Category Archives: Film/Book Analysis

Pantomime

Harold Lloyd, seen in his 1923 B/W classic “Safety Last” was a master pantomime actor/director who thrilled his audiences with his story scenarios and mind-blowing stunts (no green screen technology!)

“I’m a big fan of pantomime storytelling, being an animator.” — John Lasseter

Pantomime — the art or technique of conveying emotions, actions, and feelings by gestures without speech— is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in human history. For thousands of years, it has helped tell stories, build our imagination and make us laugh. It has made its home in family rooms and on Shakespearean stages. It has graced film and television since their inception. It’s the quintessence of visual storytelling.

“Pantomime is a big thing in the cultural calendar of my country…” — Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming (seen here with the late Natasha Richardson on the set of Cabaret) is an extraordinarily talented actor/singer/writer whose physical performances make him the star of any show or scene he’s in.

Unfortunately, with the dominance of quick access information, flashy action and snappy punchlines in entertainment today, this craft has lost a bit of its glamor and respect. Except on Broadway stages or standup comedy acts, directors and performers, both in live action and animation, are favoring stiffer choices complemented by dialogue heavy exposition and more extensive camera work (i.e. highly convoluted and often overlong action sequences). Times and tastes may have changed, but wordless performance still has its place in the craft of fine acting and storytelling. In fact, the best acting is often between the lines. Physical action, which constitutes both pose and movement, can sometimes convey ideas and emotions with even greater clarity and poignancy than any dialogue or close up shot. It would be a shame for any performer not to study the power of gesture.

Containing less than 1000 words of dialogue, Walt Disney’s iconic film “Bambi” is one of the quietest films in history. It’d be hard pressed for any modern day studio to create or even allow for the creation of a film told primarily through imagery, music and action, the original bread and butter of not just animated films but of all films.

To me, pantomime is a beautiful yet phenomenally difficult craft to learn; it requires very specific training and endless preparation. Not unlike animation, extensive exploration into character creation and intense imagination is required, as is patience, both on the part of the creators and the audience. It’s a form of acting that delivers ideas in a way that is both timeless and universal, a wordless language that represents 100,000 years of humanity in the making. It’s an illusion of life told through time, shape and space, and nothing else.

The following limited selection is my small tribute to the magical possibilities of pantomime in film:

Rowan Atkinson is perhaps the finest pantomime actor working today. Originally designed to help him fine tune and explore the depths of acting, his creation “Mr. Bean” has become a worldwide sensation. Watch carefully how he always firmly establishes his character of “Bean” prior to any action or interaction with his environment. Story action and character formation are deeply intertwined and Atkinson, who sports one of the highest IQ’s in Hollywood (178), knows that that’s how we build interest. Executed with superb timing, gesture and clarity, Atkinson’s Bean is always fabulously entertaining.

The best and most iconic of comic pantomimes is Charlie Chaplin.  In “Modern Times” Chaplin creates a masterpiece of comedy and pathos as well as a prescient commentary of the social malaise caused by Taylorism — the economic theory of industrial production and practice that dominates the workplace to this very day. Chaplin’s little Tramp is so carefully constructed from his “stache” down to the flaps of his oversized shoes, that just one look at him tells us who he’s supposed to represent — namely us, the little people. But it’s the Tramp’s never-say-die spirit, inventive adaptability and relentless sense of hope that makes him so likeable and his antics so funny. Despite the fact that his creation is over 100 years old now, Chaplin’s pantomimes are perfectly written, staged and acted and should continue to be studied by actors and animators today.

When people think of pantomime, they usually think only of comedy or full-bodied, high-action performance. Al Pacino may be known predominantly for some of the loudest and most powerful screen characters, but here in Mike Newell’s excellent film “Donnie Brasco” he delivers a most sincere and sophisticated performance. In this last scene from the movie, both the events that are to unfold and the deep feelings inside the character are told with action — highly subdued action. In my humble opinion, Pacino’s portrayal of the aging Lefty, a respectfully loyal but out-of-luck gangster is one of the best and most underrated performances of his career.

In Wong Kar-Wei’s visually sumptuous masterpiece “In The Mood For Love” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his contribution) deliver some of the most beautiful silent performances ever to grace the screen.  The story is one told with minimal dialogue, elegant framing and the most subtle of gestures and glances. Perfectly supported by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and Shigeru Umebayashi’s hypnotic score, the film is achingly beautiful in theme,  movement and performance. It’s one of my favorite films of all time.

A great tribute to the silent era, The Artist (2011) is a tastefully clever and heartwarming story of love and destiny. Starring Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller and the ever-charming Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the movie displays all the joys and wonders of what silent acting can do to enchant the minds and hearts of viewers, even today.

“I like actors that are good with pantomime and that can transmit a lot by their presence and attitude more than through their dialogue.” — Guillermo del Toro

Shot Analysis: A Jungle Book Sequence Part 4

We continue our Jungle Book analysis of Baloo’s meeting with Mowlgi. To see the previous scene breakdowns, go to Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Scene 10: A lesson in Rhythm and Weight Transfer

I love this scene by Frank Thomas. It’s got everything that makes animation so unique and appealing. Frank begins the shot with a wonderful moment of anticipation; Baloo’s body is curved and bent over as he build’s himself up before the action. Despite the twinned action, it feels natural and appropriate as his body does as much of the talking as his words do:

As he pops into action, you can feel both the weight and energy transfer elegantly from one hip to the other as the head weaves and guides the action, all in perfect application of the lead and follow principle. Watch the flow of change in the overall shapes as we view this in slow-motion:

I especially love the play with the hands where Baloo circulates them in tight loops, winding himself up and building energy as he hops up and down boxer-like before opening up and outwards into broader action. Notice the extension of the arm in between the circular movements and that wide opening gesture which lends great texture and variety to the overall scene, as can be seen here as we focus specifically on his paws:

scene 11: A lesson in story-telling poses

This section with Mowgli is perhaps the most entertaining bit of this sequence because it’s got so much character. And it’s told primarily with a fantastic selection poses — poses that tell you everything about the state of the man-cub. Enthusiastic and not to be outdone, he’s jumping up and down like popcorn in a kettle, all the while holding on to that serious face and displaying overdone athleticism. It’s so perfectly like a little boy wanting to be a man (or a big bear in this case) before he’s ready. The poses are playful, dynamic and show great compression and expansion (hint: look carefully at the relationships between the solids and flexibles in the body) — all the while maintaining a consistent character attitude as evidenced by the hunched shoulders and determined expression:

Scene 12: A lesson in Framing and Choreography

In this scene, we pull back out to a long shot to get a full sense of the relative position of the two characters. The size differential is important here, as you can see Mowgli “framed” under the arm of Baloo.

As the big bear circles around, you get a great sense of grounding the scene to its environment. The characters shift back and forth, side to side and across the frame. Watch how Baloo dictates the direction of movement as he pushes into the boy before circling around him. This gives dimension to the shot as Mowgli is forced to back up and adjust his footing away from the bear and the two end up overlapping each other in 2D space. At the end you’ll notice that the characters have switched sides in the frame, setting things up perfectly for the shot to come.

Stay tuned for Part 5, as we conclude our analysis of this excellent animated sequence by Frank and Ollie.

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 3

We continue our analysis of The Jungle Book meeting between Baloo and Mowgli in scenes 6-9 of the sequence.

Scene 6: A lesson in phrasing of action

When we think of Frank Thomas’ work, we’re always talking about personality. His animations always seem to make the best choices when it comes to characters expressing the truth of who they are. It looks instinctive, but unlike his partner Ollie Johnston, Frank’s work consists of more extensively planned construction. The rough and scratchy nature of his rough animation drawings are a testament to his dutiful exploration for form, feeling and movement:

Having studied Frank’s work for many years, I’ve always noticed how tricky it was to find exactly where all his keys were given that his work progresses so wonderfully — things move sequentially yet overlap beautifully in phrases and layers of action. Take for instance the paths and timing of the limbs here:

Everything is beautifully balanced, the acting is nuanced and everything feels real and convincing. All this, while each body part, such as each limb seen above, moves in perfect time and order. Great work always looks easy and seamless. It takes great care and attention just to appreciate the effort involved, never mind actually doing it. Great artists follow all the phases of creative work with complete professionalism.

Scene 6 -9: A lesson in Choice of Action and Contrast

The following moments are some of the most perfectly executed expressions of the characters. Baloo, in his age-old wisdom and steady demeanor contrast greatly with the youthful and irritated Mowgli.

In this “fight” that Mowgli attempts to start, we see an immobile Baloo, clearly impervious to the wild and frenzied efforts of the man-cub to hurt him. The choice of poses and action deliver that reality with crystal clarity and with comic effect:

The futility of Mowgli’s action is further emphasized by Baloo’s reaction, which is, at first, surprise (at the launched offensive in the first place especially considering it’s by someone so much smaller), followed by bemusement (his little chuckle during the flurry of kicks and punches), then ending with judgement/assessment:

But Mowgli’s sorry state of affairs doesn’t keep Baloo down for long. In fact, it motivates him — which takes some doing considering we’re talking about a very lackadaisical and easy going bear — as he springs into an philanthropic action. The poses Frank uses to express the sudden assertiveness, while still showing Mowgli’s defiance are both powerful and clear. Geometric stability contrasts with circular action, just as the large bear contrasts with the small child:

Notice the wonderful display of control and weight transfer here:

We finish with the perfect expression that’s reflective of the events that have just occurred and yet consistent with the character’s personality (still defiant, but now listening):

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our analysis.

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 2

As a continuation of our analysis of The Jungle Book, we now look at scenes 4 and 5 from the first meeting of Mowgli and Baloo.

Scene #4:  A lesson in creativity and contrast

Seen at 50% speed we can see both the poses and movement with greater clarity. Here, the consistency of his physical mannerisms aligns with that seen in the earlier shots of Baloo, allowing Ollie to emphasize the easy going charm of his character. The familiar yet creative use of squash and stretch of the nose gives him the pliability that is visually enjoyable to witness.

Notice the wonderful change of shapes and gestures here, as he first moves up to “absorb” the irritation caused by Mowgli’s swipe, followed by a wonderful pattern of distortion and wiggling of the nose as he moves into position:

After he says “boy”, he goes into a playful antic before expanding outwards with a two-handed clap which he coils back into a position of control that emphasizes his comical bewilderment of the entire situation. Here, with his hands clasped together and head leaned back, the unified pose is reminiscent of an elder or professor in the joyful discovery of an opportunity to pontificate and share with his younger audience. The execution is both imaginative and empathetic .

At the end of this shot, Ollie’s choice to “shake him up” gives the overall scene a contrasting end, as Baloo tries to switch out of his bewildered state, yet is still caught in amazement as noted by the zombie-like expression as he mechanically transitions his attention back to Mowgli and back to reality. The choice of action is marvelously creative and unique:

Scene #5: A lesson in acting and overlap

Now, we begin our transition to the work of the marvelous Frank Thomas. In this shot, Thomas’ turns our attention towards Mowgli who in turn sways his attention away from Baloo and towards himself. The “child-likeness” captured here is spot-on — the feeling of being observed and judged and subsequently expressing displeasure from the experience is something we’ve all been through.

We start off with a brilliant pose typical of a child’s bored look after hearing an “authority” figure lecture.

Notice the wonderful path of action of the head as it leads the action, reflecting his bored attitude as he physically turns away. The clear Lead and Follow action and subsequent overlapping action give the movement depth, clarity and weight.

After a quick dart of the eyes, we see the snapping action of his head in an assured display of repudiation.

The ending pose is one that is closed off and reserved — a man-cub determined to be left alone to his own isolated misery. The combined body language and facial expression confirms the sadness Mowgli feels and lends sympathy to his character (which prompts the enthusiastic action from the big bear in the following shot).

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 1

The first 3 shots of this 16 scene sequence where Baloo and Mowgli meet for the first time in Walt Disney’s 1967 classic, The Jungle Book.

Let’s begin our 5 Part analysis of Frank Thomas’ and Ollie Johnston’s marvelous work in this portion of The Jungle Book:

Scene 1: A Lesson in broken rhythm and natural action.

I love the unplanned feeling of this shot even though it’s clearly well-designed in terms of layout, camera move and action choreography. Notice how he comes into screen with a beautiful line of action that helps “open up” the layout and action:

Throughout this shot Baloo moves from screen right to left, but does so in an uninhibited fashion — moving forward, then back and changing his gait and gestures as he flows with the musical tempo inside his head. You get a sense of a character totally “gone” in his own mind, living completely present, happy and harmoniously allowing his body to “do its thing.”

Ollie’s work (at least it looks like it’s his) is often very intuitive; his characters behave in a far more sincere and natural manner than other animators. It’s not as aesthetically designed as say Milt Kahl’s work but the sacrifice in the visual dominance of the posing actually lends itself more suitably to this kind of shot. That said, it still carries with it it’s own imaginative appeal as can be seen here (with the main key poses highlighted):

When the shot ends, your attention halts and flows along with Baloo’s. It’s as if your discovery of the man-cub aligns with his. (We don’t really notice Mowgli prior to this moment.)

Shot 2: A lesson in simplicity and clarity

This shot, despite being only 3 seconds long, displays remarkable clarity in terms of acting, movement and appeal. It’s deceptively simple and effective — the kind of result all top artists aim for.

Centrally located in frame we know exactly where to look right from the start. The pose has charm, perfect sense of visual weight and a clear sense of having come from somewhere and about to go somewhere else:

Now let’s look at the rhythm There’s great balance in timing here; poses hold and move for just the right amount of time, syncing perfectly with the dialogue — neither head nor body stay locked nor is there continuous movement “all over the place.” Using the nose as a simple marker, we can see the wonderfully clear variation of movement:

The shot ends with a body movement downwards and towards screen right leading us where Baloo eyes have been directing us all along — right at Mowgli’s position. This transitions to the perfectly executed match cut in scene 3.

Scene 3: A lesson in personality animation and texture

I love this shot. It reveals the directness of the character. He’s curious, unafraid and unpretentious. Interested in what’s in front of him, Baloo dives right in Mowgli’s personal space — analyzing, sniffing and commenting openly about the subject before him. You get a sense of a guy (in this case a bear) that you just like because he’s so honest and friendly. This is revealed by the playfulness on display, both in the character’s attitude and the contrasting actions:

Take the wonderful moment when his eyes look as if he’s totally gone, drunken by the aroma of his discovery. This is a character (and animator) having fun.

A marvelous control of tempo is on display; the euphoric moment Baloo experiences for a brief moment followed by his deeper intrusion into Mowgli’s personal space sets up the contrasting action that follows. The slap across the nose may come across as brash and sudden but it beautifully parallels the sniffy nose action earlier — “nosiness” punished (again we’ll track the nose to follow the beats):

Despite the seemingly violent behavior by Mowgli towards a seemingly innocent soul, it’s clear by Baloo’s reaction that he’s neither hurt physically nor offended. He’s more surprised than anything else. It’s an expression of “oooohh” rather than “ouch!”

The scene ends as Baloo retracts from Mowgli and the boy telling him to buzz off. The little guy has some fight in him and is unafraid of a creature much larger than him (at this point he’s clearly never seen a bear before, so he’s also naive about the whole thing). His forward gesture and Baloo’s retreat directs you perfectly towards the next bit of business; scene direction is carefully adhered to here in creating good consistency and continuity:

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our analysis!