I’m still on a rubber hose bent. Come for the cute dancing characters, stay for the irresistible audio-visual groove. I even started experimenting with a rubber hose rig in Blender last night. The resulting 4:30am bedtime was educational in many ways.
I’ve been analysing a couple of Foxy cartoons, specifically the weird little chicken dance he does in both Smile, Darn Ya, Smile and in this cartoon, One More Time (at around 4:40 in). Both dances are on a 12-frame beat and take two beats (24 frames) to loop.
The Smile version is on ones. The hips sway back and forth but there’s also a 6-frame rhythm as they bounce up and down. The head and elbows jiggle with a 6-frame rhythm as well – the swaying side to side is kind of visually syncopated with a little up accent between the beats hitting between the main pulse of the piece.
The One More Time version appears to be animated on what you might call “swung” frames. The elbows are at their upper and lower extremes on twos but transitioning from extreme to extreme on ones, but these six frames of action (two frames up extreme, one frame passing, two frames at down extreme, one frame passing) repeat over and over again. This extra frame of hold time means that the extremes register just that bit more powerfully and the visual rhythm of the piece is accented even more. There’s probably an important lesson there about weighting extreme frames in CG instead of letting the interpolation keep everything moving. (I wonder if professional CG animators think of frames in terms of ones and twos; I suspect this book might have something to say about it.)
I was tracing over the motions in Blender using spheres to match the position, then cleaning up the curves afterwards. The swung frame version looked crappy with the usual keyframe interpolation switched on – Bezier looked even worse than Linear; only Constant keys looked right.
So, back to thinking in terms of musical lengths again – 12 frame quarter notes mean 6 frame eighth notes and 3 frame sixteenth notes, and triplet-time eighths work out at 4 frames each. Within that 3 frames is the opportunity to hold something for a two then transition away to something else with the remaining frame.
I’m still not really any closer to building a rubber hose character rig yet, let alone animating a short with all this newfound knowledge, but this stuff is useful to know all the same.
Tonight’s short under the microscope was the Bugs and Elmer short The Wacky Wabbit, a 1942 cartoon (complete with war bonds ad) by Bob Clampett. I sat down and wrote out 291 short descriptions of what was going on on-screen at any given time, trying to summarise the cartoon from action to action.
What awes me is that the summary notes make me laugh. Even dissected on a table like a pinned rat, this material is still funny. Pretty amazing. I hope I can write something that funny one day.
Again, spoilers follow. Watch it first.
Plotwise, there’s not much to write about – Elmer is introduced as a gold-seeking, ill-tempered buffoon and Bugs is introduced as a cocky, nonchalant troublemaker. It should be noted that this is a Bob Clampett’s cartoon, so Bugs doesn’t need Elmer to cross him before he starts making mischief. Bob’s Bugs is happy to just entertain himself at the expense of fools. (Buckaroo Bunny is a more extreme example where Bugs is an actual outlaw.) You might also not recognise Elmer because they were trialling a different model of him.
So. The analysis.
Like Bad Luck Blackie yesterday, I spotted riffs in this. There’s a character riff set up early on with Elmer where he’ll see something, realise what it is, then respond – except very slowly. Sometimes between seeing and realising, he’ll act completely incongruously with how you’d expect someone to act under the circumstances, which makes the ensuing overreaction (either anger or terror) even funnier.
There’s also progressive escalation – Bugs starts out pretty cocky but he just gets sillier and sillier – by the end of the short he’s dancing and singing to himself, completely secure in the knowledge he’s got Elmer licked – until, in a twist of events, he hasn’t. Elmer’s stupidity by contrast stays about constant.
Bad Luck Blackie more or less winds up its premise and sets it going at a rapid-fire pace; Wacky Wabbit works with longer cycles of set-ups, anticipations and pay-offs. It’s more patient. It milks the audience’s anticipation much more because its main comedy hook is a dim-witted character, and dimwits by their nature take their time to pay off. There is another instance of a rhythm being established, then being played over and over again, faster and faster, until it stops midway through – only to be concluded after a pause. (That would be the scene with the dynamite, where Bugs himself supplies the BLAM noise.)
Elmer is sublimely stupid in this short. He politely greets a talking skull as he walks past. He sings a duet with Bugs without realising it until Bugs showboats one last time before disappearing. He braces himself against a spiny cactus while waiting for dynamite to go off. He rips out his own gold tooth at the end of the short and considers his quest for gold a rousing success.
Aside from the characters’ own personalities, the comedy in the short plays off subverted expectations (dynamite goes pffrt), exaggeration (Elmer and Bugs doing gravity-defying wild takes), misplacedness (witness the electric elevator that brings Bugs to the surface), unexpected symmetry (Elmer dives into the ground and Bugs is pushed up out of it), allegory (Elmer diving into a rabbit hole like a swimming pool), sudden surprises (Bugs suddenly snogging Elmer out of nowhere), sarcasm (Bugs says to the audience about Elmer: “Smart boy!”) and general contrariness/absurdity (while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to go off, Bugs puts a finger in the ear furthest from the hand holding the dynamite). Elmer gets humiliated with kissing, having his clothes cut off at a vulnerable moment, being wolf whistled at and other unkind behaviour from Bugs.
It’s got me thinking mostly about what it is that allows a character to be so productively funny. WIth Elmer in this short, his slowness to catch on finds itself in the presence of someone who has no trouble outwitting him. Part of this comes from Elmer’s own personal character riff.
Bugs didn’t seem to have a riff in the analysis – Bugs feels more like a reagent. Some have referred to him as a mischievous pixie. That description seems to work here – at least until he gets the crap beaten out of him. Pixies don’t cop that sort of abuse usually.
Bugs still prevails in the end after all hope seems lost for him, so I guess that makes this a weird cartoon which kind of starts with Elmer and finishes with Bugs – Elmer becomes too aggro to fit the role of the protagonist. In one possible reading, the antagonist and protagonist roles almost switch midway through the story.
Warner Brothers animation fans will know that Elmer’s stupidify became so vexing for Friz Freleng that Yosemite Sam was born to give Bugs a bit more of a challenge – and fair enough too.
Anyway. It’s interesting to see comedic principles at play in different ways between different directors. I’m looking forward to doing more analyses and I hope someone out there is getting something out of them, even though I don’t claim for a second to really know much about what I’m talking about.
“Smile, Darn Ya, Smile” isn’t the very first Merrie Melodies cartoon (that honour belongs to “Sinkin’ In The Bathtub”) but it’s one that I’ve had echoing around in my head a lot lately. Mainly the bass clarinet melody timed to the cow chewing. At least I think it’s a bass clarinet…
A lot of the early WB black-and-whites were pretty much the music videos of their era – Warner Brothers specifically wanted the shorts for promoting their back catalogue so people would buy the sheet music. Into colour and beyond, even as far along as Tiny Toon Adventures, WB’s cartoon composers would continue quoting these pieces in their soundtracks. They’re great tunes and they still sound great today.
The animation style isn’t as crude as say the Felix the Cat shorts of the early 1920s but it would be a few years before Walt Disney started pushing the techniques of animation towards fine art (see the twelve principles, or even just read The Illusion of Life). Stylised “rubber hose” motion was still AOK – it seems to be a lost art these days after over 70 years of higher artistry prevailing. (I wonder if it can be done using 3D-based CG…)
Anyway, I’m definitely up for rubber hose animation that bounces along to a swung 2/4 beat with a sense of playful mischief. It’s properly uplifting stuff made for seriously downtrodden times, even if sometimes the casual racial caricatures are a bit cringeworthy. (Witness Harman-Ising’s original Bosko demo to WB where a newly-drawn Bosko jokes about being “just out of the pen”. Ouch.)
“Smile, Darn Ya, Smile” is available in restored form as part of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection box set (Volume 6, Disc 3) along with other old black-and-white cartoons from the 1930s.