greatest cartoons ever made and practically the defining work of the medium. The characters bounce and sway to the music, giving the characters life and visual interest.

Now, watch this modern take on the concept, an episode of the fantastic Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat from 1995 entitled, Space-Time Twister. This episode was directed by Lynne Nailor, formerly of Spumco and ex-girlfriend of John Kricfalusi. The Spumco influence is everywhere, from the authentic bounce and rhythm to the surreal yet believable cartooniness. It is an excellent piece of art that somehow slipped past the studio heads. Well, didn't slip past for long because later episodes of the series are far more conservative and much less cartoony, and aren't as fun to watch. Space-Time Twister works because it's much like the human imagination: based on reality, but it bends and twists because it's not wholly bound by earthly physics. The later episodes are more "realistic," in terms of the characters having less stretch and squash and no exclamation points jutting from their heads, but they're less beautiful because they abandon their cartooniness. The jokes are more arbitrary, the colors are more haphazard, and the characters are less flexible. Still, I'm glad we have the first season to cherish.

As much as I love Charlie Adler, I'm afraid The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat went downhill in the last season when Charlie Adler took over the voice of Felix from Thom Adcox-Hernandez. It's not Charlie's fault at all, he was in the weakest season of the show. The cartooniness was gone by that point and there wasn't as much for him to work with. Anyway, I'll bet the directors in the first season worked closely with Adcox-Hernandez and the other voice actors to make sure they got that bounce in their voice to match the bouncy imagery. When watching the episode, Now Playing Felix, I conducted along with some of the dialogue and found that the writers had written the dialogue (and the voice actors performed it) with music in mind. They weren't singing, but the words with emphasis came on downbeats, the sentences were more like operatic recitative. This combined with the animation to make something that was very comfortable and very fun. It's not reality, but a shadow of reality. It's based on how we think and feel.

Now, let's look at something that tries the traditional bounce, but fails because the bounce is intended as parody. Parody of the 1930's style is obvious because the bounce is arbitrary and overdone. The dialogue is also in parody, with the voice actors either calling too much attention to the rhythm and thus make the speech stilted, or by imitating the nasal sounding 1930's radio announcer voice. The best example of this I can think of is an episode of Disney's House of Mouse that featured genuine 1930's Disney cartoons. The episode also featured a Mickey Mouse cartoon that was meant to emulate the 1930's style. It fell flat, especially next to the real cartoons that were in the episode. The reason the cartoon failed was it was parody rather than imitation. Lynne Nailor captured the spirit of the old Felix the Cat cartoons even if they weren't exactly like the Otto Messmer shorts of the 1920's. She respected the old style and added her own touches. Disney, however, thinks that the old ways of animating are antiquated and the only reason anyone could enjoy them is to laugh at how primitive they were. Well, Disney is wrong, I'm afraid. There is far more artistry in Otto Messmer's limited animation Felix the Cat shorts from the 1920's than any of Disney's toons. Messmer appealed to our imaginations, whereas Disney tried to make things "realistic." Instead of making cartoons that related to the audience better, he removed everything that makes cartoons fun. He removed the magic.

I wish I had a link for you to this cartoon, but I don't. I tried to find it on Youtube, but it's not there. I even tried finding the name to the episode, but there are no descriptions to any of the shows on Wikipedia, IMDb, or Disney.com. You'll just have to find it yourself. Sorry.

So, in short, we must have respect for the cartoons of yore and take cues from them when we work on a cartoon. Make your voices appealing. Use rhythm. If the animators aren't going to talk to you, try to infuse the dialogue with good rhythm and flow and force them to animate your characters with that same bounce. Better yet, hook up with an animator that does use rhythm and bounce in his toons. I guarantee that even if your cartoon is cancelled after half a season, those cartoons will live on and inspire the next generation of good artists.


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