Movies
5:18 pm
Wed November 27, 2013

For Top-Flight Animators, The Gag Is An Art All Its Own

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 10:04 am

Watching a living creature slip, stumble, get squashed or just thwack an enemy can be a blast. Because as Charlie Chaplin said: "In the end, everything is a gag."

And in animation, the sky's the limit. Laws of gravity need not apply. In Finding Nemo, a huge pelican swoops through a window into a dentist's office, flapping all over the place and knocking over the instrument table. In Despicable Me, one of Gru's millions of yellow minions cheerfully ping-pongs another who's hooked to the end of a fishing line.

For big studio features, hundreds of people spend their days figuring out how to manufacture this sort of silliness from the ground up. But that's the thing: They're starting from scratch. So where do they go for visual inspiration?

'Become A Fantastic Observer'

Chris Buck, co-director of Disney's latest animated adventure, Frozen, used to teach animation at Cal Arts. He says he'd tell his students to go out into the world and "just become a fantastic observer of people, animals, everything" — how they're built, how they bend, how their bodies move when they trip.

With that grounding, animators can be free to exaggerate, to play fast and loose with cause and effect.

But they always try to make what they're portraying somehow believable — because above all, the best animation conveys emotion.

Likewise, the pros say the best animated gags are the character-driven ones — think of the sequence in Toy Story where the little arcade-game aliens foil Woody's attempt to save Buzz from vicious kid Sid because they worship the all-powerful Claw — because what makes them funny is not just the action, but the reaction too. Walt Disney himself once said that the medium never really hit its stride "until we had more than tricks ... until we developed personalities."

Dean Deblois, who co-directed DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon, says sometimes a really great comic sequence takes a team of animators coming together for a gag session.

"We say, 'Here's the movie, how can we make it 10 percent funnier? What if you did this?' "

Jimmy Hayward, who recently directed Free Birds, learned a valuable lesson when he was just getting started as an animator. One of his first jobs was on Toy Story.

"These toys were actually trying to kill each other," he remembers realizing. "They're like throwing each other out of windows and off moving trucks into the jaws of dogs. I remember thinking, 'Wow, where there's great conflict and great peril, there's great room for comedy.' "

'Well, They Both Like Carrots'

There's certainly some great peril in Frozen. Co-director Jennifer Lee says that for a teaser trailer, filmmakers wanted to find a clever way to introduce the oddly adorable snowman, Olaf, to the goofy-looking reindeer, Sven. So they had a gag session.

"We were having these big philosophical conversations about what do a reindeer and a snowman have in common," she says. "And the thing we just got to is, 'Well, they both like carrots.' "

Think about it: Some of the most respected minds in animation figured out not only that a snowman and a reindeer might both be interested in carrots — one for smelling the flowers with, one for a snack — but that the presence of just one carrot in a scene between them could cause great comic-dramatic tension. The resulting gag became the anchor for that teaser.

The animators had a field day with Olaf. The snowman uses one of his twig arms to catapult himself across the ice. When he falls off a cliff, the snowballs that form his body rearrange themselves in midair.

Olaf is voiced by actor Josh Gad, who says he got a charge out of how animators took full advantage of the fact that Olaf is made of snow.

"What does snow do? It builds on itself," Gad says. "It can melt. There's so many opportunities for this character to add or subtract mass, and I think that became part of the unique comedy in the film."

Gad, who's done live theater, TV sitcoms and feature films, says voicing gags is a unique process.

"There's a page of different sounds that the human body shouldn't make, that they wanted me to do over and over again," he says.

It was, the famously funny Book of Mormon veteran says, "a liberating feeling."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: This is Elizabeth Blair. Let's face it, watching any living creature slip, stumble, get squashed or just thwack its enemy is a blast. In the end, said Charlie Chaplin, everything is a gag. And in animation, sky is the limit. Laws of gravity need not apply.

In "Finding Nemo," a big pelican swoops through a window into a dentist's office, flaps all over the place, knocks over the instrument table.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FINDING NEMO")

BILL HUNTER: (As a dentist) Hold still.

BLAIR: In "Toy Story," the almighty claw in the vending machine descends on the hopeful squeaky toys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As character) The claw.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) The claw is our master.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) The claw chooses who will go and who will stay.

TOM HANKS: (As Woody) This is ludicrous.

BLAIR: From "Despicable Me," one minion ping pongs another minion who's hooked to the end of a fishing line.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOVIE, "DESPICABLE ME")

BLAIR: In the big studio features, there are hundreds of people who spend their days figuring out how to manufacture this silliness from the ground up. So where do they go for inspiration? Chris Buck, co-director of "Frozen," used to teach animation at Cal Arts. He says he would tell his students, go out into the world and observe.

CHRIS BUCK: Just become a fantastic observer of people, animals, everything.

BLAIR: How they're built, how they bend, how their bodies move when they trip and, above all, how they feel. Dean Deblois, who co-directed "How to Train Your Dragon," says sometimes it takes a team of animators coming together for a gag session.

DEAN DEBLOIS: Where we come up with, like, here's the movie. It's working really well. Are there 10 percent more laughs we could get just by, you know, putting a bunch of smart people together and saying, what if we did this?

BLAIR: Jimmy Hayward, who recently directed "Free Birds," learned a valuable lesson when he was just getting started as an animator. One of his first jobs was on "Toy Story."

JIMMY HAYWARD: These toys were trying to actually kill each other. They're like throwing each other out of windows and off moving trucks, into the jaws of dogs. I remember thinking, like, wow, where there's great conflict and great peril, there's great room for comedy.

BLAIR: There is great peril in the new movie "Frozen." Co-director Jennifer Lee says, for a teaser, they wanted to find a clever way to introduce the oddly adorable snowman Olaf to the goofy looking reindeer, Sven. So they had a gag session.

JENNIFER LEE: We were having these big philosophical conversations about what do a reindeer and a snowman have in common. And the thing we just got to is, well, they both like carrots.

BLAIR: So think about it. Some of the most respected minds in animation figured out not only that they both like carrots, but that just one carrot between them would cause great, dramatic tension. When Olaf the snowman sneezes...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROZEN")

JOSH GAD: (As Olaf) Achoo.

BLAIR: ...his carrot-nose flies off and lands in the middle of an ice pond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROZEN")

BLAIR: The reindeer thinks snack, and the scramble for the carrot is on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROZEN")

BLAIR: The animators had a field day with Olaf. The snowman uses one of his twig arms to catapult himself across the ice. When he falls off a cliff, the snowballs that are his body rearrange in mid-air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROZEN")

BLAIR: Olaf is voiced by Josh Gad. He says he was in awe of how the animators took full advantage of the fact that Olaf is made of snow.

GAD: What does snow do? It builds on itself. It can melt. There are so many opportunities for this character to add or subtract mass, and I think that that became such a unique part of the comedy in the film.

BLAIR: And this snowman also dreams of experiencing another season.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROZEN")

GAD: (As Olaf) Oh. I don't know why but I've always loved the idea of summer and sun and all things hot.

SANTINO FONTANA: (As Hans) Really? I'm guessing you don't have much experience with heat.

GAD: (As Olaf) Nope.

BLAIR: Josh Gad has done theater, sitcoms, feature films. Voicing gags, he says, is a unique process.

GAD: There's a page of different sounds that the human body shouldn't make that they wanted me to do over and over again. And so the animators just kind of sit there and - as you're alone in a booth going ooh, oh, ugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROZEN")

BLAIR: Animators say the best gags are character-driven because what makes them funny is not just the action but the reaction. In "Frozen," the sweet Olaf always looks on the bright side, even when he starts to melt. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.